Thursday, September 1, 2016

Beyond the end of the world (1 of 5)

...Vladivostok-Donghae: from Russia (to South Korea) with love (boat)!

Even though nothing nor nobody made it clear, suddenly - out a dark corridor onto a sun-bathed pier - we were out of Russia. The much talked-about light at the end of the tunnel? Midnight Express' final scene? Yes, kind of. The security check we walked through felt nothing like the one at the entry - much less muscle power, barb wire and automatic guns at least. Even something that might have looked like the idea of a smile. Exiting the Empire was sure enough less of a challenge than entering it, as if everybody were glad we finally left! Deep breath, bright smiles, eyes on the horizon.

The twice tiny Egersheld lighthouse: (i) when compared to the high voltage line pylon and (ii) once you discover Vladivostok in the background...
The last song on our own Russian soundtrack was certainly our dear Samantha de Siena's Horizon, as we were eager to embark on this very new boat and sail towards new adventures...We were very much hoping that, as the lyrics suggest She'd be taking [us] for a ride; yes, She's taking [us] away. Hopefully She would, yes. Shortly after getting on board, finding our third-class open bunks and leaving the backpacks there, She (a.k.a. Eastern Dream) actually took off. We went back out and up on the main deck only to see the docks and the Zolotoy bridge getting smaller at the rear and to wave a long, silent goodbye to the Egersheld lighthouse and its little strip of sand closing half the long and narrow bay between Vladivostok DF and Russky island. Seagulls and shags (cormorants?) dancing around us, the day was bright and warm, the breeze refreshin - but seemingly not as much as our neighbour's Bear Beer, a local deli.

our neighbour's Bear beer, remarkably tuned to the white-and-blue mood of the day.
We spent a long while with M.-S. on the upper deck, chasing wrecked and stranded ships, trying to guess which parts of the distant coast were Russian, Chinese or North Korean, sharing our impressions and feelings about Russia and trying to give her last minute tips on Japan, since she was going all the way to Sakai Minato, with two weeks to spend mainly between Kyoto and Tokyo. After disembarking in Donghae, South Korea, our plan was to explore a little bit of the country's mountain range on the East coast, visiting a few Natural Parks along the way and eventually reaching Busan, the second biggest city after Seoul, in order to take another ferry from there to Japan. Many stories to be lived and... told!

Wandering around the ferry, we felt curious about some odd passenger's data and tried to figure out where everybody was from, where they were going, why and so on. All this, mostly from mere observation, of course! We talked to a few random people when eye contact proved successful or every time M.-S. (obviously less shy than the two of us) broke the ice in the first place. Small groups of Russian citizens soon enough squatted the benches and picnic tables on the lower deck and started a pickle-and-vodka marathon which wouldn't end until they reached their destination. Generally young males, with the lovely exception of two young girls apparently determined to document their trip and bring some gorgeous pics back: a professional photo-shoot started soon enough, which let us all stunned and amazed. "Birch, the soul of the Russian woman!", the words from our CS host in Moscow popped back in our minds and all of a sudden it all made sense: bon sang mais c'est bien sûr! Right in front of us: a nice pair of tender and lushy birches. Sorry...

AFPS: amateuro-fessional photo-shoot: #naturalRussianbeauty and... remember the #fabulous fakes from Moscow? No? Catch up here...
More numerous and much quieter than the Russians, were some big groups of South Koreans: couples and families with their tour guides and their well-established, well-organized routines. These included some happy retired, laughing loudly while eating snacks in the sun of the upper deck and a bunch of kids with their ferry-nannies, playing games on the heliport. After a (short) period of distant staring at us, they soon came and asked to take selfies with us, started a proficient and random conversation in English, lasted about four minutes before eventually FB-friending us, then ran away even faster than they had arrived! Somehow detaching from the mass, we noticed and kept record of what had to be a high-profile South Korean figure: no less than John Wayne's Eastern-Asian doppelganger! Sure enough a movie star, pop singer or former political figure, he seemed to be bound to a heavy secret. He probably knew something we all ignored, like the fact that the world was doomed, the result of the US presidential election or both - which could actually be the same thing... Kim Wayne, as we secretly nick-named him, was carrying on his shoulder a burden he just couldn't pretend to ignore. A song-writer/poet maybe? Kim Dylan?

