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The Globe and Mail

Better than a GPS? China has a dwindling number of ‘human maps’

Pei Dian'ao a human map on the out skirts of Hangzhou, waves a sign marked "Lead [you on the] Road" as he waits for a customer at exit to the newly built industrial area of Hangzhou, China February 7, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Pei Dianao is a human map. You wouldn't know it from looking at him – the only lines on his face are wrinkles from his long years as an overnight truck driver and an oversized bump at the top of his head where some lumber once fell.

One of hundreds of human maps around China, Mr. Pei works a highway exit, just past a toll both near the main industrial area of Hangzhou. Black smoke belches from antiquated diesel trucks as they rumble past him. The 54-year-old claims to be more knowledgeable about the ever-expanding grid of roads in Hangzhou than any printed guide, smarter than any GPS, more interactive then any navigation system. If the eight-year veteran of the craft is proven wrong, you don't have to pay him.

Like many cities in China, Hangzhou, an hour west of Shanghai by high-speed train, has seen incredible growth over the past two decades – so much so that maps and GPS technology are often obsolete even as they're being updated.

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Grasping the opportunity, entrepreneurial migrant workers like Mr. Pei, who can't find full-time employment elsewhere, stand at their exits holding red hand-painted signs that read: "Lead [you on the] Road," or more colloquially, "Show you the way." Once they've helped a private car, or taxi or delivery truck, get to its destination, the human map gets out and makes his own way back – by foot or bus – to the same spot on the highway to look for more customers.

Fang Tianmo has spent a decade as a human map, even though he worries about the legality of his profession.

On average, the 54-year-old Mr. Fang – who works the highway exit into Hangzhou's downtown – feeds mostly off lost souls looking for the train station and hospitals. Like most human maps, he pulls in the equivalent of about $8 per customer and can handle about two journeys a day. For that $16, Mr. Fang has to battle traffic and dodge cars on the highway – once he was not quite nimble enough and got badly injured by a car and broke both his legs.

Human maps struggle not only with scorching heat in summer and torrential downpours in the winter. Some drivers, when they get close enough to their destination that they can figure out the rest of way, kick their guide out of the car and refuse to pay.

Mr. Fang says competition is fierce among Hangzhou's growing population of human maps. He also admits technology does seem to be eclipsing them – at least that's what the drivers with GPS systems tell him. He thinks it might be time to move on and find the next human hole to fill.

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