There are a few sensible options for getting from Seoul to Beijing without flying — several overnight ferries take you from Incheon, on the Seoul metro, to Chinese ports which connect to Beijing by high speed rail. Seat 61 has information on a couple of routes, but there are tons of ferries you could conceivably use.
Here are the most useful options for Seoul to Beijing:
- Ferry from Incheon to Qingdao.
Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Departs 18.00, takes 17 hours.
We took this boat, and as of December 2015 this schedule is correct. See my post on Korea to China by Boat for a full account of this journey and the experience onboard. Read on for more practical information about the boat and transport connections.
- Ferry from Incheon to Tanggu.
Tuesday, departs 13.00. Friday, departs 19.00. Takes 25 hours.
This schedule information is from Seat 61. Getting from the port in Tanggu to the train station for Beijing involves taking a one hour shuttle bus, whereas in Qingdao you can walk. Lonely Planet Thorntree forum users think the Qingdao route is more convenient, and they don’t rate Tanggu as a place worth visiting in its own right. Qingdao is worth visiting (see below).
- Ferry from Incheon to Qinhuangdao.
Monday, departs 19.00. Friday, departs 13.00. Takes 21 hours.
There’s less info around on this one. Seat 61 doesn’t mention it, but it’s listed here and here. High speed trains from Qinhuangdao to Beijing take about 2 hours, cheaper trains about 4 hours.
Weidong ferry from Incheon to Qingdao
We chose the Incheon to Qingdao ferry with Weidong (best ferry company name ever). We recommend taking this boat, then either a fast train or a sleeper to Beijing. The fast train takes four to five hours, longer than connections from other ports to Beijing, but the ferry to Qingdao is by far the fastest, so the total journey time works out well. You can walk from the port to the train station. We even managed this without a map, using a compass and vague supposition. It took about 25 minutes. The night train costs roughly the same as the fast train, so if you’ve got the time this is a great option. Spend the afternoon, or better a day or two, in Qingdao before heading north.
We were in a hurry to get to Beijing. It was Arthur’s birthday the next day and we were keen to spend it with friends. So when we found out that Sabine (who we hiked the Great Baikal Trail with) would be arriving in Beijing that day, we skipped Qingdao and went straight to Beijing, getting on the train around midday.
Here’s why you shouldn’t do that. An older transliteration of the Chinese symbols for Qingdao is Tsingtao. Ring any bells?
Qingdao was a German concession (i.e. Chinese sanctioned foreign occupied trade port) from 1891 to 1914. Under German control Qingdao gained some wide streets and imposing European style buildings. A German brewery was opened in 1903, and Tsingtao was born. Germany is famous for beer for a reason — they’re pretty good at it, as we found when we tasted every beer at a Berlin brew bar.
Qingdao seemed like a very nice city, worth a day or two exploring, and above all, a relatively gentle introduction to China. A German influenced seaside town is not going to whack you in the face with China-shock like some cities will. You should stay here while you adjust. Also, beer. This hostel has free food and free flowing beer for cheap on Fridays. We saw this on a poster several weeks later as we sat huddled together for warmth in an unheated hostel in the mountains of central China, wishing our overpriced beer was hot, rather than icy room temperature. Oh how we mourned. Seriously, you should stay in Qingdao. Let me know what it’s like.
How to get to Incheon Passenger Ferry Terminal
Incheon is on the Seoul metro network, about an hour from central Seoul. We got off at Incheon station (not Dongincheon, as some guides suggest) and walked for about 15 minutes to the port. If you’re not on a budget take a taxi, it will save you some hassle.
We couldn’t find the port at first. Which is kind of embarrassing. It’s quite big.
There was some construction work going on which we had to navigate round/through. Also there’s not a lot of signage. They don’t seem to be expecting passengers at their passenger terminal, or not ones arriving on foot at least. Persevere and you will find it — it was further south than google maps had led us to believe.
