Apr 13, 2015

Getting CNY Train Tickets in 2012

I wanted to document the process of getting (or not getting?) train tickets for travelling back to Hunan for the Chinese New Year in 2012. It's something that thousands of people do in Shanghai every year but not something I've heard talked or written about in English. Here's the steps so far, and I'll update as the process moves along:

  • A few weeks before tickets actually go on sale, I mention to my coteacher Wendy that we'll both be buying tickets to go "back home" for the holiday. In our office, I am the only overseas teacher married to a Chinese and Wendy is the only local teacher who is not actually a local, but moved to Shanghai for her studies and stayed to work. Wendy and I chat over the details, which have been published in the paper (I get most of my Chinese news through the i时代报 and, now increasingly, through Weibo), of how tickets will be sold this year: for the first time, tickets will be sold online and by phone 12 days in advance. As in previous years, they will also be available fron train station windows and ticketing offices all over the city 10 days in advance. We promise to remind each other when the date comes.
  • On Jan 3, two days before the tickets I want go on sale, I access the official ticketing website 12306.cn and create an account for myself with my passport information, which will be needed to buy the ticket. I practice searching for tickets to get familiar with the process because I know that it will be a race to secure tickets once they go on sale Jan 5 at 3pm.
  • On Jan 5, I teach class until 3:25. By 3:30 I am sitting in front of my computer using two web browsers to access the website and my phone to call 95105105, desparately trying to book the tickets. It takes many attempts to get a connection with either method. I give up on the website, which is showing that there are no tickets left for the train I want, K137 to Changsha, and work the phone system to confirm that all tickets have been sold for Jan 16 and previous days. Wendy's husband is able to book their tickets through the phone system, probably because there are several trains that pass through her hometown. I call Jodi and we talk about possible alternatives, taking trains to neighboring cities and completing the trip by bus, or going to a "yellow bull", a ticket scalper she knows through a family friend.
  • That evening, I stop by the South Railway Station for dinner and to check out the options as far as buying tickets from the station. I find that there are several optional lines going to Changsha, but they have not been called into service. I confirm that the station is only selling tickets for 10 days in advance, meaning that tickets for Jan 16 will be available on Jan 7, this coming Saturday.
  • The next day at 3pm I'm simultaneously helping a student with homework and logging on to 12306.cn. I read in the newspaper that reserved but unpaid tickets would go back into the system 24 hours later, so I'm testing my luck for Jan 16 and also considering Jan 17. I have even less luck than the previous day, with the system being overloaded and not allowing me to log in. Eventually I get in, but the tickets are all sold. I notice that there are still lots of trains/tickets to Wuhan, which is about a couple of hours from Jodi's hometown by bus. Frustrated, I leave for an all-you-can-eat-Japanese department dinner at 5pm and Wendy asks me about the tickets. No luck.
  • Saturday morning I wake up early (for a Saturday!) and head to the train station. I seem to have read that a large portion of tickets were reserved for sale at physical ticketing offices, as opposed to online/phone sales. I say "I seem" because my Chinese is not fluent, so my recall is not great and sometimes I miss subtle differences in the meaning of words. Anyways, I'm crossing my fingers as I arrive at the train station. The main ticketing hall posts a sign outside informing me that the hall is only selling tickets for 9 days in advance, and that the line for 10-day-in-advance tickets is forming on the North side of the square. I had seen this line when I arrived at the station, so I trace my steps back and take my place at the end of a relatively short line with probably 100 people in front of me. The guards that are monitoring the line do a good job of chasing off cutters, spend a lot of time answering questions about where to buy which tickets, but also seem to be carrying a thinly veiled sneer in their hearts for the non-Shanghainese 外地人 that make up the majority of people in line; in fact, I hear many different accents and dialects from the people around me. When I ask the guards where to line up they try to persuade me to go home and buy online, but to spare myself the trouble of having to explain my situation I just smile and thank them and walk to the back of the line. The guard at the end of the line is telling people that tickets will go on sale at 3pm; I glance at my watch: 7:30am. In horror I realize that ⑴ I skipped breakfast and will have to skip lunch, and have only half a book left for entertainment, and ⑵ I've forgotten my passport. I can deal with hunger and boredom, and I decide to try and bluff my way through the process with my California driver's license. Then, I realize why the line is so short: we move forward and are handed a green piece of paper, stamped with a railway stamp and carrying two handwritten numbers: one a window number and one an order number. "Come back at 12:30 and go to the ticketing office," we are told. I run home to get my passport and eat some breakfast.

