A Tale of Two Tickets — The Ferry

“There will be Chinese people on the boat,”  said the voice at the other end of the phone line.  For the 5th time in as many days this was the response I got from a travel agent I had contacted asking for assistance in booking passage on a local ferry boat to take Noel and me up the Yangtze River from Yichang to Chongqing.  “You’d better take a cruise ship. There will be Chinese people on the ferry.”

So far I have resisted the urge to shout into the phone I KNOW THERE WILL BE CHINESE PEOPLE ON THE BOAT.  WHY WOULDN’T THERE BE? THERE ARE 1.3 BILLION OF THEM IN THIS COUNTRY.  I GET THAT.  THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM FOR ME.

China likes to keep foreigners in their little boxes. There is a box marked “foreign teacher;” one marked “foreign businessman;” one marked “foreign student;” and a very large box marked “foreign tourist.”  Harmony in the cosmos is maintained when the foreigners remain in their boxes and function by prescribed behaviors and norms ascribed to said boxes. Clearly what we are dealing with here is a foreigner who has broken free of her box.  The box in question is “foreign tourist.” Inside that box the approved way to ride a boat on the Yangtze River is to book onto one of the many cruises that cater to foreign tourists. Prices include passage, accommodations on luxury boats, food, and sightseeing.

This is not my intention. I merely want to use the boat as a means of conveyance from Yichang to Chongqing. This is not what foreign tourists do. This is too far outside the box.  HEY FOREIGNER! GET BACK INTO THE BOX. BUY A CRUISE TICKET.

Yesterday afternoon I felt like I had victory (and a ticket) in sight.  I had managed to get through to the CTS office in Yichang and was talking to a nice young agent about my situation. Except for the fact that he was a pleasant chap and had impeccable English, I felt like I had been transported back to 1985. Our conversation went something like this:

Me:  I am trying to buy a ticket on the ferry from Yichang to Chongqing.  Can you help me?

He: Yes, we can help you buy a ticket for a cruise.

Me:  I don’t want to buy a cruise ticket. I just need a ticket to ride a boat to Chongqing. Here is a website. Please open it.  Do you see the schedule for the ferry?  I want a ticket on that boat. See, it has the schedule and even the fare.  I need 2 first class tickets.

He: But there will be Chinese people on the ferry.

Me: I know. I am not afraid of Chinese people. I like  Chinese people. Some of my best friends are Chinese people.

He: I will check.

Me: Thank you.

He. I’m sorry, we do not have 2 day cruises.  We only have 3 day cruises. 

Me:  Did you say cruise?  I don’t want a cruise.  I just want a ticket on a boat.

He: Oh. Well, there is an ordinary boat used by locals, but there will be Chinese people on the boat.

Me:  I know. As I told you before, I am not afraid of Chinese people.  I like them. What time does it leave Yichang on Monday, March 5?

He:  3:30pm.

Me:  What time does it arrive into Chongqing on Wednesday, March 7?

He: 8AM

Me: How much is the ticket?

He: 850 yuan. But that is only the bed. No food. No sightseeing.

Me: Is that first class, in a room with 2 beds?

He:  Yes, but you will have to share a room with a Chinese person.

Me:  No, I need to buy two tickets. I am travelling with another friend.  We want to buy two beds in one room.  Can you help me buy the tickets?

He: (sucking teeth).  I think it will be better for you to come to Yichang and go to the ferry terminal and purchase the ticket yourself. It will be cheaper.

Me: But I am in Beijing, and will not arrive in Yichang until Sunday the 4th. I am afraid that I will go to the terminal and they will tell me there are no tickets.  Then I will have a big problem.

He: Yes. 

Me: If I pay you a service charge, will you buy the tickets for me?  What is your service charge? (at this point I was willing to pay anything, even if it meant paying more than a cruise ticket – as a matter of principle)

He: 50 yuan.

Me:  Great.  How can I send you the money?

He: (sucking teeth)  I must first make sure that foreigners are allowed to buy tickets on this boat. Normally only Chinese people ride this boat.

It was at this point that I switched into Chinese and, mustering all of the political jargon I have absorbed in my 25+ years here, gave the poor fellow a fine lecture:

“KEEPING FOREIGNERS AND CHINESE PEOPLE SEPARATED IS AN EXAMPLE OF OUT-DATED THINKING. NOW IT IS THE 21ST CENTURY.  CHINA HAS HAD MORE THAN 30 YEARS OF THE OPENING AND REFORM POLICY.  IN 1985 I WAS ABLE TO RIDE THIS BOAT WITH CHINESE PEOPLE.  NOW PEOPLE’S MINDS AND HEARTS HAVE BEEN LIBERATED AND CHINESE PEOPLE AND FOREIGNERS ARE FRIENDS. SO IT IS NOT POSSIBLE THAT IN 2012 FOREIGNERS ARE NOT PERMITTED TO BUY A TICKET ON A LOCAL BOAT.”

Not only had the foreigner refused to return to her box, she had now  firmly planted her flag by revealing her ability to speak Chinese. He chuckled (a good sign) and sucked his teeth (a bad sign) and told me he would check and call me back tomorrow.

Those were hard words to hear. I felt I had come so very close to achieving my goal, only to have it (possibly) slip through my fingers again.

What will this day bring?  Will it be the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat?

If this doesn’t work, I call a friend who has a student who has a brother in Yichang.

Stay tuned…

….and if anyone out there knows someone in Yichang who can help, please let me know!

(Image source: Ningin.com)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Tickets — The Ferry

  1. Somehow I continue to have the visual of a toothless man sucking his teeth like having teeth lozenges but I think I know what you mean. Better than a slurping sound because that would mean the ticket agent is distracted with a bowl of soup.
    I think your main problem is planning too far in advance, clearly an American concept that doesn’t work yet in China. I DO hope you get those tickets and that you can free yourself of their box. Maybe create your own box and hire a little craft to take you and Noel down river.
    Ah, your adventure is already starting out predictably well!

  2. Good luck! I agree with you, there is no reason for you to be unable to ride this boat! They should sell you the tickets you want. Since they are having such an issue, perhaps you could have a Chinese friend call and buy the tickets (just not mention they are for the dreaded laowai)? Or are they real name registration tickets?

  3. Yeah too bad you have to buy from Beijing … its totally cool to buy it if you are at the terminal, cuz the middle aged lady selling you the ticket won’t even look up at yer face. But yeah, foreigners “lowering themselves” to the regular line is strange, as is a tourism company in China eschewing the extra 2-3 thousand to be had from a cruise booking.
    gratz on Success!