Sunday, December 18, 2005


On my last day in Beijing I visited two bookstores with English sections to pick up some reading material for my upcoming boat trip. I had nearly forgotten the simple pleasure of browsing the aisles in a bookstore with titles in my own language. How long had it been? And what better book for a boat ride than Herman Melville's MOBY DICK, which I sadly haven't read yet. I picked up a new paperback copy for $2.75US. Outside the first bookstore was a PIZZA HUT, so I indulged myself with an entire small pepperoni pizza for lunch. Curiously, the menu options were quite limited compared to American Pizza Huts. There were no "make your own" pizzas where you could select your own ingredients and crusts. Everything was canned and pre-planned, no doubt tailored to meet the tastes of the discerning Chinese pizza connoisseurs.

The waitresses were all decked out in Santa hats and vests, and Christmas carols were playing on the speakers. It was the first time I'd seen Christmas decorations all year. In rural Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, the seasons have a way of simply passing without the fanfare of pumpkins, turkeys and jolly ol' Saint Nicks. After some more errands, I kicked back at an English-style pub for an evening beer, then made my way to the Theater of Heaven and Earth for a Chinese Acrobatics show. I had to leave before the final act, but still came away duelly impressed. Two female contortionists balanced stacks of crystal glasses on their heads, hands and feet while twisting their bodies in such unimaginable ways that I often grimaced at the sight of it. Male tumblers stacked hoops on top of each other and leaped and somersaulted through with amazing precision and rapidity. In the last act I saw, girls came out on bikes, pedaling swiftly around the stage in tight circles, then jumping off the pedals, balancing themselves on the frame, handle bars and pegs at each axle, then jumping back to the pedals before slowing down too much. Sometimes they pedaled with one leg sticking through the middle of the frame. Then they started piling more and more of them onto one bike. Ron had told me they could get as many as 12, but I so impressed with eight that I thought surely he was exaggerating. But the curtain didn't fall. No less than 11 girls ran back onto the stage as another came out on a single bike. Within a few spins around the stage, all of them were hanging off it.

The reason I had to leave early was to catch my train, the last one of the day to Tanggu, the port on the coast from which my ferry would leave. It was a 2-1/2 hour ride in a packed coach, half of it occupied by new recruits for the Chinese Army. I had a window seat and the window was drafty but the floor heater was running full blast, so my head was too cold and my feet were too warm and I could do little to move either with other passengers packed tightly beside and across from me. The soldiers were engaged in noisy card games, save one sitting across the aisle with a thin mustache who kept to himself and tried to doze. I was so tired from the long day that I managed some sleep in spite of it all. A young man sitting across from me was also getting off at Tanggu, and I was grateful to follow his lead of when to get up, gather my things and head for the vestibule.

Before I could even get through the station gates I was swarmed by taxi drivers smelling the rich green blood of a foreigner. I picked one and told him to take me to the cheap hotel near the ferry terminal that the Lonely Planet guide recommended. He turned out to be a friendly fellow and an honest driver that actually used his meter. I endeared myself to him when he sneezed and I replied with "Yi bai sui" ("100 years old," the proper Chinese response to a sneeze -- subsequent sneezes are answered with increments of 100 years). That was fortunate, because the hotel was no longer in business and I had to trust him to find me another one. The Santai Binguan was more expensive than I wanted, but quite nice (relatively speaking, at least), including 24-hour hot water which led to a much-needed shower.

It seemed they also have other 24-hour services. When I walked into my room, the phone was ringing. I picked it up and said "Wei" (hello).

"You like massage?" a breathy female voice inquired.

"No thank you," I replied and hung up without asking whether it was a regular massage or a "special" massage. The hour being slightly passed midnight, I could have made a reasonably good guess, though.

The phone rang again after I got out of the shower. Again I politely declined, then unplugged the receiver. When my nerves finally settled enough for sleep, it was very soundly until my alarm woke me at 7:00.

I checked out and caught a taxi to the ferry terminal, arriving at 8:00 and finding the place almost deserted. After wandering around the entrance in the cold morning wind for 20 minutes, I asked the guard when the place opened.

"It doesn't open today," he told me.

"Then where can I buy a ticket for Japan?" I pleaded.

"Right there," he said, indicating the building behind me.

