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Don’t look into their eyes! (and other city survival tips)

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this guide.


Don’t look into their eyes! (and other city survival tips)

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this guide.


Don’t look into their eyes when you cross the road,” a friend once advised. “If they think you didn’t see them, they’ll usually stop.”

Dodging reckless vehicles is the norm at Chinese intersections. Avoiding eye contact with drivers is one technique that pedestrians use to get the right of way.

China’s jump into modernity has seen the development of monstrous urban landscapes, and navigating them takes a bit of nerve. Millions of first-generation drivers have taken to freshly paved streets. New subway lines overflow with busy people. Construction is everywhere; buildings go up overnight, new highways, new bridges and overpasses. A modern Chinese city can feel like someone rolled out a carpet of fresh concrete.

As you move through these streets, dodging buses, taxis and bikes, it can be overwhelming. Personal safety aside, even the names of places can be confusing. If you can’t remember the name of your neighborhood—or how to pronounce it—how can you even hope to get back home?

My first home in China was on 52 Beautiful Flower Street, in Little Olive. It was a large house at the end of long winding alley, decorated with ancient stone doorways. Sometimes the traffic was so dangerous that I would skip dinner just to avoid crossing the street to go to the store.

In these first few weeks in China I kept a notebook filled with place names to avoid getting lost. I quickly learned that lu meant road and jie meant street; and that recognizing north, south, east, west, was just as important as knowing right from left. I also discovered how common it is for places to be named after their physical features. The town I was in, apparently, wasshaped like an olive.

Sichuan is named for the four rivers that converge in the province. (Si means four, and chuan means river.) Plenty of other provinces are named after their locations too: Hubei literally means “north of the lake;” it’s north of Dongting Lake. Hunan is south of that same lake and literally translates as “south of the lake.” Likewise Hebei and Henan provinces are north and south of the Yellow River (黄河 Huánghé) and translate as “north of the river” and “south of the river.”

What’s this place called
Zhège dìfāng shì nǎlǐ?

It’s called Jilin (lucky forest) city?
Zhège dìfāng shì jílín shì.


Look and listen for these characters in place names

  • Village – cūn – 村
  • Village – zhuāng – 庄
  • Town – zhèn – 镇
  • Area – qū – 区
  • County – xiàn – 县
  • City – shì – 市
  • Province – shěng – 省

After six months in Little Olive I moved toCrimsonPeakinInner Mongolia. The town felt like the sole outpost on a distant planet; glistening high-rises and fresh tarmac had been stamped onto a vast, desolate plain. Dusty crimson hills, like red giants, watched over the city. “Have you been to New Town?” was the first question anyone would ask, after the obligatory, “Are you a foreigner?”

There was a special bus that went into New Town. For months, it was the most common weekend outing for local families. They would tour around this neighborhood—an urban development project actively promoted as “the future.” The streets were wide, evenly spotted with transplanted trees, and reminded me of condominiums in the West. It was also empty. Nobody lived there.

To get to New Town you just walked along any street that faced west; to get toSouthMountainyou just walked along any street that faced south. From the mountain you could look north over the well balanced urban grid—the Chinese have a penchant for symmetry. Along the edges of the perfectly square city, shabby red brick homes burned pungent coal fires, the smell wafted high into the air.

As most Chinese cities are built with feng shui principles in mind, navigating them is easy, dangerous traffic aside. If you’re facing north and want to go west, turn left, it’s that simple; street signs will usually have a character which tells you in which direction you’re going.

Beijing‘s name means “north capital” and Nanjing means “south capital.” Xi’an means “western peace,” as it lies in the west of the country. Chongqing—in the center of the country—used to be called Zhongjing, which means “center capital.”

“Zenmezou” (怎么走) is used to ask how to get somewhere.

“Zenmequ” (怎么去) is to ask what form of transportation to use.

Excuse me, how do I get to East Mountain?
Qǐngwèn dōngshān zěnme zǒu?。

Go south 100 meters then turn right.
Wǎng nán zǒu yī bǎi mǐ ránhòu wǎng yòu guǎi.

Continue going east and you’ll reach East Mountain.
Yīzhí wǎng dōng zǒu jiù dào dōngshān le.


Look and listen for these characters in place names.

  • east – dōng – 东
  • west – xi – 西
  • south – nán – 南
  • north – běi – 北
  • center – zhōng – 中
  • state – zhōu – 州
  • capital – jīng – 京

These are commonly used in street names

  • inner – nèi – 内
  • outer – wài – 外
  • road – lù – 路
  • lane – xiàng – 巷
  • neighborhood – lǐ  – 里
  • alley – nòng – 弄

For instance:

Don’t miss South Drum Gong Lane when you go to Beijing.
Dàole běijīng yīdìng yào qù nán luógǔ xiàng kàn kàn.

Beijing’s Haidian (海淀) district, renowned for its electronics markets and student bars, was my third home in China. When I moved there, construction was happening everywhere. At first the road leading to my building was an unfinished mess of dirt, bottles and plastic bags. Shopkeepers were wary of the encroaching construction; oddly, they thought it would hurt business. Because of their concern, the road remained unpaved, covered in trash.

The name Haidian literally meansSeaShallowLake. When the Mongols took control of the city in 1279 and formed the Yuan Dynasty, they built a canal system. FromKunmingLaketo Houhai (the “back sea,” behind theForbidden City), these canals provided water to the imperial court. To avoid too much evaporation from the lake, the whole area around it was filled with shallow ponds and rice paddies, thusSeaShallowLake. But there is no longer any sign of the water here, just concrete.

A year later the shopkeepers in that neighborhood finally gave in and the road was built. It took two weeks. The same year, just two blocks away a sidewalk was repaved three times. China’s cities are growing fast. The roads are wide and dangerous, but if you dig below the surface, in the way places are named, you’ll learn about the country, the history, and most importantly how to get around.

Look and listen for geographical features like these in Chinese place names.

  • mountain range – lǐng – 岭
  • spring – quán – 泉
  • gorge – gōu – 沟
  • forest – lín – 林
  • mountain – shān – 山
  • creek – xī – 溪
  • river – jiāng/hé – 江/河
  • lake – hú – 湖
  • sea – hǎi – 海