A few days ago the New York Times posted a story entitled “Where Europe Trails Asia,” in which a weary traveler longs for the friendly customs line in China over the one in Germany (which, as we all know, has a global reputation for enthusiastic smiles). I thought I should offer my following experience in reply.
On my recent trip home I was reminded of all the fabulous tourist sites I had visited over the past five years – The Terracotta Soldiers, The Great Buddha at Leshan, Dali, Lijiang, and scores of others. However, as incredible as the sites are, I’m often left pondering how much better the trips would have been if just a little bit more thought had been put into the planning of the over all experience. Sadly, I’ve known a number of travelers who have become so irritated by the shortcomings that they fail to enjoy some of the best bits of China.
For example, the other week when I headed to Hangzhou aboard one of China’s zippy high-speed trains, we passed through the massive Nanjing South Station, which is a gleaming monolith of a railway hub, and disembarked in the grubby old Hangzhou station. This however wasn’t the problem, after spending just about two hours on the train there, it took nearly an hour of waiting in a packed, dim, hallway (that seemed more like some kind of gauntlet of sweltering death) just to catch a cab. Or that the old D-trains used to take 2 and half hours from Nanjing station to Shanghai station (both close to the city centers), while the new G-trains depart from more remote stations, and take roughly the same amount of time from downtown to downtown, but you spend only a little over an hour on the comfortable trains, and the rest of the time packed in subway cars. Not to mention the number of stairs involved in any train passage…
These minor inconveniences though could have been completely avoided with slightly more attention to the overall experience as opposed to thinking that only the sites and speedy long-distance transit would override the other challenges.
However, as for things that tourists complain of, the number one issue is scams that pray on tourists. It is just much more difficult to enjoy a vacation when you feel you are being taken advantage of. I recently had friends visiting from Norway, and when I asked about their visit to the Great Wall, their entire story revolved around a rotten bus driver and a scheming cab driver. While surely some of this could have been avoided with more planning, it seems unfortunate that these shady operators are allowed to dupe unwitting tourists at the “official” bus station as it tarnishes China’s reputation overseas.
Lastly, I want to share with you my final morning in China – I woke up in the PVG Da Zhong airport hotel and jumped in the shower only to find that there was no hot water (I’m assuming this was the result of having too many people showering at once). When I confronted the front desk about it (in Chinese) I was told that there was nothing that could be done (meibanfa), to which I suggested something could be done, a discount could be given. In response to this the manager (over the phone, since they didn’t want to talk with me in person) said that it was suspicious that I was the only person in the hotel with this problem. “So I am a liar?” I asked the now very flustered front staff person. “No,” she said, “But maybe you don’t know how to shower.” To which I struggled to reply somewhat calmly with , “I’ve been showering more than 25 years, I am familiar with the process.” At this point the staffer shrugged, and again offered the cop-out, “Meibanfa.” At this point, I was angry, realized nothing more was going to be done about the lacking service, and ran to catch my flight. It was a rough start to a very long day.
As I got to the terminal, I looked out the windows hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean that lies just beyond the runways. Unfortunately, the pollution was so bad that I couldn’t even make out the edge of the runways.
Once we had all boarded the plane the American captain came on the intercom and said, “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but we are going to be waiting here for a while for clearance for take off. The tower has told us to wait, but they didn’t give us any details about how long we’d be waiting, or why we are delayed. That’s just the way China does things. If we knew more, we’d tell you.” It sounded as though he had been through this a few times before.
Now, I have other days to look back fondly on, and this lousy day will soon fade from memory, but I worry that travelers who have less experience with the country may have their entire vacations/business trips tainted by China’s “excellent service.”