Virtual meanderings

Calling abroad | China style

It was time to take care of my return flight to Europe. My next stop, Japan, was also my final destination and the flight back home had to be from Tokyo. Some friends that lived in Japan had recommended using the services of H.I.S. Co (a big Japanese travel agency). Since H.I.S website offered online booking, I was done with it in no time.

…well, if that’s the way it actually happened, it would be one blog post less here.

Phone kiosk, China



Step #1: Things don’t quite work out as expected

      Compared to other online booking sites (such as Expedia), H.I.S offerings were indeed better. I’d already booked online several times throughout this journey without a hitch – even with Laos Airlines, so doing it with a major Japanese agency seemed simple.

But the H.I.S online booking system would only allow me book a two-way flight. A note said that for one-way ticket requests I had to fill in an online form with my desired destination (and some extra details) and wait for an answer. I did. On the next day I got this:

For your inquiry, we need more information from you directly as we are unable to communicate for booking ticket by e-mail. So, please “CALL” us.

Step #2: Making the call from my mobile

     I tried to “CALL” them right away using my mobile (which now had a Chinese SIM card). I heard a message in Chinese and then in English “It is not possible to make international phone calls. For more information call 10086”.

Step #3: Calling 10086

      I dialed 10086 as instructed. This time there was no English version. I listened to some pre-recorded message for over a minute and it was all in Chinese. I handed over my phone to the girl at the hostel reception and asked her to translate for me. “Your SIM card is no good for international calls”, she told me. So why was it in the first place that they’d told me to call 10086?! How could I enable my card for calls abroad? Where could I get a SIM card that worked? The girl at the reception had no clue. Instead she suggested searching for a street phone kiosk.

Step #4: On the road again

       I’d already seen in Nanning people offering street phone call service.  Usually the setup comprised of two or three telephones on a small table –as stand-alone service or alongside newspaper kiosks. I went out and found one. I showed the number to the lady in charge and asked if she could call it. Of course, she spoke no English. With a bit of magic gesturing, I was able to infer that her phones were not good for making international calls. Where could I find such phones? She answered something in Chinese.

Phone Kiosk, China

A kiosk could look something like this...



Step #5: Still no luck

      Thinking about other options, it dawned on me that maybe telephones in post offices could do the trick. I had a map from my hostel which marked various useful locations in the area (post offices, ATMs, pharmacies, fast-food, etc). I found the nearest post office and went there. No telephones. When I got to the next one, I saw some phones.

Step #6: E.T. call home

        In the office was a girl who knew perhaps five words in English and a man in his forties who knew zero. The two stared at my telephone number and did not seem to have a clue what I wanted from them. In a minute, I gave up and asked for a sheet of paper and a pen. Then I drew up a rough map of China and Japan. I marked Nanning and Tokyo and made an arrow connecting the two. Then I pointed the telephone and said Nanning – Tokyo.

The man said something to the girl in Chinese, and called a number. He asked something, and got some information back. He wrote it down and showed it to me. It said Y3.50 or something similar. I realized that this was the price of one minute call to Japan. We were getting somewhere! I happily nodded – “OK, OK”.

Next the guy tried calling my number. Obviously, never before in his life had he made an international phone call. First, he dialed 12355 or something – which I assumed was an internet telephone service. Then he had to enter the phone number. But he had no clue what to do with the + sign. After scratching his head, he simply decided to skip it and see if it works. It did not. He tried two more times, doing the absolute same thing.

My patience failed me. I tried to explain to him to try typing two zeros, but he would not get it. Then I wrote down the number in this new ‘format’– he tried and… ta-dah!

Step #7. Not quite done yet

            I returned to the hostel, and checked my e-mail. There was an answer from H.I.S already. They’d found a flight that suited me. The email had five attachments.

  1. A .PDF with terms and conditions (9 pages)
  2. Another .PDF with terms and conditions (1 page)
  3. A .PDF with an invoice? (1 page, entirely in Japanese)
  4. A web page (HTML format) with Charges for Reservation and Cancellations information
  5. And finally, a MS Word.doc file for me to fill in and return to them.

To complete the booking, I had to fill in the MS Word .doc file and send it back. But I first wanted to find out what was in the .PDFs (I had no idea at that moment and thought they were important, too). Somewhat predictably, the hostel computer could not open .PDF files. I went to Adobe’s website to download and install Acrobat Reader. Since I was accessing it from China, the website automatically switched to a Chinese version. I switched it back into English, but each time I moved on to another page, it displayed it in Chinese. When I got to the download section, I was only allowed to download an Acrobat Reader with Chinese interface. Nice.

The hostel computer could not open the .doc file either. Easy fix. I opened the Open Office website, downloaded the suite and was soon done.

Now I had to make the payment online and e-mail the form back.

Step #8. Not quite done just yet

       The computer had a Chinese transliteration program that simply could not be turned off. I obviously did not need it, but this did not prevent it from kicking in and every thirty seconds I found myself typing in Chinese. Moreover, when I switched it back to English (from the system tray) the letters, while Latin, often looked weird.

Funny-looking letters on Chinese computer

This weird

The .doc file that I had to fill in looked no better. I later researched this issue – the wide-spacing letters turned out to be Unicode glyphs whose codes were different from the original Latin letters (if anyone cares).


         In the end all was complete –the phone call, the filled-in forms, the online payment, the email written by a lunatic – but, hey, my ticket was booked and paid for.

By the way, here is a useful link I found later about making international phone calls in China from your mobile.


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