Memories: Ocean Liners

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

One of the very unexpected features of backpacking around China in the late eighties and early nineties was how frequent I would end up booking a passage on an ocean liner. Just these words alone feel already unreasonably romantic and one would expect to only hear them in historic novels.

But China had – and probably still has – a network of ocean going vessels that ply their trade along the coast of the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, all the way from the beaches of Hainan Island near the Vietnamese coast to Hong Kong and from there on to Shanghai and up to Quingdao and ports north.

These ships are several times larger than the typical Yangtze River boat, with space for several hundred or even up to a thousand passengers. Many of them were built in the 1970s and 80s and back when I saw them at the very beginning of the modern Chinese tourist industry many of them were only infrequently maintained and the ships had a general air of neglect and of being understaffed.

The services were frequent, with daily or bi-weekly boats out of all the major ports and the ships were fast and the tickets were reasonable. They offered a welcome relief from a long series of overnight trains and crowded long-distance buses and the quiet days out on sea were great to just stretch out in the sun and read a book in happy solitude.

Food on the ships was included in the ticket price and the quality of the meals was hit and miss. On some of the “international” boats to and from Hong Kong there was at least a chance of a tasty dinner and reasonable western-style breakfast, but on the local boats the food was often incredibly basic with essentially the only item on the menu being  fried rice with egg.

Accommodation was also widely varied, from dormitory-style 10-bed rooms in the lower decks with no windows all the way to nicely wood-paneled two-bed private cabins on upper decks with large port holes and private bath rooms. It was impossible to figure out before going on board what the cabins would be like and after a while I usually splurged on cabins in the highest classes since the tickets were never that expensive to begin with anyway.

There are many vivid memories…

…in 1989 after the student uprising and a typhoon had marooned me with a few other travelers near Sanya at the southern tip of Hainan island, we were brought to Hong Kong on a huge passenger liner that had space for five or six hundred passengers. There were only about a dozen of us on the whole ship…

…on the same trip one evening while the ship was taking a long northward bound route along the Vietnamese coast, we had alternating groups of dolphins and flying fish accompany us for hours until the sun went down…

…being caught in the beginnings of a typhoon on a boat from Hong Kong to Shanghai, with towering waves slamming into the ship and rain sweeping across the decks. There were only very few of us who dared to appear for breakfast that morning…

…a dark, red sunset over the coastal hills of Fujian province, with the Yellow Sea all around us dotted with the brilliant lights of fishing boats, like glittering jewels on the gentle waves…

…arriving in Hong Kong harbor at night, with Kowloon and the island both lit up in a million neon lights…

…arriving in Shanghai in a dense fog one morning very early. The old colonial buildings along the waterfront, all dark and quiet, appearing one after another out of the fog like ghosts from a long forgotten time…

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *