Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 6 continued
No train from Hohhot
We arrived in Hohhot on time, 20:30, enough time to buy a ticket for the 21:38 Hohhot to Erlian train. But not only were there no tickets left that night’s train, there was no train to Erlian at all. There was no bus to Erlian when I walked across to the bus station, they’d all left earlier in the day, and though I bought a ticket for the next morning’s train anyway to save having to go through the ordeal of queuing again, I still needed to get to Erlian faster than tomorrow’s train would get me there.
As always in China though, if there are no trains and there are no buses, there are always cars. Outside Hohhot bus station, drivers were going to places like Beijing and Datong. None of them seemed to be going to the border. But when I asked one guy if there was anybody going to Erlian, he said “follow me.” We were soon driving through the outskirts of Hohhot on a 500km journey that he said would take four-and-a-half hours. He was driving as if he wanted to make it in three.
Before we’d even made it out of the city, however, something was wrong. Strange noises were coming from the wheel on my side of the car and we were beginning to veer worryingly to the left. When we pulled over, we saw that our left-rear tyre was worn to the rim and hopelessly flat. There were three of us at this point. We were dropping another guy outside the city on the way, and though I offered to lend my wheel changing lack of expertise, they wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, I hung around feeling rather redundant taking photos until we were ready to be on the move again.
Nothing but distant lights
I started thinking what I would do if anything serious happened. I was in the middle of Inner Mongolia, with nobody knowing exactly where I was, soon to be alone in a car with a driver who may not have the least intention of taking me to Erlian. A driver who may instead be taking me a safe distance out into the Gobi desert where he could relieve me, at the very least, of every possession I had.
I could see nothing from my window but distant lights on either side and our headlights lighting up the road markings as they streaked too quickly past. The speedometer was at a constant nervous shake above 100 km/h and we could go forty minutes at a stretch before another vehicle or any sign of civilization became locked in our twin beams before disappearing into the night behind us.
At one point, I awoke from dozing to find us turning off onto a dirt track that was to lead, in a half-hour detour, across potholed and puddled fields until we could rejoin the formerly closed Hohhot to Erlian road. I’d wrapped my camera strap tighter round my wrist in preparation for using it as a fairly hefty bludgeoning device as I asked him where we were going. And though he explained as innocently as he could, my grip never lessened until we were safely back on tarmac and away from the potential desert burial I’d feared.
What day is it today?
But trust is a curious thing, and mixed with desperation, it can lead to a foolhardy over-confidence in the good will of all men. Still, I thought I knew a little about how China works by now, to be fairly confident I’d get to Erlian, barring accident, just as he said I would. I put my chances of accident at a generous 30% after I saw the way he was driving. There were no seat belts in the car, and after our earlier tyre problems, we had to pull over on several occasions to give it a couple of solid kicks to see if the bolts were still holding. I kept having visions of our chassis dropping to the road, sparks flying and the tyre rolling after us as we careered off into the blackness. But the bolts held and we survived, and after five hours’ driving, we arrived in Erlian alive and mostly well.
I stayed the night, or what was left of it, at the first hotel I could find. It cost me Y100 and I was too tired to haggle. Tomorrow I needed to get my Mongolian visa, negotiate the Erlian border crossing, and get on my merry way to Zamyn-Uud. I took a quick look at the directions I’d printed to get to the Mongolian consulate, and there, at the top, were the opening hours: Mon-Fri; 8am-12pm. Today was Saturday. Which probably made tomorrow Sunday. Shit!
I could scarcely believe that after all my planning and all the hassle of getting to Erlian, I’d failed to realize the consulate would be closed when I arrived. I felt hopeless and somewhat doomed. How would I get to Ulaanbaatar in time if I had to spend another day in this desert wasteland? I had my Hong Kong ID card. Hong Kong citizens were exempt from needing a Mongolian visa. Was I a Hong Kong citizen or just a resident? I was a resident, with a British passport. That much was clear. But if I wasn’t in Zamyn-Uud and on my way to Ulaanbaatar within the next 24 hours, my whole Hong Kong to UK journey was pretty much over before I’d left China. I’d sleep first, then tomorrow, I’d try it.