Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Chinese bureacracy

This is how I left China.

I read I could get a ferry from the port city of Qingdao to Incheon in Korea. Having entirely predictable liberal guilt about flights, I vowed months in advance that I would do this. Lonely Planet, www.seat61.com, etc had no real concrete information about how one might book the ferries that they casually flagged up, and the website was only in Chinese and Korean, but I figured I could sort stuff out on arrival in Qingdao.

I didn't think to ask any Chinese people to look at the website for me during any of the three weeks I spent in popular Chinese-reading country China.

I arrived in Qingdao and asked at the hostel if they knew the best way to get ferry ticket. They did not.

I went along to the ferry terminal to try and buy a ticket in advance. They told me I couldn't buy a ticket in advance and I should come back at 2pm the next day (i.e. the day of sailing).

That evening I got quite drunk with an Irishman who had an advance ticket.

At 1.30pm the next day I returned to the ferry terminal. I queued at the ticket desk for about quarter of an hour, before being informed I should definitely go to the building next door.

I went to the building next door. You know how people tell their kids that their pets have 'gone next door'? But they mean they're dead? Probably meaning hell? I think they just meant this place. It took me two hours to move one metre in the queue, mostly because there were zit-encrusted Chinese adolescents constantly pushing in front of me, each bearing the passports of at least ten of their friends of their friends. Eventually these would be processed by the three members of staff on duty, one of whom left after an hour and never came back. Every single petty gripe about the Chinese I'd accumulated over the past month came flooding bitterly up through my gut, and might well have been proverbially spewed over the giggling hordes around me, had it not been for the presence of Simon the Irish guy, of getting drunk with the previous night fame. We contented ourselves with quietly hurling abuse at everyone around us.
He was there because despite already owning a ticket back, he had to get it validated in order to claim a cabin on the ferry.
Alarm bells rang.
With no small amount of violence, I finally got to the front of the queue.
There were no ferry tickets available for another week.
Simon mumbled a few kindly words, but at the end of the day he had to get onto his fucking ferry.
Having come down with my massive backpack, I decided to get a taxi back to the hostel, where I would fume.
For some stupid reason I got in an unmarked cab, driven by a guy who spoke okay English. This is a bad sign, as most people in China who've learned English and don't work in hostels appear to have done so in order to con foreigners (this is obviously a sweeping generalisation, but I only met about three Chinese people who didn't work in hostels, and they all tried to con me).
He tried to con me. I was in such a bad mood that told him how much I thought it should be, realised I'd have to ask him for change if I tried to pay him that much, so actually paid him quite a lot less than for my taxi out there.
I went on a website and reluctantly booked 250 quid flight from Qingdao to Seoul.
At least I was leaving.
Several hours later I got a message from the agency I'd booked the flight with, telling me that in order to confirm the booking and process payment, I'd have to send a photocopy of my credit card to them by scan or fax.
The hostel had neither a scanner nor a fax machine.
I sent the agency a pleading email explaining my situation, got really drunk, then went to bed.
Woke up at 6am, very hungover, checked my emails, found I did not have a flight. I had essentially come to the fairly average town of Qingdao for no reason, and should probably have stayed in Shanghai drinking with my Swedish friends, and got a cheap flight from there.
I threw myself at the feet of Maxwell, a member of staff at the hostel, who - unusually for a member of staff at a Chinese hostel - didn't really speak any English.
He went to the Chinese-language version of the EXACT website I'd been on the day before, where the flight I'd attempted to book for 250 quid in English was on offer for a princely 53 quid for speakers of Mandarin.
The agency was going to send over a man, to the hostel, within the next two hours, who I would pay for my ticket in cash.
The man turned up with my receipt, which was for a 300 pound ticket. Alarm bells rang.
I went to the airport, which I'd probably guess cost more than everything else in all of Qingdao. It was four quid for a beer that cost 20p in town, and there was a string quartet playing in the airy but largely deserted departures hall.
I went to the Korea Air counter. Alarm bells were wrong. They gave me a ticket. I got on a flight, where - somewhat suspiciously - I was sat next to the only other white guy, a Dutch man developing a yacht powered entirely by wind and sun. For some reason I found him entirely loathsome, despite (though actually perhaps BECAUSE) of the fact that he was clearly going to do far more to improve the planet than I ever will.
Arrived in Korea. It was like going forward in time about 200 years. I got to my hostel, met some rowdy Americans, drank several beers bigger than my head, and three days later wrote a blog that probably inferred I had a bit more trouble getting to Korea than, let's be honest, I actually did.



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