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The human map: He's got the whole town in his head

Globe and Mail Update

HANGZHOU, CHINA — Yang Chunjian is a human map. Rain or shine, he stands on the side of an exit ramp on the Shanghai-Hangzhou Expressway holding a small, cardboard sign.Dai Lu, it reads in bright red calligraphy -- ''guide roads.'' For a small fee, Mr. Yang will hop into your Mercedes-Benz and lead you through this ancient Chinese city that once enthralled a 13th-century visitor named Marco Polo.

Like a global-positioning system, albeit one with a thick rural accent, Mr. Yang, 32, will tell you to turn right, keep left and proceed over the next bridge. Once you get to your destination, you drop him off and he takes the bus back to the exit ramp.

Like any major city, Hangzhou sells maps. But no printed map can keep up with the frenetic pace of construction when entire swaths of ancient hutongs (alleyways) are replaced by elevated eight-lane expressways. New shopping plazas, cloverleaf bridges, four-star hotels, hospitals and office towers have forever changed the face of this southern beauty spot with a population of six million.

As well, map-reading skills aren't taught in schools, because any decent map is classified as secret. Thus, many Chinese today are cartographically challenged. Even GPS technology is faulty, because the detailed information is reserved for the military.

At the beginning of China's get-rich quick era in the late 1980s, strangers who were asked directions on the street sometimes brazenly demanded money. Now, men like Mr. Yang have refined that into a business. He knows which roads are under repair, which side streets have plentiful parking. He can show Chinese tourists streaming here from nearby Shanghai and Ningbo the least congested route to the city's famed West Lake. He'll guide them to plantations on the city's outskirts so they can sip a cup from the 2004 crop of Dragon Well, considered China's finest tea.

Not that he is a native of Hangzhou. Mr. Yang grew up in the paddy fields a three-hour bus ride to the southwest, in Jinhua County, famed for its cured hams. Five years ago, he moved here.

At barely five feet tall, he dresses for success in pressed tan slacks and a clean knit shirt. His ruddy, honest face also helps to persuade strangers to let him into their cars. And he is not afraid to get in. The only danger he believes he faces is if the police arrest him for "illicit activities" and lecture him on getting a "real job," as has happened to some of his fellow guides.

A real job is hard to find for someone who never attended high school. The third of five children, Mr. Yang quit school at 12 to help with the farm. At 19, he headed for the prosperous coast and found a job hauling rocks in a quarry in Fujian province. Later, he worked in factories and on construction sites.

Five years ago, he spent his savings opening a fruit stall in Hangzhou with his girlfriend, the mother of his teenaged son. The business and the relationship soon collapsed. He no longer sees his son. His current girlfriend is a garment worker in a factory, but neither of them earns enough to consider marriage.

His regular job is unloading furniture, but when business slowed about two years ago, he began offering his services as a human map. Luckily, he had kept his eyes open as the delivery truck made its rounds, and he supplemented his knowledge by exploring the city for hours on foot.

October is his best month, during the week-long National Day holiday. August is the cruellest: Temperatures soar to 39 degrees Celsius, and there is zero shade on the expressway ramp. When some of the human maps faint, others drag them away from the roadside. He's proud to say he has never fainted, although he has become so dizzy he had to go home and lie down.

Customers treat him courteously. No one has ever complained about the musty odour, a mix of old sweat and constant anxiety, that invades their air-conditioned cars. He earns 10 to 20 yuan ($1.50 to $3) for a half-day trip, from one, two or at most three customers a day. "But sometimes I stand all day and make nothing." He figures he needs a minimum of 50 customers a month to survive.

For someone who rides around in sleek cars, Mr. Yang lives a life largely unchanged from Marco Polo's day. The squalid room he rents for 200 yuan a month has no toilet or kitchen. So he uses public latrines and sluices himself with a basin of cold water. Mostly, he eats at street stalls; breakfast is a 15-cent fritter and a bowl of steaming soy-bean milk. He doesn't smoke. His only luxury is a nightly beer or shot of bai jiu, a 120-proof grain liquor.

Like a GPS system, he can tell you only how to get there. He can't tell you the historical background of the brilliant Yue Fei, the Song dynasty general whose tomb was built beside the West Lake in 1221. Nor can he tell you that during the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao relaxed by listening to young songstresses at a lakeside villa that now welcomes tourists at $150 a night, buffet breakfast included.

But Mr. Yang does know his gas stations. As we pass a Petro-China station, he notes: "There's another one ahead. Open 24 hours. Just over that bridge."

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