Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How I hitchhiked the ferry to Korea

Good evening everyone, let me introduce myself. My name is Filip Novotny and I have covered more than 20,000 kilometers to get to this office. I have come from Czech Republic through fifteen countries to ask for your help. I am a writer and I have a project. I want to prove to myself and to the planet that there is still kindness in the world, that good intentions prevail among people. I travel, I travel for free because people help me. Thanks to their help I am able to hittchhike, thanks to their help I can travel for about a dollar per day. Now that I have come so far, I want to try the ultimate hitch. I want to get to South Korea and I want to get there for free. There is a ferry departing from this port and I want your company to offer me a ticket.

I have tried Beijing airport, the ports and air terminals of Tianjin without any success. I know odds are against me. Nobody believes I can succeed, not from here, not from China. Rumour says that China is a place where dreams come to die. I want to prove it wrong because my dream is stronger than rumours.
The truth is: 好梦难成 (hao meng nan cheng, a beautiful dream is hard to realize, chinese idiom). I know that what I am asking of you is impossible. I know that for my dream to live you have to break a rule. Today, the Qingdao ferry is my only option, my last hope to reach Korea.
You now know that if you don't break a rule then you break a dream.

I will not lie to you, I have the money to pay for that ticket. But if I do then everything I am fighting for will be unrevocably destroyed.

Thank you.

Two and half hour later, a guy meets me in the hallway. He hands me an enveloppe from the Weidong Ferry company, inside 800 yuan for my ferry ticket.
"Time is running out. Run!"
That is how I leave the Qingdao head office of Weidong Ferry corporation.

Let us rewind the flashback, shall we.
I am still in Tianjin, still in Cindy's hotel and it is past noon. I have to check out and leave the city as quickly as possible. In this mess, hitchhiking out will not be easy and I'll need time. Next night will be in a tent. Actually, there will probably be many nights in a tent.
I still don't know weather to head towards Weihai or Qingdao. The path to Weihai goes through Longku where I am invited by the truck driver whith whom I drover two and a half month ago in Xinjiang. Maybe he can help me. And Qingdao is a bigger city, more options and also probably a bigger mess.
Anyway, the first few hundered kilometers are the same road so let's see where the path leads me.

I walk through endless dirty roads, bridges and construction sites. The air is dirty from the trucks releasing huge amounts of black smoke as they drive cargo from the great Tianjin port to all directions in China. I am on a hitchhiking spot in the middle of heavy traffic with almost nowhere to stop. So almost nobody stops except some taxi driver who has problems understanding what am I doing here.
Everybody is just returning to Tianjin anyway.
At last a car goes out of its way to leave me at the first highway intersection outside of Tianjin. I don't know how much luck I will have hitchhiking on the highway but in the west, chinese people go to great lengths to help me so hope is up. There is a stranded truck on the side of the road. I ask him if he can get me to the toll station, about 30 kilometers ahead, he says yes. He finally drives me more than 100 kilometers to the next city, Hanghua.
I am finally out of Tianjin, I can hitchhike now without returning to this hitchhiking hell.
I put my tent in a horrible place which smells like shit because people actually shit there. It's not that I can't find another place but in this place I can use wifi from the nearby gas station.
The next day, I am stuck at a toll station, the night has fallen and nobody wants to stop. At last the tollbooth officer persuades a truck to take me. He is going to the Tianjin harbour with a cargo which goes directly to Korea. I explain my project to him, he listens carefully.
"I am going to hitch the ferry"
"You should hitch a cargo ship"
"I can't, I need a working visa for that"
"You don't. You can just get into that container."
"Your truck's container?"
I don't know if he means it as a joke or not.
"I can get you into the harbour, I am going there anyway"
Is he really trying to help me to sneak into a cargo ship to Korea?
"The destination is ok for you?"
Better than if he would leave me in the north of the city.
"It's allright. Let's go there."

We ride through the night, take some carpets which we hide in the truck. This guy uses his truck to do some kind of personal business, I am starting to believe that he isn't joking about sneaking me on a cargo ship.
We load some carpets in some weird dark place

In Qingdao we are stopped by the security checkpoint. But it is late, the guards are tired and want to sleep, they let us through. We pass several other checkpoints and then the uniforms clear out. In front of me, endless alleys of containers. Containers, containers and containers. And some ships. Giant floating metal fortresses on which giant machines load the containers.
"That one goes to Korea," my driver says.
He drives me somewhere in the middle of the containers and leaves me there. My turn.
Loading area of the Qingdao port

I make my way to the ship, the Maple Mighty illuminated by orange light. Giant machines next to it. It is being loaded for departure in a few hours. I come closer. Some workers doing their work, nobody seems to notice me and if they notice they don't care.
At that point I am supposed to be checked, double-checked and ten times clear to enter the perimeter. At that point, nobody suspects anything. There is a rope going from the docks onto the ship. I can just climb along that rope, get on board through the containers and wait for the ship to leave. Nobody will notice, the Chinese care about their business and their business only. Preventing illegal passengers from climbing into ships is the police force business and there is no police here.
The cargo ship, maple mighty is getting ready to leave for Korea

Am I really going to do that? I hesitate. I go to the ship and then back again. I can't do it, I just can't. I am too much of a pussy to board that ship. I have to find another way and I hope that I will otherwise this failed opportunity will stay on my mind.
I exit the port, find a park, pitch a tent, and sleep.

The next day is January 29. It is the last day I can get something done. Why? Because tomorrow is Chinese new year and this year, exceptionnaly, it doesn't last 3 days but a total of six. Six days will be stolen from my already too short visa.
Six days of stress, uncertitude and regret while everybody parties. But if I get a boat today my worries are over.
Qingdao ferry office is my last chance. Actually I have one more. Qingdao head office and then I can ask for someone to pay for my ticket at the ticket office. But the closer I get to the ticket office the more I am tempted to just wave my credit card and buy a ticket with it.

But after what everyone did for me that wouldn't only be unfair to my travelling philosophy but also to the people who helped me.

The weidong ferry office is on the other side of the city. It is a skyscraper and I want the 16th floor. I get into an office, they are having lunch.
"I need to talk to the manager"
"What for"
"It's complicated"
"Is it about the ticket"
"Kind of but not exactly"
"He's in a meeting"
"I'll wait"
"You might have to wait two hours"
"I've travelled for seven months. I am ready to wait for a week."

The staff is intrigued. One of them speaks english, he understands me if I speak slowly. The more complicated parts get delivered by google translate.
He is a kind and polite person. The kind of person who tries to understand people. One that prefers to try to communicate in another way instead of getting angry.
We talk more and more and over the cours of hours, I end up explaining the purpose of my visit here.

Thunderstruck silence. I think I have made my impression. So far, it's the best speech I have made. A little dramatic yet, but I've made a point.

"I really really understand you. And I will help. I will help to convince my boss. I hope he will make your dream come true."

The boss finally comes. He is a good man but he wasn't born yesterday. He has been forged by hard work and business negotiations. You don't impress that guy with cheap effects from holywood soap operas. But my story is not a soap opera. It has provable facts, it makes sense and he knows it. He doesn't get emotional but he is on my side.
"Unfortunately, I can't make that decision, only our headquarters in Weihai can do it. But I will not stand in your way, I'll do my maximum to help."

He writes me all the branches of Weidong Ferries, and other smaller companies. Some of them are not listed anywhere. I also get the addresses. And I get the name for his boss.

"Can you call him?"
"If only! Weihai already stopped working and my boss is somewhere on holiday in southeastern asia."
Damn. I am definitely making progress but with new year coming, it's not enough. I thank him warmly and he wishes me good luck.
"But you should understand that your chances are slim. We are not a charity organisation."

As I leave the office for the elevator I hear a voice behind me: "wait!"
It is the english speaking guy, he catches up to me. "I can't let this happen! I will pay for your ticket"
"Are you sure? It is a lot of money."
"It is allright"
"Think it over."
"I have to go. Wait for me in the hallway. 30 minutes."

