Monday, 7 July 2014

Way Losing in Beijing: getting deliberately lost in the Chinese capital

I will be making a Way Losing Tour for Still Walking Festival in Birmingham on 2nd August and in preparation of getting lost in Birmingham I took advantage of being in Beijing to try and get lost: there is nothing like getting properly lost in a foreign city.

I started by making a request on Wechat for places in Beijing that are easy to get lost in. I got a reply: "Xizhimen, particularly the flyover, no joking."

The subway took me there and following the crowd I emerged in front of the said flyover. So far so good.

The excellent website Gettinglost lists different things that prevent us from getting lost, or to put it another way, help us find our way. One of them is landmarks like this building. I made it my task to make this building disappear.

And what better way to do so than by following John Terry?

Which is how I ended up in this shopping mall. Not being a fan of them it was good to break the habit of avoiding malls and instead enter into the belly of the beast. The problem was I still had a keen sense of direction. I therefore tried to go into shops and exit from other doorways to confuse myself. 

This brought me right back to my starting point: Xizhimen subway station, though I was at least at a different exit. Rather than backtracking however it felt important to use this and believe I was brought to this new exit for a reason.

And that reason was... to walk along the side of a rail station.

Doing so did in fact lead me to something rather unusual:  a circle of Chinese people standing in a park under the shade of a tree. I don't think I have ever seen this before, Chinese people tend not to be pulled to nature in the same way Europeans do, and my first impression was that this was a ritual event, quite probably religious in nature. If anyone reading this has a better idea do tell.

A river ran towards the train line and while I like natural paths I decided not to take it as I felt it important to get away from the train line. As long as I remained within sight of it I would never succeed in getting lost.  

So I instead cut along a rather monotonous road in the hope that it might deliver me to somewhere unknown, sooner or later.

The junctions were where there was the problem of having to decide which route was most promising. I did not take the first opportunity to leave this road as it felt like making some ground would help.

Finally I left behind the three tower block of Xizhimen but in the background another landmark came into sight: the mountains to the West of Beijing. These and the direction of the sun/shadow meant I was never in any serious doubt which way was North, South, East or West. 

To cut the grid structure on which many Beijing roads are placed I made it my business to forge a diagonal path. The way I found this worked in practice was to choose a tall building at a diagonal and find a path towards it and, once there, continue on a similar tact. 

And doing that in Beijing means entering into compounds. I passed the security gate and made my way through. In this sense every city or landscape has its own particularities and to get lost you have to engage with these.

One rule I made: don't look at the maps!

It was important not to be too analytical about getting lost. Sometimes I would just see something, like this bride, and allow myself to be attracted to it. I was working with the idea that using logical means only would not be enough to get me lost, I wanted to be led somewhere too.

The bridge brought me to a bus stop and I felt I had now managed to cut my sense of a mental map enough that I should use the bus next. Cutting the mental map is a way of saying I could not reassemble all the elements of my trip so far, the distances and directions, and place them on a clear mental map. It had become fuzzy and episodic.

This was the right moment to push the experiment further and take the first bus I saw. It pulled up, I hopped on, took a seat, closed my eyes, rode the bus for a while and then stepped out into the unknown. 

And that is how I ended up in an electronics centre where I got sidetracked looking for a handheld audio recorder which I will need for an audio tour I am making. It was not so easy  to work out what the products were and whether the prices were good or not so I just took in the scene instead. I was told that the common Chinese term for being lost 迷路 is not quite the same as the English meaning of being lost. The meaning is not knowing how to go somewhere rather than not knowing where you are. As I never knew where I was trying to go, I couldn't precisely be lost in Chinese. The place I was looking for was an abstract destination of the imagination, a site that a near infinite number of places could equally fulfil, including this electronics mall in a NW Beijing suburb.

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