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.


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