To be continued.

Continued:

  • I arrive at the extra ticketing area set up specifically for CNY train tickets. I get in line at my assigned window. It turns out that the "12:30" time was meaningless, tickets go on sale at 3pm the same as online/by phone. Also, standing in line is meaningless because at around 2:30 the military police arrive to keep order and people start sorting themselves out by number. I learn that some people lined up the night before and got tickets at midnight, and that my #23 is near the back of line 74. As people finish their transactions and walk away, others in line anxiously peer at their hands to see if they got tickets. Friends in different lines pass each other money to buy tickets for each other, or pull each other away when one finds out earlier that there are none left for their destination. LCDs above the ticketing windows taunt us with 100s of tickets left for tomorrow on countless trains to Beijing, Tianjin, Suzhou, Nanjing... but 0 left for still-huge inland cities like Chengdu or Changsha. That seems really unfair. I make a few last-ditch calls to the phone hotline, but nothing gets through. I finally get to the booth, and the young man behind the window apologizes after I thank him for confirming that there are 0 tickets to Changsha, 0 tickets to Zhuzhou, 0 tickets to Huaihua, the major railway stations in Hunan.
  • I call Jodi, who says that the scalper can't get tickets either. This year the newly implemented "real name registration" system means that it's basically impossible to resell tickets. I ran into a single scalper at the train station and didn't bother to inquire, and the Hunanese-in-Shanghai BBS has no tickets for sale this year either. At least for previous CNYs if we couldn't get tickets from the train station, we could at least find them at a small premium through other channels. Now we're looking at other possibilities -- I may go to the train station tonight for one more grab at tickets tomorrow afternoon; we're thinking about getting a ticket to Wuhan and taking the bus from there; on sites like Hunanese-in-Shanghai and Baixing.cn there are carpools organized by fellow travelers; and of course there's always the airplane, which is about four times the price of a hard sleeper, ten times the price of a standing-only ticket.

And there's always the option of spending CNY in Shanghai :(

Or not! Here's the exciting conclusion of this post:

  • After a long talk with Jodi and seeing train tickets disappear from another website before we can buy one, I make the decision to give up on the train, not risk carpooling with a poor driver, and instead to pursue taking a bus. I try to stay away from sleeper buses so I was happy to see the website of Shanghai's main bus station showing that the daily sleeper bus to Yueyang was sold out, but the bus with seats (still an overnight trip, but on a nicer bus) still had spaces available.
  • On Sunday afternoon I take Metro Line 1 to Shanghai Railway Station north square. I love the walk from the Line 1 platform to the north square exit because there are so many accents, skin shades and body/face structures. It's a snapshot of the rest of China here in Shanghai. At the main bus station, a 5 minute walk away, I find many scalpers (no real-name system for bus tickets) who direct me to the line to enter the ticket-selling area, which is fenced off for CNY ticket sales. Even though (or because?) tickets are being sold 15 days in advance, the line is short and I'm let in after about 20 minutes. I spend another 15 minutes in the ticketing line, scanning the LED sign for tickets to Yueyang: the sign lists availability from Jan 8 to Jan 17, and what I see is 无 (none) 无 无 无... As the listing scrolls away I start to make plans to book a bus to Changsha, the capital of Hunan, about two hours away from Yueyang. At the window just to be complete I ask about Yueyang and the women tells me that there are tickets! Not for the sleeper, but for the bus with seats only! I pay RMB 336 (a 30% mark-up for the holiday, about RMB 100 more than a train hard sleeper) for a ticket on the 16th, my target departure date. How could I be so lucky, I think. So I pause on my way out and look at the LED sign, noticing this:
891011121314151617
岳阳
  • Aha! After the first few 无s I had given up, not noticing the one 有 on the very date that I wanted. To my credit, the sign was scrolling quickly and I was trying to text Jodi as I watched. So while I was unlucky at train tickets, but the stars aligned perfectly for me this time.

And that concludes my 春运 ticket-buying adventure.

Now, as to how I get back to Shanghai...

