The 2:15 to Shanghai


I have some stories to tell and I’ve been stymied as to how to tell them.  They’re not long enough to be made into a book and they’re too long to put in one essay.  I’m going to try to deliver them as serial stories.  The well known author who published his work as serial stories was Charles Dickens.  Pickwick Papers was initially delivered to his readers in this way.

I have no idea how this is all going to turn out.  Nevertheless, I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and stick with me through this writing experiment.


The 2:15 to Shanghai

Episode 1

Weifang City, Shandong Province, China.  January 20, 1989

The arrangements for the trip had been ongoing for several days.  Our business hosts in China knew that we had to leave on January 20 in order to make it to Shanghai in enough time to catch our booked flight home to Canada.  It was now our departure day, 11:30 in the morning, and we were saying our goodbyes to the managers of our host company. 

We’d paid our 750 yuan for the two of us in FEC (foreign exchange currency) to a Mr. Guo and were assured that everything was in hand.  Guo was a travel organiser for our host company and we were assured that he did this sort of task all the time.  It was his job; however, we had not yet seen our tickets.

“No problem”, Guo said in his acceptable but limited English, “I have everything in order and you will have your tickets in time.”  When asked about the time that we should be at the train station, once again the response was, “No problem.  I will get you there on time."  Yah, but at what time, Guo.  
I knew that our train left at 2:15 pm.  That meant we had to get from the office back to the hotel, pack, checkout, have our lunch and get to the train station by 1:45 at the latest.

I thought that we should have enough time as all the roads between the office, hotel and station could be covered in about half an hour.  We were driven back to the hotel in the local company manager’s car to get ready, with a promise from the driver that a van with Mr. Guo would be waiting for us at the front of the hotel at 1:30.  That’s when things started to go wrong.

With our time getting tight, I went to the hotel front counter to check out.  The young woman clerk, dressed in a clean, starched white blouse and dark blue skirt, answered my request in her stilted, but understandable english.  “Very sorry.  Do not cash Canadian dollar travellers cheques.  Must go bank.”  I stared at her, dumbfounded for a moment, then was able to speak.  “But this is Sunday.  Isn’t the bank closed?”  The clerk look back at me, equally dumbfounded then turned to the teller at the next counter.  The Teller quickly said something, then the clerk turned to me and said, “Very sorry, bank closes at twelve today.”  I looked at her trying to portray a confused person who didn’t have a clue what to do next.  That seemed to come to me naturally.  Now what, I wondered.  I ran outside and summoned the person from the local company that was accompanying us and asked him to find out how in the heck we were going to pay our hotel bill and get on our way.  After about five minutes of loud talking and much arm waving between the company man, the clerk, and the teller, they finally confessed that they had the money, but the real problem was that the hotel cashier didn't have the latest currency exchange rate for Canadian dollars.  I frantically searched in my things and found a receipt for currency exchange that I had used a couple of weeks before at the hotel.  I finally managed to convince the clerk who then had to then convince the cashier that it couldn't be too far wrong.  After much discussion with others the clerk finally relented and agreed to exchange my Canadian travellers cheques.  She got 3000 yuan in 50 yuan notes from the teller and gave them to me as I handed her the signed travellers cheques.  I took the cash over to the hotel registrar, paid for my room, and then the registrar walked the cash directly back to the teller.  Surely, I thought, there must be a better process.  I had that thought many times in China, but I came to learn that they were probably doing it in the best possible way, given all their bureaucratic interferences.

The time that we were supposed to leave the hotel came and went, but no van appeared.  About 1:45 it arrived with Guo behaving like there was all the time in the world.   Questioning one of the host company managers accompanying us to the train station, I learned that Guo and company had been delayed with a flat tire.