My tendency for frugality had showed itself while planning a family vacation to see the rest of Asia. We wanted to see China, but an average round trip ticket cost around $900, nearly what I paid to come to Japan from Chicago! To top it off, one-way tickets were even more expensive, since budget airlines were nearly non-existent in Japan. What we really wanted was to start our trip in China, but return to Japan via Southeast Asia. That meant taking a boat to China was the best option available!
I had figured out that we could all take a boat from Kobe to Tianjin, China, near Beijing, for the price of a single round-trip ticket. The only catch was that the boat would take over two days to reach its destination! I had figured that we were in no particular hurry to get there and that we could always use another adventure in travel- so I had booked us passage aboard the China Express Line leaving from Kobe.
Even though the boat wasn't set to leave until 11:30 a.m., we wanted to leave the house in plenty of time to find the boat terminal and check in early, so we left the house at quarter to 8. Since we were all dragging a big piece of luggage, along with one carry-on per person, we opted for the downhill walk to the monorail station instead of crossing campus to Ishibashi. This added 700 yen to our trip, but it was well worth avoiding the long stairway down to campus as well as the uphill walk up the brick paths which criss-crossed the campus. I'm cheap, but I'm not that cheap!
Since we arrived in Kobe around 9 am, we decided that we had plenty of time to get breakfast before we headed to the boat. We ate at a quaint little cafe in the train station which was playing American Jazz music at the time. We all had our fill of various baked goods, and the three of us had coffee, while Brennan decided on a "Bloody Orange Smoothie", which had crushed ice, orange juice, as well as a splash of tomato juice. After breakfast, we walked over to the "Port Liner" train and took it to the dock.
They opened check in for the boat at 10 am, during which I had to show our passports and fill out our embarkation cards. We then checked our baggage in a process that was not unlike the procedure at an airport. We passed through customs and immigration, then walked out onto the dock and saw the boat for the first time. The "Yanjing" was a Chinese boat which made the trip to Tianjin once a week and then had a day off before it made the return voyage. It was a big boat, perhaps 300 feet long, not quite cruise ship size, but large for a ferry, which is what they called had the trip on the internet.
We boarded the ship and checked into our first class cabin. "First Class" meant that we got real (bunk) beds and that there were only 4 - 6 people per room, while "Second Class" slept on the floor on mats with 16 people per room. If I was going to make the family travel to China this way, the least I could do is spring for first class accommodations! We explored the ship while we waited for it to leave. The boat had shared bathrooms as well as a separate shared room for showering. It also had a traditional public bath on its lowest level. There was also a restaurant, as well as various vending machines throughout. On our exploration, we also encountered a T.V. lounge, a smoking lounge, and a "game room", which consisted of a single ping-pong table, but that was just fine with the boys.
We were on deck at 11:30 when the Yanjing started its engines, blew its whistle, and pulled out to sea. We felt like we should be waving "bon voyage" to someone, just like in the movies, so we waved to some Japanese boys who were playing on a nearby dock- but they didn't pay any attention to us.
We admired the views of Honshu Island, to our right, as well as Shikoku Island, to our left as we pulled up the straight between the two. We had actually seen some of the same scenery from the train during our trip to Hiroshima, but we welcomed the different perspective that the boat offered. We crossed underneath the longest suspension bridge in the world, the first of three bridges that we would pass underneath that day. Every now and then, they would make announcements in Chinese, then Japanese, and finally (if they deemed them important enough) in English as well. In all, about half of the announcements ended up being given in English.
Soon after we left, they announced that lunch would be served in the restaurant. Being a Chinese boat, they served primarily Chinese food, with an occasional Japanese dish thrown in for good measure. Justin and I picked fish for lunch. It tasted good but was filled with tiny bones which were difficult to pick out. Brennan had ham, which reminded me more of ham hocks, with bones and cartilage throughout. We figured that it might take us a few tries to figure out what was good at the restaurant.
We then spent a few hours on deck, sitting in the sun, and watching the scenery go by. After a series of announcements that they didn't bother to translate into English, the purser came out to us and told us they were performing a safety drill. We needed to return to our cabin right away, don our life jackets, and meet our designated lifeboat chief in the main lobby. Ten minutes later, as we were still fumbling with our life jackets, the purser popped into our room to show us how to tie them. The people who were assigned to the number 4 lifeboat, after meeting in the lobby, proceeded to the aft deck, where we lined up with everyone else. They then split us up by languages. The man giving the English safety instructions spent 5 minutes telling us about the various alarms on the boat and what to do if we heard them, while the Chinese and Japanese instructions took about 3 times as long. We weren't sure if they got the same information and it just took longer to say it, or if we just got the pared down version of the talk. After that, we returned the jackets to our room and continued to view the scenery.
