My time in China was always going to be a little squeezed on this trip. Before China was Mongolia and I intended to travel on to South Korea afterwards, both countries that held a lot of interest for me. Furthermore, given the size of China, a week, two weeks, a few weeks, it would never really be enough, and I expect I’ll visit again in the future.
In Beijing I started looking at onward travel, aiming to get to South Korea without flying. Digging through search results showed some options for this but it looked like unreliable or unhelpful information. For example, some websites were only in Korean, some were for companies which seemed to have gone out of business. I couldn’t find any with an English translation or that had the facility to book online. Asking at the hotel in Beijing was no help either. They didn’t really understand the idea of travelling to South Korea by sea instead of flying.
I contacted a ferry company in Qingdao which looked to run three trips to Incheon each week, and, oddly, had a booking system using Facebook Messenger. I started chatting with them and found out the ferry was undergoing maintenance, so Qingdao wasn’t an option. Tianjin had a ferry service, actually running from Tanggu, some 50 miles away, and it seemed like a long trip to the port for what might amount to no ferry ticket.
I had to wing it. Searches suggested ferries running from Qinhuangdao, Dandong and Dalian, each along the coast heading east from Beijing. Dalian was right in the middle, six hours from Beijing by train, and seemed like the best option. I was on my way the following day, waiting with the crowds at Beijing station and getting the last available train ticket.
There was some rationale in heading for Dalian. If I failed to get an onward ticket there then I could easily head to one of the other cities nearby. The Dalian port, going by the map, looked to be only a short walk from the city centre, so I could try my luck for a ticket without wasting too much time. And Dalian looked like an interesting place to visit and spend a bit of time. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how big China is; here’s a city with a population similar to urban Chicago, small by Chinese standards perhaps, yet it’s a place most of us have probably never heard of. I certainly hadn’t.
Arriving in Dalian late at night, there was an atmosphere around the train station. Markets, traffic, a lot of people. I had enough hotel points saved up to treat myself for a couple of nights here and had booked a room at what is probably the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at. There’s me, rocking up unshaven, with only a little backpack and looking entirely out of place. There was rationale in booking this hotel, too. I figured a hotel like this was more likely to have a concierge to help with travel information, if needed.
The following morning I woke up early to blisteringly hot weather, and I had a chat with the concierge. Travelling to Incheon by sea was lost on him. He didn’t understand what I was looking for at first, then, when he did, didn’t understand why anyone would want to do that rather than fly. He knew there was a port nearby but had no ferry information. A few calls and Internet searches provided nothing, so he called the port.
“There is a ferry that runs from here, maybe tomorrow” he said.
“That’s all they could tell me…”
Thinking my chances were slim, I asked him to write down what I was looking for – the ticket type, the time I thought the ferry was operating based on a website I had found, expected ticket cost, so I could use it at the port, and off I went.
Dalian was busy with traffic, less so with people. It had modern, towering skyscrapers and nicely landscaped streets. I passed through what seemed like a high-end area, the shops suggested this, and kept walking towards the port.
There were people around the port. Some were working, some were setting up stalls for what looked like a corporate event. I had a few broken conversations, used my handy translated info… and had no luck. After an hour or so, I was starting to give up hope. Heading down another street, talking (or “talking”) with some other people, I finally found it:
The Ticeket Office.
And it was open. And they were selling tickets. The translation I had on me worked a treat. Until…
“No card. Cash.”
I was crushed a little inside as I realised I had no cash. My ticket was there, right there, in touching distance – it was printed out already. For the next two hours I searched for a cash machine, only managing to find two that were broken. Heading back to the city, only finding a few that didn’t accept foreign cards. Then, finally, after many attempts, I got cash.
When I returned to the port, the ticket office was closed.
It’s worth mentioning that I don’t handle heat too well. Anything above 25C and I start to struggle. On this day it was mid 30s, blazing sunshine, and I had been walking for miles and miles. I’m a pretty calm person but in this instance, anyone nearby heard some colourful language.
It turned out the ticket office was only closed for lunch.
I got my ticket.
Given everything that had happened that morning, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was a real ticket for a real ferry that would really be operating the following day, but it’s all I had and I went back into town to relax and “celebrate” with a beer.
The reason for “celebrating” is that when I was thinking about a route to continue without flying, China to South Korea was the part I had no luck in finding a way forward for. I had almost resigned myself to finding a budget flight from the nearest airport.
Back in the city I wandered down a couple of streets and found a pub. It was quiet in the mid-afternoon – I was the only customer – but it was delightfully air-conditioned and bliss inside. It had food, it, surprisingly, had a fantastic beer selection of hundreds of bottles which would put most UK bars to utter shame, and it was wonderful. I was happy.
Throughout the hectic morning, I saw quite a bit of Dalian but not the areas I had hoped to see. There’s the forest zoo, there are pandas, there’s a beach, there are lovely looking historic sites, hills to climb, museums to visit. Dalian seems like a really nice place to spend a few days and I missed out on so much in the hunt for a ticket and booking the first available ferry. I did spend a bit of the evening exploring a bit further but really only saw the city centre.
The following morning I was up early, packed, and on the now familiar route towards the port. Just in the distance I could see a ferry, one which wasn’t there the day before. Security was a breeze (they confiscated my deodorant because it was flammable – I would say not allowing me deodorant in this heat was more of a danger), I boarded and found my room.
It was a cabin with six beds in three bunks, and sharing with a family. Later that night I would end up pulling the curtain across and snoozing my way through the entire trip, missing out on the Chinese stand-up comedian and cabaret act. The cabin was comparative luxury when considering most passengers were staying in the kind of accommodation I’d expect to see during a natural disaster (think mattresses spread across the floor in a sports hall).
Nearly an hour after we were due to depart, I was starting to think the onward journey wasn’t going to happen, and didn’t believe we were actually leaving until the tugs pulled the ferry from the shore. We were off.