April 2006


When my Wife’s Younger Brother told us he is thinking of buying an apartment in Qingyang, I pictured a decent looking place on the inside with the normal drab appearance on the outside. But “Prepare to be astounded,” he might as well have said as the taxi approached this new housing development for us to take a look.

This vast development has more of an “exclusive gated community” feel to it–one with uniformed Chinese policemen pulling guard duty–with some shops that most Chinese won’t be spending money in soon out front: high end jewelry, high end real estate, high end travel agency…you get the idea.

The more we walked around the grounds, the more I thought this would all look more at home in some nice corner of Europe or well-to-do end of Hong Kong.

Here are some pictures….

Looking at the main entrance area from across the road:

Scenes near the interior courtyard:



Some of the single-family dwellings:

Over the wall at the end of this lane, we see how buildings more typically look in “the rest of China:

Peek over an outer wall and check out the construction debris:

  1. China is “quite relevant” to me and my life. Read this blog if you need more details.
  2. I used to work for one of the world’s largest “corporate travel management” conglomerates.

These are the reasons I’ve chosen the headline for this entry that I have.

If you don’t have the background yet, my headline answers the question I asked yesterday, in response to this AP story.

I seem to have found the answer in a Tacoma News Tribune story, “Travel nightmare made in Taiyuan,”which the rest of the folks commenting on Mr. Nelson’s experience hadn’t run across yet.

As you read what other bloggers, pundits and those commenting on their sites are saying, however, you’ll notice that several other headlines and angles are possible with this story, such as:

  • AP Editors Approve Story Unfit for Print
  • AP Writer Pens Xenophobic Drivel
  • Intel Employee’s Foibles in China Fuel Fire of ‘Inept Americans Abroad’ Mythology
  • Despite Help from Chinese Good Samaritans, U.S. Business Traveler and AP Writer Greeting Him at Airport Paint Disparaging Picture of Modern China
  • Intel Leaves U.S. Employees Unprepared for International Travel
  • Taiyuan Brothels Exhibit Tenacious Customer Acquisition Policies

There may be something to each of these angles–for me, it’s discouraging to see such an emphasis on the perceived “negatives” of Mr. Nelson’s Taiyuan adventure (dog meat, spitting locals, cockroaches, smell of sewage), as well as what can be perceived as an American traveler’s lack of resourcefulness (slept in his clothes, spent hours wandering around seemingly lost, unable to find sustenance apart from “boiled squid” and alleged “dog meat”).

In fact, Mr. Nelson has received quite a drumming on some China-related and travel-related blog sites, such as Shanghaiist and Peter Neville-Hadley’s “Away on Business” travel blog. And while I wish the original news stories made him look a bit more resourceful, I’m going to say the following in his defense.

He’s an Intel engineer of some sort, not a “China Expert” or even a seasoned traveler, necessarily. It is likely not part of his job description to “speak Chinese” or “be able to extract oneself from a foreign, unfamiliar location and return to the U.S. on one’s own resources.”

U.S. corporations routinely send employees on brief jaunts to foreign offices without “cultural preparation” because the expectation is that (1) they’ll be met, hosted and chauferred by other employees or partners whose job it is to do so and (2) they’re being sent for meetings or technical work or training…not impromptu cultural survival.

In short, this was not Mr. Nelson’s fault. His employer and the travel company it has contracted with are responsible for his travel arrangements. Nelson and other business travelers shouldn’t have to stop and wonder whether their next scheduled flight will erroneously land them in Timbuktu. Or Taiyuan. No, that responsibility has been outsourced and paid for.

Mr. Nelson even called the travel company that created his itinerary to double-check the next leg of his itinerary and was assured that all was well: Get on the plane; it will take you to Taiwan.

It didn’t.

Which brings me back to my headline and the initial cause of this unnecessary drama.

The company that’s making money from Mr. Nelson’s employer (American Express Travel and Intel, respectively, as we glean from the AP and News Tribune stories) made the following blunders:

First, American Express Travel booked Mr. Nelson a hotel room in Taiwan, where he should have been going next, but booked his flight to Taiyuan.

As one Shanghaiist reader pointed out, however, the airport in Taiwan, “in the neighboring city of Taoyuan…sounds almost exactly like Taiyuan” to some ears.

But because too many city and place names are similar or the same, travel agents are typically trained to deal with airports and cities in terms of their three-letter codes, not their proper names. (ORD for O’Hare. PEK for Beijing. SEA for Seattle and SeaTac. And so on.)

Taiyuan’s code is TYN.

Taipei’s Chiang Kai Shek airport, in the neighboring city of Taoyuan, is TPE.

Yes, they both start with ‘T’, but….

The second American Express Travel miscue: In Hong Kong, thinking that the ‘Total Flight Time’ on his itinerary looked too long for a Hong Kong to Taiwan flight, Mr. Nelson called the travel agency and was assured (a different employee or the same one, we don’t know) that his itinerary was correct, and that after a pit-stop in Fuzhou, he’d hop right on over to Taiwan.