I wait there, not knowing what to think. Is he for real?
He appears in the hallway, with en enveloppe labelled Weidong Ferry. He puts it into my hand: "This is your ticket to Korea."
"Why are you doing this?"
"I think your dream is very beautiful. I think the book you're writing will be very famous. I want to do something good. Now time is running out. The last ferry leaves in two hours. Run!"
Inside, my free ride to Korea

I take his enveloppe and rush out of the skyscraper. He waves at me from the distance. I'll always remember this man who made my dream come true.

This is unreal, my wait and stress is over, I just hitched a ferry to Korea! It is done! Or almost, wait until I get there.

I take a bus, then another. Of course nobody knows where the ferry is. They first guide me to a ferry who transports passengers from one part of Qingdao to another for 7 yuan.
The real ferry terminal, fortunately, is not too far.
Qingdao ferry terminal

"Hiiii!!!! Is there a ferry leaving today?"
"In fifteen minutes, last call"

I give the enveloppe to the lady. "Economy class"
I get a ticket and 80 yuan in return. I need to give 30 for port charges which leaves me with 150 yuan extra including cindy's 100 yuan from Tianjin. Very successful hitchhike.

As I get on the ferry, I get checked from all sides including thermal cameras. They are checking temperature. Because of cases of bird flu in China, Korea is checking everyone who enters the country. That's where Cindy's hotel falls in as the last piece of the puzzle. You wonder what the puzzle is? Well, I'll tell you.

I met Cindy the police officer and learned that important part of Chinese society, the value of dreams and I could make that speech which got the message accross.
I met Cindy from the bakery store and besides her wonderful company, she offered me a hotel where I got better and most importantly, my fever dissapeared, my temperature dropped. It is thanks to that hotel that I was granted access to that ferry otherwise my ticket would just be cancelled.

That's it, I am on board. I am onboard!! It is a giant boat, even bigger than the cargo ship and it will get me to Korea legally.
I have hitched a ride on the ferry!

Goodbye China! I am leaving!
For me, it is a personnal challange, I proved to myself that all possibilities are open as long as imagination opens them. 
I didn't just hitched a ferry. I hitched a ferry from China, a country where regulation and culture are against this practice. I hitched it in winter, the less likely off all seasons. But the truth is, none of it matters as long as you believe in what you do and you find a logical path.
The ferry slowly leaves the harbour of Qingdao. I miss China a little, I miss Cindy a little more. She is truly a jewel of humanity. And I am grateful to Pang, the man who made this happen.

"Come on, let's eat noodles!," says Yongjin, my new Korean friend that I met on the ferry. He's great, his girlfriend's great, the weather sucks but the ferry rides steady and while I have no idea how and where I'll be in Seoul, I really don't feel like I have anything to worry about.

Noodles and ferry makes our lives merry

Friday, January 24, 2014

How I didn't hitchhike a helicopter nor a cargo ship

I have to admit the hard truth: Beijing was a fail. But it is not the end, I am trying all the unlikely solutions first, with such an approach it is normal to experience failiure.
In my list of things to try, some options dissapeared but also new options appeared. Here is the new list again ranked from improbable to probable.

  1. Hitch a plane from Beijing airport
  2. Hitch a plane from airport companies in Beijing
  3. Hitch a helicopter from Tianjin helicopter airport to Korea
  4. Hitch a cargo boat from Tianjin harbour
  5. Hitch a cruising ship from the Tianjin harbour
  6. Hitch the Jincheon ferry (Tianjin - Incheon)
  7. Hitch the weidong ferry from Weihai/Yantai
  8. Hitch a personal boat from Weihai/Yantai
4 options left, I can still do it. And with an unbreakable psychology and infinite time it is statistically sure that I will succeed eventually. However I do not have infinite time and while my morale has proven strong, it is not unbreakable. And if there is a country which is good at breaking morale, it is China. Therefore, I should now hurry to Tianjin. I have lost my great hitchhiking cardboards because I went to the toilet leaving them outside for a while and some cleaning crew mistook them for garbage. So from now on, I'll have to rely on my orator skills and my feeble chinese.
The temptation is great to go to Beijing again to the wonderful roommates but I would just lose one more day. And the temperatures are getting warmer around here, I think it might be possible to sleep in a tent again, especially with all the warm clothes I got.
Between Beijing and Tianjin there is a web of roads and endless civilisation. I am sceptical with my chances to catch a direct ride in that. The subway brings me to Tuqiao at the extreme east of the city, barely a small walk to the outer ring road. I walk until a Park which looks actually pretty nice. I get passed the security guard who's sleeping on duty and set camp there. The combination of all warm clothes that I got, especially Janela's snow pants and Tumur's police uniform keep me just warm enough.
I realize that I don't have enough water. I almost didn't drink anything today and I don't have water for the night. I must be dehydrated although I do not feel it.
The next day I wake up in the park, there are some chinese people doing their morning exercises but nobody cares about me.
I am lucky, I get a ride straight to the south of the outter ring road of Tianjin. It's a small truck who takes the national road instead of the highway so it takes forever because there are a lot of intersections and traffic lights.

One of my rides to the port of Tianjin

Tianjin, while being considered a city on the seacoast is so big that it is still 50 kilometers from the actual sea. I have to hitchhike several cars but I make it there.
My ride leaves me on the coastal district of Tianjin but still about 15 kilometers from my destination. I have a precise destination now. On my map I have noticed a particular spot labeled: Binhai eastern helicopter airport. Everywhere on the internet it says there is not much luck to be had with commercial aircraft, better try small private planes. So why not helicopters? Besides, I have to try every imaginable solution, even and especially the far-fetched ones before I give up on crossing the yellow sea.

I start hitchhiking again but I am in the middle of a city. Actually everywhere seems like the middle of a city. I feel like what I am doing doesn't make sense again. But maybe from now on this is the landscape I have to get used to. City, city, endless city. And I have to hitchhike, right? How else am I going to get from one place to another?

A car stops. "I'll take you wherever you want."
"Where are you going?"
"It doesn't matter. I'll take you wherever you need."

I don't know what send me this good soul into my way but I took the offer. I navigated him with GPS accross the city, about an hour walk from the helicopter airport. I have nothing to lose by trying this. But if there is a slight chance a helicopter would take me, that would be badass!

The guy leaves me on the coast of Tianjin; he is out of gas anyway. I reach the helicopter airport at about 9PM, it's already night.
There are two entrances. The official one which will give me official information in the form of "Sorry but unfortunately we are unable to help you with your project."
And the private one which might give me access to someone who is not a robot.

The entrance is open and the security guard, half asleep, is reading a newspaper.
I get passed him quite easily. He spots me but it takes him a long time to realize what is actually going on. He jumps of his seat and shouts something in chinese.
It is so easy to ignore security officials because they don't speak english.
He catches up with me and continues babbling something in Chinese. I don't understand him but I know very well what he says:
"No sir, you cannot be there, you made a mistake, the Airport is not here. You want the normal airport."
We walk while babbling each one in his own language until we reach some kind of building. Another guard comes from it. He speaks even worse english than the first guard who speaks absolutly no english.

I refuse to go back so they end up leading me to a room. It is the briefing room with flight maps, whiteboard and chairs. Reminds me of the briefing room in the battlestar galactica series.

Two guys enter, they seem that they have just dressed, still a little sleepy.
"Are you pilots?"
"Cool! And you speak english!"
"We do."
The two guards are getting more and more annoyed and the pilots more and more amused. They don't mind being waken up and they ask me lots of questions.
"You very great! very brave," they tell me when I explain them my story.
The guards keep insisting to know what is going on.

When they manage to get the information out of the pilots they start making hysterical gestures and speaking even faster chinese.
"Buy a ticket from Tianjin airport! This is not the right place, you can't ask this here!" they seem to say.
"Leave him alone!," the pilots push them away.
They obey because they are some kind of lower rank but I can see that they hate it: things are not how they should be and it stresses them out.
However the only english word they manage to tell me after minutes of chinese verbiage is: "No!"
"No... what?"
"No No No!"

