The family with whom we stayed in Basel were a family that my girlfriend had been an au pair for several years ago in New Jersey. They consisted of the mum, the dad – who’s worked for a pharmeceutical company in Switzerland for a couple of years – and the young twins, a boy and a girl. They were a nice family – the kids, especially, were charming and full of life.
H was quite happy that we would be spending a week and a half with them. We spent a fair amount of time at hanging out at home. The family’s son and I built a structure out of simple wooden building blocks; we promised to work on another design, but never did. We watched Spaceballs (only a fraction as good as I remember it being), played card games, cooked and ate food.
We didn’t do too much earnest sight-seeing in Basel. We went for a walk around with H’s friend on our first day there, stopping for a champagne truffle from a fancy chocolate shop and to have a look at the rich red town hall.
On another occasion, we took the tram to a suburb called Therwil to watch the son play baseball. H, her friend and I wandered away from the pitch to walk between some nearby fields and pick strawberries.
Another day, we met Isabel, the Basler we’d befriended in Iceland, and her friend Lukas and they took us around. We took one of the small ferries across the Rhine – the boat was connected to a line strung across the river and moved perpendicular to the flow simply by angling its hull one way or another, like a sail in the wind.
We also went to the Basel Paper Mill, a museum housed in an old paper mill dedicated to the history of paper, writing and printing. Although not a big place, it was pretty comprehensive – although the section about modern printing was perhaps too comprehensive (how many printing machines does one need to look at?). It also had lots of hands on stuff to do – from interactive displays that ask you questions and have windows, doors and rollable drums with answers, to activities like calligraphy and paper-making. We both had a go at Japanese calligraphy and each made a sheet of paper from a vat full of watery pulp.
Another time, we took a couple of the family’s bikes and rode out into the countryside, through Therwil and beyond.
Towards the end of our stay, the mum told us that she had a friend who had spare VIP tickets for Art Basel, the ‘Olympics of the art world’. The three of us spent an afternoon wandering around the two buildings – one large building holding a vast array of works by different artists organised by gallery (thus, pieces by the same artist cropped up in various random places) and one hangar-like building adjacent to the first that housed larger artworks.
The whole place was bustling. H’s friend enjoyed pointing out people from the ‘New York’ contingent – expensively over-dressed arty types. Many of the works looked nice, but weren’t too interesting. Some, though, were pretty good. A lot of the stuff in the hangar was impressive for its sheer size. One piece from New Zealand caught my eye because it had some Metallica-related stuff, but it was otherwise uninteresting. The whole experience was reminiscent of being in a popular art gallery – except that it was well-lit and taking photographs was practically de rigeur.
Although we liked Basel and the people, it was not the happiest stop on our trip – we had a bit of a relationship crisis to deal with.
Santorini is supposedly one of the highlights of any Greek island-hopping holiday. It’s the place with all the blue-domed homes and churches that’s in all the pictures. It’s in a part of the Aegean called the Cyclades. Santorini is not an island so much as an archipelago. There’s a ring of several mountainous islands and one volcanic island in the centre. Three thousand six hundred years ago, it was all one, until an eruption blew the place apart; the resulting tidal wave may have spelt the end of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.
We had originally planned to get out of Athens for the latter part of Grecian trip – and head up to Thessaloniki and the nearby Chalkidiki peninsula. It turned out that we didn’t have much appetite for that. Habiba’s mum went to a travel agent and took us there later to book the trip. The men who worked there – a couple of guys in their sixties or so – were a pair of characters. The one we dealt with mainly suggested that if Habiba was bad, I could throw her off the top of the volcano to the fishermen below.
We made slightly complicated arrangements with our hostel in Athens to check out for a day, then spend two more nights (Habiba and I in a dorm one night and private room the next) before leaving for good. A taxi came to pick us up and it sped us along the expressway to the port of Piraeus. Once there, we boarded the ferry at one of several gates and some time later we were off.
The ferry journey lasted about eight hours and stopped at Naxos, Paros and Ios before docking at Santorini, where we were picked up once again and driven to our hotel. The place we stayed at in Fira was very pleasant, almost luxurious in a modest kind of way. Right at the top of the ridge, it looked over the caldera and the central volcano.
