China’s new super-fast trains are a fantastic way to travel. My guidebook (Rough Guide China 2008 ) lists the journey time from Shanghai to Nanjing as four hours. Hah! It now takes one hour thirty minutes traveling at mostly 248 km/h all the way. As we got off the train yesterday, BigB questioned why America doesn’t have trains like this. Could you imagine, Seattle to San Francisco by Maglev? How cool would that be?
But. Although the trains are new and shiny, the ticketing systems are not. To wit: two ticket-buying episodes to illustrate this point.
Episode 1: Buying Train Tickets In Xiamen
Xiamen? Where is Xiamen? You might well ask. It’s in South-Eastern China, on the coast between Guangzhou and Shanghai. Until we got to China I had never heard of this small city which is a popular internal tourism destination – and by small I mean only 1 million people. I lined up to buy train tickets at the kiosk outside the bus station. I was hoping that there would be seats available on a train to either Shanghai or Hangzhou later that day. I passed my guidebook back and forth with the lady behind the ticket counter pointing out the relevant “useful phrases” to her, alternating with a notepad and pencil on which she wrote down her responses. It was painful but we were making progress. Murph was standing to one side with the boys. (It’s times like these when Kindles + DSs are excellent on-the-spot kid entertainment).
The whole transaction was the subject of much interest and amusement to a flock of taxi-drivers and other onlookers who’d gathered to watch. One taxi-driver self-nominated to help out – as only taxi-drivers can do As I picked out the phrase or question I wanted to ask in my phrasebook, he yelled it out to the ticket agent. It took me a minute to realize that’s what he was doing, since I don’t speak any Chinese languages I had no idea what he was saying but the fact that he grabbed on to my book yelled out and then pushed the book back to me with a self-satisfied grin was a big clue. That sped things up a little at least now I knew that today was a non-starter.
Then another, older, grey-haired guy in a baseball cap was shooed to my side, the taxi-driver/announcer eagerly moving back to let him in. This new character cheerfully said “Hello” in English and I nearly hugged him. The train ticket purchase transaction went much faster then with a translator to help things along. When the ticket agent quoted RMB1736 for 4 seats on the 11:10 train to Shanghai the next day, the translator-helper-guy and I were grinning, Murph was nervous that we didn’t have enough cash on hand. We both emptied our pockets and wallets and started organizing and counting notes – with an audience. We came up with RMB1739 to a round of applause. Tickets bought, we thanked our translator profusely and went on our now merry way.
Episode 2: Buying Train Tickets In Shanghai
I was much better prepared for my second train ticket purchase. Before going to the ticket office I’d asked one of the staff at our hostel, the Rock + Wood International Hostel , to help me check the train timetable and ticket availability online and to write out the characters for what I wanted to buy to give to the ticket agent. So far so good. But when we got there, the ticket office was closed for lunch. Undeterred, we had our lunch at a nearby restaurant and went back to the ticket office and got in line. I wanted to buy tickets for two different trains on two different days. The first request was fine but there were no seats available on the second train – and I already knew that all the other trains on that route for that day (and the next) were sold out. Since it was a cash-only sale and I only had a credit card, I had to step out of line and wait for Murph to come back with cash – he’d guessed that this might happen and had gone to find an ATM. So overall a better effort than our first attempt, but not great.
We got one set of tickets. The transaction from start to finish had been a lot less painful than in Xiamen but we’d run headlong into the other major problem with buying train tickets in China: the number of people. Most of the trains we’ve traveled on so far have had seats for up to 1,000 people and there are multiple trains a day on almost every route we’ve considered but the trains sell out – especially berths on sleeper trains. This is compounded by the fact that where you can use automatic ticketing machines (at Shanghai Hongqiao station for example), you can only buy tickets on destinations served out of that station. So you can’t be in say, Shanghai, and use a ticket machine there to buy a berth on a sleeper train leaving Chengdu a week hence. We’ve asked about train ticket purchasing at travel agent offices and have been met with blank stares. I’m not giving up yet though. There has to be a way to work within this system even without speaking the language. I’ve got another three or four weeks to figure it out
Information on traveling to China with Children.