They start talking very fast to the pilots who seem as tired of them as I am.
"Do you have money for a plane ticket?"
"No I don't."

"No he doesn't," they tell to the guards. "Ignore them.," they tell me.
I have a nice talk with the pilots while completly ignoring the guards, it's like having a broken TV set in the background.
"Do your helicopters fly to South Korea?"
"Sorry that's too far. We fly to the sea."

It's setteled then. The pilots congratulate me for my bravery, the guards send me away and congratulate me also because they are happy that I am out of their way. So I didn't hitch a helicopter, big surprise.

I can update my list again:

  1. Hitch a plane from Beijing airport
  2. Hitch a plane from airport companies in Beijing
  3. Hitch a helicopter from Tianjin helicopter airport to Korea
  4. Hitch a cargo boat from Tianjin harbour
  5. Hitch a cruising ship from the Tianjin harbour
  6. Hitch the Jincheon ferry (Tianjin - Incheon)
  7. Hitch the weidong ferry from Weihai/Yantai
  8. Hitch a personal boat from Weihai/Yantai
With all these options left, I go to sleep. Tomorrow is a busy day. I am going to hitch a cargo; that should be feasable. Actually that is the first solution that appears to be realistic. The pressure escalates. It is ok to fail in a far-fetched attempt, it is depressing to fail at a realistic one.
Sleeping in tents all this time doesn't improve my health. I am still sick and it is getting a little worse. And where I am there is no food and no water either. The port of Tianjin is a mess. It is so badly organised that it's almost unbearable if you don't have a car. Getting from point A to point B is so hard, there is never a direct road, the road is going around and over a multitude of rivers, is blocked by construction sites. Buses are scarce and situated in the most impractical way. Each bus makes such a big detour that it's faster to just go on foot. And shops are situated on the other side of the river, maybe a kilometer in a straight line distance but it takes two hours to get there because the only river crossing is somewhere very far.

The next morning I wake up hungry, thirsty and almost out of tablet battery. After folding up my tent, I walk up into Toyota Tianjin. The security guards spot me with the usual 1 minute delay so I manage to get find the main building and find some english-speaking people who would chase them away.

"Hi, I am looking for an electric plug to charge my computer."
I get an electric plug in an empty office, I get warm water, breakfast, fruits and the guards pretty much try to give me whatever they think off that I could carry.
This is not China as I know it. While the west was distant and closed, the east is more naive, desperate to help and kind. They do everything to save my dream. A dream is a rare and fragile thing in China.
Instead of kicking me out, the good Toyota guard cooked me breakfast

Fed and not thirsty anymore, I managed to get it to a very far corner of the city which has food and internet. On the internet I read that Tianjin port is mostly an industrial port and that's a real mess still in construction. But loads and loads of cargo ships as well as luxurious cruise liners that I can hitch.

"That's 20 yuan. Minimum consumption.," says the lady from the café where I was squatting the wifi. True I was using the wifi for a long time but I didn't order anything and nobody told me anything.
This kind of thing depresses me. I run out of that place, my morals way below the freezing point.

I am in the city trying to get some food, especially sweet things to up my morale getting low from serial failures. That's where I meet the first Cindy.

Cindy is chinese, she has a chinese name which is impossible for me to remember but also an english one. She is blocking the passage between me and the doghnouts which makes her a priori my mortal enemy.
"Where are you from?," she asks
I am taken off balance for a while as each time I hear english from a chinese person.
"You are not chinese, are you? Your english sounds very good!"
She is chinese and her english is nearning perfect. I am suddenly so happy to meet her. Pretty english speaking chinese girl, believe me that is a better morale boost than a whole lot of chocolate and I need a morale boost.
"What are you doing here?"
I sum up my story. Cindy seems impressed.
"What are you doing here?," I ask too
"I was following you."
"So you're my stalker!" That's cool! I don't think I've ever had a stalker in my life. Appearently, Cindy was intrigued by the plastic bag of steamed white bread hanging from my rucksack. I got it from the Toyota guy and I didn't have space inside the bag anymore so I just set it to hang in the back.

We decided to meet again in the evening, at some bar. I didn't have time for this but this trip is about living on coincidences. If I plan everything myself and follow my plan without leaving space for fate, I'll never get to Korea. I can't get to Korea with my own strenght, I need fate to help me. And it turns out Cindy was one piece of that puzzle.
And I like her, she is funny, she is not shy. Chinese people are not shy but they like to play shy and it is a bit annoying. Cindy is not shy and she doesn't need to play shy. I am curious about that person.

There is still time until our meeting at 6:30PM. I decide to walk to the harbour to try my luck on the ferry. Straight to point number 6 on my list. I know that I am skipping 3 unlikely attempts but I am afraid that I can't handle many more failures. My morale is barely afloat just because I have a wonderful girlfriend and heaven-sent english-speaking Cindy. Plus, the ferry terminal is closer than the cargo ship terminal - actually - there is no cargo ship terminal, I don't really know where to start with cargo ships.
Entering the port of Tianjin

However, I don't make it to the terminal in time. I just make it to some building that looks like some harbour administration building. I get passed the building guard who tries to chase me away but is too slow again. Once I'm in and in contact with the employees, he can't kick me out anymore.

"Hello. Are you lost?," says the nice reception lady.
"I am exactly where I want to be. Could I please get the list of captains of personal and cargo boats going to Korea?"
"You need... what?"
She calls someone who calls someone who calls someone who speaks some english.
I explain my project.
"I think your project is impossible"
"I got used to the impossible lately."
They become more and more interested, they want to help. A guy comes with his car: "come with me"

Damn, I don't have time for that, I have to meet with Cindy. I was expecting them to turn me down, to send me away with a lame excuse as the airline companies did but these guys are actually trying! Is it really possible that I would get a boat? Is it possible that I would make it to Korea? I can't believe it. But I follow this guy to wherever he is leading me.
It is the port's customs services. I was wondering how I would be legally granted access out of china on a private boat, here is the answer: every major harbour has a customs office.

The guys who brought me in their car explain the situation the the customs officer. There is a nice and english-speaking officer. I prefer to talk myself. I trust in my presentation skills and even with my feeble chinese I feel like I can convince more because of the body language. It is my dream, only I can make people understand the emotional importance of it. You can copy words from person to person but you cannot copy a dream.

Another person comes in.
Her name is also Cindy, she's a police officer, another one. I don't notice her at first, she asks me a lot of questions. I still don't believe they are going to do anything but it changes with this person. I tell her my story, she listens carefully. When I make speeches, I touch people, I impress people, I convince people. I didn't have to convince her. For some reason I feel her on my side. It is weird. I feel she sees me. And for the first time I start beliving that I can really get this ship. I can really go to Korea.

It is not a fight against authorities any more, it becomes teamwork. The chief is called in with his exhaustive knowledge of regulations and I assure you there are many. And there we are, trying to find a loophole.
"We can authorize everything you want from our end but you need a captain to accept you on a ship."
I understand they are taking a risk. A huge risk. They need to check everything. I get a thousand questions about my journey, where and when did I pass the border, how and in what car have I travelled?
"If I make one mistake, I lose my job," says Cindy, "but I want to help."
"Can I have a letter from you to the captains?"
"We don't write letters to captains. Captains write letters to us."
Asking for a recommandation letter for captains to take me in is like asking for a consulate who delivers visas to persuade some people to go to to their country.

Cindy hesitates, talks to the hierarchy. They dispatch a guy to find a cargo ship for me. He founds one, he calls to his agency. This is more difficult than a boat hitchhike in any other place. I am helpless in the language department. I can only convince the people who speak english and I have to convince them well enough for them to convince other people who in turn need to convince other people and each time the message loses a bit of power. Except with Cindy, she seems to take my case as a personal matter.