The following day, we walked down the Caldera Steps to the port just below Fira. When we’d been to the top of the steps the night before we’d seen several bony, dirty and generally miserable-looking donkeys fastened up on the cobble-stone path. They weren’t there in the morning. Walking down was a little bit of hard work, but we stopped often to take lots of photos of the stunning views. At the bottom, Noor and I convinced Habiba to take the cablecar that we’d seen running back up to the top instead of walking. When we went to the cablecar station, we found that it was closed and wouldn’t open for hours. We walked back up.
Unlike our stay in Athens, the weather on Santorini was pretty immaculate. The air was pretty chilly, but it got quite hot in the sunshine. The walk up the Caldera Steps was less pleasant than the walk down.
Afterwards, we took a local bus to the town at the northern tip of our island – Oia (pronounced EE-a). While Fira was pretty, Oia was the face of a thousand postcards and tourism advertising campaigns. We spent an hour or two wandering along the little stone paths that weave between the whitewashed and pastel-painted buildings. Every few steps opened up new photogenic vistas.
After that, we had lunch and then got a ride back down to the port to catch the ferry back at four-thirty. We had been told that it was at three-thirty, and that, combined with the rough seas towards Piraeus, meant that we arrived a lot later than we had expected – far too late to take the subway back to Athens. Taxi it was, then. Habiba and I quietly got into our temporary bunks at about three and the next morning, we transferred to our own room for a night before embarking on some final sightseeing in Athens.
Several weeks ago, now, shortly after my appendicectomy, I went to the Japanese island of Tsushima in order to get a fresh, three-month tourist visa in Korea. Tsushima (or Daemado, in Korean) is mid-way between Korea and Japan, and also about mid-way between the Sea of Japan to the north-east and the Korea Strait to the south-west. My friend Matthew had given me the details of a tour company that ran trips there, so I took gratefully advantage of that.
Early on Saturday morning, I took the bullet train down to Busan, caught the conveniently located and timed shuttle bus to the ferry terminal a short distance away, met a chubby, slightly cross-eyed young woman from the travel agency there, got my tickets and boarded the ferry.
There was a typhoon in the vicinity, so the voyage across was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, and it took longer than expected – so much so that its leaving time was brought ahead an hour so people returning to Korea could get back on time.
I arrived in Tsushima with plenty of daylight left, however. Once out of the ferry terminal there I didn’t really know what to do. I had the name of a hotel, so I asked directions (forgetting for a moment that the Japanese are culturally disinclined to given negative responses – which makes asking direction in Japan a hit-and-miss affair) and found the place a little later.
Then I had the problem that the receptionist, a middle-aged woman, didn’t speak any English at all and apparently wasn’t expecting a clueless westerner. Eventually, I was able to give her the phone number from the travel agency and she checked me in. Once I got to my room, I realised I had no adapter for the sockets – I asked in various shops and was even led to other places by a woman and a young boy, but with no luck. My laptop’s battery was almost flat, so no blogging, writing, films, TV or porn for me.
The town that I found myself in – Izuhara – was a pleasant little place that had a small channel running through it with lots of bridges and trees along its length, reminding me of Amsterdam. I spent some time wandering round. There was a little temple complex and a pretty, hillside cemetery.
The following morning, I was due to hook up with a Korean tour group, with whom I would travel across the island to the other town – from where we would take the ferry back to Busan. I was expecting to just be bussed across and to have the rest of the day to myself, but we stopped at various places of interest along the way – a fish farm, a Mount Eboshidake, Watazumi Shrine, which has five gates running in a line from the land to the sea (and where a young boy with the group was encouraged to talk to me – his family took photos of us), a restaurant for lunch (I was segregated from the group here and had sweet potato noodles with the staff) and a lookout point by the sea.
The Koreans were pretty friendly and tried to engage me in conversation – they might have had better luck with someone more outgoing. Some of them were wearing badges that said that Daemado and Dokdo (also known as the Liancourt Rocks, where a couple of Korean fishers live guarded by 37 police officers – the island is a cause célèbre of territorial contention between South Korea and Japan) are Korean land.
The tour guide was a Japanese man who spoke fluent Korean and spent the entire bus journey shouting at us over the PA system – often to rounds of applause from the Koreans.
The ferry departure time had been brought forward, and we got to the terminal at Hitakatsu with not too much time to spare. The ride back was as bumpy as the previous day’s, but was, at least, a lot shorter. The key part of the trip – getting a new visa – went without a hitch. I had been worried about getting back in time for my return train, but, in the event, I had plenty of time to spare.
