How we missed our boat to Japan
Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
228Trip End Ongoing
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The fact that one critical piece of information had been withheld from us and we were never going to be able to catch the ferry armed with the details we did have was entirely unknown to us as we waited in the hotel lobby for our late taxi. It would be many hours of stress and soul-searching, of confused phone calls, panicked taxi journies and a fevered night's sleep before we could entirely absolve ourselves of fault.
For now, at the intensely hungover start, we had plenty of time on our hands
The taxi had been booked well in advance to pick us up at 15:30, giving us an hour to get to Beijing South train station - a journey, we had been assured, of no more than twenty minutes - to catch our bullet express train to Tianjin for which we were already prepared with a valid ticket and simply needed to arrive and find the correct platform. When we had made it safely and speedily to Tianjin we had instructions to get a taxi to the ferry terminal, check-in by 20:30 at the latest and wait to board our vessel. Simple. I had even taken the precaution of printing out this information with the address of the terminal and had asked our Chinese guide, 'Tina', to write out the critical names in Chinese characters.
At 15:35 the girl behind reception assured me the taxi was just around the corner. At 15:40 it was only one minute away. At a quarter to four we left the lobby and tried to flag one down from the street and five minutes later we were in a cab facing the wrong way and stuck in an almighty traffic jam - absolute standstill.
The driver, to his credit, appreciated our urgency and undertook, overtook, honked and bullied his way through the traffic, delivering us at the station neatly at 16:30 exactly. For a brief moment I thought we might actually make it to the train on time but on reflection I think I was just staying positive for Beth's sake.
Beijing South is a spectacular contemporary station, an example of Chinese modern mega-infrastructure at its finest. Built in time for the Olympics, this transport hub has around 20 slick platforms delivering people on superfast bullet trains around the country. The Tianjin train does the 100-odd km (?) every half an hour in 31 minutes and reaches speeds of 340km/h. Ours had already left.
We followed signs to Ticket Office Number 1 - a good place to start to try to get a ticket on the next train. We still had plenty of time. There was nothing to worry about. We did not need to check in for our ferry for another four hours. Time was definitely on our side.
Ticket Office Number 1 was not. It was closed.
Beijing South is a huge cavern of light and Ticket Office Number 2 is at the other end. We eventually joined the queue and ten minutes later were redirected to Ticket Office Number 3 on the opposite side of the barrelled vault.
Whilst queing at Ticket Office Number 3, the 16:58 Tianjin train departed.
When reaching the counter we handed over our original ticket by way of explaining that we had missed our train and wished to purchase new tickets to the same destination. After some confusion we were told that we had missed our train but then, much to our amazement, our tickets were handed back to us with new times and platform number scribbled on them at no additional charge.
At Gate 16 hundreds of people milled about, queing Chinese style by barging each other about whilst they waited for boarding to commence.
Eventually we were on the train. On the 17:27, arriving at Tianjin at 17:58, giving us an hour and a half to get a taxi to the port before our check-in opened. We were on the train - a bullet train - silently whizzing along the rails to our destination. Yes, everybody in the carriage was staring at us, some taking photos, others even filming, and yes, my hangover was now mutating into something more profound, but we were fine.
We stood in the orderly queue for the taxi rank, elbows out, along with, so it seemed, all the other passengers from the train. 20-30mins later I presented the ferry reservation print-out with our desired destination written in Chinese to our taxi driver.
Our taxi driver could not read.
After a brief consultation with some off-duty security guards, our destination had been established and we were off, driving through the Tianjin night. From the map, on the scale of China as a whole, and going mainly by the size and boldness of the text, Tianjin looked like an average-sized sea port city, perhaps equivalent to Bristol or Southampton. It is not. It is colossal.
We passed between the mamouth skyscrapers of the financial district and began to think maybe we had got our estimations wrong. Twenty minutes later we had crossed the river and had been hurtling down a freeway for the last ten, the endless, continual city unfolding at 60km/h. I later descovered that Tianjin has a population of 12.2million - approximately the same as London and the whole of Ireland combined but for now the only indication of its size was the 20RMB that had clocked up on the meter compared with the 100RMB the ferry company had helpfully informed us the full journey should cost.
It was ten to seven as we hurtled through the night in a nervous silence punctuated only by the canned laughter and echoed jokes of the Chinese equivalent to the Goon Show which emanated from the radio. Chinese driving, though better than Mongolian, is still a matter of ambivalent lawlessness. Overtaking and undertaking is continual and habitual. No speed limit is adhered to. Red lights are respected at the driver's disgretion. None of this added to our sense of ease as we drove onwards against the clock.
The city began to fall away, or at least retreated from the immediate verge of the road. I spotted a sign to Janggu (our destination) 18km away, 12km away, 7km away. We were getting closer but time was running out. The meter was up to 95RMB and still no sign of the port. We passed massive factories, centres of heavy industry, refineries - above which huge beacons of blue flames scorched the night sky but illuminated nothing.
And then we stopped.
The driver got out. I got out.
We were in a dark layby where a few random people loitered without any apparent purpose or desire to leave. The driver waved my piece of paper at a couple who appeared from the darkness. The paper was held up to the light from the street lamp, the text was consulted and arms were outstretched, pointing to a large dark building on the other side of the 6-lane freeway. An oversized ornamental shell blob of a building skulking behind a large forcourt.
At 17:29 we pulled into the car drop-off zone. We had made it.
But it didn't look right. The large Chinese characters blazed in red on the roof of the terminal but beneath them the body of the building was bathed in darkness. A scattering of people loitered near the road but the forecourt was empty and the lamp lights were out.