"I am helping you because you have a dream. That is why you don't give up."
She is sweet, kind and beautiful but now she has fire in her eyes.
"I used to have a dream once. But I became a police officer. The government is a good place to kill dreams."

I don't know her story but from the bits I manage to collect, she reminds me of Janela, putting herself on the line for someone else. I have the feeling that she believe in me more than I believe in myself. I just expected to hear a "sorry, we cannot help you", cross another attempt on my list and go to sleep with a clear conscience that I tried everything.
There is a problem. For once it doesn't come from China. The office is ready to come to extreme length to clear me for any kind of departure but Korea won't let the ship land if I am on board?
Why? I can't get on a cargo ship as a passenger; according to regulations, I should go there as a worker. So far so good but while I don't need visa for Korea as a tourist, I do need a working visa if I come as a worker and that is something that I don't have; that I can't get in time.
"What can we do?"
"What about cruising ships. There is a cruising port, I can go as a passenger there."
"Yes but winter is the only season when there are no cruises"
I forgot I am hitchhiking a boat in winter. That's one more difficulty.
"And the ferry?"
"No ferry to Korea too."
So here goes my two other options, just like that. Looks like Tianjin port has just depleted its resources for me.

We discuss the situation together with Cindy, her collegues, the cargo company guy and the police chief. But we must all admit that we are stuck. I am ready to give up on that ship. But not the customs, they are more determined.
"Don't give up, you should call your embassy. Find a ship operated by your country. Their regulations might let you get aboard. You can use our telephone to make whatever calls you like."
That is a smart idea but there is a problem. I am in China on my Czech passport. Czech republic doesn't have sea and they sure don't have any ships in Tianjin.
I could try my luck with the french embassy but if I start explaining about my double nationality in the custom's office it will just induce a whole lot of paranoia and distrust.
Besides, I need a bit of rest, my newly found hopes have vanished again. Cindy brings
me some excellent chinese cakes with cream and some cherry tomatoes.
She walks me out to the bus station. We talk a lot. She is really interesting, from time to time I am starting to see her more like a person than a police officer.
She studied in the UK, her english comes from there.
With her, I understand many things about China and chinese people. I have written some pretty awful things about China. Some of there are true, some of them are due to the language barrier.
"We know that our country is not perfect. But the UK is far from being an example of perfection."

I was hitchhiking in the UK years ago, I can see what she's talking about. The only guy who picked me and my cousin for free was a taxi driver from Afganistan. The only people who helped us in any way were the Turkish minority. The contribution to our well-being from the british lady when we asked her for sheltear was a shocked and disgusted look.
"And don't try to sleep in a park! It is forbidden."
The border crossing through the channel, while being inside the european union was way more fashistic than anything I have ever seen in China.
People are not afraid to speak their mind, yes and that's a big difference. On the other hand here in China I have been entering restricted areas, ignoring regulations and police officers one after another and I only found comprehensive faces to recieve me and ready to talk. Had I been a Chinese citizen the law would probably have been more strict on me but had I been in western europe it would have been a whole different story.
I would get dragged to the police station just for speaking back to a police officer in france, I would be beaten up for ignoring one. In the UK I would probably be a few days in prison already. No one would bother to even speak to me and even less listen to what I have to say. Nobody would write me a hitchhiking note like in Xinjiang, nobody would care about my travelling philosophy and nobody would certainly try to find me a boat.
Had it been the west, an officer like Cindy would probably be bullied by her collegues for the crime of having a brain and speaking a foreign language.
So is China is a dictatorship? I think yes. But should western europe give them lessons. Not unless they want to look like a joke!
Westerners are just making China worse.

China has the mentality of a small child who wants to look good to everyone. Europe says shit about them so they start only showing good sides to tourists by allowing them to see only what they think is good and nice in China. That means hotels and touristic cities. They make very short visas that only wealthy people can get because they fear that lack of money could induce a bad experience.
Of course tourists see that and percieve that as fake, dictatorial and stupid. So they laugh at China more. They make stupid documentaries about how all chinese people like Mao Zedong. And chinese reputation gets worse so it replies with even more controlled touristic policies. And so on and so on, until this giant misunderstanding converges into europeans thinking that China is a dictatorship and China instauring a strictly controlled visiting policy with a guide.

When we, as europeans criticize the dictatorial policies of China, we also criticize ourselves because we bear a part of responsability of what is happening there.

We are on the bus station now.
"No cameras here," Cindy says, "I want to give you this."
It is 100 yuan, contribution to my ticket and 2 yuan for bus fare.
"No." I don't like taking money from people and especially not her.
She has a determined look.
"I am within your rules. I am not your friend, I am not your family, I want to do it because I support your dream. Now take the bus and go."
She would probably shoot me point blank if I didn't take the money. I thank her and jump into the bus. It takes me away from the port, far away to the city center.

I meet Cindy there, the first Cindy. She is very kind to me even though I am something like 2 hours late. We go to a great restaurant to eat hot pot, a kind of chinese fondue. There is a guy with her, kind and friendly also, probably her boyfriend. On the way back they offer me a hotel room. The temperature aren't that low, I could manage in my tent but Cindy insists. She can't bear to know that I'm sleeping outside if she has the power to help. Later that hotel proves more valuable than it seems.
I can take a shower after a long time and once in a long while, my temperature drops; I get better.
My room is a giant room with a kitchen. Most luxurious place I've ever been in my trip I think. And the price she pays is more than half of my ferry ticket.
I get a giant hotel room

On the internet, I find all the ports of departure of the weidong ferry. It doesn't depart only from Weihai and Yantai, it also goes from Qingdao. Qingdao is a way bigger city than the other two and it also has the airport from which most flights go to Korea. It's closer than Weihai and it might even be a bit closer than Yantai.
Maybe I should go there. Maybe the Weidong Ferry headquarters are actually in Qingdao.
So here is my updated list.
  1. Hitch a plane from Beijing airport
  2. Hitch a plane from airport companies in Beijing
  3. Hitch a helicopter from Tianjin helicopter airport to Korea
  4. Hitch a cargo boat from Tianjin harbour
  5. Hitch a cruising ship from the Tianjin harbour
  6. Hitch the Jincheon ferry (Tianjin - Incheon)
  7. Hitch an airplane from Qingdao
  8. Hitch the weidong ferry from Qingdao
  9. Hitch the weidong ferry from Weihai/Yantai
  10. Hitch a personal boat from Weihai/Yantai

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How I didn't hitchhike a plane

I am in Beijing now, preparing for the impossible. I have been waiting a long time for this and now the time has come: I have to hitchhike a boat. What is my experience with boat hitchhiking? Close to none.

  1. 2011, France, with Pauline and Claire, south coast of France. Trying to get to Corsica, 250 Kilometers afar. We hitched no more than 4 kilometers to Porquerolles, then got stuck there forever, ran out of food and returned home.
  2. 2006, France with my cousin. Out kayak got caught in a storm on a remote beach. We hitched a bigger boat no more than 5 kilometers to another beach and then returned home, exhausted.
  3. Tallinn, EStonia, August 2012. A 80 kilometer strait separates the country from his maritime neighbour, finland. Easy hitch, even listed as feasable on Hitchwiki. However, me and my hitchhiking partner Caroline have failed it. We paid for the ferry instead.