A walk at Raffles

IMG_2068

Today I spent about an hour outside Raffles City, observing the goings on. By this week there is no noticeable gathering besides the usual fringe of retired people looking for a place to take in some sun, along the railing that separates the sidewalk from Tibet Rd. There were still lots of police patrolling the area; I came in from behind Raffles City, along Hankou Rd past the Le Royal Méridien hotel and walked past 3 or 4 large police vans. The Peoples' Square subway Exit 14 was still closed "for construction". The Peace Cinema was also still closed to the public but the KFC next to it was open through the side door; the Hershey's store was open but the only entrance was from the outside sidewalk; and the outer door to Starbucks was still closed and manned by an apologetic green apron.

Besides the uniformed police on patrol, there were about double the number of plainclothes police standing and strolling around the area. I spent most of the time standing by a group of plainclothes policemen who at first I suspected of being "participants"; eventually I came to realize who they really were. At first I tried to identify them by their shoes but these didn't follow any pattern. The profile I eventually developed was: middle-aged man, conservative or short haircut, sour expression (only one exception), substantial build, average to above-average height, earbuds with wired microphones for communication, Nokia cellphones that looked like they hadn't been upgraded in years, and either smoking or carrying a bottled drink: water, tea, or fruit juice. I didn't see them engage anybody the whole time I was there but they did a very professional job otherwise; no chatting or joking around, kept an eye on me as I people-watched and read a copy of Southern Weekend. It was a nice, quiet time of being introspective about the role I play as a liberal foreign national living in this society. Maybe I'll write a blog post about that later.

The only thing out of the ordinary happened about 10 minutes before I left. A young man and woman, about mid-twenties and Chinese, who had been sitting a few feet away from me, sprang up and started passing out A4-sized fliers to certain people in the crowd and along the side of the sidewalk. It seemed to me that they were targeting the plainclothes police, though I can't be sure because they walked down the sidewalk a few dozen meters away from me as they did so. In all they must have passed out about 20 fliers and I eventually lost track of them in the crowd. I didn't get a look at the papers up close. From far away it looked as likely to be an ad for a real-estate development as any sort of political message so it's hard for me to draw any conclusions about who they were or why the police left them alone.

That concludes my report.

Random bits of reflection

At work today I came back to find a new scarf on my desk. Turns out to be a gift from the union that was organized at my work a week or two before the Chinese New Year break, which I joined. Glancing through my e-mail I saw that, of the 9 teachers in my department, only three of us joined: myself, and the other two local teachers. I wonder if the social science department had a higher subscription rate.

This morning Jodi went to the 1st Maternity Hospital near the former Expo site and got her first ultrasound. It was 3-D: two dimensions plus time, so basically a movie. I think she put a still up on her 微博, like a Chinese Twitter but with pictures, video and censorship. The point of this piece of news being that, yes, we're having a third (and, uh, last), and that it cost RMB 300 to get the the ultrasound movie burned to a CD, which is RMB 100 more than last time, proving that inflation is everywhere.

Also, I'm coaching soccer this season. I volunteered to help coach the the boys team but so many guys tried out that they formed a JV team as well and let me take it alone. The guys are super respectful and proactive so coaching them is great fun. I joined in a drill today and my old cleats breathed their last; the plastic must have dried out over the past few years that I haven't played so the sole cracked and a couple cleats broke off. I'm not sure our budget can cover anything nice right now. I'll probably get something basic to replace them.

This is my summer

So far this summer I've had one week-long class on Research in Teaching & Learning. It's nice being in the student's seat again; the change in perspective always lets me see new things about my teaching.

Note carefully (by Micah Sittig)

If you're interested in being a part of another possible University of Oklahoma Masters in Education cohort at SMIC School in Shanghai (open to anybody, not just school faculty) please get in contact with me: msittig@gmail.com

Getting a Shanghai Driver's License

With the help of Jodi's parents we've become the owners of a dark blue Chery Tiggo. Since Jodi go her license in March I've been serving as the co-pilot, but we've run into a few situation where it'd be more convenient if I could drive too. So for the past couple weeks I've been working on using my California license to get a Shanghai license. I'll update this post as the process moves along (in it's usual bumbling way, in my case).

