Shanghai or Bust

Friday, May 19, 2006

Letter to my travel agent

The following document is a letter I wrote to my travel agent about an experience I had in Xi'an home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Look forward to "Letter to my travel agent" the novella soon to be released on a website near you.

To Whom it may concern,

I came into your office in late January to ask you to book me a flight to China and get me a three month visa for a trip that I was planning in March. You obtained both the Visa and the Round trip airline ticket leaving on March 6th and returning on May 30th with the condition on the ticket that I could change the date for a two hundred dollar fee. Everything was set. Or so we thought. As i found out, much later, the Visa was good for only a thirty day entry, not for three months.

This was just as much, my fault than yours. I should have examined the Visa more carefully. How ever you are professionals. That is why I came to you and being a licensed travel agent I would expect that you would be more able to spot problems and know what to look for than I. The fact that the problem was only discovered two days ago, May 16th, more than two months into my visit by a hotel receptionist is a fact worth considering.

The following is an account of the problems I encountered and the financial losses I suffered due to this oversight. It should interest you as a professional especially since China is opening up as a tourist destination.

On may 15th, I took an overnight train to Xi'an to go see the terra Cotta Warriors. The train left around six PM and took 16 hours to reach XI'an. The cost of the first class ticket was 490 RNB

While booking my Hotel room the hotel manager noticed that my Visa had expired over a month ago and told me to I needed to meet some one at the front desk at 2:00 and they would address the problem. I payed for a room after looking at it for 600 RNB which included a deposit.

At 2:00 I walked escorted to the office for visas and immigration building across the street from my hotel.

Until then I was thinking, 'innocent enough mistake; people will understand and I will get off easy'. Truth reared its ugly head. In the Law book, that they waved in my face every time I said that I really didn't have the money that the fines would amount to, stated that there were three options.

1. Pay 500 RNB per day for everyday after ten days of the visa expiration with a maximum fine of 5,000 RNB which means, in this situation, pay 5,000 RNB.

2. Go to jail for three to ten days. Chinese prison; hmmm, that could be interesting.

3. They could give me a warning. It was dumb hope that made me think that they would let the American go without retribution. It became clear very early on that that option was off the table.

After a series of "I don't have the money" s and book wavings in my face added to that the fact that no one present spoke english well enough to under stand clearly enough what I was trying to say to satisfy me, it became clear to all of us that we had reached a standstill. They told me I was to show up the next morning between 6:00 and 8:00 AM and we would have another hearing with a court appointed translator.

Flags went off in my head here! 6:00-8:00 AM. Municipal buildings don't open that early anywhere on the planet. I was a little suspicious. After conferring with my friends in Shanghai it became clear to us that what i should do is, quietly, get out of town ASAP and deal with this in Shanghai where I had resources and where people were more used to dealing with foreigners . Also, at this point I just didn't trust the people I was dealing with in Xi'an. Disappearing meant letting go of my 600 RNB at the hotel but it was better than maybe ending out in detention or who knows what?

I got to the train station with about 40 minutes until the last train left. The lady at the ticket counter was telling me that there were no tickets available until the 20th of May! There are scalpers who nab all the tickets and sell them on the black market for tidy profits which was what was going on here. Fortunately, an honest (thank god) chinese man named Michael, heard my ranting at the ticket booth where he was also in line. Luckily he was going to Shanghai too and spoke English quite well. He also had to go ASAP and almost assured me that if I stayed with him that I would be on the next train. To make a long story short he got us on the next train after passing through hoops that few foreigners, (not a one who could not speak Mandarin well), could pass through. I gladly paid for his ticket and he will be welcome at my home for a bed if ever he ends up in my home town. Price of the two tickets: 366 RNB.

These tickets are out of the class classification of tickets all together. They do not evan buy you a seat on the train; only passage. If I wanted to sit , or sleep it would be on the floor. The more tired one gets the less dignity one has about sleeping. By three thirty in the morning I was sleeping on the dirty linoleum floor in the 20 foot X three and a half foot hallway bypassing the kitchen on the dinning car, a place I like to call home, with twelve, sometime more, other people numbers depending on how many were trying to sleep sitting up which made more room so the numbers increased to fill in the extra space. Time to time I would walk around the train in a daze looking for a better place to sleep but couldn't find any floor space that wasn't already inhabited by other peasant class travelers.