introducing the South Korean George Abitbol, allegedly the classiest man on Earth.
Disappearing among the South Koreans was also a tiny amount of Japanese couples, recognizable to their subtle manners and their inability to communicate with the crew. Extremely shy and trying to sort what seemed to be extremely serious issues out, they spoke the ingloriously famous Ingurishu, the cryptic dialect that Japanese people often end up talking after spending years studying English (please, excuse my clichés!)... The last piece of the pie chart, but not the least, was made of Westerners, roughly belonging to three categories: some (relatively small amount of) Transsiberianers, like us, who planned to keep traveling to South Korea and/or Japan; some (quite a lot of) US expats and peace corps currently based in South Korea and/or Japan, who took the ferry round trip for a Vladivostok city break thanks to the recent 72-hour-no-visa permit and; some (scarce) tough and tanned jet-setters, mercenaries and hobos, who came from don't ever ask where and were on their way to ye don't wanna know, kid. Some of them reminded Futuna of the Greek and Polish fishermen he once met (long ago) in the twilight of some Galician bars and "massage salons" in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, in another life and another realm.

Belonging to this latest category, although on the happy-hippy side of it, was a shining, charismatic and seemingly father-&-daugther couple, but quite different from the one met on the Rossiya train. Futuna had already noticed their heavy motorcycle clothes, boots and helmets in Vladivostok and finally spotted their two classic BMW boxers around the ferry terminal. At some point, he dared to go and talk to them: another approximate 55-25 year-old team, these two came all the way from Amsterdam, Netherlands, on their motorcycles. They rode this whole 11.000+ km ride across Russia on average roads and decent-ish dirt roads, roughly following the Transsiberian railway, dodging floods, swamps and marshes, hunting gas-stations and counting birches. They told us they were headed to Japan, where they'd tour a little bit more (apparently nothing comparable to what they had just accomplished) before shipping their bikes "home" on a cargo and flying back to Amsterdam in about two weeks. They were both beautiful souls: peaceful and kind, with a special light in their eyes and warmth in their voices. Extremely humble too, in spite of taking on and completing such a huge challenge. The old man looked strong and his daughter, pretty tough too. After talking for another while, we wished them a safe journey and left them to their beers and silent sunset-gazing.

Love, exciting and new. Come aboard, we're expecting you... Can you spot Wallis? 
As the sun went down (the rapid tempo of the music fell*), we got the delikatessens out of the backpacks, found a nice spot on the upper deck, and by the time we were ready for our little romantic picnic/dinner, the moon - as full as can be - showed up on the other side of the boat. Our simple but very typically Russian menu was: fresh cucumber and smoked fish on brown organic bread. And of course, a bootleg flask of Vodka, which is actually if not cheaper than, at least as inexpensive as water in the country we had just left. It was our second go with vodka, after being invited on the train by Michail and Mr. James Bond's bad guy with gold teeth. Not that we don't like alcohol but... the experience of the methanol flowing in our system and the feeling we were progressively getting blind, deaf and mad all at once led us to wait and observe ourselves for some days. Ha ha ha! When we realized the night ride on this love boat would actually be lit by the full moon, we decided to give Vodka a second try and didn't regret it: it was lovely and warm, gently caressed our throats and eased the smoked fish and brown bread find their way down to the stomach. The fresh night breeze, the darkness of the skies and the moist from the ocean on the upper deck became some sort of blurry (Eastern) Dream-like experience. I guess you could say my faith was strong but I needed proof, and, you know, when I saw her bathing on the roof, well, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew me and such (but she didn't get to tie me to a kitchen chair nor to cut my hair, although that was part of the plan because it was getting way too long and messy; that would have to wait a little longer). So after watching the moon over the sea, the sea under the moon and the (love) boat rolling in between, we eventually reckoned we were drunk, stumbled back to the bunks and crashed there happy as partridges**.