  • The first step was a visit to the DMV office in Minhang, at 闵行区沁春路179号 (179 Qingchun Road, Minhang). The guard informed me that all licenses for foreigners are being issued at the main DMV in Changning. That would be at 长宁区哈密路1330号 (1330 Hami Road, Changning), which is best reached on public transportation by taking Metro Line 10 to the Shanghai Zoo, walking over to Hami Road and catching the 739/807 north for two stops. The DMV main branch is open 9am-5pm.
  • The second step was a prelimiary visit to the Hami Road DMV. They asked me to bring: my original driver's license, an official translation of the original DL, my passport, and my temporary residence registration from the local police station. The DMV recommends two translation services: the one I used was the Shanghai Interpreter's Association at 静安区北京西路1277号1607室 (1277 Beijing W Road, Jing'an).
  • The third step was to get my California license translated. I went to the office mentioned above, a long-ish walk from Nanjing W Road metro station, where the translating took less than 10 minutes and cost RMB 50. The Interpreter's Association is located in a nondescript office building on busy Beijing Road, and the translation is done by the lady at the front desk. The people in front of and behind me were also there for driver's license translations.
  • The fourth step was to go back to the DMV at Hami Road with the correct documents. I took a number at the front desk of Building 1, had a quick chat with the desk on the second floor for foreign driver's licenses, and was directed to building 9 for photos and 10 for physical exam.
  • In building 9 I paid RMB 25 for a set of photos with my Chinese name and passport number printed below each photo. The photographer was quick and efficient, got a good shot on the first try without having to take my glasses off.
  • In building 10 I collected the photos and a form, filled out another couple of forms according to the poster examples on the wall, and paid RMB 60 for the physical exam. I was directed out, to the left, and upstairs where I took the exam form to each of about 8 different little rooms for a series of physical checks that were also quick and efficient. Which meant that the bad news was delivered swiftly and with finality: my left eye (cornea scarred by a childhood herpes simplex infection) did not meet the 0.8 standard, being only 0.3. Thus, I failed the physical exam. I was given an address in Minhang, 莘东路508号 (508 Xindong Road) where I could go for a re-exam any Wednesday 8:30-11:00 or 13:00-16:00, presumably after getting better glasses (wouldn't help me).
  • The fifth step was to go to the re-exam place, intending to do my best to explain my condition and plead for leniency. I took Jodi along for a language bonus, and Josie for a cuteness bonus. This is where the TIC started. The staff immediately grasped our situation and explained that they understood, but that they were required by the rules to use the same standard and that we would most likely fail again and lose the RMB 10 re-exam fee. They strongly suggested that we choose an alternative path, which was to go to a district-level hospital — Minhang's being conveniently located just down the road — which would have the driver's license physical exam form and be able to do the exam, and that the standards just "might be looser" (heavy emphasis on that phrase, repeated several times). We got the hint, hoofed it to the hospital, and boy were they right.
  • The sixth step was a visit to the hospital, the Minhang branch of Shanghai's famous Ruijin Hospital. Physical exams for DL take place on the fourth floor in the department that combines service for Taiwanese passport holders and plastic surgery. Several other people were there for the same service as me. I filled out the same form as at the DMV, pasted on another photo, and paid the RMB 40 fee. We chose the eye exam first as it was the highest hurdle to pass. And get this: after walking into the eye exam room and rousing the nurse from his nap, he took a look at my California license, verbally noted that I wore glasses, and then proceeded to fill out the form to the effect that I have perfect vision in both eyes, perfect hearing in both ears, and no other physical defects. Choosing to not look a gift horse in the mouth, we took the form back to the front desk where it was stamped and handed back. TIC indeed.
  • The seventh step is to go back to the Hami DMV and make an appointment for the written exam. Report coming soon.

Notes:

  • On my first visit to the Hami DMV I met a "fixer" at the gate who offered to help me out. I'd heard of this before, hiring somebody to grease the wheels, but since I was deteremined to go through this myself and also on a budget, I declined the offer immediately.
  • Coming out of the re-exam place, we also met a fixer who offered to smooth over the eye problem for RMB 800. Naturally we turned him down. I read on Shanghai Expat that somebody used this kind of service for RMB 500.
  • In summary: to change a foreign license to a Shanghai one, learn Chinese, get your license translated, then take original plus translation, passport, and temporary residence registration to the Hami Road DMV. It's pretty easy from there.

