In which we run away to sea

We had to scramble in the morning to get postcards stamped and mailed, get breakfast form the convenience store (I’ll miss sushi for breakfast) and get to the port on time to catch our ferry to Shanghai. The subway took longer than I expected and there was a fifteen-minute hike under the morning sun with the packs because we’d missed the shuttle bus from the subway station to the docks. We arrived very hot and sweaty at the International Ferry Terminal (at the same moment as the next bus, naturally).

As we waited in line to check in and pay, a man took our temperatures with a light-pen that he held to our foreheads. The hysteria over H1N1 (or Swine Flu if you prefer) was at its height at that point, and I thought the device probably turned into a high-intensity laser that would have burned a hole through our heads instantly if it had detected a fever. I was a little nervous about being so hot and sweaty from the walk, but I guess we were still within a normal range. By this time it was ten minutes after the cutoff time for customs and the immigration check, but it didn’t really seem to matter.

Leaving Japan was very informal compared to the fingerprinting, retina scanning and invasive DNA sampling of the arrival procedure. They just waved us through. I suppose any foreigner leaving the country is too good a thing to question closely. We were on board the M.V. Su Zhou Hao by eleven, in plenty of time for the noon departure. After a lot of thought we’d decided to spend the extra money for one of the cheapest cabins on the ship. We’d be sharing it with two other people, but that was better than the so-called “dormitory” cabins, where we’d be sleeping on the floor, and which Sheryl would be sharing with fifteen other women and I’d be stuck with 39 smelly, noisy men. We were both very glad to have spent the money - not something I say very often these days. Our cabin was compact but nice. Both lower bunks had already been taken by a French and Italian couple (who spent most of the trip having discreet sex behind the drawn curtains). It had a window facing toward the bow and looking onto a jumble of nautical equipment painted lichen-grey. The nice views were reserved for the expensive cabins, naturally.

I’d never really been on a proper ship before and it was all new to me. The Su Zhou Hao (the name doesn’t really mean anything - Suzhou is a city and Hao is a suffix that gets tacked on the end of every Chinese ship’s name) was something like 150m from bow to stern. It had three decks. The first held the dorms, showers and cabins for those travelling steerage like us; the lobby with its hot-water, tea and vending machines and the mahjongg room (which was always deserted). The lobby was also the smoking area, which was nasty, but only the tiniest fraction of what we were to experience when we actually got to China. The middle deck had the cafeteria and the nicer restaurant; the bar/karaoke room; the main lounge and the forward lounge (or “reading room”).

The top deck had the first-class cabins and the exit to the outside decks. These were mostly restricted, though I did manage to have a look around the lower outside deck. At the bow end there was the bridge, festooned with dishes and antennae, and at the stern were the lifeboats, painted a comfortingly bright orange-red and with hard bubble-like canopies that made them look like mini-submarines. All the outside walls and railings were painted the same lichen colour, the decks were dark green and the plastic bucket chairs bolted down to the deck were bright red. There were fascinatingly cryptic warning icons plastered everywhere. It was all excitingly nautical.

The ship spent the first day cruising through Japan’s Inland Sea. We were never out of sight of land on both sides. Cities and towns slipped past and little islands and spikes of land covered with greenery down to the waterline. A constant stream of ships flowed in both directions, separated by a kilometer of water, like the most orderly of expressways scaled up to massive proportions. Each kept the same distance from the one ahead and never passed. It was sunny and breezy and the water was deep blue-green, sheltered and calm. Below decks you’d never have known you were at sea. In the early evening we passed under the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge, which links the two great islands of Honshu and Shikoku. I’ve been told it’s the longest bridge in the world. That might be true or not - I’ve heard that claim about a lot of bridges - but it was still an impressive span of metal. That was just before dinner was announced - to which we were not invited, regrettably. We’d brought all our own food, so we didn’t have to resort to the overpriced food at the ship’s cafeteria, but we were very glad of the hot-water machine for our instant noodles.

Dusk and sunset were incredibly beautiful. All the little islands turned shades of purple and indigo and the sky descended through reds and oranges. The lights of towns and villages sparkled distantly on both sides. A great long string of ships reached out ahead and strung out along the dark water of our wake in a curving line of lights, and little bats flew from island to island on a strong, cool salt breeze.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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