Today, I need to cross the 250 kilometer gap between China and South Korea. 250 kilometers, that's a minimum, I would be wise to count more, from 300 to 500 km depending on from which harbour I depart from. Closest is Weihai.
So basically I have never hitchhiked a boat whith all odds in my favour and now I have to do it with all odds against me. I need to cover a larger distance, I do not speak the local language and on top of all that, my visa time is running out. I have proved to be a resourceful person in the past but how the hell am I going to pull tha?
Only upside to my situation is: I am travelling alone, I will be asking for only one seat.
China is a big country, it has a lot of connections with Korea. Therefore I have a lot of possibilities. I will try them from the most unlikely to the most likely:

  1. Hitch a plane from Beijing airpor
  2. Hitch a cargo boat from Tianjin harbou
  3. Hitch a cruising ship from the Tianjin harbou
  4. Hitch the Jincheon ferry (Tianjin - Incheon
  5. Hitch the weidong ferry from Weihai/Yanta
  6. Hitch a personal boat from Weihai/Yantai

Let's go to Beijing! But first, I need to prepare myself. You don't hitch a plane like you hitch a car. Actually, I have no idea how you hitch a plane. But anyhow, I need to work on my presentation. I have come a long way, I have covered 21,000 kilometers of free rides, I have travelled through 15 countries, I have to look like it. I have never been a fan of sewing flags on my bag but today I will make flags. I will attach flags, draw maps and create a shiny sign.

A sign that says: I am going to Korea, I need your help, I deserve your help.
The time isn't ideal. I caught a cold again from my journey out of Mongolia, I am still sick, I have temperature sometimes, my head spins, my throat hurts. I am now staying at my Beijing home with my perfect roommates which take such good care of me that I would want to stay here forever. But time flies by so quickly; it is already my sixth day, I don't know how that happened. And I have no idea what to expect from hitchhiking in northwest China. These are densely populated regions, maybe it will be very slow, maybe fast, I don't know but I can't afford to taky any risks.

My (very convincing) hitchhiking sign

My big Beijing sister has invited me to a restaurant where we ate some excellent chinese food and a wonderful sweet dish. I realize how easily I can be manipulated with sweets.
We talk a lot, about various stuff, she's easy-going and smart. She's mature and wise but part of her still childish. Like she still has hope. Many chinese people have lost hope for themselves. Their dreams got frozen, long term conservation, made in china, for use in another lifetime.
But not her, she just might unfreeze hers before her life leaves her.
I can't imagine never seing her again but it will happen and it will happen tomorrow. In the evening, Su greets me with another chinese history lesson. This one is about the chinese cultural revolution.
"In Mao Zedong times, students organised themselves to defend the government, they were fighting to prove their faith in the leader."
While in Europe, students were fighting to reform the government, in China they had the opposite side, fighting against freedom. But no one but the chinese people has the right to judge China.
At night, Ivy comes to visit.
"Helllloooooo!!, " she screams hysterically, his face printed with overreaction and big glasses amplyfying the whole lot. I am so happy to see her, I am so happy to see everyone. She now lives next door, in a separate appartment, she needs her privacy.
Me and Ivy trying to dance
If you can't understand that I'm going to Korea from that, you really are dumb

The next day I leave. I take the subway to the airport.

One chinese girl tries to sleep with me. She looks pretty good but I don't really want nor need that right now but side note: Umer was right, it is quite easy to get laid in China. I wonder if she would have paid for my plane ticket if I slept with her.
I pay 25 yuan to take the airport express train to the airport. That's a fortune on my budget, this plane better work.

At the airport I still feel pretty bad, I think I have temperature again. And what the hell am I doing here? I am a computer engeneer, not some airport clown! This is stupid. I take a hot chocolate which makes me sleepy instead of making me better. Then, I take my hitchhiking sign and go. This is ridiculous. Where should I stand? There, here, does it matter. I stand at the floor from which has the check-in counters for the Beijing-Seoul flight departing in about 3 hours. The airport has free internet but also intranet on which it is possible to leave messages which are responded to by the airport staff. Usually people write weather or not they can bring cheese onboard without being mistaken for terrorists. I write something like this
Hello everyone! In a few minutes I will start hitchhiking a plane from Terminal 2, second floor. [...] I explain that I am travelling for free and telling them that I am available for any questions they might have. They'll send the police anyway so why not come to them with some good will.
I just hope they won't confuse the word hitchhike for "hijack" in which case my airport adventure will end pretty quick.

I stand next to the check-in office for Korean Airlines with my hitchhiking sign. Nothing happens. I could have predicted that. What can I expect in China? These are not curious people. So I am standing here with my sign, with my flags, with my map of my way and nobody cares. But what do I do when I see a guy with a sign in Paris? I don't care. Why should I expect different?

Some people come close to me, read the message, sometimes ask some questions. Long way from someone paying for my ticket. I change my spot, go somewhere with more people coming and going. I don't wait too long until I get my long-awaited meeting with the police.
"You cannot do this?"
"Do what?"
"Am I disturbing someone?"
"You are showing a sign. It might be political ideas."
"It's not political ideas"
"People might think it is political ideas. It is very dangerous to dislay political ideas in China."

So I can't hitchhike to Korea because my cardbooard which clearly states 韩国, Han Guo could be mistaken for politics. The policeman says that I can only talk to people. Since they only speak chinese and my chinese is still not enough to explain my complicated request, I am stuck.
I make my way to the VIP room where people make their check-in with first class tickets.
"Do you speak english?, " I ask the lady at the counter
"A little bit"
"what I want to ask is complicated. Is there someone who speaks good english here?"
She goes to find a collegue. So here goes the good english speaker.
"Do you speak english?"
"A little bit" Damn.
"I need someone with good english" She goes to find another collegue.
Third one is the charm, or so they say.
"Do you speak english?"
"A little bit."
Damn you China, learn some languages! I'll have to work with what I have. I explain my situation to her. I have travelled 20,000 kilometers, it is my principle to travel for free; I am trying to prove a point to the world and can I have a free ticket.
"We are very sorry but we cannot help you sir. We don't give out free tickets."
I am reluctant to ask the customers to pay for my ticket. I don't want to make them unconfortable. I want my ride to be the result of a free choice.
I go to the second luxury check-in counter.
The policeman catches me there.

"You cannot do that?"
"但是你这种行为在中国的公共场所如机场或车站是被禁止的也是不被理解的" ("But you this behavior in China public areas such as the airport or station is prohibited is also not be understood the" says my tablet)
"I am not showing signs, I am not asking for money. I am talking to the ticket office. it is not forbidden to talk to ticket office. if they say no, it is ok."
"It is forbidden"
"Can you help me in a constructive way?"
Fucking robot. I choose to ignore him and he ends up by going away.

The next check-in counter ends up telling me that they are a checking counter, they cannot provide me with a ticket. That makes sense. So I go to Korean Airlines ticket office. They tell me that they are very sorry but cannot help me. This is going nowhere.
It is getting late but I change Terminal, I am going to Terminal 3, All Nippon Airlines. A flight to Japan is also OK. I wouldn't see Korea which is a shame but the constraint of having to hitchhike out of China makes choice of destination a luxury.

All Nippon Airlines do not have a ticket office. They have a general office which is better because there might be a manager there and that is someone I need to talk to, someone who can make something happen. All Nippon Airlines are situated in a special part of Terminal where passengers don't usually go and which also contains offices of other airlines. Korean Airlines is not here but Japan Airlines is. Unfortunately it is already closed.
But there is light in All Nippon Airways.

"Come in," says the lady
She is just an employee who stayed working late. I request a manager but since there is no one here I explain to situation to her. That time, I make quite a speech. She is kind and understanding.
"If it were up to me, you would get your free ticket"
But it is rarely up to the kind souls otherwise the companies wouldn't make any profit.
I thank her warmly.
"Come back tomorrow. More people will be here. I really hope they can help you." A small flame of hope has rekindeled.

I return the next morning to Air Nippon Airways. There are two employees now. One is sleeping, the other one is awake. And they speak english. I make my case to them and I get a quick "sorry we can't help you." Damn, I should only talk to managers in the future. But there is one more company to be tried: Japan Airlines.

I knock a number of times until the door opens. A kind lady comes out, she really seems to want to help me.
"I need the manager"
"I am the manager. But now we are in a meeting"
I quickly explain the situation to her.
"That's a wonderful project," she says, "but I can't. I just can't. I am so sorry, so sorry." She seems sincere.

