A straightforward, six-hour Chinese train trip? W J Wall finds there is no such thing
Hohhot (Inner Mongolia) to Datong (Shanxi). Six hours by train. Easy. Buy a ticket, get on a train. No problem.

In China some railway stations have ticket offices specifically for foreigners and some stations will not sell a ticket to a foreigner. In our case it was the latter. This was only the first obstacle. At Hohhot station, there was a queue of about six people. It did not seem to be getting any shorter. People bought tickets, disappeared and were replaced at the front of the queue. It finally seemed time to push and shove a bit.

Negotiations with the ticket seller started through a peephole. At waist level, the tiny hole seemed designed to hinder commerce. Problems were compounded by the fact that the worker on the other side was a full arm's reach away from the hole. We did not speak Mandarin, she did not speak English. She did, however, scowl remarkably well.

The train we wanted to catch was leaving at 5.30pm. We tried to buy two tickets but our ticket seller was not going to part with anything just for us. We were getting nowhere so we decided to go to the Chinese Tourist Service, in the grounds of a hotel some distance away.

We made it clear what we wanted and, for a price, the tourist service staff were happy to sort it out for us. If we came back at 4pm we could collect the tickets. When we returned they were nowhere to be seen. As time ticked on, a certain element of anxiety, not to say panic, crept into the proceedings. A worker was sent to find out what had happened.

He did not return. Eventually it was decided that the only thing for us to do was to take a taxi to the station and hope to find our tickets there. Our taxi lurched off into the traffic and seemed to take an awfully long time to get to the station. Eventually we came to a halt outside a craft factory and our driver started to try to sell us carpets.

We bundled him back into his taxi, pointed to the station on a map and imparted as much urgency into our manner as we could. We arrived at the station minutes before the train left but there was no sign of either our agent or our tickets. We rushed up and down the platform trying to find our man. No luck. The train left without us. We returned to the tourist service office and tried to remain calm.

After we had explained what had happened we witnessed that most remarkable of Chinese activities: saving face. This took the form of a heated argument between the various employees. We were totally ignored; at this stage what was important to them was where the blame was going to rest.

The argument stopped abruptly and we were told the next train was at 9.30pm, so the tourist service would get us tickets for that - we would, however, have to pay again.

This time we were early. This time we had tickets. We did get on, but had to sit on the floor next to the carriage boiler as all the seats were taken. When we finally arrived at Datong it was 3am and all the hotels were closed, so we slept on the street. The statues at the rock temple in Datong are certainly spectacular, but so is the soot; Datong has one of the largest open-cast coal mines in China.

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