Shanghai Stories and Tips

Chairman Mao's bureau of bureaucracy - the joys of changing money in China

Capitalist Shanghai - the TV Tower Photo, Shanghai, China

For all its high-tech, Western-looking image Shanghai is Chinese from its head to its toes.

Walking the streets of the old Chinese town is such an evocative experience. Its the smells which hit you first - the hot humid smell of dumpling early in the morning. Young men park their bicycles and collect them in wicker pots to eat later. The commuter traffic of bicycles is quite a sight. They congregate at zebra crossings and ring their bells furiously if anyone gets in their way.When they go into their offices their bicycles are chained together like a herd of animals. And in this country of barely any crime they seem content with simple security. And of course there are the grimy bicycle repairmen waiting by the side of the road. Quick to mend that snapped chain or failed break for a couple of yuan.

But my most Chinese experience had be on my first morning changing up money.

I was directed to 'The Bank of Communication' a few steps from my hotel on Sichuan Zhonglu. Once through the ten inch security doors..Wow! What a bank! The interior was on two levels and connected by a grand sweeping staircase and chandaliers. The entire room was made of pink streaked marble and busy with Chinese clerks starting the day. I found a counter which would change sterling into Chinese yuan. They took my travellers cheques and photocopied my passport and told me to go to counter 14 to collect it.

I looked around in a panic! All the counters had Chinese characters! Where was counter 14!

Eventually someone showed me and I handed over a note, and was told to wait. I waited an hour.

My stomach was grumbling. I needed the money for breakfast. I asked if there was any progress on my money. The young clerk smiled whilst putting work in the 'in-tray' of another.

"One moment."

And on she carried. I looked through the cashier glass and it was obvious that the transaction computer was broke and she was waiting for it to work again. My stomach was now thinking that my throat had been cut and I appealed pathetically to the girl. She, feeling very sorry for this silly gwailo (especially when I mimed hunger) went and got me a coffee and a sandwich (no fillng, just bread). I really was too embarassed to eat this but at the same time rather touched by the friendliness and kindness shown while I was waiting.

So I tried a different tack and knowing no Chinese tried miming again - this time signing a 'chit'. Yes, I could see the brain whirr behind the eyes - this would be a better way of doing this.

"Please wait there."

So I eventually got my money but it had taken two hours, and I swear I could see the clerk hit the computer with an ashtray before I left the vicinity. I loved Shanghai, and it has made me want to see even more of China. But, ye gods - that was hard work.

My advice, if you can't change money at your hotel, is to use a cashpoint machine. The rates are good and you won't have to traverse the long miles of bureaucracy. After all, you are in a capitalist mecca - you will need as much yuan as possible.

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