Dinner was served at 6, the family had a little more luck finding something that they liked, but I still ended up with an assortment of food that, for whatever reason, they couldn't eat. Real Chinese food seemed to have a lot more bones, skin, and gristle than we were used to at Americanized Chinese restaurants. After we ate, we returned to deck to watch the sun set over the last piece of the Japanese islands that we would see on our trip, we had made it all the way down the straight and were heading out to sea.
We then decided to hold a family ping-pong tournament, which Justin won by just a few points. Then, everyone was invited back to the restaurant for a talent show. There, 6 of the female crew members took turns singing mostly Chinese songs, although 2 of them were in Japanese. Some of them simply wore their crew uniform, while others dressed the part, the final girl in a silver sparkling mini-skirt with a matching jacket. One girl played traditional music on a large Chinese harp. It was quite the cultural experience, as we left, I commented to the family that you couldn't get anything like that on a plane!
We took turns taking showers, since we had only one set of toiletries to share between us. Unfortunately, we had checked the suitcases with the towels so we had to use the clothes we were wearing to dry off with. At 10 pm, they announced that everyone should be quiet and should get some sleep. We settled in for the night and were rocked to sleep by the waves.
August 18 - Slow Boat to China
I woke around 7 am; the boat was pitching back and forth to a much greater extent than the day before. Someone later told us that the sea is the roughest in the channel that runs between Japan and Korea because of the way the currents mix there. Around 7:30 they started playing elevator music over the intercom system, presumably to wake everyone up. Among the songs was "Let it Snow", which seemed a little strange. Around 8 they announced it was time for breakfast.
They had a set breakfast with a Chinese dumpling, Chinese bread, and a hard boiled egg. We also got coffee, and I had rice porridge as well. This was one of the better meals that we had aboard the ship. Brennan loved the dumplings and wanted more, but they said it was part of the set and only one set was allowed per person. They did mention, however, that I could buy dumplings for 50 yen a piece, so I purchased three more. We sat next to Teddy, a Japanese man who was on his way to Mongolia. He was a teacher who spent three months at a time in Mongolia teaching Japanese. After this time he then chose one student to accompany him back to Japan where they would undergo more intensive training. At the end of three months, he returned to Mongolia to start this process over again. He, therefore, had taken this journey a number of times before and was very knowledgeable about the trip. He was a very funny man who spoke excellent English and we had a nice time conversing with him.
After breakfast, we returned to the deck to look at the beautiful scenery as well as to get some fresh air. I wasn't feeling the greatest due the constant rocking that was taking place, but knew that I would probably feel better out on the deck. We were passing a number of mountainous islands and did so for the next several hours. These islands were apparently part of Korea, even though we couldn't see the mainland from the boat. Then Trudy saw what looked like a ball in the water, but on closer inspection we realized what it really was- a huge jellyfish! We stood and watched jellyfish for a while, there ended up being hundreds of them. Some of them were two feet across; most were brightly colored red or orange. They were most impressive when we saw a side view of them and could see the tentacles as well as the swimming motion that they were making. We called the boys out on deck so they could watch them too. In addition to the jellyfish, we saw beautiful blue fish with yellow tails swimming around. Trudy and Justin sat on the deck in the sun reading their books while I just watched the islands go by. Later, as we were talking with some Australian girls and peering over the side, we saw a small shark in the water.
After awhile, they made the announcement it was time for lunch. We still hadn't quite worked out what was best to eat. For instance, Trudy picked up a plate of what she thought was mushrooms but they ended up being egg yolks which were marinated in a brown sauce. They were good, but a whole plate of them was a little much. We ate lunch with the Australian girls as well as a German student who was taking the long way back home. He had lived in Tokyo for a year and was now going to catch the Trans-Siberia Railway across China and Russia to get home. Everyone that we had met so far on the boat had some adventurous travel story to tell. For instance, the two Australian girls were both traveling alone, one to Viet Nam and then Cambodia, the other to China and eventually India. Like us, most of the people who were traveling had just met for the first time on the boat.
After lunch I took a nap. Trudy returned to the deck while the boys played ping pong and went to the public bath. Later, we switched places and I went to the deck with the boys while Trudy napped. I was happy to see that the sea had clamed down considerably as we passed into the Yellow Sea. Soon, there were no more islands in sight, just miles and miles of open water.
At dinner we sat by the German guy once again and were joined by a Japanese student as well. He was also headed to Mongolia with a group that was planning to plant trees in the desert. At 8 p.m. Justin wanted to return to the public bath so I went with him. There was a father there with his young son and a few other men as well, all were Japanese, of course. I hadn’t heard that Chinese people were as fond of public baths. At 10 pm, they announced that it was quiet time once again, so we assembled in our cabin and went to sleep.
August 19 - China!
