There are a lot of ferry options from Korea to China. I mean a lot.
And we chose the one with the soju-fuelled Korean singalong.
Most ferries from Korea to China go out of Incheon, less than an hour on the metro from central Seoul. So getting from Seoul to Beijing without flying is very straightforward. (See my post How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying for a run down of the options and all the practical details of the Incheon to Qingdao boat.)
When we arrived in Incheon on the metro from Seoul it was very wet. But there was a China town! We really were on our way to China. We bought some last minute emergency ramen, and set off to catch our boat.
Some minor directional problems delayed us slightly.
Read How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying for navigation suggestions.
We did eventually find the terminal, changed some money into yuan, and sat desperately using facebook and gmail on the free wifi. All google sites, facebook, and a whole load of other sites (making up most of the internet) are blocked in China.
Once on board we found our cabin, which was already fairly packed. Everybody else onboard seemed to be Korean or Chinese. Our economy class cabin had several rows of bunkbeds, each with its own curtain and light. We’d been given bunks next to the window, and the rest of the bunks in our row were empty. I suspect special foreigner treatment. As well as the bunks were some benches, which I took as fairly uncomfortable seating, but everyone else took as tables, as we found when we returned later to see a mass picnic going on, with plastic containers of food being passed round and people sat all over the floor. Mass laundry drying also seemed to be going on, with pants, bras and socks strung up across the room. Some people had even brought hangers for this. I have no idea why. Organised (chaos) though.
More on the cabin in How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying.
On our preliminary stroll of the boat we discovered that the restaurant was closing in half an hour, so dinner was the first priority. Sitting by the window with our plates of Korean buffet, we watched the berth begin to recede as we eased away from shore. No dramatic standing on the deck waving goodbye to Korea for us, there was kimchi to eat. After dinner we had a stroll round the decks, and watched the boat slowly navigate its way out of Incheon. Cars waiting for export glowed malevolently in the dark.
The bright lights of Incheon were receding, but we were still in the harbour. Reaching open sea involved a lock.
I’ve never seen such a huge ship in a lock before. The process was slow.
On the ground, which looked very far away, the entire lock apparatus seemed to be being managed by one guy on a bicycle. As we finally cruised out of the lock he peddled off, chattering away into his phone.
Then we were sailing the Yellow sea. On deck, a group of middle aged Koreans were getting into the spirit. Their table was full of beer cans and soju bottles, and they sung at the top of their voices, banging out a beat on the table with some empty green tea bottles. We watched the lights of Korea fade for a while as they serenaded us. It was chilly outside without a soju jacket, so we retreated in for a beer in our bunk and an early night.
In the night I half woke to odd disorientation. At first I thought I must be still in a dream, the dark walls around me were shifting at odd angles, and I had that sensation of falling that snaps you from sleep. Slowly I woke enough to wonder if this pitching and shifting was bad. I was vaguely aware I was on a ship in the middle of the Yellow sea. I felt safe in my bunk though, lulled by the rise and fall. I drifted back off.
In the morning the decks were awash, despite the brightening skies. But now all was calm, and China was in sight. Mysterious, faraway China. The Far East. And we’d got all the way here on the surface of the earth. Moments like this hit me full force sometimes. They have more time to when you travel slow — on long train rides and boat trips my mind naturally mulls over where I’ve been and where I’m going. Processes my thoughts and links them together. I’ve never found airports or aeroplanes conductive to contemplation, they’re so well equipped to distract. (Though this blank space in a trip is something I miss sometimes, along with the excitement of an international airport.)
This moment, when smudges on the horizon resolved into hills and buildings, was a lurch in my reality. A shiver through me. Those hills, those tower blocks, were China. Real life China. Not from the news stories, or the movies. A real place. 1.4 billion people going about their daily lives.
And I was really there, or about to be.
When we saw the Qingdao passenger terminal, we were pleasantly surprised. Ooh, architecture. Fancy. Looks clean and user friendly. We had high hopes for China.
Then we got off the boat.
We didn’t go into the shiny terminal. We got on a bus. And by we, I mean us and several hundred others, on a single decker. A woman squeezed on at the last minute and sat herself on the lap of the man next to me. He looked mildly surprised. She winked at him.
The bus drove round the back of the terminal, through a building site, across a lorry park, and under the shadow of a concrete flyover, to a building that resembled a diligently neglected Edwardian house.
A sign on the door suggested we should enter the quarantine checkpoint single file. The crowd squashed and shoved in six abreast, barging with elbows and bags, dragging boxes, baskets and rice cookers behind them.
When we fought our way to passport control the guard barely glanced at us before stamping. He couldn’t have seen much anyway, the lights weren’t on.
We were in.
Welcome to gleaming, grimy, modern, crumbling, chaotic, bewildering China.
Our home for the next six weeks.
For more on the practicalities of travelling from Korea to China by boat, see How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying.