We Get Around: Using Tech to Navigate Dongguan

As our quiet, little metropolis grows to compete with some of the globe’s biggest cities, technology is making it easier to do business here or meet friends there. Don’t let the Chinese (you are studying though, right?) get you down. With a few easy tricks you’ll be using these apps like a pro in no time.

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A few months back—after withstanding a considerable amount of anticipation—we got our very own metro. Finally, the culmination of five years’ effort brought perhaps the purest sense of modernism and progression probably since Dongguan built its very first factory.

And yet, once the excitement died down and we trudged back to work, many of us were left wondering what really was the point of it all. We tried our best to figure out all the ways it was more than just a novelty, but were often left underwhelmed to say the least.

That doesn’t mean this new transport network is completely useless—actually far from it. The development of such a system seems to represent the revived hope of an incredible urban development that’s quietly building for the years to come. Visit a few of the line’s more desolate stations and you’ll already see the early sketches of some of the future Dongguan’s most prominent locales.

Still, by now you’ve probably noticed it’s not just the forward-thinking development that gives the metro value. If you are one of the lucky few who lives close to a stop, taking quick trips to distant metropoles, from Humen to Shilong, just got a whole lot easier. Even still—unless you’re puzzlingly located in the extreme ends of the borders—getting to the new trains is easy, if you know where to look.

Flashing lights and a spitting driver
The original omnibus used for public transport first appeared nearly 400 years ago, which is interesting because passengers may sometimes feel like the only thing that has changed between then and now is the calendar year. Let’s face it, a bus is like a strong cup of coffee: it gets you where you need to be, but you often experience an uncontrollable shaking after using.

Let’s face it, a bus is like a strong cup of coffee: it gets you where you need to be, but you often experience an uncontrollable shaking after using.

Naturally, along with many other ideas quickly becoming obsolete in modernity, using a bus is instantly made better using updated technology.

Just imagine: it’s 8:58 and you’re due at nine. Running out to the nearby stop, you assure yourself that the signs say buses must run every 10 minutes. Trying to hide from the late morning heat, 10, 20 and finally 30 minutes pass. By now, you’ve already angrily promised yourself multiple times that if the bus doesn’t come in the next minute, you’re getting a taxi. It’ll probably be there, eventually.

I got tired of this repeat scenario, so I sought out help.

At first, I loyally began with Google Maps. I dropped a pin, tapped directions from my current location and I could see many different bus routes going where I wanted. The trouble was, no timetables. I knew the route I wanted, but needed specific ETAs.

My coworkers suggested that I try Baidu Maps; just memorize some of the Chinese and you’ll be fine, they said. I don’t want to say that I didn’t want to sit down and learn the various necessary characters, but for one reason or another, it just hasn’t yet happened.

I next moved onto Apple’s formerly notorious Maps application. The program’s drawings and roads are more accurate than Google, but same issue: no GPS tracking and time for the next bus.

My coworkers suggested that I try Baidu Maps; just memorize some of the Chinese and you’ll be fine, they said. I don’t want to say that I didn’t want to sit down and learn the various necessary characters, but for one reason or another, it just hasn’t yet happened.

Truthfully, I was beginning to feel defeated, imagining that I would have to start waking up earlier to counter the unpredictable travel schedule. Understanding the impracticality in that, I looked outward to my peers in the local community who genuinely understood my pain.

“I use the app 车来了 (pinyin: Chē láile; English: Bus) to make taking the bus easier … 车来了 is great because it tells you when the bus is coming. Also, it uses GPS, so it lists the stops closest to you. I like that it tells you the start and stop time for a bus, too. It’s really convenient for searching by bus number, but if you don’t speak Chinese, you may need help,” said Dongguan resident, Sydnie Stockton.

Though any additional Chinese knowledge can always be beneficial, like everything else, there are workarounds. A fair amount of basic information can be collected from 车来了 without any additional knowledge or assistance. On the main page of the application, you’ll find things like buses near you, arrival times and distance just by looking at numbers.

By using an English mapping app to find the number of the bus where I wanted to go, I was able to reliably use 车来了 to check when the next bus would be there. The biggest issue I found was making sure the bus I located was going in the right direction. More than once that I thought the bus would be there in one minute, then I’d see it driving the opposite direction across the street.

Though I have some particular concerns about the accuracy of the data (e.g. time of arrival was occasionally incorrect), the program is free and I have to admit it’s better than nothing.

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Avoiding the cars with cages and buses for ages
Calling for a private ride isn’t quite a new gimmick. Take limousines, for example, the mainstay of every successful bachelorette party. Still, it used to be that you had to pull down a thick, yellow book from the highest closet shelf, study the index and locate a phone number for the desired company. A laborious call then fixed dates, places and times. It was annoying and inflexible, but it was faster than waiting for the bus or taking a hike.

A few companies have tried to improve on this over the years, but none has achieved the success and global saturation of Uber. I can’t remember the first time I tried the service, but it’s surprisingly difficult to imagine a world without it or at least something like it. The company took the world by storm and almost had it conquered. Almost.

Enter Didi Chuxing (formed from the blockbuster merger of Chinese rivals Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache), or China’s $28 billion answer to Uber. Their short story goes that Didi and Kuaidi were spending huge sums of cash trying to undercut each other’s prices in an unproductive effort to attract new customers. After losing billions, they finally agreed to disagree and combined to conquer China, which went quite well.

Needing not even half a decade to break the die-hard American spirit, Didi Dache has now made the Uber brand nothing more than an ironically named application in China.

About year later in 2013, Uber began offering its first rides in Shanghai and subsequently destroyed the peace. Eventually, billions of dollars more were lost and complicated legislation officially legalizing the companies, while forcing them to remain competitive with local taxis was passed. For Uber, it was finally enough.

Needing not even half a decade to break the die-hard American spirit, Didi Dache has now made the Uber brand nothing more than an ironically named application in China.

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Though the two companies will continue to operate their individual applications for at least the foreseeable future, Uber China now belongs to Didi. Live together or die goes the line, and that’s a good thing because many people would be plainly lost without these ride-sharing applications.

“People always wait too long for the bus. Sometimes you will get mad if it destroys your plan. I remember once I waited for it for over 30 minutes. As for Didi recently, I use it. It is a nice service! You have no need to pay too much for a long distance and the car will come soon after you call it. Didi is fast, inexpensive and convenient. I like it. Plus, the drivers in Didi always have a good attitude for you,” said Jezhao Peng.

For many users in China, Didi seems to be the preferred application. If you haven’t tried it before, it’s conveniently located in WeChat. Still can’t find it? Well, that’s because it’s completely in Chinese.

“I cannot use the app alone. I need help from Chinese speaking staff, friends or family. Usually, the drivers call you and I also cannot take these calls by myself. The payment at the end is easy. Just push the orange button and finish. … Payment is done with WeChat and that’s the main reason not to take Uber. I cannot use my Chinese bank card because they ask for national Chinese ID, which as a foreigner, I [lack]. My bankcard works fine in WeChat,” said Thorsten Glaub.

Maintaining a bank account in your home country is one workaround to use Uber in China. For the especially self-reliant types, the frustration of sending money from China to home may be well worth it, thanks to Uber’s English-language application. Everything else about the operation is in Chinese, though.

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Try and try again
By now, many people have found a way to use one service or another to get reliably—comfortability excluded—from A to B. The ultimate aim of these new technologies should be to improve the experience, not while traveling, but the before and after.

If you think about it, we’re reasonably lucky to live in a place that’s attempting to build up a robust web of transport. Sure, things could be better, but while everyone was complaining that the new metro didn’t ride close enough to their house, they forgot to consider why they dislike the places where it would.

Dongguan is special for its relaxed atmosphere; you can usually get a seat on the bus or train and people don’t push you out of the way if your pace is a bit sluggish. Get out on the bike, run around, flag down a seven RMB taxi or use one of many other passable services. Keep in mind that one day soon, Dongguan probably will have a metro stop outside your apartment and it probably won’t be as good as you thought.

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