Your mission is…


It was suggested to me that having a mission to complete is a great way to see a city, as it encourages you to go beyond the obvious and perhaps engage with people in a different way. I’ve completed two critical missions in the past two days:

Mission 1: Buy a memory card

My second (pocket) camera needed a memory card, and I thought they would be easy to find in such a populous and modern city. But after several hours of wandering its countless shops, I still hadn’t found one. Just north of the East Nanjing Road tourist trap is a bustling area with hundreds of small stores often devoted to specific items. For example, some shops specialise in wheels for trolleys, others in stuff to bling up your motor scooter. There was even an entire street dedicated to nuts, bolts and metal piping. But I couldn’t find a single shop that offered anything like memory cards or computer stuff of any kind.

Ending up back on Nanjing Road, I was approached by one of the many touts who come up to foreign tourists offering to take them to a shop. Apparently we’re all interested in “watches, bags, DVDs”, though one did also offer me a pretty woman, “very cheap”. Frustrated at my inability to find the memory card, when a young guy approached me and said “what do you want?”, I told him. “No problem”, he said. “Follow me”.

I was naturally cautious, but didn’t dismiss him entirely. I’ve never felt unsafe at any time so far in Shanghai (except crossing the road), and as we were in a very public place I didn’t see any harm in following for a while. We went a little way into the local market area, but when it appeared that we might wander deep into the maze I expressed my doubts. “It’s very close, just over there” he assured me, and he was right. Leading me into a shop displaying only suitcases and handbags out the front, in the back room I was shown an array of different memory cards. Picking one that I wanted, we haggled on price then I insisted on testing it in my camera before paying. All was good, so I got a 4G card for less than I would have paid in Sydney. And if I hadn’t used the tout I probably wouldn’t have got anything at all. Some of them ooze dodginess, but this guy turned out good.

Mission 2: Buy a train ticket

To the next city I’m heading to: Bengbu in Anhui province. My rudimentary mandarin has been enough to survive so far, but I haven’t practiced properly the module on buying a train ticket. And Shanghai Train Station is not for the faint-hearted or weak-tongued. It is huge, over 50 ticket windows each with a queue of people buying passage to the four corners of China and beyond. The vast plaza in front is packed this day with more than a thousand people sitting, smoking, waiting. I wonder what they do when the weather is bad?

There is just a single booth that proclaims “English speaking counter”, and I join its queue with some hesitation. I have not been able to view any kind of timetable so I don’t know which train I want, I don’t know what it should cost and there is no guarantee that the English spoken at the counter will be good. If it’s not and I can’t use my pidgin Mandarin to make myself understood, it’s back to the books with a prayer before I attempt to buy one again.

Fortunately the agent’s English was fine, albeit she was brisk due to the number of people to be served. I’ve got a seat to Bengbu leaving at the civilised hour of 10.50am, and the journey of over 300km takes less than four hours. All for Y150 (A$33). Another mission accomplished!

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