A Land With No Cell Towers?

In The Art of Travel, 2. Getting oriented, Shanghai by Mark1 Comment

I’m pretty weird. One of my greatest fascinations when I first arrive somewhere foreign is to leave my phone at home and get lost walking around. At the beginning, I’m paying attention to landmarks, looking at the skyline. As time goes on, though, my focus is always pulled to the local differences in things at hand, like shops, clothes – hell, even trash! I get absorbed with the small differences and finally with the reflections on them occurring in my own mind. Then suddenly I realize it’s time to wake up and figure out where I am.

For me it is exhilarating, even though it has gotten me into trouble a few times. In contrast with Lynch’s study, which suggests that being enjoyably lost requires ‘no danger of losing basic form or orientation,’ I find that being required to ask people for help or crisscross searching for a street name I recognize is pretty cool. That said, with the address in mind, and a little money in my pocket, it is always possible to flag down a cab and tell someone my address. So perhaps the real price of enjoy-ability is money, transport and too much self-confidence. Ah, well.

Shanghai’s ‘imageability’ is particularly notable on The Bund, the waterfront looking out at Pudong (the area our campus is in) which includes the water-tower-esque Oriental Pearl Tower, the bottle opener Shanghai World Financial Center, and the enormous, spiraling Shanghai Tower. Elsewhere, however, it can be impossible to distinguish between the communist blocks and newer apartment complexes. Even today I didn’t know where I was just a block away in a cab.

One thing I’ve noticed about getting around the city is that the location of our dorm (base co-living in Laoximen) has defined the city in a particular way. Not just because of the location of the building as a center point of my life, but because its basement houses two major subway lines which I therefore take all the time. Thus, the city does appear as a series of routes that make things more convenient then looking at geographic distance alone. If I only have to transfer once, or no times, I don’t even care where my destination is on the line.

One thing the subway lines do really well is provide a ton of legible clues to where you’re going. First relief: everything is written in Pinyin (latin alphabet equivalents to Chinese). In addition, all the lines are color coded and the maps are straightforward. Even the exits are numbered.

However, one of the most difficult things about Shanghai is the lack of a good maps service. Google Maps, my global go-to, has been showing a location way off my own, and the search functionality hardly works at all, since the company is formally banned from operating here. It makes you appreciate how different it must have been to travel just 20 years ago. I, for one, have seriously taken for granted the incredible efficiency of constantly knowing my location via 24 satellites in low orbit, and every detail of the world around me via 4g towers, streamed straight to my minicomputer touchscreen wonder device. It would have been a totally different experience.

I have to question, though: would there not have been an element of fun and excitement in not having the device? Am I the only one that occasionally longs for travel to a truly disconnected land?

(Image: The Shanghai Subway Map; Source: Chinadiscovery.com)


  1. Hi Mark!
    I, too, really enjoy getting lost in new cities and just observing my surroundings. Honestly, I could probably just walk around aimlessly for hours. For me, I love to walk around Prague after class, when it is still a bit bright outside, and try to explore as much as I can before I get too cold. Though, once the weather is a bit warmer, I would love to just roam around the city at night. And, while I do love to take photos and record my traveling with my phone, I would must rather prefer to just get lost in the more scenic areas and just take in what the world has to offer.

    The metro system here in Prague is also color coded, though we only have 3 lines as opposed to the many lines Shanghai has. It’s also sometimes difficult using Google Maps here, but mainly because the streets here aren’t grid-like like NYC streets, but loop around and have strange turns here and there. Hopefully, both of us will get to know our cities so well that we will be able to navigate our way through the city!

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