Our approach was to walk south along the ‘waterfront’ (actually an industrial zone with no water visible) until we found it. This worked, but we had a few false starts turning into random industrial parks.
N.B. I believe the Weidong ferry to Qingdao departs from Passenger Terminal 1, while the other options mentioned above depart from Passenger Terminal 2, which is somewhere else entirely. This was a point of confusion for us, so we allowed plenty of time to find the port.
How do you book the Weidong Incheon Qingdao ferry?
The Weidong website is not very user friendly. We were able to get the timetable and price from here, so we knew we wanted to book, but you can’t book online. We enlisted the desk staff from our Seoul hostel (who spoke English and Korean) to phone the Incheon office for us (on 032-770-8000) and book us on. Our booking was made with our passport numbers, and we paid in cash when we got to the port. We booked one day in advance, just to be sure. In low season you probably don’t need to book. I think they’ve since introduced a facebook chat booking option. Oh, Korea.
How much is a ferry from Korea to China?
Weidong seem to have a semi-permanent special offer running, so tickets are about 30% less than the published rate. Economy tickets are 78,000 won in this offer, about £50. This gets you a bunk bed in a dormitory cabin (see below for more detail), private cabins of various levels of fanciness are also available. Other ferries seem to be more expensive, with tickets starting at about £70-£80.
Is there a shop at Incheon ferry terminal?
There is a small convenience store where you can spend your last won, which closes about 20 minutes before the boat departs. The shop stocks snacks, drinks, ramen, and face masks for Chinese smog. There’s also a money exchange desk. They accept both won and yuan on the boat.
We arrived just over an hour before the sailing time, and boarding started late, so we sat waiting on the plastic chairs for the best part of an hour. There is free wifi, so you can get your last dose of facebook before disappearing behind the great firewall of China.
Onboard the Weidong ferry
It’s got a freakin’ escalator.
It also has a duty free shop with 600,000 won (£400) bottles of whisky, and the obligatory Asian cruise ferry on-board rice cooker purchasing opportunity. I think there is a regulation stating that you can’t arrive in an Asian country by boat unless you bring a rice cooker. It’s the only explanation for the sheer number of rice cookers being carried on passenger ferries.
The convenience store sells beer, snacks and ramen at more or less normal prices. The buffet restaurant is fairly reasonably priced, given that it’s all you can eat, and the food is nice simple Korean fare. There were plenty of veggie items in the selection. You can just about see out the restaurant windows, which is lucky, because the restaurant closes an hour after boarding, so you’ll need to eat while the boat pulls out of the dock.
Karaoke is also available (of course). Apparently there’s also a movie theatre, golf putting, and a sauna. We didn’t find any of these. By sauna I expect they mean bath (there was a functioning communal bath on the ferry to Japan and the ferry to Korea we took), but we couldn’t locate it, and instead had a wash in the communal shower rooms. Think 1990s swimming pool changing rooms: open plan, non slip mats, cracked tiling. Private cabins have their own bathrooms.
There’s a nice summary of the practicalities of this journey from a blogger who travelled from China to South Korea in 2012. Recommended reading, especially if you’re considering other cabin classes. As an update, economy class is no longer gender segregated on this boat. So if you’re travelling in a mixed sex group you’ll still be in the same cabin.
We bought the cheapest tickets, so we were in a large dorm cabin. Around 60 beds I’d guess. Economy cabins also come in tatami mat flavour (i.e. roll out floor beds), but we didn’t specify and were put in the western beds cabin. I think we may have had special foreigner treatment — despite being among the last to check in, we got window beds.
Each bed has a privacy curtain, a reading light, a pillow, linen and blanket, and a luggage cubby hole at the end of the row. So there was plenty of room, much more than on the Eastern Dream from Vladivostok to Sakaiminato. And very comfy the beds were too, we woke up fully refreshed, and (we thought) ready for China.
For a full account of our journey on the Weidong ferry, and the plus points of taking the slow road, read Yellow Sea: Korea to China by Boat.