I walked into the adjacent building to find six windows, five of them empty and the other with four uniformed attendants milling around behind a "pause" sign, indicating the window wasn't opened yet. The hours were 8:30-4:00, and it being only 8:20, I leaned against the wall and dodged the lady mopping the floor for 20 minutes, after which time there was no noticeable change at the windows.

I approached and asked what time they opened, or at least tried to ask that, as no one seemed to understand. Confusion abounded until one of them suggested that maybe I wanted to go to Japan. I nodded vigorously and tried to tell them that I wanted to buy a ticket.

"Mintian, mintian," they excitedly replied. That means tomorrow. Did it mean that the ferry would leave tomorrow, in contradiction to both my Lonely Planet guide and the phone call Ron had made a month earlier for me, or did it mean that I could buy a ticket tomorrow for the following week's ferry? When I tried to find out, one of them wrote down a phone number, handed it to me, moved the "pause" sign back in front of the window and gave me a dismissing look. That wouldn't do. There was absolutely nothing resembling a public phone anywhere in the vicinity, save the card operated phone in the lobby, and I didn't have a card.

I didn't move from my place in front of the window, and asked where I could find a phone. After more confused discussion behind the glass, the woman picked up one of the three phones on her desk, dialed, and slipped the receiver under the glass and out to me. The man on the other end spoke enough English to tell me the ship was leaving tomorrow, not today, and that I could buy a ticket there. When could I buy a ticket? He didn't speak that much English. He said goodbye and I handed the phone back through the glass. The woman placed it back in its cradle.

"I want to buy a ticket," I pleaded. "Here?"

Yet more confusion. I was getting very frustrated and excitable, when I realized that probably wasn't doing anything to help. I took a deep breath and gave them my best smile. She picked up the phone again, called the same number, and after some discussion, indicated that I should return the next morning at 9:00 and buy a ticket not from their office, but from the currently-closed terminal building next door. I thanked them and left.

Three taxis were waiting near the otherwise deserted entrance. A guard waved me over to one of them, where an attractive female driver was waiting. In Daban, Ron and I always sought out the female drivers, as they were generally a little less aggressive than the men, both in their driving and their prices. We were half way back to the binguan when I noticed she hadn't activated her meter. She dropped me at the entrance and asked for Y30 with an innocent smile. My earlier ride had cost 11.

"Tai gui le!" I protested. "15."


"My ride this morning cost 11."

She nodded and kept smiling. I handed 15 through the window and went inside.

The hotel staff gave me a look as if to say, "back so soon?" They gave me the room exactly one floor below my previous one. I crawled onto the bed, wrapped the covers around me and slept deeply, not waking until after noon.

During my time with Ron, I had an occasionally recurring dream. I either got sick or something came up that required me to leave China early and return to the U.S. Regardless of the reason, in the dream I always found myself emailing Ron and hearing about all the fun he was still having. I would sit there at a computer somewhere in America, wondering why I had left so soon, wondering how I was going to get to Japan now, and wishing more than anything that I could be right back in China. It was always a great relief to wake up from those dreams and find myself still in China. As I slept away the morning, I had another dream. Its details are lost to me, but I know it didn't take place in China. When I woke up alone in my hotel bed, I couldn't have been more disappointed to still be there.

I slipped back into my clothes and stepped outside into a brisk December afternoon. Down the street I found a restaurant that served Kung Piao Chicken, one of my favorite dishes in China. As I was unwrapping my chopsticks, a waitress brought out a fork. I waived her off and, much to the entire staff's delight, devoured the plate using nothing but my kuaizi. If only my language skills had improved as much as my chopstick ability in the last three months!

Further down the street I spied the "Wang Ba" characters and parked myself at a computer to check my options. There were flights available, although the costs were significant. I had a long email conversation with Mo about what to do. I nearly bought a plane ticket, but eventually we decided I should try once more for the ferry. Despite the frustrations, having that electronic connection with her did more to lift my spirits than anything else I could have imagined.

It was long-dark when I returned to the streets. Back at the same restaurant, I had a plate of jiaozi for dinner, then returned to my hotel room and immediately unplugged the phone. I laid on the bed with MOBY DICK opened before me, very much feeling a damp, drizzily November in my own soul and, like Ishmael, hoping to get to sea as soon as possible. Before retiring for the night, I switched on CCTV9, the national English channel. The program was about Chinese shipbuilding. I hoped that was a good omen.

