Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Buying a ticket in China can be a real pain sometimes. I'm talking particularly about train tickets. I went to the ticket office the other day to buy a ticket to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. They told me to come back on Friday evening. It's because of the date I gave them. You cannot buy a ticket earlier than four days before the date on the ticket.

So I showed up at 7pm Friday (the time they had given me), and by when I got to the window, they told me there were no soft sleeper tickets. Not to be dissuaded, I took a taxi to the Beijing West train station. I was having dinner with Cathy, and she offered to come with me, which turned out to be a good thing.

The ticket window at the train station was mayhem. The particular window we needed did not have the restraining bars to keep everyone in line, so they just tended to mob the window. Well, my turn finally came, and I asked for the ticket I needed. No luck. She said I could get a "hard seat" ticket, but no soft sleeper. Believe it or not, I have talked to students who rode the hard seats all the way to Xinjiang, but sitting up for 48 hours was not something I wanted to look forward to, so I told her I wasn't interested.

As I was going home, I chanced to meet one of my neighbors, a guy from Florida. Somehow, he had gotten a hold of a travel agent in Fuchengmen, and he gave me the guy's number. I called him this morning, and told him my experience. He said, "You're not going to get a soft sleeper ticket like that at the ticket window. Those tickets are all sold through the back door." I don't think that's always true, because I have bought soft sleeper tickets before. But my experience last summer in Dali told me that he was not entirely wrong, either.

The problem is with the way train tickets are sold. Plane tickets in China are just like plane tickets anywhere. They are issued to a particular person. When you buy the ticket, they go to great pains to make sure that they name on the ticket is the same as the name on your passport. As long as this matches, you are OK. In other words, plane tickets are not transferable. But train tickets have no name on them. They are completely transferable. So, in a sense, they become a form of currency, because they can be freely traded. And also because, depending on the season, they are often very much in demand. Because of this, speculators will sometimes buy up a bunch of tickets, and then hold and sell them for a profit. This can be very frustrating to the average person who is just trying to get from Point A to Point B.

Anyway, the agent told me to call his office, and I asked them to check the date. They said this date was all sold out, but to my surprise, they were able to get me a very good price on a plane ticket. Plane tickets are very frustrating in China, because they are easy to get if you want to pay the price, but the price is a little high. I asked them for directions to their office, and they told me they would have the ticket delivered. About an hour later, I got a call on my mobile phone; it was the delivery guy. I went down to the North Gate, and this kid came riding up on a bicycle. I gave him the money, and he gave me the ticket.

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