I’m surprised by how quickly I felt comfortable in Russia, so much so that my first day in Beijing felt a little overwhelming, despite the friendliness of people.
Instagram followers, hello, will be aware that tech issues have busted me back to 1990s style travelling… paper maps rather than Google Maps. Fortunately, I am pretty good at map reading and Beijing, where I am, is a very logical city, almost on a grid.
The problem was the spare phone I bought in Russia (my own provider assuring me that the phone was unlocked when it won’t be for another three months). The Russian phone is 3G and the Chinese don’t entertain anything below 4G.
As well as navigation, this affects payments. I have yet to see anyone using a credit card here. Everyone uses their phones or pays with cash. Cultural attractions and underground stations do not have credit card payment facilities.
I find myself wondering what is the uptake of mobile phone use for payments? Are there any groups of people digitally excluded? Have the Chinese been able to overcome the issue?
I doubt it as I am not the only person in the queues paying with cash.
For me, the tech issues are not a major problem but these glitches did, temporarily, knock me off my stride.
How to overcome this feeling… a small everyday victory was necessary.
Merely being able to use a post office to send a postcard is a significant win. They’re a common international service that everyone uses, (thank you, Genghis) but travelling in unfamiliar countries, it’s as if they are camouflaged.
In Warsaw’s Old Town, the post office was hidden behind a restaurant door. In Moscow and Yekaterinburg, the presence of two red and blue post boxes, that you can’t actually use (the real post boxes are inside) advertises their premises’ existence. At Ulaanbaatar, I only found it because it included Tourist Information.
Once inside, how to use them…
At Warsaw’s post office, just go to the counter. In Russia, select a queuing ticket for the service you need – do not take a ticket for the wrong service.
Ulaanbaatar’s main post office requires that you head straight to the stamp counter, where you may regret that your aren’t a stamp collector.
So a visit to the post office would have been a good activity to start feeling more comfortable…except it’s the National Holiday and the post office is closed until the 3rd.
I decided, instead, to go to Beijing West Railway Station to collect the train tickets I need for the next month and, more importantly, scope out my departure point.
I have read some dire sounding descriptions about how difficult it is to collect tickets.
Maybe this wasn’t the best every day task to start with.
Armed with a map of the underground, on my phone so I could point to my chosen destination, I headed for the nearest tube station.
Ticket bought, easily, with cash, I followed the signs which allegedly don’t exist, to the platform.
On the Beijing underground, there are glass barriers and automatic doors at the edge of the platform. The doors only swing open when the train doors are aligned and they, too are open, allowing everyone to get on and off the train.
Like the Moscow Metro, the announcements are made in the home language and then in English.
I arrived at Beijing West about 30 minutes later.
Next decision, should I head for the North or South concourse. There were no clues at this point as to what the difference was.
I chose South. Did I choose wisely?
Why, yes, I did.
Suburban trains use the North while high speed rail (intercity) uses the South.
Next action: Actually getting into the station and finding the ticket collection window. Guidebooks make this ordeal sound worse than trial by fire.
There was a clue… a big sign that said… tickets.
Having passed through the security checks to enter the building, I presented my phone to a member of staff, because I had saved a photo of the statement in Chinese: “I have booked my tickets online. Can you tell me where I need to collect them from, please?”
I have no idea how I would have mined that.
The man pointed to a bank of 20 ticket windows. I went to the one with the shortest queue… not that one. Any of the others would be fine.
I could not see any indication of how this was different to the others.
At the next window I tried, I handed over my passport and showed my phone which had the ticket reference numbers on it.
“You want seven tickets?” asked the man in surprise.
“Yes, I’m travelling quite a lot,” I said.
Tickets processed, I asked where I would need to go to catch my train.
“Second floor, check the board for the number of the train,” he said.
That should be fine, though the platform numbers may be in Chinese rather than the more familiar (to me) Arabic. That will be another every everyday task and, like on the Trans Siberian Railway, there will be people I can ask, this time with the help of pre printed phrases.
At least I can read my train tickets – the destination and train details are in English. So I shouldn’t be presenting the wrong ticket to the conductor.
An everyday victory. I even managed to catch the tube to Beihai Park.
*Featured Photo: Beihai North Tube Station