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Escape from Beijing

Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 5

Beijing Train Station, exterior
I needed to be out of Beijing. In a couple of days there was a train from the Mongolian border town of Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar. I needed to be on it in order to catch my Ulaanbaatar to Moscow train on Tuesday. If I made that train, it was a leisurely coast home along the Trans-Siberian Railway Siberia and Europe. If I didn’t, I’d be stranded in the middle of Mongolia with a wallet full of useless train tickets and a big plate of “what the [email protected]%k now?”.

At Beijing station there was the usual chaos. Lines sometimes four abreast were all squeezing and shuffling towards the same ticket window. And there were maybe thirty windows. When I reached my particular ticket lady after 45 minutes, armed with a head full of possible language permutations, I was told that there were no tickets left for the Beijing to Hohhot train that day, and I had little alternative but to buy a seat on the following day’s train leaving Beijing station at noon. An extra schedule-squeezing day in Beijing awaited.

But tickets for Chinese trains only show the departure time, and in my flustered exercising of my linguistic skills when at the station earlier, I’d neglected to ask the arrival time of my train into Hohhot. It was only when I returned to my hostel later that evening and thought it sensible to confirm the arrival time, that I discovered the usual ten hour journey from Beijing would actually take 18 hours after a convoluted detour via Taiyuan. If I was arriving in Hohhot that late, I may as well have abandoned the whole trip there and then.

It had gone 11pm when I finally checked the details. There was a Beijing to Hohhot train leaving at 02:23. The only other trains that would get me there at a reasonable hour left at 09:19 and 10:37 the following morning. If I stuck with my original train and arrived at 08:00, I would be left with no leeway in getting to Erlian on the China-Mongolia border, crossing said border, then catching the Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar train on which I was far from certain of getting a seat. And I still had to get a Mongolian visa when I got there.

The overnight sentry on the hostel desk seemed confused by my haste: “You’ve paid already and you’re leaving at this time?” He looked at me as if I’d failed to understand the usual check-in, stay the night, check-out the following day routine. I told him I had to get to Inner Mongolia posthaste, to which, shaking his head, he handed me my Y50 deposit before I lugged myself and my luggage to the door and out.

A taxi back to Beijing station, an hour of queuing at the overnight ticket office amongst the watermelon rinds and the sleeping hordes scattered across the concourse, planning plans B, C and D (I think I reached G) should this late night ticket raid be unsuccessful. There were touts offering tickets to places like Harbin and Shenyang in the far north-east. When I told them where I was heading, they just laughed and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was a deluded imbecile. There was a woman that said she could get me on a bus. But when I convinced her I’d rather see what the train situation was before I took an overnight deathride to nowhere, she seemed to give up on me and walked off leaving me in little doubt that I’d wasted her time.

I’d prepared myself for the worst. I’d prepared myself to leave the ticket window empty handed and to be looking for that same woman to get me on a bus, any bus, and get me closer to Mongolia. I was tired and increasingly anxious about my near-future prospects. But when it came down to it, I discovered what I suspected all along – that there were tickets available for trains direct from Beijing to Hohhot leaving in the morning, I’d just picked the one woman intent on not selling me a ticket for the train I’d wanted the first time – and at close to 2am, I was back in a taxi with a ticket that would get me where I needed to be for 8pm the following evening, where hopefully, I could catch a train to Erlian. It was as good as could have been expected.

So it was back to the hostel, back lost in the hutong, covered in bags and already checked out. The sentry was sleeping on one of the lobby’s couches as I entered, and though he stirred as I passed, I carried on through and down the corridor determined to spend the night anywhere but out on the street. I made it to the laundry room and settled down in a wicker armchair, feet propped on the coffee table, curled cat-like in its uncushioned embrace. After two hours sleep, I was awake again and less than ready to face the journey ahead.

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