I have an addendum to my ‘Getting around’ blog from late August.
Gavin, our kiwi friend who has been here over 20 years, offered us a bargain. For only 800 kuai (about NZD160), we could buy a second-hand scooter from his friend who was leaving Chéngdū. So, in the spirit of never saying no, we did. So, we are now proud owners of a small electric scooter, along with half the people in Chéngdū.
We would never consider a car because you need a licence, the driving habits here are scary for the average kiwi, and we would need to find petrol stations and organise (and pay for) a park in our apartment block. Whereas, riding a scooter here is a mixture of being a vehicle and being a pedestrian. Scooters go along most roads like a car, and can ride across pedestrian crossings and scoot along footpaths like a pedestrian. It has taken us both a little while to stop having a New Zealand mindset when riding it, but once you do, it gives a lot of flexibility.
I rode it home from the office (Gavin and his wife, Xiaomei, are my new business partners setting up an education business) after a five-minute training session from James, Gavin’s son who works in their other business. It is not that far, I could choose a route that was nearly all right turns, the traffic was not that busy, and my strategy of follow other scooters worked very well. I did overshoot the entrance to our street, but could walk the scooter back, rotate the scooter ninety degrees and turn into a pedestrian to cross the large main road into our road. I enjoyed myself, and loved the feeling of freedom.
I wechatted our real estate guy who advises on all things apartmental to find out where we could keep the scooter. He sent me a message in Chinese to show the security guard. I parked it by a car on floor -1 and then walked to show the security guard Kevin’s message. We had a brief Chinglish exchange with numbers written on a piece of paper, from which I deduced that I had driven in gate 7 but needed to go to gate 5. I went back, got our bike and started to ride it up the gate 7 ramp. My friendly guard came rushing out gesticulating to communicate that I would be better to ride the other way. By this time, I was half way up the ramp. When I tried to turn, he quickly concluded that the bike was too heavy for me, mimed for me to get off, turned it round and rode it back down the ramp. Then he told me (miming) to get back on and escorted me to near gate 5, where it turns out there is a scooter charging and parking station, several floors down, using a series of skinny ramps.
He ‘told’ me to get off, rode it down and there was a dusty garage that I had had no idea existed, full of scooters parked and charging. He talked to the woman collecting money, and they set up ours to charge. I paid four kuai to the woman and my rescuer and I walked up the ramps together. He was clearly concerned that I would not be able to ride it out (I was wondering the same thing myself), but I told him my husband could do that and he left happy. When I took Raymond down that evening, nearly all the scooters had gone. We assume locals who work nearby charge and park their scooters there each day.
For us, one of the big advantages of having the scooter is that we can drive ourselves out to our friends about half an hour south of here, quite close to Raymond’s school. For our first visit, public transport worked quite well, but it takes twice as long and means we need to leave by 10pm.
So, for our second visit, now over a month ago, we agreed that I would drive myself out to our friends’ place and meet Raymond, who would go straight from school. The route is reasonably straight forward, due south from our apartment. Because Chéngdū is so flat, roads tend to go north/south or east/west, with three ring roads circling around Tiānfu Square in the centre. Tiānfu Ave would have been the most direct route, but I decided to take the road parallel to that on the west – because it was a slightly shorter route and less crowded on a Friday evening. Mistake #1.
I drove out, took an easy turn right, travelled for about five minutes and found the route different to what I had in my head. No problem, I stopped to look at Du, our Chinese equivalent of Google maps, which does not require VPN. No GPS blue dot. I decided to continue because it was such a straight forward route due south. Mistake #2.
I headed ‘south’ and got onto quite a busy road that was scary in Friday traffic, so I turned off to travel on the less crowded parallel road. Mistake #3. After a short time, I decided to stop and see if Google maps solved my ‘no blue dot’ problem. No, but let’s continue. Mistake # 4.
I happily zoomed (well never going more than 30 kmph) down a relatively empty road until I hit a dead end – obviously this was not the southern route I hoped I was on. By now, I was getting concerned about being totally lost. I rang Raymond, by now enjoying a beer at our friends’, and we agreed we would share location on WeChat and he could direct me. Wise decision #1.
Unfortunately, he gave me directions such as ‘turn around’ that were not specific enough for someone on the move in dead end streets and road works. I pointed this out, but by the time he was giving specific instructions, I was on a dirt track type road that had been created because of a major infrastructure project. He instructed me to turn left at the next intersection. After winding along this two lane dirt track for what seemed like ages, I finally reached it. It was the most chaotic situation I have seen since being here. It was an angled arrangement with no clear left turn. Large trucks and buses were doing multi-point turns to turn right and I felt very vulnerable on my little scooter. I decided to follow the majority and turn right. Mistake # 5.
By now, it was dark, my phone was getting flat and Raymond could see that I was heading further away from him. Fortunately, the scooter charge seemed fine. We talked on the phone and agreed that I would stop, turn off my phone battery draining location sharing, turn off my scooter lights and wait for Raymond and our friend Julian to come on his motor bike to where they knew I was, and rescue me . Wise decision #2.
So, I sat in the dark on this road that it turns out was semi-rural. Initially, it was quite crowded (that is why I turned right), but the rush hour subsided quickly, and it became almost deserted. I reassured myself that people comment on how safe China is. Fifty minutes later, my knights in shining armour arrived – which they obviously did or I would not be here writing this now. We were not so sure of a successful outcome at the time. It turns out that I had been heading west, not south, for most of my trip. It would have taken them less time to come and get me from our apartment. We still went out for dinner (fish and chips, because, for the first time since being here, I wanted western food for comfort), with a lot of laughs. Then Raymond and I only took 25 minutes to take the direct route home.
At home, as we had a cup of tea before going to bed, I suggested that we try to work out why my GPS was not working. Five seconds later, after going to ‘shortcuts’, Raymond had turned it back on. Now I remember, I turned it off a while ago to save battery. That conversation would have been good to have six hours earlier.
And our scooter dramas have not ended there. We don’t use it that often, so decided not to park it in the 4-5 kuai (NZD1) a day underground charging park. (I know only a dollar a day, but in six months we would have doubled what we paid for it, and both options have security guards watching it.) Instead, we parked it near our lift exit on floor -1. Then last week, when I was down on floor -1, I noticed it was not there. Raymond searched all three parking floors and the scooter park, and we notified Kevin. The maangement office reviewed tapes and, a few days later, found it just around the corner from where we ahd left it. Now it had a pink notice on it, that Kevin told us, after we sent a picture, said we needed to move it. When we went to do that, we realised that beneath its dusty exterior, the battery had ‘disappeared’. Its new location was out of sight of security video cameras.
So we have wheeled it down to the scooter garage where it is now safe, but useless, until we find out how to buy a battery – our new China puzzle. Fortunately, through this process, while talking, through kind random strangers, to security guards who gathered to assist us, we now know that the going rate for month long parking is significantly lower than the daily rate we were avoiding. In the next 18 months, we hope to recover the cost of a new battery!