Stamps of Disapproval

These make me cringe, but are worth a chuckle:

Stamps of phrases like "HUH.", "Has Potential", "Good Start", and "Are YOU happy with this?".

By graphic designer Heather K Phillips.

Bank card retrieval

This past week I've gone through a long and tortuous journey, getting back an ATM card that I left in a grocery store ATM. Read on for the sordid details.

Two weekends ago I was sent by my school to an IB workshop in Singapore. The night before I left, I dropped by the grocery store to shop for a few last-minute purchases and to withdraw some cash from the Bank of Communications ATM in the lobby using my Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) debit card. The plan was to take cash with me to Singapore, and leave the debit card home with Jodi in case she needed more cash.

Later that night as I finished packing my things, I opened my wallet to take out the debit card and found that it wasn't there. I immediately recognized that I had left it in the supermarket ATM after withdrawing the cash. I told Jodi, scrapped together as much cash to leave behind as I could, and made plans for the next morning.

At the airport, I called the ICBC customer service hotline and froze my account. I confirmed that the balance was correct, and was assured by the customer service representative that I could re-activate my card at any ICBC branch, including subway branches, once I had retrieved my card from the ATM. An hour later I was on a flight to Singapore for a four-day stay.

When I got back, I visited the ICBC branch near my school to try and withdraw some cash with my passport. No luck: no cash would be forthcoming without the card. The best they could do was print out a piece of paper with my bank account information that would prove the card belonged to my passport number. I was getting nervous because it was the beginning of the month and various things were coming due: rent, credit card bill, various utility bills, etc.

The next step was to find the card. I called the hotline for Bank of Communications and a helpful woman pointed me to the Xintan Rd branch of BoC as being responsible for this particular ATM. Discouragingly, she told me that cards like mine were usually kept for 4 days at the maximum--my trip had been exactly four days long--but that there was a chance mine was still there. I called the branch the next morning and was able to confirm that my card was probably in their possession, so in the afternoon I left work 30 minutes early and arrived at the bank 10 minutes before closing time. Using the printout from ICBC and my passport, I was able to claim my card. Being ever a scientist, I did not wait to activate the card before trying it at the ATM of the same branch where it was promptly confiscated for being frozen, necessitating another trip to the window for retrieval.

The afternoon of the next day, I took my passport to the ICBC branch in the Xujiahui subway station expecting a quick activation and finally being able to withdraw some cash. But no, the tellers were unable to activate my card because it had no personal information attached to it; this account was opened for me by my second employer in Shanghai back in 2006, and they had not given my phone number or address to the bank. The bank branch's standard procedure for unlocking frozen cards was to confirm phone number and address, and since my card did not have this information teller would require me to go to the bank where my account was opened, the central branch in Pudong, and "confirm my information". To me this was ludicrous: if my account had no personal information attached to it, how would the other branch even be able to confirm my info any better than this branch? Besides, the most important piece of personal information, my passport number, was attached to the account, and would be easily confirmable with my physical passport.

Without leaving the desk, I called the service number for ICBC and talked to a customer service representative. I hoped that the service rep would be able to guide the teller through unlocking my card without requiring a trip to Pudong. But even after handing the phone over to the teller twice and even escalating to a manager, the people behind the service number were not able to wrap theri heads around and solve this problem.

Finally, while I was busy on my phone, one of the tellers at the bank branch got on the desk landline to her boss at ICBC. After consulting with the boss, she received authorization to release my card without confirming my personal data. After a few simple questions about my last transactions, she handed the card off to another teller who worked on the computer for a few minutes and unfroze the account. There was a pause because the bank account is under my complete name, including middle names, and the input field was not long enough so my account name has always been SITTIGMICAHSTEVENSTU with a missing ART at the end, which is obvious if you are looking at my passport. But this was quickly resolved without my assistance and the card came back to me, ready to use. At some point, I still need to make a trip over to Pudong to enter my personal details into the ICBC computer system.

So it took a tense hour or so of negotiation between me, the two tellers, a security guard, the customer service rep, and her manager, but we were finally able to get the job done. Big thanks to Jodi for being a sport and taking care of the girls while I hashed this out. Hopefully this information is interesting or useful to somebody.