The day has just begun and I think I am done with this airport. I can go to the Tianjin harbour and start trying boats. But I don't want to go into this hitchhiking hell. Tianjin is a giant city way worse organised than Beijing. There is a chaotic network of highways going towards the harbour which seems very chaotic too. And huge. I don't know where to begin my search. I am not James Bond. James Bond, he would just come to a bar, take the temperature of the place, found some guy who knows a guy who knows a guy and succeed in extremis. I kind of have to do the same thing and sometimes I end up doing precisely that but each time I have no idea where to begin.
From the other hand, the plane trail is still warm, I am not done yet. I ride to Beijing center, to the building hosting the offices of All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines.

"I need to talk to the manager," I say to the All Nippon Airwaves reception lady.
"What for?"
I explain my project to her. She goes to speak to her, of course she says no.
"She says no," says the reception lady, "I am really sorry"
"Can I talk to her?"
She goes to see her manager again and ask. No I can't. Her manager is obviously afraid to talk to the kind of dangerous lunatic who travels for free, she prefers to use her reception lady as a shield. Nice display of courage, nice prelude to the japanese culture. The reception lady is obviously in a very difficult position, her manager from one side, me from the other. She is afraid of both of us, her boss slightly more and she wants to please both of us. I calm her down explaining that there is no need to stress, I kind of expected a negative answer. She seems relieved and grateful. Poor girl.

Japan Airlines can't talk to me because the manager is in a meeting. I didn't yet catch that "manager is in a meeting" is japanase for "get the fuck out". When I offer to wait whatever time it takes until the meeting is finished, she goes to talk to "the other manager" which is the same manager who understood that he won't get rid of me so easily. I convince everyone to whom I talk to face to face but it is just too easy for the manager to say no, and that's what he says.

I still don't give up. Next company on my list, Lufthansa. They are european, maybe I'll have an easier time communicating with them as our cultures are similar. They speak perfect english but their manager is on holiday and they only fly to Germany.
"And even if we flied to Korea we can't take you for free; all tickets should be paid for, the policy is very strict as a means of fighting corruption"
Fighting corruption is a good thing in many cases but people often forget that by recklessly killing corruption they also can kill humanity by accident.

Next company is KLM. They main contribution is telling me where is the Beijing office of Korean Airlines.
I arrive a few minutes before it closes. There, I make a pretty convincing case. The employees seem impressed or amused, hard to tell, they call the manager.
"It is a very cool project," he says, "you know, I think I understand you somehow"
However, he doesn't have the power to make a decision. "I must forward this to our headquarters. They can make a decision but I wouldn't have too much hope."
At least they do something; I am starting to like Korea, I got the furthest with them than with any company ever before. At least someone tries.
But let's be honest, the chances of success are slim. I'd better try my luck in Tianjin.
A thought comes more and more often in my head: what if this is the end of my trip. I have made it to China. I have not achieved the impossible but I have made a journey of a lifetime nevertheless. And that's not bad.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Back to Beijing

There is a familiar sight as we enter or exit Erlian where dinosaurs appear on each sides of the street and then we pass under two kissing Diplodoci. They are statues of course and everytime I smile when I see this because it reminds me that even in places where cold and desolation makes you think of death, there is some random dude who had enough time to waste to build giant dinosaurs in the Gobi desert. Yes I know it was probably the Chinese government or some big corporation but it still seems, from the theme of it, that it was still some random dude.

I remember standing near that road in the late morning with a smile on my face because I know this place and I have mistaken it for home. Because I have warm clothes and a girlfriend and some food in my bag. Because I speak Chinese enough to ask Ni hao mei nu, ni chu na li? (Hello young lady, where are you going?) which is way more that I can say for my Mongolian.
And because, I am going more South how the minute so my chances of freezing diminish and will soon dissapear completely. If I have to be honest with you my dear readers, I would say that I am not afraid of dying of cold, not one bit. It is not because I have better clothes now, it is because of those dinosaurs. A place which has the luxury of having plastic dinosaurs soaring from the ground just can't have third-world problems such as freezing to death or dying of hunger, that would be a violation of the Maslow's pyramid.
Also, in West China, people take without money and that's a worry that I don't have.

A black car stops and two happy Chinese tell me to get in.
"Where to?"
"South south!"
Since there is only one road, it cuts the orientation debate short and they help me out to Sonid Youqi, the next big city after Erlian.
Erlian and its dinosaurs
My drivers, as usual are surprised to see me in this place and don't really understand that I don't know where I am going. I say Beijing and they say that it is very far and it is crazy. That guy is riding under a giant lizard and he calls me crazy.

This is the place where the national road and highway starts but it is not always a good idea to hitch there because there isn't many cars at this point. It's a difficult spot for hitchhikers anyway. I change my sign several times, everytime asking for a marker pen in gas stations and the helpful Chinese curiously staring at me with curiosity.

I settle for Hot-Hot (pronounce Ho-en-ho-te), the capital of Inner Mongolia because that's the most common destination. And lucky me, I get a truck. It is not fast but it going far. I am not sure if to Hothot but I think so. If so, I'll try to get out at the intersection at Ulanqab city and then it's just a mere 200 kilometers from Zhangjiakou, my Pakistani haven and then I'm more home than home.

We don't speed up much over 60 kilometers per hour so with my time wasted finding a good hitchhiking spot, it turns out that when the sun sets, we are still in the Gobi, near Zurihe. I have the location of the deep Christian family who took me in but since I am kind of reluctant of repeating the experience. So I let us pass Zurihe as the night falls down and come what may.

Come what may is a police cars which stops us and I don't have time to hide. The policeman reprimands my driver for taking a passenger and I see that I'm in trouble. Best case scenario, I am left on the side of the road, worst case, the Chinese government will hate me for having to pay me another hotel. No way my driver is going to save me, he is Chinese and he hates me already for putting me in trouble.

To my great surprise, the truck driver speaks with the policeman and offers a bribe. I never thought I would see a bribe in a country as down-to-the-rules as China. Yes I heard from home that China is chaotic and corrupt but that's just European rumors so far unsubstantiated wherever I went in that country. Nevertheless, that bribe may have saved me a night in the Gobi freezer.
Not only doesn't my heroic driver hate me for this but he offers to continue the ride and I gladly agree. I don't know if he is going to drive through the night but I certainly hope so.

After the police car leaves, instead of continuing on the main road, he bifurcates on a small, barely paved road, to the east, not too far after Zurihe. From one side, it is in the direction of Zhangjiakou and I will be no more big cities on the road and I won't get stuck in Ulanqab.
On the other hand if his destination happens to be anything other than Zhangjiakou, I have mathematically zero chance of meeting another car here tonight for sure but even tomorrow and ever because the location is so remote.
The problem with destinations in China is that because of my poor knowledge of the Chinese language, I try to guess them from the general behavior of the driver, the matriculation of his or her car, documents present in the vehicle and the random babbling that serves as our means of communication.
It's not enough just to say "Ni chu Zhangjiakou ma?" (are you going to Zhangjiakou), first because nobody understands my accent, they're likely to just understand the city name and say something like "Shi Shi, Zhangjiakou hen hao!" (Yes yes, Zhangjiakou is very nice.) And Reykjavik and New York too but I am not going there.
In our current case, based on the fact that he is driving a truck, I guess that he must be going to Zhangjiakou because any other destination leaves me in a fucked up situation. Plus, there is a sinogram on his matriculate part of which looks like 家(jia) which I know because it means family and it's a good guess it should be in ZhangJIAkou.

So far the ride is joyful, my driver is a bit tired but keeps driving and passing villages where I really don't want to stop.
At one point, I am almost positive we're going to my Pakistani haven and then we stop. We stop at some village in the middle of Inner Mongolia where the traffic probably is a car per month in a parallel universe.
Is it a final stop? Maybe, maybe not, because my driver invites me to a restaurant for a great portion of Chinese food... and more than I would welcome of jiu, their alcohol.

