(continued from the last “national day” entry)
Beijing kind of freaked me out after having been in Harbin: so big! so clean! so expensive! so many non-Russian foreigners!
(The last one was actually kind of a problem; Harbin has quite a small foreign population, so whenever you see someone new, you greet them, are sincerely glad to meet them, and cherish the opportunity for more native-speaker English interaction. It had become a reflex with me, one I really had to work at checking.)
So expensive! Seriously, so expensive. I’d just about run through my money by the end of the day, but had enough left to go out on the town with Kerry.
We went to the Black Sun, and I saw Tony again: “Brendan, man, what’s up? Long time no see!”
We went to Durty Nellie’s, where the waiters remembered me: “Hey, Ou Bo’en! Where have you been?”
We stopped into Nashville for a hamburger, and the bartender recognized me: “Hey, how are you liking Harbin?”
And it felt like a really weird kind of homecoming.
The next morning, I was flat-out broke. No problem, I thought, remembering an ATM in the Pacific Shopping Centre, about 5 minutes down Worker’s Stadium Road. So I went there, and did the ATM thing, and got a completely unhelpful error message saying in English and Chinese that my transaction could not be completed.
If, as a foreigner, you talk to any cabbie in Harbin, they’ll ask you why you wanted to come to China.
“China’s dirty,” they say. “China’s backwards.”
And of course I always reply that no no no, China’s a wonderful country with a glorious history and a wonderful culture, and will most certainly develop rapidly in accordance with the new Three Represents policy introduced at the Sixteenth Party Congress, but the truth is that there is no way to describe the Chinese banking system without using the word “backwards.”*
If you have a foreign ATM card, you can only use it (if you’re in Beijing or Shanghai) at Bank of China ATMs, or (if you’re elsewhere) at the largest branch of the BoC in whatever town or province you’re in. Besides that, if you’re not in Beijing or Shanghai, you actually can’t use ATMs; rather, you have to go to the “Foreign Card Counter” (if it happens to be open) and withdraw the money as a credit card cash advance. The bank will not actually report this cash advance to your bank for a minimum of three weeks, which makes it easy for you to lose track and overdraw. And on top of this, even if you’re in Beijing and Shanghai, where the Bank of China ATMs that you use will immediately update your account balance, there are times when the machines will just crap out randomly and not accept your card.
So I wrote this off as just a random, standard ATM pain, and set off to find another Bank of China ATM. I got the same error message.
As I did at the next, and at the next. I also got error messages when I tried to do a balance inquiry, so I assumed that it was just network flatulence, and that all would be well the next day.
It was not.
By this time, I knew the location of every Bank of China ATM in the Chaoyang district, and, having made the complete tour of them twice in two days, I was feeling exhausted and a little bit pissed-off.
Then I remembered that the Bank of Hong Kong ATM near the train station had never failed me, even when no Bank of China ATM anywhere would accept my card. This was actually convenient, since Kerry and I were planning to go to the train station that evening to try to buy tickets for Harbin.
I’ve written on here about how much I hate dealing with train stations before, right?
Let’s go over it again: I have never, ever, ever had a single good experience with buying train tickets directly from the train station; they always claim to be sold-out for the next week, even when this could not possibly be the case. For this reason, I always deal, given the opportunity, with scalpers or ticket booking agencies, who are usually much friendlier anyway.
The problem, though, was that this time, the tickets really did all seem to be sold out. No ticket agencies had any, not even for hard-seat on the slow trains. No scalpers had any, not even for extortionate prices. (The best offer we got was a bus to Dalian and then another bus to Harbin, which would have involved a substantial detour.) I suggested to Kerry that we just get a bus, but the bus companies were sold out too.
So after about an hour of fruitless searching, we walked over to the branch of the Bank of Hong Kong with the working ATM.
It didn’t work with my card.
It didn’t work with any of Kerry’s cards.
So here we were, stuck in Beijing, with no money (in my case) and not much money (in Kerry’s case) and no way to get home.
Well you may imagine, Gentle Reader, our distress.
But the next day, we found one scalper outside the train station who promised us that if we could get to him before noon the next day, he would sell us bus tickets to Harbin. Kerry had enough money to cover both of us, and it looked like we were saved.
(to be concluded)