Finally, when I got to Shanghai, after spending thirty two hours of the last thirty eight on trains I showered and slept through that day.

The next day I went to the big Immigration building in Pudong for a hearing. I tried the pathetic dumb tourist routine, I tried let's be ambassadors of goodwill here! You don't really have to charge me the full amount routine. The official didn't feel much like he needed to be an ambassador of goodwill to some american. (China is winning you know.) I wasn't about to try the crying girl routine. I wouldn't have been very convincing and it would have been just too darn embarrassing. Size of the fine 5,000 RNB.

Today I spent two or three hours trudging around the neighborhood trying to get to the right police stations in the right order to get my residency permit so that I could renew my passport. Price of renewing my pass port 190 RNB.

Total cost of my Visa debacle; 6646 RNB or $830 U.S. . Total value of a thorough travel agent; priceless!

I do not evan wish to imply that you are totally responsible for my loss. It was clearly written on the visa that It was only good for a thirty day entry i will show it to you when I get back. However, I will say that you are a professional travel agency and in not being thorough I have to say that you are being irresponsible. You bought me the Round trip airline ticket, departure and return dates in a three month window, you bought me a three month visa. It would have been professional to take ten minutes to make sure my ducks were in a row. You can blame me for being a fool but I would only be a fool in as far as I trusted that you had done your job.

I am therefore requesting that you consider some financial compensation in this matter. Certainly I would never except more than half as I am surly half to blame. Of coarse that logic negates the incredible physical and emotional hardship I have endured . No response at all would be an outrage. Maybe you should talk with one another and come up with an honest appraisal. If you would be honest and tell me how much profit you made off of the transaction, maybe that figure would satisfy me and would not cause your firm any hard losses. Small claims court is always best avoided.

Be in touch. I will be back in town around June 3rd.


Glenway Fripp

P.S. You might want to checkout some of my stories on my Blog 'Shanghai or bust' at . I have been told that I could be quite the travel writer with a little practice.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Qing Dao

Most of us Americans would know this city best by it's world famous beer "Tsing Tao" brewed by the Germans who originally settled in this town. I will remember this city for it's beautiful coastline and the mountains that surround it.

I had been offered a gig there and was flown in from Shanghai the day before arriving early enough in the day to take a long walk. We were given a house to stay in by the real-estate company whose booth I was to play at at a trade show. (Yeah, I know. Another strange gig). The house and was located about a mile and a half from the city in a quiet neighborhood of tree lined streets and mostly old houses probably built by German immigrants. Our house was really old and quite charming though fairly dark inside for modern American tastes. We have the modern invention of tempered glass to thank for all the natural light in our contemporary houses and stylized renovations. I would imagine that if average American travelled back in time one Hundred years looked around and asked "how can people live this way", he would probably specifically be asking that question about how could people be living in such dark houses?

It was a beautiful, comfortably cool spring day with a fresh fog tinged on shore breeze. Nothing could please me more on such a day than a long walk before dinner. It was about an eight of a mile from the house down to the sea and when I got to the coast, what a relief! I had been trying to breath the air in Shanghai for almost two months and here I was surrounded by cool fresh air! I walked to the left toward town. At the end of the road began a foot path along the sea that would take me all the way to the center of the city. The beginning of the path was a famously beautiful little park. The rocky coast could only remind me of the coast of maine; jagged out crops. with partially sandy beaches in between them. The floor of the park was a combination of grass and rock and not tall trees. There was a stream with little foot bridges over it. The park was full of people enjoying the spring weather. There were at least four wedding parties in the park. Having wedding pictures taken by a professional photographer in scenic places on your wedding day is really big in China and here they were on the rocks on the bridges on the grass; every stated feature ornamented by a model couple, each couple strategically, no politicly, moving to one another couple's perch to have next set of pictures taken.

I navigated my way through the satin and silk district on to the more pedestrian path to the city. I was glad that the city was around quite a few bends in the path and that I was able to enjoy the illusion of open land for a while. I don't know the full length of the path. I took it to town but it continued in the other direction for as far as I could see where it disappeared around another bend.

The path was built not just for walking. The length of the path was a gallery of sculptures by different artists. I think there are over thirty different sculptures and a lot of the stuff is really cool. Occasionally there would be a map of the park, made of thick brass with lettering and details shown in relief. The maps would show where you were and the locations of sculptures. All along the paths their were places where it would open up into parks some with pavilions highlighted by one or more really large sculptures.