When we awoke, the sea was calm, and the boat did not rock appreciably for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, Trudy and Justin ate little at breakfast- as they were getting very tired of the food on the boat by this time and did not really feel the greatest. We returned to deck, but for most of the day we could see nothing but open sea- with an occasional boat breaking the monotony. Trudy and Justin did eat lunch, we made sure to line up early in order to get the choice food before it was gone. On the previous days, we had gotten there just as the egg rolls or Japanese fried chicken disappeared and had been stuck with Chinese selections that had often left little to be desired. We all had tonkatsu for lunch- which was a nice change of pace. The only strange thing was that it came with a salad which was covered with ketchup, instead of salad dressing. Brennan also picked a plate of something that resembled fried apples, but ended up being gelatinous goop that none of us could finish and that no one at the table could identify. As we ate, we could see that the number of boats outside was steadily increasing. By the time we returned to deck, the sea resembled a big parking lot with all of the boats on anchor that we were passing.
As I leaned over the side of the rail, I caught my first glimpse of land! It was actually not that impressive. Tianjin, being a main shipping center, reminded me of the parts of New Jersey that we used to live near. All I could see were loading cranes and warehouses and the smell was fairly unpleasant as well. The kids were unimpressed and returned to the ping-pong table below deck to play for one last hour. We pulled up a channel and we were at the dock by 2 pm, as promised. After docking, however, there was a 45-minute wait to be cleared by health officials before we could disembark. We had all filled out cards listing any ailments that we had. Finally, we walked down the gangplank into China, where we immediately boarded a bus that took us a short distance to the passenger terminal.
At the terminal, we passed through an area where they stamped our passports, then we picked up the luggage we had checked, and passed it through an X-ray machine on our way out of the building. We were pleasantly surprised by this process, since we had expected the entry procedures to be more involved than that. We then met up with an impromptu group which had assembled. Teddy, since he had done this so many times before, knew all of the tricks of getting to Beijing. He had told us that we could come with him when the boat docked, and we had invariably mentioned this to the Australians, the Brits, as well as the German guy. Teddy was also helping a group of Japanese students get to the train station. No less than 15 people now stood in our group of foreign acquaintances.
Although there were people in the parking lot asking "Bus? Bus?" we knew from the information on the boat that they charged $33/person to get to Beijing. Instead, Teddy directed us to the city bus stop for the 30-minute ride to the main bus depot, which cost us the equivalent of 26 cents a piece. The ride to the bus depot was interesting, to say the least. The bus was soon crowded with people, the driver honked his horn constantly as he swerved in and out of traffic, and we drove past some of the most dismal houses that we had ever seen. The whole town looked dirty, gray, and run down. The bus depot, by contrast, looked brand new, as they had just finished building it in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. The entire area of China we were in was apparently undergoing massive construction projects in order to prepare for this event.
The tickets we bought to Beijing at this depot were less than $8/person, without our friend Teddy, we would have not known where to go and probably would have paid the people at the port the exorbitant prices. The bus we took was, admittedly, a little less modern than the expensive buses. The speedometer didn't work and it sounded like the gears were going to fall off the bus every time the driver shifted them. Luckily, he didn't feel that he had to honk constantly during the 2-hour expressway ride to Beijing, just every now and then. The family all had to sit apart, since we were the last to get on, after making sure our luggage had been loaded safely on board. All but Justin sat within a few seats of each other, however, who had found a seat in the back of the bus near the Australian girls. This bus, unlike the previous one, was air conditioned- almost too much, perhaps, since I got very cold before we reached our destination.
I was surprised to see so many open spaces between Tianjin and Beijing, I had thought of China as being wall-to-wall with people. On the trip, we passed a number of fields and small villages, which stood in stark contrast to the urban blight that we had just experienced. The family mostly read and napped on the bus ride. The ride seemed to take forever, probably because we were so tired of traveling by that point. Finally, we started seeing more and more buildings and we could tell that we were entering a large metropolitan area.
On the surface, Beijing looked like any large city- with its buildings, traffic, and smog- but this illusion would soon pass. The bus pulled up to a station, and we all got out, assembling our group one final time. Teddy suggested that we take a cab to the hostel we were staying in, near Tiananmen Square. We had discovered on the boat that a number of the other travelers had booked a room at the same place, and that still others, after talking with us, wanted to stay there. We therefore had two cab loads of people, with our family filling up one.