We stop to eat and drink in a restaurant in Inner Mongolia
I am not so worried about me drinking as I am for my driver who may get into an aggressive state remembering that he lost money bribing that officer and leaving me in that village forever. By the way I am not the least worried about any drunk driving because a. it is China and people don't drive drunk and b. even if he drives drunk, we are a truck so we won't get killed and c. we also won't kill anyone because we are in the middle of nowhere.

There is some other truck drivers who flock in and ask questions about me but I am too busy eating as much food as I can and also eating everyone's white vapor bread because they are busy drinking jiu.

My driver is a reasonable bloke. He disappears from sight before everybody gets way too drunk. He invites me in a small dormitory, it's a room with two beds where we can spend the night. That is the most reasonable choice he could make and I am very grateful.

The next morning, the truck drivers flock together for a common departure. I even switch trucks from time to time.

The truckdrivers flock together
At this point, I am sure to get to Zhangjiakou, actually I can even get to Beijing. But I want to visit my Pakistani friends one more time.

The happy ride with Chinese truckers takes us to the border of the province where we have an amazing lunch on which I can last a couple of days.
A yurt in inner mongolia, a pale Chinese attempt at Mongolian culture 
At last, we are out of the desert and in the city of Zhangjiakou. I jump out on the highway side. It is strange, it seems to be paved with coal because of all the coal falling from tracks which drive there.
When I arrive to Umer's place, my room is still there and empty because his roommate is away again.
It is a warm welcome with many stories.
I can't believe that our crazy plan actually worked! I really hitchhiked to Mongolia, Janela really met me there, damn isn't life incredible?!

One bad news awaits me however: during my stay in Mongolia enjoying virtual freedom, China has upgraded their firewall. They used to block listed VPNs so that people can't anonymize their connection; now they are blocking any foreign server which servers a huge number of connections. This policy is restrictive like crazy and isolates China in an a way which is hard to imagine for us Europeans.
Fortunately, Umer advises me on a workaround which I set up on my tablet.
The next day I am on the road again, on the road to Beijing.

From the landscape around us, it doesn't look like I am approaching the capital. It's nothing like approaching Paris where buildings greet more buildings. Approaching Beijing is going through a lot of nature and the city seems to appear at the last moment. The road is mountainous and we also pass the Great Wall of China. And then, at last, I am at a metro station, at Le's friends.

If this is not home, I don't know what is.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Freeze me

I didn't have time to write in detail but I'll sum up what happened during that week. We happily lived together with Janela, visited the museum of Ulaanbataar and trying to cook some stuff occasionaly.
The problem with winter is that there is nothing to eat in Mongolia except cabbage. We went to the black market (it's just a name) and took new shoes for myself. I threw away those that got soaked in shitty water from China. A day before Janela's departure, pickpockets stole my wallet containing all of our money and my credit card. Thank god my passport with my chinese visa was elsewhere.

It is a sad day for Janela is leaving. It is 2PM when I leave her at the train station. She doesn't like to walk to train stations alone since her kidnapping while going to the station in Bishkek. The cold is raging outside and through the clear blue sky it seems that you feel the temperature of cosmos on your own skin.

There are just two days left on my visa before I get back to China. I have the sadness of Janela leaving and the fear of freezing at the same time. Not to mention the fear of my visa would expire. I consider the possibility in taking a flight from Ulaanbataar to Beijing so as not to risk my life or administrative integriy (I mean the visa) but then I realize I have absolutely no money. I also have no food. Before leaving, I decided to give all our remaining food to Janela. It was not much, a couple of korean noodle soups. These pickpockets really had no idea who they were robbing and what difficult situation they put us in.
The reasoning behind this was that while I have a small chance to get invited for real food during my trip to china, she will no options during her 2 day train ride. That way, we equalize our chances and rely of destiny's good will for the rest.

I am now walking through the peace avenue across Ulaanbataar. I take a bus for a few stations only to discover that a group of three pickpockets are trying to steal something from me again. Those guys should have more education, every tourist isn't a walking bag of money; just some of them.

At last, I make it to the edge of the capital city, out of the smog and a long paved road which is more narrow now, as a river going to its source. I am picked up by a kind and outgoing girl going to Nalaikh where she works in some mining thing. She leaves me at an intersection with some food for the road which comforts me in the choice of leaving the food to Janela.

So I walk and I wait, relying solely on coincidence, because how the heck I am going to survive the Gobi desert on my own in mid-January? Sometimes, I am trying to convince myself that the coldest moments are over, it's January now, that's almost Spring. And sometimes not.

A nice silver car stops and a middle aged woman tells me to get in. She speaks perfect Russian and is the wife of... either the Mongolian minister of energy himself or the CEO of a the company which handles energy in Mongolia which is basically the same thing.
She is driving to a mining village which serves the sole purpose of mining huge amounts of coal in the middle of the desert.
There are buildings there, factories, food is imported from UB which imports it from Korea and drills are working around the clock. If the drills don't work, there will be no coal, if there is no coal, there will be no fuel to make electricity, no heating either.
Giant parabolic antennas are pointed towards the sky and I theorize that is how we get internet.

The mining village

It is about 4:30 in the afternoon when we get to that destination. We are only in the neighborhood of the town of Choir which is still not that far from the capital and I had hoped to get at least to Sainshand if not to the border. I still have about an hour of sunlight left and I could get lucky. Or I could stand there until nightfall, with my thumb frozen at that intersection, the clear blue sky would switch into a cold dark starry night, I would try to walk to that settlement but would get lost for lack of orientation markers; I would take out my tablet where the village is faintly marked with a +/- 10 kilometer precision. The GPS would not give up but the battery might after a while as the temperature would descend way below -20 Celsius.
I would then put up my tent and shiver in my sleeping bag.

Here in the mining village, I get an apartment for myself with heating, electricity, shower and internet. I even have a kitchen and I make tea for myself.

There are several important people in there. Some work for the government, some are decision-makers for leading energy companies. That woman's husband seems to be the director of all that stuff. He seems confident, humble and kindly welcomes me. The woman is of a similar attitude, common amongst powerful people who have nothing to prove. Smart and educated, she looks at the world from afar. Maybe the wisest people are those who looked at us from the moon.

Some people are very excited to have me there. Many are genuinely interested in my journey. Some can't believe it. They offer me a visa extension but I am not sure how serious they are and I would have to return to Ulaanbataar for that anyway.

We have a copious dinner and breakfast in the dining hall. By now, I have gotten used to Mongolian salty tea with milk. There is a girl I liked, one of the manager, she gave me her business card, I lost it. She is the one back on the picture.

I begin walking to the main road. It is morning, blue sky, the visibility is excellent. It's almost as the cold night had never happened. I would swear it is above zero. But frozen animals around the road remind me that it was real. Poor beasts, not much smarter than me but less lucky.
Poor reckless puppy, not much smarter than me but less lucky
For a long time, I don't find a single hitch. There are some cars but in the other direction. So I walk the empty road. After several hours, I get a ride to Sainshand, a mere 200 kilometers from the border. But the ride is slow, we stop several times to visit some of my drivers relatives. They are a young couple and they have a young child in the backseat. Also, I get lunch.
We also get a flat tire even though this road is paved and when we replace it, turns out the new tire is ridiculously smaller than the last one so the car is bouncing on three wheels.

There is still a few moments left before sunset in Shainshand but the road is empty again. I get a ride with a taxi who tries to persuade me to pay him to drive to the border. At first, he tells me a ridiculously high price and when I decline, he decreases tenfold until he just begs me to pay him for gas so he can drive me there and I don't die in the desert. But I decline. The worried taxi driver leaves me at the side of the road.

An elder man is driving there and stops. He doesn't believe a word from what I say about how I arrived here. Hitchhiking? In Mongolia? In winter? He takes me just for doubt's sake but trusts my story more as he sees more of my pictures.
Turns out he is a part of a convoy of two cars going to Zamiin-Uud, the border city.

