Every trip to China I try to steal time to walk the streets and alleys. I plot the area to wander in, often not far from my lodging, and head out, a map tucked in my bag and a hotel name card in my pocket. Both are essential.
I often turn down the nearest small street, trying to gauge its direction. Running at haphazard angles to main streets, they lead me into neighborhoods veined with networks of smaller lanes and alleys, all begging to be explored. Recently in Nanjing I wandered down tree-lined streets, past a pocket park with yellow and blue exercise equipment for neighbors, and came across a crowd of parents and grandparents waiting for an elementary school to let out. I stood to one side and waited too, so I could enjoy the lively hoard that would soon tumble through the gates.
The adults chatted, read newspapers, talked on cell phones and inspected the wares of a newspaper and magazine kiosk where a tidy pug lapped water from a shiny basin. They looked up periodically when a teacher crossed the schoolyard or it seemed time for the children to emerge. The waiting soon erupted into a sea of bopping, chattering children wrapped in colorful, puffy winter jackets. They connected with their parents, handing over backpacks or putting them in motorbike baskets, climbing onto the back seats of bicycles, and hoping just a little that there might be a treat. The crowd thinned and I moved on, inspecting small shops, a sidewalk shoe repair shop, and neighborhood restaurants. A vendor pulled out a large umbrella and set it up as drizzle dampened the sidewalk. I turned up my collar and walked on, finally succumbing to opening my umbrella and thinking about heading home. Stepping into the protection of a shop entrance, I found where I was on the map—not too far from where I hoped to be. But without the map I could have wandered much longer before finding familiar territory, even though street signs on larger roads are in Latin letters as well as Chinese characters.
I turned onto a main road as drizzle turned to steady rain. Dusk had settled over the crowded sidewalk. Dodging among colorful umbrellas, men and women, many with children in tow, stepped around sidewalk food vendors peddling their wares. Taxis, motorbikes, buses and occasional bicycles lumbered past. Puddles everywhere, I squeezed past women selling bright pink, yellow and green neon blinking toys and balloons and parents coming from the nearby hospital holding tight to heavily bundled children. (The Chinese take their children to the hospital in the same way we take ours to the doctor.)
Waiting to cross the street to my small hotel I was drawn to the warmth from a big oil drum a sweet potato vendor had filled with red-hot coals. Cooked potatoes were stacked neatly around the top absorbing the heat. I warmed my hands over the coals and bought one. Wrapping my hand around it, I tucked it in my pocket, bringing back memories from years earlier in Xi’an when rooms were frigid and winter sweet potatoes were one way to find warmth. Back in my room, rain slid down the window. I poured a glass of wine, cut up a tomato and apple, settled into an old armchair, and bit into the still hot sweet potato.