I had the address of the hostel written down in Chinese, so I showed it to the cab driver, who just shook his head. I rejoined our group, who was still standing in a circle, and told Teddy that apparently the cab driver did not want to take us where we were going. Teddy took my paper, talked to the driver for a few minutes in Chinese, and then told us to get in to the cab. We found out later that, due to the traffic and construction there, cabs didn't really like to head to that area. Teddy warned us that it would normally take us a few different tries to find someone who would be willing to take us there. The 20-minute cab ride to our hostel cost us about $4, even with the driver having to turn around once to make the right turn and then stopping and asking someone where the hostel was after making it to the general area. After getting directions, the cab turned into a narrow alley that was mobbed with people, honking the horn the whole way to get them to clear a way for us. People were on foot, riding bicycles, pushing carts, hawking their wears, they were literally everywhere. The smells emanating from the alleyway were unpleasant, to say the least.
The cab pulled up to the hostel and let us off. We entered to learn from the proprietor that the triple room I had reserved would never be large enough to fit our family of four. Instead, he suggested that we switch to their sister hostel a bit further down the street where we could have a quad room for the same price, about $40. The hostel staff loaded our luggage onto the back of a bicycle rickshaw and we walked along side as they carted our luggage to the other hostel. People from the shops which lined the street would say "Hello, hello" and then mention what they were selling. We would experience this same "running of the gauntlet" every time we walked down the alleyway to get to the main street.
Trudy and Brennan were getting more and more freaked out every step we took into the underbelly of Beijing. Finally, after what seemed like forever, but was 10 minutes at the most, we found ourselves at "Leo Hostel II", also called the Shal Ling Hostel. It was located in the middle of a neighborhood of crumbling Chinese residences that were jammed into a side alleyway off the main alley. The foyer looked like it was taken from an old movie of the orient, with high ceilings, a large woodcarving, a pond with turtles and goldfish, as well as people sitting on wicker chairs and fanning themselves.
Our room had barren walls and could barely contain the four single beds which were haphazardly arranged in it, two of which creaked every time the person on them moved even an inch. The bathroom had a sink and toilet, with a shower opposite the toilet. There was a drain on the floor for when one used the shower, but the water sprayed everywhere within the small confines of the bathroom. You could literally use the toilet and shower at the same time! The one thing you couldn't do was flush any toilet paper down the commode, a sign on the wall said to throw it in the wastebasket after you used it. Trudy sat on one of the non-creaky beds and began to cry, completely overwhelmed. We were all tired, hungry, and culture-shocked from our trip into Beijing.
After a while I suggested that we go to the hostel's restaurant and have dinner, since it was after 8 pm by this point. The restaurant was a quaint little place with a room above it where one could watch a movie or use the internet. Trudy and I ordered hamburgers and fries, since we had been craving Western food after the boat trip and could have used any little connection to home at the moment. What came was literally a "ham" burger, a bun with ham, lettuce, and dressing. It ended up being quite good, even if it was not what we had expected to receive. We ran into Aya, one of the Australian girls we had met on the boat, as we were finishing our food. She was able to commiserate about the surroundings. Trudy felt better after talking with her and we all were feeling much better after eating something, so we returned to our room and went to sleep, exhausted.
August 20 - Exploring Beijing
I woke up early, as usual, and took a shower in our interesting bathroom. When the whole family was assembled, we went to get breakfast at the hostel's restaurant. Justin and Trudy stuck with toast and honey, while Brennan ordered a huge "Western breakfast": eggs, ham, toast, and a salad, and I had banana pancakes. My breakfast looked more like what I thought of as a German pancake since it was made in a little skillet and therefore had raised edges, but it was very delicious.
It was 10 by the time we left the hostel, but before we could tour Beijing we had an important errand to run. We needed to head to the train station in order to secure our tickets for Hong Kong, which one had to purchase in the city that your train trip originated. We walked up to Tiananmen Square in order to catch the subway to the train station. The subway was not unlike the one in Japan, although there was no vending machine to buy tickets from, everyone went to a manned ticket office, it also cost us $ .40, which was also quite different from what we were used to in Japan.
We found the train station with no problem; we just followed thousands of people who were pushing their way to get in. It took us a while to find where we could buy tickets, though. First, we followed the crowds into the train station itself and went around to various places asking where we could buy a ticket. No one spoke English, of course, but we eventually realized that we had to exit the station and go to an attached building that was expressively used for ticket sales. We waited in line for a bit, but soon realized that there was a special window for foreigners to buy tickets from. The only catch was that there was no one manning this window. I waited in line at the next-door window, but when I got to the front, he directed me to wait at the unmanned foreigner one.
Finally, a lady came to the window and I explained what we wanted. She said that, unfortunately, there weren't four beds in the same room, that we would have to buy top bunks in two different rooms. Since we didn't have much of a choice, I agreed to that arrangement. However, when she rang up the price, it was more than I had anticipated from researching it on the internet, $125 each instead of $115. That was fine, but meant that I didn't have enough cash on me to buy them, since I had tried not to exchange too much money on the boat at the less than prime exchange rates offered there. This meant that I had to find a bank to exchange more money and then return to the train station.