"Laowai!" the parking lot attendant shouted as I walked out of the hotel the next morning. A taxi driver ran out of the attendant's shack, jumped into his car and began frantically waiving me toward him. I gave him a big smile and wave as I walked by on my way down the street to breakfast. Later, when I actually wanted a taxi, I nearly had to pound on the glass to get anyone's attention. A driver finally came out and motioned me over to his car. I put my bags in the back, sat down in the front and pointed at the meter as we pulled onto the main boulevard. He turned it on with an embarassed chuckle.

Left for dead the previous day, this morning the ferry terminal was brimming with life. A heavily-laden bus was waiting outside and baggage clerks were scrambling back and forth between it and the terminal building, hauling over-stuffed duffle bags and canvas sacks on wheeled trolleys. Passengers milled about inside, shifting their bags from one side to the other as they anxiously waited the call for boarding. I walked up to the counter and had booked passage within 15 minutes, Y1870 or about $225US for a berth in a 6-person room.

A line formed next to the "International Passenger Entry/Exit Room" and I joined it. The passengers were largely young to middle-aged Chinese and more women than men. There were at least a couple young families with small children and a few Japanese university students.

The customs agents seemed more than happy to help us leave their country.

"Have you been in contact with SARS?"


"Bird flu?"


"Do you have any of these illnesses?" indicating those listed on my "statement of health" card.

"No," I replied again, surpressing a cough.

"Very good!" I was waived on to the immigration counter, where a big red stamped ended my 82 days in China.

After a short wait in an inner waiting room, another officer motioned us outside where a shuttle bus was waiting. There was a ferry parked directly in front of the terminal building, but apparently we would not be taking it. When the bus was full, a dozen more passengers squeezed on with their bags, and then the driver shut the doors and pulled out. He turned around and drove along the dock, past the boat in front of the terminal and stopping at the very next boat. We couldn't have traveled more than 300 meters. He was careful to pull right up to the gangway, where two police officers waited to direct us onto the boat. This was one place where the Chinese were taking no chances.

I walked up the gangway of the "Yanjing," a 200-meter vessel that carried automobiles and freight containers in her lower decks and passengers on top. Several smiling "Marine Girls" in light blue suits waited on the deck to show us to our cabins. I was led to the "1st class rooms" on the second floor. Surely there was some mistake! My ticket indicated room 333, but I was directed past it and into room 324, a 4-person room with a window. There was a sink, TV, lockers, two arm chairs and, by the window, four bunk beds, two on each side. I hesitated to get comfortable, afraid someone would appear at any moment to tell me I was in the wrong room. Only one other passenger joined me, a middle-aged Chinese man, who went immediately to the shower room and left me, again, alone.

Finally there was a knock at the door. I opened it to admit a neat, trim, uniformed Chinese man.

"Hello!" he said cheerily, in English.

"Hello," I replied, a little tentatively.

"Just you in here?" he asked.

"One other person, a Chinese gentleman."

"Very good," he replied with a big smile. "Take a look at the information packet," he said, indicating a big folder, "and let me know if you have any questions. I'm here to help you. Life jackets are in the cabinet under the television."

"I hope I won't be needing one of those!"

He grinned. "Dinner is at 6:00. Breakfast is at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Don't forget to set your watch ahead to Japanese time tonight. You don't want to miss breakfast. It's free!"

"Even better! What's your name, by the way?"

"You can call me John."

"Very nice to meet you, John. My name is Scott."

"Scott?" I spelled it as he wrote it in his notebook. He left with another smile. I sat down feeling happier than I had since leaving the Ji-Tong line. I was going to Japan.


Anonymous said...

Well as your blog has progressed, I knew this day would come. I could sense it between the lines. While I know this started to record just your trip to China, I hope you keep posting as you settle in to Japan.

Oh, and one of these days, I'm going to reply to that email of yours!


Cyrus said...


I've been following your blog for some time now after seeing your link on Boing Boing. I'd like to interview you for my podcast, The Wanderlust Geek ( Please email me at when you can. Thanks!

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