I returned to Habiba with a few little gifts – some snacks (which I don’t think we’ve even touched yet) and a couple of things from the Japanese equivalent of a pound shop (a 100 yen shop): a pair-of-tongs-like device for squeezing as much as possible out of a sachet of, say, curry, and a square of black, spongey rubber about two and a half inches on a side for rubbing cat hair off fabric. They both work quite well.
Habiba and I have been back in Korea for a couple of days now. I’ve just finished uploading photographs and videos from the trip, but, while we were away, I had very little time for blogging, so now I want to write about our travels.
As you’ll appreciate, it’s winter here in Korea, so it’s pretty chilly. We planned to head off to the airport immediately after Habiba finished work on Friday the 24th of December, catching an express bus to the airport. I carried both our large backpacks and my small one to the bus stop and bought a couple of tickets. Habiba turned up after six o’clock and we waited. And continued to wait. It was rush hour, so eventually, as Habiba lost the feeling in her extremities, to take a taxi. The ride took a long while, creeping along the expressway while we anxiously eyed the driver’s navigation display and its ETA. The nearly two-hour ride cost about ₩60,000 – about £34.
The nighttime flight out was fine – I read Moby-Dick most of the way. Once at Cebu Airport, arriving in the early hours of the morning, we had nothing to do but wait for morning and for the first ferries to run. There wasn’t even any where to buy water, as far as we could tell.
Our plan was to take a ferry from Cebu to Tabilaran, the capital of Bohol, an island province immediately to the south of Cebu. From there, we intended to take a bus or taxi from the city on the south-west corner of Bohol to the nearby island of Panglao, specifically a beach on the southern side of the smaller island called Alona Beach.
We took a taxi to the ferry terminal – Pier 1, I think – and tried to buy a ticket for the early ferry at six o’clock. The terminal was a pretty run-down, dirty place, populated with various tired Filipinos and foreigners. We asked a man at the terminal fee desk where we could buy a ticket and his response was a vague, Over there. We didn’t really know what to do, but I overheard some other travellers talking about tickets that they’d bought. With their help, I figured out that there was no 6 am ferry, it being Christmas Day, but we could take a 7:30 ferry to a different place and take a bus from there to our destination.
I queued up and bought us a pair of tickets, and some water, and, as I headed back to Habiba, was button-holed by a couple of young women who asked to tag along with us. After more uncertainty over where to go we squeezed through the crowd waiting to board and got on a small orange speed ferry. The trip to Tubigon took an hour or so, during which time I heard the first of three renditions of Bryan May’s ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ that day, and also got my first sleep of the day.
Habiba and I and our fellow travellers, Ivy (a Singaporean living in Hong Kong) and Mara (a Romanian also working in Hong Kong) hired a man with a minivan to take us to Alona. However, we needed the bathroom before we went anywhere and Habiba spent a while changing into more summery clothes – which made the guy frantic to get us on board. Once we did and got underway, Ivy realised she’d dropped her wallet somewhere. After heading back to the ferry terminal and looking for it, she concluded it was lost. One of the other people in the van said she worked for a radio station and would put out an announcement about it, although nothing came of that as far as I know.
The drive to Alona was another hour or more. We entered our hotel, the Citadel Alona Inn, a fairly modest but nice place, and left our bags in their small, empty bar. We couldn’t check in for another hour or two, so we had breakfast and walked down to the beach.
Alona Beach was a fairly narrow strip of sand about 500 metres long backed by a dense row of mainly bars and restaurants and a few shops. Our hotel was a five-minute or so walk from there, along a dirty, uneven road that was home to more shops, eateries and hotels. Many of these places were run by ex-pats – the resorts seemed to be especially popular with Germans; there was a Helmut’s Place, for example.
Although our hotel served food, on the evidence of our one and only meal there, it wasn’t terribly good. Apart from that, and the diminutive dimensions of our room and double bed, the Citadel Alona was a good place to stay. It was clean and attractive, and – very importantly – provided free drinking water. There was no hot water in the taps, though – so all showers were cold. That’s not too bad in a tropical climate, but I think showers, like tea and coffee, should be hot.
Just across the road from our hotel was another one called ChARTs, which had a restaurant called the Art Café. This was a very nicely designed place, all artfully moulded stucco walls, and – surprisingly enough – lots of artwork. This place became our favoured location for breakfast and coffee, lunch, too, sometimes.
Another nice thing about the Art Café was that the staff were friendly and attentive – but not too attentive. Many of the other places we ate and drank at were quite relaxed – to the point of being difficult to get served or pay your bill at. Our main hangout at the beach was like that. At Oops Bar, near the left-hand extremity of the beach as you look out to sea, we often ordered smoothies first thing and then didn’t pay for them until hours later when we left – and we had to remind the staff that we’d bought them.
Oops Bar (which I’m guessing is owned by a Brit – I saw him directing the young waiters in moving some huge plant pots) had about five pairs of sunbeds beyond its beach tables and chairs. These are open to anyone who claims them – and with no apparent pressure to buy drinks or food. And claim them we did, on a pretty much daily basis. One night, we also had dinner there – ostrich steak. It was good, but very tough – it was particularly hard to cut. It look and tasted much like beef.
Amongst other culinary delights, we tried a fish grill one one occasion. The restaurant had a table with shallow containers holding ice and a selection of fresh fish, big prawns, squid and so on. We shared a green parrot fish. One of the more interesting drinks we had was a calamansi juice. Calamansi is a green citrus fruit about the size and shape of a large marble; it’s also very sour. It’s used to good effect by squeezing one over a fish or other food. Perhaps our favourite meal was Thai curry, fried rice and spring rolls at a place near our hotel that specialised in hot woks. Although we waited a long time for our meal the one time we were there, when it came it was delicious and huge. Experience had taught us to expect much smaller portions.
There was an ice cream place that took your two scoops of ice cream and put them on a circular plate that seemed alternately heat and chill the ice cream while the woman chopped and kneaded fruit into the ice cream with a pair of spatulas. Finally, the mix would be scraped off into a roll and put in a polystyrene cup with a couple of toppings of your choice. We had that a few times.
Whilst eating, it was very common to be approached by a small group of young boys who would start a half-hearted rendition of a random Christmas song. Whenever this happened to us, we just shook our heads and the kids moved on to the next table.
In terms of activities, we spent lots of time on the beach and in the water. Our friends Ksan and Jun-hong lent us their goggles and snorkels, so we swam out into the warm, shallow waters to gaze down at the hidden world of little fish, sea urchins and starfish. Our first such expedition took us quite a way out among all the boats anchored offshore. Habiba and decided to head back – she suggested we swim fast. However, I’m not such good swimmer, so I quickly got tired – and then got seawater in my snorkel, which doesn’t have a valve on the top. Scared of drowning I had to stop and try and stand on the sea bed, hoping I wouldn’t stand on a sea urchin. After a rest, I was able to swim back to shore, which, while it wasn’t far away, seemed to take about ten minutes. That aside, the snorkelling was lots of fun. Maybe in twelve months’ time, I can get some more swimming practice in.
I think Alona Beach compares favourably with Ko Phi Phi in Thailand (where we went last year). It’s a little less touristy, less intense. Although the quid pro quo is that there’s less choice – less in the way of eating, drinking and shopping. On Ko Phi Phi, there were lots of diving shops and travel agents lining the narrow avenues leading to the beach and the hotels. While such places were present here, lots of business seemed to be conducted by guys who would stand around by the entrance to the beach and ask passersby by if they wanted to go on this or that trip. We did both this trip and that trip, but that’ll be the subject of another post.
I finished watching Prison Break on the ferry over to Korea. It got silly towards the end, in the sense that the writers seemed to have added so many plot threads that it became impossible for them to resolve them in a sensible, self-contained fashion. So (warning – spoilers follow), with Lincoln now trying to retrieve Scylla for the Company, working against Michael, and Michael recovering from brain cancer and working against his mother, a greedy, calculating Company operative who wants to sell Scylla for big money and is willing to kill to bump up the price, with Don Self gone renegade for no good reason other than it ups the drama quotient, with T-Bag toadying up to whoever holds the whip hand, with the FBI finally appearing to do something about all the mayhem, with agents for buyers for Scylla wandering in from the cast of Lost and being rapidly killed off, the hand of the writers intervenes to resurrect Paul Kellerman (killed off in season two) to solve everyone’s problems and hand the magic hard drive over to the UN. The denouement worked nicely, though.
