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May 09, 2006

holiday travel in China

My company’s chairman, Jim Kaplan, and machine shop manager, Jeff Weston, were in Nantong the week before this year’s May Day holiday. Jim wants to learn how to travel between cities by himself, and I said I’d teach him. Instead, we all learned some different lessons. (Skip to the end, if you just want the lessons.)

We anticipated heavy holiday traffic. So, I bought bus tickets a day ahead of time for the 2-1/2 to 3-hour trip from Nantong to Shanghai, instead of letting Jim buy his own just before the trip, which is the normal way. (Buses run every half hour.) I gave him notes on how to interpret the tickets, especially distinguishing between the gate number and the seat number. I typed out for him a Chinese message he could show a taxi driver in Shanghai, asking to go to the bus stop in front of the Railway Station for the #5 shuttle bus to the Pudong Airport. My plan was to stay with Jim and Jeff until they got to the #5 shuttle bus stop, in case anything went wrong, but to let them do everything themselves. I expected to catch a noon or so bus back to Nantong, work for an hour or so, then ride my bike home and have it for the weeklong holiday.

Leaving Nantong at 8:40 am, we got our first inkling of trouble. Instead of the usual 15 minutes, it took almost an hour of fighting traffic to get out of the city proper. The ferry across the Yangzi River and the highway driving to Shanghai were normal, and we relaxed. Then, we hit terrible traffic on the outskirts of Shanghai. By the time we got to the bus station in Shanghai, it was 12:40, instead of 11:30. Jim’s flight was earlier than Jeff’s, departing at 2:55 pm. The shuttle bus normally takes 45 minutes to get to the airport. We decided to skip the rest of the travel lesson and take a taxi to the airport. I went along for the ride, in case of any problem. Initially, I asked the driver whether we could get to the airport faster if he took us to the high-speed magnetic train, which goes right to the airport. He said that would actually slow us down, and I believe he was right, since he would still have to drive us out of downtown Shanghai and across the Huangpu River into the Pudong (East of the Huangpu River) section of Shanghai, where the train starts. He assured us he’d get us to the airport in less than an hour, and he did. Jim later told me it was close, but he made it onto his plane in time.

Ready (I thought) to relax, I caught the #5 shuttle bus back to downtown, walked 15 minutes to the bus station, and approached the ticket window to buy the next available ticket to Nantong. There, I heard the ominous words “duibuqi, meiyou piao.” Sorry, no tickets. The next available tickets were the following morning. I took a few minutes to weigh my options – spend the night in Shanghai, including dinner, and catch a bus home the next morning; or, take a taxi or unofficial taxi home right away. I figured either option would cost about 500 - 600 rmb ($60), so I tried to hale a taxi. There were 10 would-be passengers competing for each taxi, so I paid attention when a slick, well-dressed guy asked where I wanted to go. He told me the normal meter rate to Nantong was 700 rmb, and that’s what he would charge me. He might have been right, but I counter-offered 400 rmb. After ten minutes of negotiating, we settled at 500 rmb and he would give me a “fapio” (the formal Chinese invoice I needed for my expense report). That’s probably the market rate even on a normal-traffic day, but this guy came out ahead by taking multiple passengers. Initially, he loaded a young woman into his clean, black VW Passat and dropped her at the Hongqiao Airport (the older, domestic airport on the west end of the city). Before we got that far, though, he insisted that I pay him in advance. I was just as insistent that I would pay him upon arrival at my home. He asked to see my money, and I said my wife had it. He didn’t trust that story, so I had him to take me to an ATM, where I withdrew 500 rmb. He again asked me to pay him, and I again refused. While I was making my withdrawal, the driver got really lucky and found another young woman, this one with a baby, who wanted to go to Nantong. She signed up for 600rmb to go to Tongzhou, north of Nantong. About this point, I realized that I really didn’t have the option of staying overnight in Shanghai: I hadn’t thought to bring my passport, and you can’t stay at a hotel in China without either a domestic ID card or a foreign passport (not a bad policy in the age of terrorism, I think).

After we dropped off the first woman (a high school teacher, who was interested to know that my wife had been teaching English at Nantong University), the ride went smoothly for an hour. Then came the next surprise. The driver parked on the far side of a toll booth and told us, “I have to meet a friend. I’ll be right back.” I saw him randomly trying to flag down cars and realized that he had some special plan. I assumed he wanted to find another Nantong-bound passenger to occupy the empty front seat. After half an hour passed, I started lobbying my travel mate for the three of us (including her baby) to get out and try to find a legitimate taxi to take us to Nantong and Tongzhou. By splitting the fare, we’d have both saved money. Just then, our driver showed up with another guy and told us we were going to “huan che” (change vehicles). Ah, so this was the plan! Our driver found someone who was going to Nantong anyway and who had room in his vehicle. The new driver had an even more comfortable mini-van. I’m pretty sure he was a professional company driver, who had just delivered someone from his company to one of the Shanghai airports and saw a chance to earn a little extra money. Yet again, the first driver asked me to pay – “don’t worry,” “no problem” – and yet again I said I’d pay (now, the new driver) as soon as I got home. I couldn’t count the bills, but the second driver paid the first one at least 400 rmb. Except for the fact that he drove over 130 kg/hr a lot of the time (I think that’s almost 90 mph) and that the ferry was backed up so badly with traffic that we had to go all the way west to Wuxi and cross on that bridge, the rest of the trip was actually fine. The baby was extremely well behaved. I got home at 10:00 pm, and Terry had a nice dinner waiting for me.

The two lessons of this day: 1) Don’t travel in China during the three national holidays, unless you really can’t avoid it. 2) Always carry your passport when you leave town. (As to #1, we traveled during two holidays in China without this degree of trouble. I guess we were lucky.) -- Norty

Posted by now at May 9, 2006 02:09 PM