Near town I abandoned the lovely seacoast and headed for the modern center of town. Like Shanghai most of the buildings are ultra modern. They look like the designs were inspired by, sci-fi futuristic images from the collective unconscious or from an Italian designer's collection piezo cigarette lighters. Maybe that description suggests a negative impression but actually I kind of dig the architecture. I walk around Shanghai and look at buildings, markets and babes for hours! Never a dull moment. Where was I ? Oh right........

In the spirit of my Shanghai walks, I wanted to find a Starbucks and have a nice coffee and a sit before heading home. I walked a good distance along the road closest to the sea heading away from my house and no Starbucks in sight. I figured I would go in a block and head home . Maybe I would have twice the luck with buildings on both sides of the road. (one would Think!) To my great misfortune, this town is the home town of 'SPR coffee' which is a knock off of starbucks. Finally I succumbed to the grim reality that my precious Starbucks double americano with a spot of cream might not exist in this town. Just because there were hundreds of Starbucks in Shanghai didn't mean that Starbucks had marketing plans yet in place for the rest of china.

Now if I may be the Coffee critic this is what is wrong with SPR coffee. The coffee. Now that's important at a coffee shop. The service, people who work at Starbucks in China are all glad to have an opportunity to improve their english. I would dare to venture that that might be a primary reason that they do choose to work at Starbucks. Improving your English is a good idea, Certainly in the city of Shanghai where English is the second language. (It is considered chic to have the name of your store be in english and the road signs use the abbreviation 'rd' after the 'pin yin' spelling of the road name. This might not be true in Qing Dao which does not have the European presence of Shanghai.) By contrast, at SPR I had a hard time conveying my order. I think the sandwich I ordered and payed for and never received, well I don't know what I think. I thought she acknowledged that she understood. The size of my bill seemed to reflect a sandwich might be involved. I'm confused! My memory isn't that long. The receipt was in chinese characters and I wasn't about to try to discuss it with the one person behind the counter who was busy marveling at all the modern machinery she had been blessed to be surrounded by. So many buttons, so little training. The green that they Used for the SPR logo was a perfect match to the Starbucks Green. A lot of the feel of the place was very similar in subtle ways. Wood, Slate, Picture Windows, wooden tables, various kinds of seating all arranged to look oh so Starbucks. One look and you would know that there were some very clever americans behind this counterfeiting Scheme. Empty of stomach, I left.

As my luck would have it just a block away on my way home there was a Starbucks! Wah!

I almost made it home with out getting lost. Had a wild goose chase with a involving a taxi driver a telephone and five miles in a cab to go a hundred yards or so. Yeah, I was that close! Finally Ren and Wha (my agents on the gig) and I were ready to take a cab into town to eat. We made our way to a street with a hundred restaurants and a million candle power of naked light blaring from every sign and facade. Have you ever eaten inside an incubator! No wonder animals don't breed in captivity. The decor just is not conducive. We ended out at a fish restaurant which in china means an aquarium that also happens to serve up it's exhibitions. Try this! The next time you are at an aquarium think about what in the tanks would be the things that you would be least likely to choose to have for supper. That's what we had. Most of it was really good. I didn't try the sea slug. There were some really tasty sauces on the table that one could use in abundance just in case the taste experience was overwhelming. Beer helped.

I think the sea slug wasn't quite right because Wha, who was the one who seemed to eat most of it, was up all night, visiting the sculpture of the white elephant, and I slept just fine.

The gig was pretty much going to run all the next day. I wanted to get there early so I could tune up the piano and get comfortable. Wha and Ren were not up to getting up with me so they sent me off with a cab driver who had some instructions that I figured I need not know about. Fortunately one of the instructions must have been to make sure I actually got in the place! They hadn't given me a work pass and no way were the security guards going to let me in without one. There was all sorts of yelling in Chinese which is a great language to argue in. The language sounds so guttural that I would imagine two people proposing might sound like an argument. So when they really are arguing it is quite amusing. Ren finally had to get out of bed and come down there with his work pass and all was well.

The gig was fine. I played well I liked the piano which was Chinese and seemed not as new as a lot of the pianos over here. Ren and I talked a lot on the breaks about all sorts of things. It's funny, Music is what it is all about and yet I don't really have a lot to say about it. What can I say? You should have been there.