Then (warning – spoilers continue) episodes 23 and 24 saw Sara imprisoned for the murder of Michael’s mother (she shot her in the back as the older woman shot Michael in the shoulder) and the series returned to its original theme – breaking out of prison. And we see how Michael dies. These last two episodes were probably meant to be a whole fifth season and the speed at which the plot flies by and the lack of tension (we already know from episode 22 how everything turns out) make them a damp squib compared to what went before.
I didn’t sleep well on the ferry – lots of rocking and rolling in the literal sense. I did a fair amount of reading. The ferry got in a few hours late, but I had my phone on and charged and Habiba called often for updates. I disembarked and passed through the Quarantine, Immigration and Customs with little problem, walked from the ferry terminal to Dong-Incheon Station and took the subway bakc home.
At home I was finally able to relax a bit in a familiar environment. I laid out everything I’d brought back from China on the table for Habiba’s perusal. She seemed very pleased with her gift – a pair of shiny, colourful bracelets – which I was fearing wouldn’t be quite to her taste. We had a leaving party to go to, but later in the evening we had a chance to (very successfully) try out the sexual position die I’d brought back.
The very next day we had an early start as we were taking a free bus down to Gyeongju a capital of one of the three kingdoms of medieval Korea and site of many tumuli – burial mounds – and other historical structures. We went with Jessica and shared a room at the motel, Nokwonjang, I’d stayed at a year and a half ago. (We had tried to check into a place a little closer to the bus station, but the old ladies working at the ‘Romance Hotel’, wouldn’t allow the three of us to share a room.)
We had a look round one park containing several tumuli – Daereungwon – and the pretty, pavilion-lined pond – Anapji – and east Asia’s oldest observatory – Cheomseongdae – on the Saturday evening. On the Sunday, after breakfasting and checking out and storin our bags at the railway station, we took a bus over to Bulguksa, one of Korea’s most important temples and saw the Dabotap and Seokgatap. The first of which (a pagoda that appears on the 10 won coin) was covered up with scaffolding and screens when I visited Gyeongju in 2009 – so it was satisfying to go and see it in the stony flesh.
Then we had lunch and took a bus up a mountain to Seokguram Grotto, a man-made cave that houses a beautiful statue of Buddha. We paid our four thousand won to enter the site knowing that we would have to be quick to catch the two o’clock bus back to get the free four o’clock bus back to Seoul. After a short walk, we arrived at the entrance to the grotto, but there was a huge queue of people, so we decided we didn’t have time and walked back to the car park. Shame – especially as Habiba and Jessica probably won’t return to this important site. I’d been there before, so I wasn’t heartbroken about it.
After two more bus rides and a taxi ride we were back at the Concorde Hotel in the big hotel area (by which I mean the area of big hotels) a little outside Gyeongju on the shores of a lake, which was our pick-up point for the bus to Seoul. The reason this bus was free was that it’s Visit Korea Year (2010 to 2012 … somehow). And, of course, we weren’t the only ones who wanted to take advantage of the freeness. In Seoul, at least one person had to be turned away; and in Gyeongju, several people were turned away – possibly because they hadn’t obtained tickets – the guide, while he spoke reasonable English, just didn’t express himself very clearly when trying to explain to the people on the bus. This delayed our departure a little, but, by the time we got back into Seoul and off the bus, it was nearly 11:30 – two and a half hours later than advertised. This meant Jessica couldn’t return to her home in Osan, a city south of Seoul, and had to stay at ours and go home in the pre-dawn darkness.
It was a nice enough visit, but the weekend crowds were large and annoying. It’s definitely worth visiting Gyeongju, and it’s also worth going during the week.
The very first part of today’s journey (I’m writing this on the ferry) went well.