"The greatest teacher of them all"

Jiang Xueqin in The Diplomat:

Now that I’m in Beijing I often wonder if it’s possible to build a strong educational programme in the imperial capital of guanxi. To counter guanxi, which is essentially about leveraging one’s personal network, I thought it best at Peking University High School to emphasize process over people. So we instituted a policy that to enter the International Division, students must enroll in a week-long admissions camp.

This is a really over-the-top (in a great way) method for dealing with high school admissions. Somebody on Google Reader tried to defend guanxi in contexts other than this article, but the way I see it guanxi is a transaction that benefits some parties and has negative externatlities for many more others. For me, then, it's a no go.

Woxin and QR codes solve problems

Even though we've moved back to California, we still have a foot or two planted in China, and always will. One thing I regret not doing when we left was turning on international roaming for one or both of our China Mobile cellphones, as I'm unable to receive texts or calls to my old number. One way this has been annoying is that some websites, like those for online banking, will send confirmation SMS messages for performing certain services or allowing you to log in with your cellphone. Since I won't be able to go back to China to turn on international roaming anytime soon, I started looking around for solutions to this problem.

One solution that has worked out well so far is Wo-call. Wo-call is a service offered by the Hebei branch of China Unicom, which offers you a Chinese (Hebei) cellphone number that can receive calls and text messages through its app. By going through the registration process on their website, charging RMB 50 after being redirected to the China Unicom website, and downloading the Wo-call app from Google Play, I now have a working Chinese cellphone number. I changed my registered phone number in various accounts to the new number, and I've now successfully received texts from Alipay, ICBC and CTrip. This will be my stopgap measure until I return to China and visit a China Mobile office to get my old number back.

Another minor problem has presented itself after I switched to using a Mac and somehow messed up the security preferences in Firefox so that I can't use plugins on the Alipay homepage to login securely. Also, the other day Jodi was buying train tickets on her own computer and needed to use online payment from ICBC, but she doesn't have the software installed to use my ICBC secure USB dongle.

The solution in both cases was to log in using QR codes! I just opened up the relevant app (Alipay, ICBC), switched to QR scanning mode, scanned and confirmed that it was me by pressing a button on my phone, and the browser logged me in. Pretty convenient, and a feature I wish more websites had.

Sommers on Shanghai housing rights

This afternoon I went to Anne Sommer's excellent talk on the history of housing rights in post-liberation Shanghai, and took some brief notes. Sommers is a lawyer whose frustration at the difficulties of buying an old home in Shanghai lead her to research the history of housing rights in the city and how they stand in the way of preserving its cultural heritage. I'd like to point out the "Two Ironies and One Tragedy" (you know you've been in China too long when…) of the event:

  • Sommers envisioned, and the audience bemoaned with her, a future when living in a restored Concession-era house would only be fate of the "mega-rich". Ironically, the audience at the talk wasn't exactly the bottom of Shanghai's barrel.

  • The talk was held in the Puli Hotel, a "new Urban Resort Concept that blends the immediacy and convenience of being in Shanghai’s most central location with the quiet, emotional indulgences of a peaceful, luxurious resort". Ironically, according to Google Earth, as late as the year 2000 the site of this hotel was occupied by what appears to be traditional Shanghai lane houses. See Google's satellite imagery below.
  • The tragedy, which Sommers alluded to at the conclusion of the Q&A session but didn't fully capture, is not that the material evidence of the concession era is being hoarded in the hands of the elite and crushed under the bulldozers of the big developers, but that the unique Shanghainese urban culture that thrived in the lanes and art-deco apartments is disappearing as its environs are being destroyed. In my estimation, the best hope for the preservation of this culture is not the foreign professional class that attended the talk, but low-income young people who are willing to mold their lifestyles to the challenges posed by lane life, rather than those who would mold the neighborhoods to fit their lifestyle.

That said, I learned quite a bit from the talk and I hope that it does spur some grass-roots efforts at stopping the demolition of Shanghai popular heritage.

In 2000, Jing'an Park was bordered to the east by an empty lot on Najing W Rd, and five rows of red-tile-roofed lane houses on the corner of Changde and Yan'an Roads.

(Note to self. People I recognized at the talk: Sue Anne Tay, Peter Hibbard, Tess Johnston, Neale McGoldrick, Lisa Movius.)