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?"
"Yeah"
"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.
Cindy

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."


Cindy
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