Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 8
At the visa office
The visa office at the Mongolian consulate in Erlian opened at 08:00. I was there at 07:50. There was only one other guy there when I arrived. Another arrived around ten-past. The office still hadn’t been opened and there was no one around that looked likely to do so. I needed to get my visa and get from Erlian to Mongolia forthwith.
It got to about 08:20 before someone emerged from the rear door. From shoes to belt he was as uniformed and official as could be. From belt upwards, it was vest all the way. He was a young guy with a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip as casually as he was dressed. He told us to come back at 09:00. The office would be open then. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Nine o’clock arrived, and so, in the meantime, had around a dozen other people all milling around the gate in disorderly anticipation hoping to get their own Mongolian visas granted. When the still-vested official finally did come and open the gate at around 9:15, the predictable scrum to be first to the front desk ensued.
There didn’t seem to be a system. Everybody simply crowded round while another guy – this time with his shirt on – handed out application forms to those that didn’t have one. Gradually, over the course of about thirty minutes, however, a system and a queue did begin to form, and after cigarette and breakfast breaks for the two now shirted officials (because they had already worked so very very hard that morning) they started letting people through, two at a time, to another room at the rear of the office.
I paid Y495 for the same day service and hoped to be able to pick my visa up at midday at the latest. They told me to come back at 15:00 and I resigned myself to not getting to Ulaanbaatar anywhere near in time to catch my train to Moscow. I’d done my best, but fate had screwed me. I returned to my hostel to work out how I could possibly get from Erlian to Mongolia before my journey fell apart. But first I decided to go to the station.
The station was unoccupied when I got there save for a sleepy looking woman sitting at a desk at the entrance. I asked her speculatively if there was a train travelling from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud that day. She said there was. It was train 685 and it left at 16:30. I thought maybe I could catch this train and get across the border in time to catch the 17:38 train to Ulaanbaatar. But I knew the customs and passport checks on both sides would make this impossible. They would take at least an hour each. I left dispirited and crossed the road back to my hotel.
But after a couple of hours’ inability to conjure a way to save the trip, my laptop told me that there should be a train leaving from Erlian to Ulaanbaatar every Monday evening. It was Monday today. Was this the same train? I shoved on my shoes and ran back across the road to see if there were any tickets left. But the station was now closed until 3pm. There was a ticket office a little further along on the opposite side. But this too was now closed. I walked away with the same feeling of helpless that had been building for the past few days.
I gave a wave to the two old women that had been sitting on the step next to the office as I passed. They gave me a stare and asked where I was going. I told them I needed to get from Erlian to Ulaanbaatar but couldn’t find anywhere to buy a ticket. At that, one of them pulled a wad of pink tickets from somewhere within her coat pocket and handed one to me. “Y66,” she said.
The only chance I had
But it couldn’t be for that price. Surely Y66 couldn’t get me all the way to Ulaanbaatar. Besides, the ticket said Erlian to Zamyn-Uud. I asked them again and they said yes, the train went to Ulaanbaatar. “And do I have to change at Zamyn-Uud?” “No.” I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t believe these two old crones could be about to hand me my ticket out of there and on my way to a, hopefully, less stressful journey. But they seemed certain I could get from Erlian to Mongolia and on to Ulaanbaatar that afternoon. I handed over the Y66 and took the ticket, still unsure, but prepared to take the only chance I had.
I returned to the Mongolian visa office at 3pm. There was the same laissez-faire attitude towards opening on time and the same scramble to get in, but I was out of there and in a taxi back to the station, Mongolian visa in hand and fully rucksacked-up, by 15:40. There was more explaining of strange stamps in my passport from the day before to the official on the desk at passport control, but within thirty minutes I was through and onto the platform and onto the waiting train.
We didn’t leave for another hour. The train was scheduled to leave at 17:10 and I still wasn’t sure how far my ticket was about to take me. While I was putting my bags on my bed in my compartment I asked the one other guy in there if the train and my ticket would get me to Ulaanbaatar. He said yes, though I’d have to buy the Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar ticket on the train later.
I felt so relieved I almost hyper-ventilated. I still didn’t know what time we would arrive, but when he told me that all being well, we’d arrive around 11:00 the next morning, I could have kissed him. If we got to Ulaanbaatar on time, I’d be able to pick up my ticket for my train to Moscow and get back to the station in time to make the 13:50 departure. I wasn’t there yet, but it looked, for once, like I might actually make it.