I got up at 5:30 in the morning darkness, showered and packed the remainder of my things that hadn’t been packed last night. I checked out of the hostel; there was a bit of a delay when I didn’t hand over the correct receipt with my keys – I needed the one that was specifically for the deposit, not just for the extra days that I’d stayed (and certainly not for the laundry service). I walked to Wangfujing Station, put my bags through the scanners that they have at all the stations and places like Tiananmen Square, bought a ticket for 2 yuan (about 20p) and took the subway to Beijing South Railway Station, where I’d entered the city the previous week. I had a McDonald’s breakfast (hopefully, my last fried, fatty breakfast for a while – my breakfasts at the hostel were generally fried eggs, toast, hash brown, maybe bacon, maybe cornflakes. I navigated the dimly lit concourse and found the correct gate for my train – the departure concourse is huge and has a series of escalators where travellers gather before being allowed to pass through the ticket barriers and down to the platforms. I got on the train and tried to ask a member of staff if two numbers on my ticket were my carriage and seat – I’m sure she said they were. When I got there, there appeared to be a man sitting in my aisle seat – he told me to sit in the window seat; I didn’t complain. The train left at 7:20. I got off the train at Tianjin when it arrived at 7:50 – the English part of the announcement helpful said that it would be a quick stop and people getting off should get ready.
This is where things started to go wrong.
I headed towards an exit of Tianjin Station; it seemed to be the only one available – signs for others had Xs taped over them. The station was huge and new. I ignored a couple of men who wanted me to hire their taxis and found a couple of toilets near the taxi rank – both were disgusting, so I didn’t go. Instead I queued up for a taxi. Once I got in, I couldn’t tell the driver where to go because he didn’t speak English, so, as he drove away, I fished out my ticket wallet, on which the woman at the Incheon office had written the name of the ferry terminal in Chinese, and I showed it to the driver. He looked at it and twigged where I wanted to go and off we went.
Superficially, so far, so good. However, the drive took a while. And then it took a while longer. And then it took longer still. Then I saw a sign that said ‘Tanggu – 30 km’. What’s Tanggu (besides being the Korean for billiards)? Tanggu is the city where Tianjin Passenger Terminal actually is. The driver seemed to be beyond the limits of his usual territory. 9 am, the time I’d been told be at the terminal by, came and went. I showed the driver a little map on my ticket wallet and he stopped and started asking other taxi drivers and pedestrians for help. It turned out the map on the wallet wasn’t relevant – probably the ferry company, Jincheon Ferry’s Tianjin offices. We kept going. I tried telling the driver I was in a hurry and I should have been there for nine. He seemed to tell me not to worry about it, we’d be there in ten or twenty minutes. He kept winding down his window to ask other taxi drivers as we went, though.
We got there towards ten o’clock and I handed over a massive 143 yuan. To find the value in pounds, you just have to divide by ten; £14.30 is not very much, but this is China – consider that the basic fare started at 8 yuan (80p). One of my souvenirs was to have been a full set of nice new Chinese banknotes. I had to hand over the hundred, the largest, of this set to pay; I thought my 100 yuan deposit from the hostel would have been enough for that and for my port fee of 30 yuan. I plan on buying another 100 yuan note once I arrive back in Korea.
I walked into the terminal, showed my ticket to someone behind a window, who told me to go to another window. The person there gave me a boarding pass, so I headed in through the main entrance – but was turned back because I needed my pass stamped. I went back to the first window and handed over the 30 yuan for the stamp.
Inside the main part of the building, after a baggage scan, there was a long line of people with boxes and packages on trolleys. A couple of them ushered me forwards as I tried to line up behind them. My bags were scanned for the second time in about as many minutes. Then I queued up for Immigration. But an officer asked me if I had a departure card – I didn’t and he showed me to the desk where they were kept. I filled one in, but was stumped over the box that asked for my flight number/ship name etc. The officer came back and wrote a couple of Chinese characters in there for me (although he botched one a bit). How very proactively helpful.
Once past Immigration I waited about five minutes behind a small crowd of people just inside the door for a shuttle bus to the ferry. When I got on the bus I realised the ferry was all of about 150 metres away. Oh, well. The wind was blowing hard as we got off the bus and climbed a staircase to gangway on to the ship.
This one is nicer than the one I took from Korea – which is just as well, as I’m going to be on for a whole day. (The scheduled times are 11:00 on Thursday morning to 11:00 on Friday morning – which is a period of 25 hours, taking the one hour time difference into account.) The common areas are cleaner and they don’t have that savoury Asian dumpling smell that I now associate with Chinese people. The other ferry had a restaurant that was only open twice on the journey and for less than an hour each time. This one’s restaurant is more like a real restaurant. The bathrooms are less grim. The demographic on board seems less working class than my outgoing trip.