smoked fish in oil with some vodka; full moon over the ocean wifh shome vodka; ghe nigth breezhe wifg shome womka; zhe jhlj... zzzzz!
With absolutely no sign of hangover and the vivid memories of night-long colourful (Eastern) Dreams, we woke up early to discover the Korean coastline was close enough to be seen, the day was beautiful and it looked like we were to land soon. We both took some time to try the boat's spa before (or after) the crowd. It was an Asian-style collective open bathroom with hot tubs and a sauna, what Japanese would call a sentou (public bath) rather than an actual onsen (hot spring) but: Hey! Where do you get a natural hot spring from on a ferry? It was, indeed, a bit bizarre to relax in a hot tub on a boat, with a view to the open sea, in the middle of eight or ten naked Korean old men, being the only Westerner and wearing long hair and a beard. But I'd better get used to it fast and smooth here, because the situation would probably happen again and again in the months to come...

what do you call a nice cliché: "Asia, land of contrasts", a.k.a waiting in colourama.
After a while, the ferry headed towards what had to be Donghae, South Korea. "Right on time", we thought. Then, we entered the port in ridiculously slow motion, then spent at least an hour getting the stuff anchored and the stairs set up and such, Another hour or so waiting for everybody to land, from priority, to first and special, to groups, Nationals and privileged. Looked like there was a "crappy backpacker with ultra-low priority" category and we belonged to it. When we finally could say goodbye to the crew, walk down the stair and say hello to South Korea, the line for the customs and immigration was obviously long as an English sunday. We were lucky that some of the young male Russians who spent their trip drinking vodka were so drunk and wasted that they started to shout and argue, dropping their luggage, going in and out the line before us until the immigration officers asked them to turn around and get back on the ship. They resisted for a moment, apparently insulting the officers in Russian, then gave up and left, apparently insulting the officers in Russian. We never knew whether they were going to Japan and only intended to go shight-seeing in Donghae for a few hours, or had just incidentally screwed their whole stay in South Korea right at the border... Not that we cared too much, though. Our turn came, we smiled to the officers, handed our passports, answered their questions with reasonable (if not accurate) informations: "we plan to spend about two-to-three weeks in your beautiful country, for tourism and sight-seeing and we plan to stay at hostels and campgrounds". We might have forgotten to mention our firm intention to do Helpx, stay at some Couchsurfers' and free camp anywhere we'd have a chance to...

in Donghae, waiting to disembark: "there is nothing at the end of patience, Buddhists say, at the end of patience, there is more patience."
Well, in about a minute we passed through immigration, customs and through the gates inside the ferry terminal in Donghae, South Korea. The lady from the tourist office greeted us with a warm welcome in a nice English, showed us the closest ATM and the bus stop and treated us with a map of Donghae. What else could we ask for? An ice-mokaccino, perhaps? It was two o'clock sharp as we walked off the terminal and through the parking lot: a good 38º C under the sun hit us and by the time we reached the bus stop, we were sweating like crazy. No rain, can you imagine? End of August and this was officially our first glimpse of summer! We'd love this country, but that'd be another story!

with love from us to you... a petite douceur from the good old times:


* not that we are particularly big fans of Mr. Springsteen, but sometimes you just have to grab your chance to quote a good old' classic Spanish joke by the horns and acknowledge he knows his trade: "Joder, el Boss ¡qué animado! It goes to show you NEVER can tell...

** as they say in Spanish: not because partridges are renowned as a specially happy species of bird, but most presumably because their Spanish name "perdiz" rhymes with happy: "feliz". Et voilà!


20 cents per kilo

Our special section (hashtag 20 francs le kilo) for the accounting fans, the (tight) budget-stressed and those who would feel curious about - or attracted by - a plane-less journey. They'll find here and in this order: the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth (rounded to the euro and with some minor memory lapses, possibly). But on the whole, this is what it costed us :

 - Vladivostok-Donghae: in third-class open bunks, tickets bought online directly from the DBS Cruise website (or from a global ferry booker such as AFerry which charges a small fee but may prove easier to use). It's a 19 hour overnight trip and it's by far NOT the cheapest part of the journey: 380 euros for 2 people.
 - There's a port tax to be paid (in roubles and in cash only!) whenever you intend to leave Vladivostok by sea: it's something like 760 roubles per person, so roughly (1500 r.) 21 euros for the two of us.

So, it sums up to sort of exactly 400 euros for two people: boat + port tax, to get from Russia to South Korea. You can add to this the 900+ r. (about 13 euros) we spent at a supermarket to set a romantic delikatessen picnic/dinner on the deck, under the stars and in the (full) moonlight. <3 <3 <3

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