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

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