Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It’s said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. More and more, though, that first step takes me to my computer.

Pipi and I are in the process of planning our next big adventure, which is a trip to China in late September for the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. Since soccer is the focus of the trip, I started by going to the Chinese version of Ticketmaster to buy tickets to the games we want to see in Shanghai and Hangzhou.

In summarizing the experience, let me just say that there aren’t many things scarier than making a purchase through a shaky Chinese web site. The transaction failed a couple of times, and every time I started over, the purchase page was subtly different, like one of those puzzles where you have to find the four things different between two very similar drawings. One time the navigation text would ask me what country I was from; the next time it didn’t care. Or the price to ship the tickets would have changed by a few yuan. (The Chinese really do like to bargain, I guess.) The whole process bogged down for quite a while because every time I tried to enter my name, I got an error message suggesting that I might have used "special characters"-- an odd complaint coming from a land with no alphabet. I had to call China twice (thank you, Skype), once to pre-order and once to vent about the special character problem, which turned out to be an Apple incompatibility issue.

I did discover one thing scarier than using a Chinese Web site, though, and that’s using a Chinese web site and getting a call from your bank’s fraud services department in the middle of the transaction.

It all turned out fine, though. It was more or less a coincidence. I apparently had made an unusual number (for me) of purchases for which you don’t need to sign your name or provide a PIN; minor purchases like concert tickets ordered over the phone, and songs from the itunes store. I hadn’t even realized I was establishing a pattern. But after that, multiple attempts to access the Chinese site was just too much weirdness for one week.

I think the story has a happy ending. I don’t have the soccer tickets in my hand yet, but I got a charmingly ungrammatical email from “Alice” saying my transaction went through and the tickets are on their way. I checked my bank account—no one has bought airline tickets to Hong Kong with my credit card. So far, so good.

Tune in next week when we attempt to use the information superhighway to purchase train tickets from Shanghai to Hangzhou.

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