Shenzhen is almost double the size of the city of Los Angeles, with its 792 square miles eclipsing the 472-square-mile metropolitan sprawl of L.A. Its subway system runs for 177 miles, close behind New York’s 228-mile length. And there I was, doing my best to find my way around this place without a map.
When I first went to Beijing, the staff at my guesthouse handed me a bilingual city map when they gave me the key to my room. Unfolded, it could have papered most of a wall and it was beautifully detailed. I still have it somewhere, tattered enough to resemble lace, after three months of constant use while I walked as many streets of China’s capital as I could.
The desk clerk who checked me in at my Shenzhen hotel looked politely puzzled. “Our maps are only in Chinese,” he told me. But he gave me careful directions on where to go to buy coffee and the hotel’s brochure had a rudimentary map that would take me to the nearest subway station.
I was in an area that was easy to map on foot. It was a self-sufficient community, with two huge malls within walking distance, parks, a bus station, banks, a post office, and at least three restaurants on every block. The sidewalks were wide and uncrowded and many of the streets were bordered with banyan trees, their branches reaching out to form green canopies. It was the perfect spot to recover from jet lag and that was where I spent my first few days, having coffee at sidewalk cafe tables and window-shopping on a street that was filled with clothing stores.
I had downloaded what seemed to be the only guidebook to Shenzhen in existence which told me about a place in the central business district called Book City and that I decided would be my first destination. It turned out to be over an hour from my new neighborhood by subway on two different lines but I was overjoyed to find bilingual route maps at every station. Soon my phone was crammed with pictures of subway line maps and I concentrated on every announcement that called out the name of the next stop, trying to memorize the tones.
There was a foreign language bookstore in the mall that was Book City and that language was my very own. I chose a small stack of books and took them to the counter, where the lady behind it spoke to me in perfect English. “I can’t find a guidebook to Shenzhen. Can you help me?” I asked. “We don’t have one,” she said.
“Do you have a map in English?” “No. Only in Chinese.”
“Do you know any place where I can buy a map of Shenzhen in English?” Smiling sweetly, she assured me that there was no such thing anywhere in Book City or anyplace in Shenzhen.
This seemed beyond comprehension to me, but Hong Kong was just over the border. I put my selections on the counter with my credit card on top of the stack. “I’m very sorry, but I can’t take this card. Credit cards need this symbol in China,” and she showed me her own card, with the logo of Union Pay.
I bought one of the books, with cash, and left in a state of miserable confusion. I was in a city that was positioning itself as a center of world trade and commerce that didn’t seem to recognize international banking practices and didn’t acknowledge, let alone help, a tourist market beyond the domestic one. Less ebulliently than when I had begun my expedition, I found my way back to my hotel where at least I knew my credit card was functional.
On the next morning I made my first border crossing and went immediately to my favorite Hong Kong bookstore. Swindon Books has been in Kowloon for almost 100 years, since 1918. It has a substantial travel section and a hefty selection of maps. None of them were for Shenzhen, in any language at all.
Google maps aren’t available in China and the versions I found on yahoo were far from helpful. I began to feel a kind of mental vertigo, floating in a new universe, unanchored by the laws of gravity. Then one day I met a friend in Hong Kong who handed me a map of Shenzhen with place names in English.
I took it home and spread it out on my bed. There were names of subway stops that I had passed but none were near me. As far as I could see, on this map my neighborhood in the Bao'an district simply did not exist. I took it down to the reception desk where the staff confirmed my fears. We were indubitably off the map.
There are eight subway lines in Shenzhen and I used six of them almost every day in my two months of living there. I walked in futile attempts to find cohesion between neighborhoods but the concept of flow escaped me. I began to feel that I was in a city that was a follow-the-dots page, with all of the dots still unconnected.
Halfway through my stay, I found a bilingual guide to cultural attractions in Shenzhen with transit directions and miniscule line drawings of maps. Clutching that, I wandered the city like a character out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, making my way from one helpful pedestrian to the next, on a quest. Luckily for me, Shenzhen people are kind.
And now, back in Seattle, my quest continues. Somewhere, somehow, I will find a map of this confusing, seductive city. It’s not impossible. After all, Beijing has been mapped for centuries.