On that previous trip I’d shared a business class room with three others. This time I plumped for economy. I’m in bed 48 of what I think is a 48 bed dorm. It’s not too bad at the moment – I have an upper bunk, and, once you draw the curtains, it feels fairly private. The bunk isn’t tall enough to sit up in it, though. It also has no convenient power outlet. I’ve spent most of my time so far watching Prison Break in my bunk or writing blog posts out in the ship near a socket.
I’m at 75% charge now. It’s 7pm Korean time. I should start thinking about dinner.
On Thursday morning I packed and prepared for my trip to China and I left home just before 1 o’clock. I took the subway down to Dongincheon (East Incheon) station – about an hour and a half journey. Then, on the basis of something I’d read online, I tried asking a taxi driver to take me to the Weidong Ferry Terminal – Weidong being the ferry company I was travelling to Qingdao with. He didn’t know where to take me. A second driver took me to the 1st International Ferry Terminal. Only that was the wrong one – I should have been at the 2nd Internation Ferry Terminal. We’d even passed it on the way and I’d seen a ferry that I thought was the one I’d be taking. I took a bus back.
I arrived just before boarding started at four o’clock – three hours before the scheduled leaving time. I bought some snacks for the journey, exchanged a pile of money and bought a ticket for my return journey from Tianjin. After security, Immigration (where I handed in my Korean Alien Registration Card) and a short shuttle bus ride, I boarded and was given a sheet of information in English and was shown to my cabin. I’d paid a bit extra for the privilege of a four-man cabin – probably worth it; my ticket back is for the cheapest class.
The ferry was fairly grotty. Most of the communal areas were well worn and not too well cleaned. At first I spent a lot of out on deck waiting for the ferry to start moving, taking photos and texting Habiba with updates. Habiba wasn’t talking to me as I hadn’t been sufficiently sensitive to her worries about her upcoming contract. Eventually, the ferry left at about 7:30. The journey was quite smooth at first. Habiba rang and told me she was feeling better and had had dinner with a colleague.
I watched some Prison Break in my bunk. The second to fourth episodes of the fourth and final season. I’d watched all the others with Habiba and she didn’t want to watch any more. The third season was pretty weak, and the first episode of the last one wasn’t much better, but I thought the episodes I watched picked up some of the quality of the first couple of seasons, although the science fiction part of it – a gadget that can copy data just by being within a few feet of it – was pretty silly.
By the time I settled down to try to sleep, the ferry was rolling in a way I found quite alarming. Obviously, by that time we were well into the Yellow Sea. I didn’t sleep very well. The occasional loud thud resounding through the ship didn’t help.
In the morning, I breakfasted on crackers and chocolate. Leaving the ferry and going through Immigration at Qingdao were fairly straightforward; the Immigration official, a young woman, was amused by the young, longhaired chap in my passport photo.
I got a taxi to the youth hostel I’d made a reservation at. I was pretty sceptical of the process. The general state of dirtiness and disrepair reminded me a lot of India – although the infrastructure here seems much more solid and comprehensive. The driver didn’t help when he started smoking and offered me a cigarette. We arrived and I handed over a 100 yuan note (about £10), getting a few scruffy notes in return.
It was indeed the right place – the Kaiyue Youth Hostel, housed in an old church building. I was feeling very crappy – I had a bad headache. I headed up to my room, had a brief conversation with a German guy who was packing to leave and lay down on my bed. I didn’t get better quickly. Over the course of the next few hours I started feeling nauseous and threw up a couple of times. I tried to sleep, but a couple of Chinese guys coming in and out all the time didn’t help. I had a little water with me and a mug of black tea I’d made earlier, but, even though I was very dehydrated all through the night, I could face consuming anything.
By the morning my headache was gone and I was feeling OK. I shaved and showered, dressed and had breafast at the large, atmospheric bar on the ground floor. I managed to get in touch with Habiba on Skype, then I headed out, after buying a map of Qingdao for 8 yuan. I walked around for a while, trying to follow directions I’d been given to the seafront. Eventually I got there and walked around some more. The weather was – and still is, as I write this – beautiful, although rather hazy. I had lunch – not very adventurously – at a McDonald’s. Right now, I’m at an Angel-in-Us – a Korean chain of coffee shops. Unlike Korean branches, this one is nearly empty on a Saturday afternoon. It also sells beer.