Brian's Blogs

Time for China’s Transport to cater for Foreign Visitors

Right now the press appears to be jam-packed full of stories about the entire Chinese population on the move, taking planes, trains and automobiles to get back home in time for the Spring Festival.

One of the consistent themes of these stories is the new online booking system for rail users and its advantages – as well as disadvantages – that have come about as a result of its introduction.

I have to say that I feel sorry for the many thousands of workers who either don’t have access to, or are unable to use, the internet to book their tickets. Invariably when they have had to go along to the stations to buy from the ticket office, they have not only found very long queues there, but in many instances the tickets have already been long sold out.

A similar, but in another way very different scenario, happened to me about a month ago. I was wanting to travel by train to a destination not very far from Beijing and turned up at the station three hours before the train was scheduled to leave – according to an online blog I had read. But never being quite sure whether such information is accurate or not, I decided to allow plenty of time in case the timetable was different that day.

When I arrived at the station there were ticket office queues weaving out of the doors and halfway across the station concourse. The first problem was finding the correct time for the train. Of course, everything was written in Chinese which is a major problem for most foreigners living in China. By sheer luck I had written down the route number of the train I wanted, which made it a lot easier to work out the timetable.

I waited patiently in line for over an hour before finally getting to the ticket counter and presented a piece of paper that I had asked a friend to write on requesting the ticket to my destination. The official tut-tutted, shook his head and pointed out the door from where I had come before turning to the next customer.

What could he mean? Where should I go? What should I do next?

By sheer luck there was a young man behind me who explained that for this particular train, I should first have to queue up in another long line in another office to get a piece of paper, having first shown my ID, which allowed me to buy a ticket from this office (after, no doubt, I had queued up for yet another hour) – but he advised me not to bother. All the tickets would have been long sold out anyway. If I had really wanted to travel on this train I should have arrived at the station at 6 o’ clock in the morning for any chance of getting a ticket at all. I’d catch the bus if I were you, he added as an afterthought.

I took his advice; had no trouble in finding the bus; and only had to wait 15 minutes before boarding to my destination.

But it got me thinking. As China’s importance in the world is growing stronger year on year, while at the same time the domination of Europe and America is waning, it won’t be long before China becomes one of the most – if not the most - important country in the world.

So how much longer will it be before China’s transportation systems take cognizance of the fact that the visitors to its shores need to use their facilities like everyone else. They are effectively barring foreigners from using the internet to buy tickets (as only Chinese is used on the web sites), and causing frustration at stations, as there are no signs in any other language but Chinese informing you what procedures to use.

For most of the time, the trains and buses work fine once you know what to do. But word gets around fast; and if China continues to ignore the needs of its foreign tourists, the desired-for growth in overseas visitors is likely to be hampered quite unnecessarily.

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