When we arrive at around midnight, it is unclear what will happen to me. We are close enough to China to be left to freeze in the night. But I'm in luck, they are driving straight to home and I help them unload a lot of random stuff, mostly clothes. Turns out they have a sewing business exporting Mongolian goods to China and importing some stuff as well. And I am even more in luck, they are going to China tomorrow first thing in the morning. I really don't understand what is going on and if I am staying or not but everybody seems unworried and happy and they give me some horse meat to pass the time eating. All of them seem quite amused to have picked up this reckless hitchhiker and what the hell was he doing all by himself in the desert in winter?

In the sewing atelier, the women seem quite amused by my presence
The whole complex is built underground. There is a hallway which opens on several rooms. Several sewing ateliers, a few apartments of various sizes, bathrooms, toilets.
I am assigned a place in one of the apartment with one the families who drove me in. The young teenage daughter is especially interested in what the hell am I doing here, she reminds me of that young Uygur girl I met after that moutain pass in Xinjiang.

She speaks some Chinese but almost no english. So we communicate in mandarin which is very tiring for my brain but I don't mind as long as I have a roof over my head. Her brother is the one going to China tomorrow and I am to go with him.
Communication with Mongolian locals with Google Translate.
Most common language: Mandarin Chinese
If you were following my blog, you would know that crossing the Chinese border is a procedure that actually makes no sense to people who aren't actually crazy. But this family, they cross so often that they have things worked out. They have the emigration forms at home already so we all pre-fill them before we arrive at the border. They also have their own taxi driver who owns a soviet jeep.
While the preparations are finishing, me and the teenage daughter watch a segment of the last saw movie in 3D, especially that horrible scene where a girl get sawn in half. Those movies are getting almost as nonsensical as the Chinese border crossing.

 Me and that girls brother embark in the soviet taxi and drive to the border. He guides me through the procedure, he even pays my processing fee because I don't have a cent anyway.

In the no man's it's the usual stamp dance where soviet jeeps drive along the control cabins with passenger waiving their passports to show everything is in order and the guards trying to glance every single stamp (they actually manage it!) in the heavy traffic. We lose the taxi somewhere in no man's land and I manage to catch an inter-border shot where you can see that the border crossing is really done exclusively by soviet jeeps!

No man's land where people wait for their soviet taxis
We end up getting into a different taxi and we drive until the other side of the border. We are in Erlian, China! I am actually happy to be here. It means it will get warmer, if today I get out of the desert, I could even pitch a tent, the temperatures should be nice enough, especially with my new warm clothes. It also means that instead of understanding 10% of the people completely and 90% not at all, I will be able to communicate to a 10% level with every mandarin speaker. So the situation is actually the same but different and I like change.
Erenhot(Erlian), Chinese side

On the other side we catch our original taxi who is kind enough to get us to the city center, maybe because he feels guilty that he lost us in No man's land, maybe because it was his plan all along. I tell farewell to my Mongolian helper and now, I must hitchhike South with a renewed month on my visa.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Relationship test

Temperature is dropping and dropping. -37°C according to the nearest weather station. Janela can't stay outside more than a small while before she freezes.
"I'm sending you a guide," says Tsoo, "he is going to guide you through the mountains to my place."
Turns out there is a path but the locals don't know it. Only Tsoo and his friend know this path because they are the ones building it.
His friend is a joyful guy who speaks some russian and very little english. He was a railway engeneer before becoming and alcoholic but he is better now, he loves life and pretty much everything. He loves us, the sky, the trees. He waits for us in front of the room. First, we wait for a bus. There are very few buses because of the cold but we end up finding one. Janela's feet have become ice meanwhile and we must bring them back to life in the heated bus. This happens pretty much every ride.
After a while we arrive on the side of the mountain where Tsoo's rescued us the day before.
We wait a little while at his mom's place to heat up a bit.

Happy grand'ma!

It is noon, the temperature is as high as it will get and we'll attempt the ascention. Janela nearly faints from the combination of temperature, effort and altitude. Our guide is still very joyful, he hugs the trees and says "I love you to everything".
He is like on weed except he's not on weed.
"Before I was a drunk, I loved only alcohol. But now I love everything in the world! I love trees, and snow and you!"
We climb one mountain, descend to the ridge. Janela can't feel her feet for some time now and she struggles to catch her breath. But she manages to make it forward, step after step. One more mountain to climb, up and down. I cut a branch to serve as Janela's walking stick which saddens our host deeply.
"Don't cut the trees! The trees are our friends, they love us and we should love them."

We make it to the monastary, at last. Janela falls into the bed and sleeps.
Our guide is very happy because we are not dead, everyday we survive is a bonus day to live.
"When I was a drunk I slept on the streets. One day I was left outside without my clothes in the snow. I slept there, my fingers got black from the frost, I thought I was going to lose them but I did not thanks to god. I slept in hallways, eating old bread that I put near water pipes to make it warmer."

He talks a lot, a lot of sad stories. It is interesting but time was running and our guide didn't seem to want to return back home. We are again in a romantic place and for once the owner is in town, we could have the place for ourselves. But we don't. Why can't things just be perfect for once?
After a while, our guide discards all his plans to leave. He decides that we are three good friends and that we should celebrate our friendship by having a friendly dinner and discussions by the fire.

Boy, girl, romantic place, candles on the table, didn't seen each other for three months... think think, hints anyone? In my book, that means: "leave us alone!"
"No fucking way!" I am not having another spoiled evening. "If you want to sleep here, fine, that's your right but we should have our room. I am heating the monastary room."
Our guide is taken aback, maybe the concept of privacy isn't as usual for him in his world of love everywhere. We can't kick him out to the cold, that would be inhumane and also, this place is more his than ours but this is so frustrating. I really get angry and the poor guide doesn't know what to do.
"Ok, ok, I'll help you heat the other room. I am a free man, I want to help you!"

Janela gives me a killing look. She is angry now. I've never seen her angry, I always considered her as a sweet and harmless angel; this is weird for me.
"What do you think you're doing? This guy went out of his way to help us, he really tries. He wants to help us, he doesn't understand we want to be alone. He just wants to help."
"Is he retarded or something?"
"Are you just using people to your own benefit and when you don't need them anymore you just throw them off?"

She might have a point here. Unfortunately, hitchhiking, especially in hard conditions has tought me nasty manners. I try to be respectful to people who help me but I have undoubtedly used some people, I can't deny that. I have put the value of what some people can provide in front of what they are as human beings. That is not what independent travellig should be about.
For once, I can blame my education on that. My father wasn't a very good example in that way, getting things done is more important than leaving a humane mark. A mark of decency and good conduct is enough and preferable.

But Janela is a good communicator, we can solve whatever issues we have. We sleep in the separate room anyway, it is heated by a good stove, no smokes leaks into the room. However, besides the stove running on full heating capacity and burning all the coal we had, we barely freeze.
In the morning, the sunrise is beautiful
"I can't take that cold anymore," says Janela, "it's a wonderful place but I can't sleep, I am tired from the cold."
We leave the monastary. Romantic but really too cold.
I suggest we go to the first family, the one I came with to China. I figure that since being quite rich and living in an american house, they'll have understanding for privacy. But it is easier said than done. It takes us the whole day to go from the monastary to the american hill. Janela freezes every fifteen minutes because the temperatures just get crazier and crazier. And her shoes are really bad.
However, we almost make it. We are lost 50 meters from the american house but we can't get in because of the fences. Since we are really frozen we just histerically knock ona random door: let us in!

We get tea and heat and we can continue. Unfortunately the good mongolian family is leaving for China in about 5 minutes. They pass us to another family also living in American hill. We are home and well treated but we feel a large disbelief about our couple. Some people seem to think that Janela is just too beautiful to be with me, some people are sceptical because of our cultural and religious differences.
We leave the next day, the father drives us downtown to a permanent place where we could be alone. At last. From that moment we can be alone and undisturbed with no one chasing us, not getting frozen to death and a million other things. At last.