I’m trying to work, but it’s difficult when the boat keeps pitching up and landing back down with a crash into the waves. I’ve found a spot by a window, and am trying to master the art of typing without looking down at the keyboard and the screen because it makes me nauseous. And so I try to type while staring resolutely out of the salt-smattered window at the grey waves and the dark mountain backdrop with the thin line of industrial buildings and ubiquitous apartment blocks separating the two.
Water swirls on the green walkway outside the window – I don’t think it would be a good idea to go out on the deck now. I have a good spot here, sitting on a life jacket cupboard in the empty Korean/Japanese section with its fold-up mats for sleeping on the polished floor. I could sit in my bunk – it is comfortable and spacious enough, but in the middle of our shanty town ‘Room 1301’ it gives minimal light and no view of the sea outside.
In the bunk across from mine is a kind young man from Kyrgyzstan called Yousef. Yousef offers me snacks that I don’t want but can’t refuse because it’s such a sweet act of generosity. We try to speak sometimes but he speaks almost no English and the smattering of Russian I currently know would be of better use in a restaurant ordering beers and Greek salads. I could ask him where he’s from and tell him where I’m from, but we already achieved that in broken English. He’s disappeared for now anyway, off to watch the waves roll by.
The ferry is called ‘Eastern Dream’ and is bizarrely decorated with cartoons and Banksy copies. On one of the doors upstairs a panda wields two guns, while outside on the upper deck a threatening cartoon sea goddess towers ominously over our cartoon boat. There are three passenger floors – our huge economy cabin of a hundred bunk beds is on the lowest. On the second floor are 6-person cabins with curtains for doors, plus the glamourous ‘Zesta Bar’ and a couple of tiny shops. Up top are rooms with actual doors, some marked ‘Junior Suite’ and one labelled ‘Royal Suite’. It doesn’t look very regal from the outside. There is also a door marked ‘sauna’ and I go in to find a Japanese-style deep communal bath with the classic accompaniment of low showers and washing stools.
When I first board the boat I head to Zesta, to have some lunch paid with a credit card before we get out to see and the card machines become unreliable. The menu is only in Russian and Korean, so I point at a picture of something cheap that looks like a soufflé in a Korean metal pot. It arrives and turns out to be a pot of salty scrambled eggs (well, I suppose they are more souffled than scrambled, but it is still just a pot of egg). I wash my salty eggs down with an Asahi beer while squinting through a window made opaque by many journeys’ worth of salt residue. Not so different from the slow growth of the stalactites and -mites I saw in the cave I visited earlier today in Donghae city.
A black box floats by in the ocean outside the window – I don’t know what it is. Perhaps some flotsam lost off the side of another vessel. It is only when I pass another one closer to the boat that I think perhaps it was a black flag – some sort of marker in the sea. A flag seems such a flimsy thing to survive these turbulent waters. The sprays outside have just reached up over the top of the window beside me, which must be at least 5ft high and sits well above the water’s surface, as I do. People stagger by holding onto bunks for support or pulling elaborate surfer poses. Some can only survive by lying down on bunks.
The ferry has been sailing for 90 minutes of the 22-hour journey from Donghae on the East Coast of South Korea, up to Vladivostok on the Far-Eastern edge of Russia. Some people are shocked when I tell them about my ferry journey – why wouldn’t I just fly? they ask. Others are more adventurous and ask whether anyone can take the ferry. I haven’t met a single Korean outside of Donghae who has heard of this ferry route. The ferry connects Japan, South Korea and Russia and seems to carry very few Koreans (unsurprising I suppose, given the wealth of the country today and their uneasiness with ferries).
The waves get rougher, and I give up writing in order to lie down and stare at the clouds bouncing up and down outside the window. Before long I find myself falling asleep and retire to my bunk armed with extra blankets from the unused beds. It isn’t warm in Room 1301, but in my coat and hat and my cocoon of blankets I fall asleep.
It’s around 6pm when I’m woken by loud laughter and Russian banter, and the tinny sound of music played through a mobile phone. To the other side I can hear a man not coping so well with the sea-sickness, and I decide to go get some air. The waves have calmed enough to walk, but it still feels nerve-wracking to traverse the open section to get from Room 1301 to the rest of the ship and before that I need help heaving open the room’s heavy door.
Upstairs I see that dinner is a segregated affair, with the fancier passengers served first from 6-6:30pm, followed at 6:30-7pm with the rest of us from the ghettos. The information booth sells dinner tickets to those not too nauseous to eat. I suppose the dinner is served in the strange restaurant I happened into on an earlier ramble around the boat, when I was shooed away for being in the wrong place. My stomach still remembers the salty eggs, so I think I will avoid any more ship food in favour of my bag of ramen and snacks.
I find a seat on the lower deck and settle in to read my Kindle. Currently I am alternating between two books on Russia, one a potted history of the country, the other a glimpse of modern Russia told through anecdotal stories of a television producer. I read the first until its discussion of politics and treaties becomes too dry, but I need it to understand the cultural references of the second.
As I read I surreptitiously watch the boat world go by. A young woman in her pyjamas comes and sits next to me without saying a word, soon joined by her mother, who also sits in silence. Another woman teeters around in high heels, looking like she’s having more fun than anyone on the boat. I see her and her group of men everywhere I go, always laughing and smiling and never faltering in her heels despite the rocking boat. An elderly Asian group is waiting for their dinner slot, painfully climbing the stairs to check the timing before painfully climbing down again to tell their friends. And the Russian men pass by with beers in hand.
There is very little to do on the boat. Sleep, eat and drink seem to be the sum total. Or stagger to bathrooms clutching stomachs. Some groups are gathered in their smaller rooms, drinking and chatting together. Others play cards in the bar. Many have given up and hunkered fill the long hours with drinking.
I have just returned to Room 1301 and to my old spot by the window, when two men clatter in to my sanctuary. They are a drunken Laurel and Hardy, one big – in that broad-shouldered, built of stone style of Russian man – and one small and slight. The big guy steers the little one as he swirls across the floor in uneasy arcs, and deposits him in a bunk to pass out. Hardy then tests out various sleeping positions – on top of a set of life vest cupboards, face down across the stacks of folded floor mats, and finally in the bunk above his comedy partner, curtains shut tight against the bright lights.
‘Bing bong. Bing bong,’ an announcement plays out over the tannoy. I wait for the speaker to get to English, but even then I can hardly follow what he’s saying. I think that the crew are putting on a performance upstairs, so I guess the ship comes with some entertainment after all. I debate with myself about leaving my blanket cocoon to battle up to the performance, but six hours at sea has my eyes drooping…
The night was surprisingly quiet, bar the return of some partiers to the room around 3am, but we were all woken abruptly at 6am (and again at 6:30am) with the bing bong announcement of breakfast. The water was mercifully calm, so I was finally able to start work on my South Korea Report, and settled down at a window table with some very weak black tea and my laptop. The rough waters the night before had set the arrival time back by an hour so we didn’t dock until 3pm Vladivostok-time (1 hour ahead of South Korea), and the slow pace of the immigration checks meant it was past 4pm before I finally escaped the boat after 25 hours at sea.
Overall it was an interesting journey, somewhat traumatic with the rough waves and only a curtain between me and a room mostly full of men, but more interesting than simply flying in. The time that really made it worthwhile was the final few hours, sailing over the cold, serene waters as we got close to Vladivostok. As we drew closer we were treated with stunning views of the city and the elegant Vs of its signature bridges – much better than the paltry glimpses you get through airplane windows!