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The 12306 Conundrum
   2015-12-14 10:52:06    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Liu Ranran

By Liu Yan

¡°Here we go again.¡± I uttered this very sentence a few days ago upon hearing that 12306.cn officially started selling train tickets for the upcoming Chinese New Year, which falls on February 8, 2016.

The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the world¡¯s largest annual migration event. Over the course of roughly 40 days, billions of passenger trips are expected to take place across China, when people travel back home to reunite with their families.

In theory, this sounds like a joyous occasion. Who wouldn¡¯t want to go back home and be with family during the most important holiday of the year? However, the experience of buying train tickets through 12306.cn has become so painful that many are actually dreading the Spring Festival.

For those who are not exactly in the know, 12306.cn is China¡¯s official website for booking train tickets. In other words, it is the only legitimate place for Chinese to purchase train tickets online. Since the website was launched in 2011, complaints of its inefficiency have never stopped. And like clockwork, criticism always reaches a fever pitch shortly before the Spring Festival. Hence my ¡°here we go again¡± sentiment.

I understand that it is incredibly difficult to run such a website, given the sheer number of users who are trying to get train tickets around this time of year, but I really can¡¯t say ¡°Oh come on, nothing is perfect. Just suck it up and move on!¡± with a straight face. I mean, if a government-backed service-oriented website is this lousy after being around for almost five years, customers surely have every right to use colorful language to vent their frustrations.

Let¡¯s take a look at some of the latest examples and see if I¡¯m being too harsh here. They all involve some sort of verification code, which is a must before you can submit your order. And to get the verification code, you need to correctly answer a series of questions. Apparently, these questions are quite difficult because 12306.cn is trying to prevent scalpers from using software to grab tickets.

¡°Identify all pictures that depict tennis rackets.¡±

 

What does this have to do with getting a train ticket?

¡°Identify all pictures that depict Strait of Bosporus.¡±

 

Really? You expect a random ticket buyer to be an expert in geography?

¡°Identify all characters that have a ¡®white¡¯ element.¡±

What does this even mean? You are not promoting racism, are you?

¡°Identify all enterprises that have been featured in the 315 gala (a China Central Television program that exposes fraudulent practices to help protect consumer rights, airing on March 15 every year).¡±

Wait, are you sure this is not commercialism rearing its ugly head?

¡°Identify all pictures that say ¡®I love you¡¯.¡±

Holy cow! At this rate, I will never love you! I don¡¯t want to be a language guru. I just want a train ticket!!!

¡°Identify all the beautiful men.¡±

This has to be some kind of trap, right?

¡°Identify all the ¡®good¡¯ men.¡±

What is this? Gossip Guy, XOXO?

¡°Identify all pictures that depict chrysanthemums.¡±

OK, this one really takes the cake. I¡¯m utterly defeated. Just look at the correct answer!

I can¡¯t even buy a train ticket if I don¡¯t know ¡°chrysanthemum¡± is the Chinese slang term for ¡°anus¡±? For a country that takes so much pride in the concept and culture of ¡°harmony¡±, this surely isn¡¯t ¡°harmonious¡± in the least bit¡­

Now, do you still think I¡¯m being too harsh? 12306 is a joke, pure and simple. Or to borrow the youngsters¡¯ lingo nowadays, an EPIC FAIL!

According to Beijing Youth Daily, 12306.cn has a total of 336,980 questions for ticket buyers to ¡°enjoy¡±, and the chance of anyone correctly answering all the questions thrown at them is only eight percent. If you happen to be in this group, feel proud of yourself. Feel very proud. Clearly, you could give any Jeopardy!/Who Wants to Be a Millionaire winner a run for their money.

And for non-genius common folks who make up the remaining 92 percent of ticket buyers, the minute you give a wrong answer, you have to start all over again. Don¡¯t be surprised if an entire morning or afternoon passes, and you are still stuck on answering those stupid questions. It certainly feels like 12306 is determined to make the experience an utter nightmare so that you will never attempt to buy train tickets online again.

The latest development is that 12306 has come forward and acknowledged that some questions are too difficult and some images are too blurry. Ticket buyers can rest assured that problematic questions and images will be deleted from their pool very soon.

While I¡¯m glad the website is making some sort of effort, I have to say it¡¯s not enough. Why not listen to the customers and get rid of this ridiculous verification-by-pictures shtick altogether? Why not hire some competent people to come up with a system that can let users easily buy tickets AND prevent scalpers from unscrupulous behavior?

I know that¡¯s easier said than done, but I steadfastly refuse to believe that no one in our vast country can pull it off. Just find the right people to do the job. Or if necessary, get some inspiration from the imminent 2nd World Internet Conference. With the pooled wisdom of 1,200 sharpest minds from all around the world, someone is bound to solve the 12306 conundrum. After all, it is supposed to be ¡°An Interconnected World Shared and Governed by All¡±, remember?

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