HOHHOT (Inner Mongolia) to Datong (Shanxi). Six hours by train. Easy. Buy a ticket, get on a train, arrive 9.00 p.m. No problem. This train journey turned into a marathon of disorganisation and misunderstandings. Of course in China many things are not as one would find them in other countries. For example, some areas are still proscribed to foreigners, some railway stations have ticket offices specifically for foreigners -- and some railway stations will not sell a ticket to a foreigner. It was this latter case which was our first stumbling block. The reluctance of the Chinese to queue for anything is controlled at ticket offices by two railings which are one person wide. This does not always work however; a person's stretching distance is surprising.
We had been in Hohhot for three days now and wanted to continue our journey down through China to Datong to see the magnificent Buddhist shrine carved out of the cliffs, just outside the town. Hohhot railway station was alive with people, bustling about or just sitting. Itinerant sellers of all sorts of things, both edible and inedible, were everywhere. The queue for tickets was made up of about six people. These were four men, smoking, and two women with baggage. The queue did not seem to be getting any shorter with time. People bought tickets, disappeared and seemed to be replaced from the front. It finally seemed time to push and shove a little bit; my companion was in front so we started pressing forward.
When we finally reached the head of the queue negotiations had to be made through a very small, arched peephole cut in the plywood wall. This was about six inches high, four inches wide and at waist level. Problems were compounded by the member of staff on the other side of the barrier being a full arm's stretch away from the hole, so hearing her above the sound of the crowds was quite difficult. This turned out to be irrelevant in the end anyway, as we did not speak Mandarin and she did not speak English. She did, however, scowl remarkably well. With much gesticulating and difficulty we learned that the train to Datong was to leave at 5.30 in the afternoon of the next day. When we tried to buy two tickets however, our proffered money was refused. Our ticket seller was not going to part with anything just for us. She simply waved a hand over her shoulder and started dealing with the next customer. Since it was getting crowded and we had obviously been dismissed we backed away from the hole to take stock of the situation.
Since it was not going to be very productive hanging around the ticket office we decided to go and see the Chinese Tourist Service, located in the grounds of a large hotel some distance away. We grabbed a taxi, negotiated the fare and went to the local headquarters of the Chinese Tourist Service. The empty office that we arrived at was instantly populated by six people apparently just milling around. They seemed keen to sell us an expensive tour of the Mongolian grasslands, but when we made it clear what we wanted they said yes, they could sort that out, but what about a tour of the grasslands anyway? Once they realised that we had already seen the Mongolian grass they were quite happy to organise the purchase of the train tickets for us. If we wanted to come back at about 4.00 p.m. next day we could collect the tickets. This schedule suited us fine. When we returned next day to CTS the tickets were nowhere to be seen. As time ticked on a certain element of anxiety, not to say panic, crept into the proceedings. Eventually one CTS worker sent off another one to find out what had happened to the tickets. They did not come back, neither the people nor the tickets. Time was marching on. It was decided that what we should do is take a taxi to the station. Two vehicles were used, one for us and one for the CTS man and friends. Our taxi lurched off into the traffic and seemed to take a different route to the other vehicle. It also seemed to be taking an awfully long time to get to the station. …