Those of us familiar with Chinese history, politics and contemporary affairs would know, of course, that there are no direct flights from Fuzhou to Taibei. American Express Travel apparently does not.

The third American Express Travel error, which the AP and News Tribune stories don’t address, but which I realized after just a few minutes of further research:

Instead of leaving Mr. Nelson essentially without help and helpless in Taiyuan, they could have…uh…just referred him to their American Express Travel/China International Travel Service affiliate office in Taiyuan.

Yes, unfortunately, you read that right.

And so to close:

Dear American Express Travel,

Just a note to let you know that you have an AMEX/CITS affiliate office in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China (TYN).

It’s been in your network since December of 2002.

In case another of your managed corporate travelers is ever stranded there and calls you for help, you can refer them to this affiliate at: Shanxi CITS | CITS Building | Pingyang Road 38 |Taiyuan | (86351)4062090 | wss126@hotmail.com.

This contact information, in case it’s not in your records, can be found on http://cits.net/travel/tc.jsp, which is easily found via a quick Google search, and which also announces that:

On December 03, 2002, China International Travel Service Head Office and American Express entered into a new and exciting partnership to develop the growing leisure travel market in China. American Express Travel Service Network International (TSNI) will expand its existing network of travel offices in China by appointing CITS as the only lead franchise partner, to identify and acquire like-minded partner agencies to join the fastest growing CITS-Amex Leisure Travel Service Network.

Yes, it’s a “leisure” travel branch, but I suppose they could be bothered to help out the corporate travel colleagues on the other end of the phone.

And a final tip, as Mr. Nelson suggested to the News Tribune: “Some protective methods need to be put into place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Have a Nice Day!

Mark Baker

I became aware recently of the story of an Intel employee (a fellow Washington State resident, at that) who was expecting to take a flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan, but because of what the AP story reporting this snafu calls “an apparent booking mistake,” was routed instead to Taiyuan, an “industrial base” city in northern China.

You can read the entire story on the Web sites of USA Today, the Seattle PI, or Examiner.com (or just Google “Flight Across China Leaves Man Stranded“), but here are some main points:

  • Eugene Nelson was visiting several Intel sites in Asia on a business trip
  • He was expecting to fly to Taiwan, but was on a flight instead to Taiyuan
  • When he got to Taiyuan, it took him five grueling days to make an escape (read the story via one of the links posted above for those “harrowing details”)
  • His itinerary apparently included no flights out of Taiyuan
  • He didn’t have enough cash on hand to buy a ticket and ATM machines wouldn’t honor his American Express card
  • He doesn’t speak Chinese and had a difficult time getting assistance
  • He had a valid entry visa to mainland China (if he didn’t, but was still allowed to board a flight to the PRC, then we’ve got an even bigger story on our hands here)

I became aware of this story via a posting at the blog site Shanghaiist.com, where Mr. Nelson and the AP writer behind the story have have been getting skewered by a blogger and a number people leaving comments on the blog. I’m not coming to Mr. Nelson’s defense here per se, and I’ll even say that it’s probably a good idea to double-check the details of one’s itinerary even when on a whirlwind business tour in a foreign land when the places and names risk blurring together after awhile.

I am going to make some speculations about “the story behind the story,” however….

The news story reports that Mr. Nelson’s wife, Michelle Chewerda, “was dumping money into her husband’s debit account and working with the travel company [emphasis mine], which she said was less than helpful at times.”

The story continues:

“When I was talking to the guy from American Express, (he said) ‘It says right here on my paper that they take American Express right out there at the airport,'” Chewerda said. But if that were the case, she noted, her husband “wouldn’t have been there for four days.”

“It seems odd, but they’d end every conversation with ‘Have a nice day,'” Nelson said.

American Express officials contacted Wednesday by The Associated Press either declined immediate comment or did not return calls seeking comment on Nelson’s journey.

What the story doesn’t make clear is that we’re apparently talking about two American Express companies or divisions here, the AMEX card company and the AMEX travel company.

Intel is a big corporation, and I’m sure that they provide a professionaly managed corporate travel program for its employees, and all this suggests that Intel is using the American Express Travel program for its employees’ business travel needs. (Why else would Mr. Nelson’s wife be on the phone with American Express Travel instead of, say, Travelocity or Orbitz or Expedia or an airline?)

It’s possible that Mr. Nelson himself made his travel arrangements online and made the booking error himself. Or perhaps an assistant or Intel’s internal corporate travel manager sent him to the wrong city. Or it may have been an American Express Travel agent who made the erroneous booking.

And that’s the “story behind the story” question for me, which the AP article doesn’t address:

Whose blunder sent Mr. Nelson to the wrong city?

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