I did not pay the driver, asking him instead to wait a moment whilst I ran over to the building to confirm what I already knew. The doors were locked. Only the night lights were on. No-one was home.
Back at the taxi a great conference had conveined. All the loiterers had been given a purpose and each was now an official delegate. My scrap of paper was handed round, inspected on both sides, turned upside down and sparked an argument. More delegates arrived and without being breifed joined in the shouting until finally it was agreed that we were in the correct place. This was where we wanted to be.
Beth was keeping her cool to a remarkable degree and, from the peripheries of the conference, had noticed a number of coaches entering the forecourt and going round the back of the building. This gave us some hope but no amount of optimism would turn the lights on in the building, open the doors and bring hundreds of expectant ferry passengers out of the darkness to a sea that was nowhere to be seen.
The debating continued in the cooling night air. A mobile phone was handed round and then thrust in my direction. I spoke briefly and the phone was returned through many hands. A game of Chinese whispers, each person speaking a few words into the ear at the other end before it was my turn again.
Finally a new destination was agreed upon. We bundled back into the taxi and left the conference still in session. We had wasted around ten stressful minutes but if we were close by we might still make it before check-in closed.
The reservations of the ferry tickets had been somewhat uncertain from the outset. The website for the China Express Line Co. Ltd had provided a comprehensive sailing schedule up until the end of September. When I had enquired if the same weekly schedule would continue after this date and if there would be a ferry sailing on the 5th October I'd received a response from email@example.com which read
Yes. Please look July.
When July came round I had looked again but the schedule had not been updated so I went ahead and booked a reservation in hope. To my surprise I received an email response the same day duly informing me that my reservation was confirmed and that I should collect the tickets from Tianjin Tanggu Ke Yun Zhan, that I must pay on collection, credit cards would not be accepted and there were no banking services at the port. Finally, all on board charges were in Japanese Yen ONLY. It was for this reason that we had spent much of the first part of our hangovers trying to find a bank that was open on a Sunday during National Holiday week where I could use three different cards to withdraw the full amount required and exchange a further handful into JPY.
Three weeks after their first email, firstname.lastname@example.org sent me a second message which read:
Thank you for your booking Tianjin.
Check-in time has changed.
New check-in time change to Sunday 19:30-20:30 from Monday 09:00-10:00.
Please notice it.
I duly noticed it. There was no mention of any change to the sailing time but I printed off the email along with my reservation confirmation and it was with this piece of paper with which I was armed.
Fifteen minutes later, the taxi came off the freeway and entered a shiny new limb of the city. We had been following signs to the ferry terminal which the taxi driver agreed was a good thing and then is that ... could that possibly be... yes! Water!
We drove along the waterfront - a bustling promenade with newly landscaped lighting displays and extravagent wave canopies to the jetties. People. Life. Shimmering with a post-Olympic modernity. Our spirits lifted as we saw paper lanterns being released into the night sky and then, five minutes later, plunged once more when we were still in the taxi but had left this bustling place behind and were driving once more along dark roads.
The signs had run out and the taxi driver stopped a couple of times to ask directions. And then, at 20:35 we arrived at a building which proudly wore the words Passenger Ferry Port.
The forecourt was empty. The doors were locked. I ran around the building, the taxi driver jogging behind, encouraging me on but a security guard blocked my passage.
Returning to the front of the building I found a door that was opened and stumbled into the empty terminal waiting hall, walking through a switched-off metal detector. The lights were on night mode, the shutters to the ticket booths were down, the rows of red plastic seats were empty. A customs officer, unwinding after her shift, walked across an adjacent lobby. I called out to her. She shook her head.
A few more off-duty customs officers appeared from a mess room. The taxi driver joined in. As did a woman carrying a baby whom she encouraged to bid me Hewo.
Kobe, Japan - I repeated, waving my piece of paper. Kobe, Nippon.
I pointed to the Chinese script our guide had written out for me. Heads shook.
The taxi driver rattled on and gesticulated.
Kobe, Japan. Tianjin-Kobe, Japan.
And then someone said it. Softly. Gently. But absolutely.
Japan ferry leave twenty minute go. Check-in time seven to eight.
A nausea passed through me. I sunk to my haunches, hands on the cold marble floor to support me. I spun round and smiling people closed in all around me. I gathered myself and walked towards the doors.
Stepping out into the cold night air I looked towards Beth, waiting silently in the taxi, and told her the news. She seemed, to me at least, surprisingly serene, sitting there in the empty forecourt, waiting without expectation. Whilst my head spun, she seemed still. Quiet.
I stumbled back inside where my piece of paper was being scrutinised once more. Two of the characters that Tina had written were being crossed out and above them, two new ones scribed. The word September from the ferry company email was stricken and October written beside it. A phone was once again handed round and when it was passed to me I could hardly hear the voice at the other end, drowned out by the echoing argument of the customs officers bouncing around the empty hall. I made out - Ferry already leave. I made out - Next week. Next week. And in amongst it all I thought I made out - Tomorrow 3 in morning. I pounced on this but the voice on the other end had already moved on and I was left with nothing to hang on to. I handed back the phone.
I didn't know what time our ferry had gone, could not piece together the information I had been given and fit them in with the reality that confronted me. I didn't even know where exactly we were. All I knew was that we had missed our ferry to Japan. I didn't know how or why but we would not be sailing tonight.
I wanted to get out of there. To get out of Tianjin, out of China. I had had enough. We asked someone to ask the taxi driver to take us to out to the airport and we left the Passenger Ferry Port and re-took our seats in the taxi.
The next journey is a bit of a blur. We were back on the empty freeway, driving through the night in the opposite direction, going back from where we had come. We had failed and the echo laughter from the Goon Show mocked our failure. I had got cold being outside in just my t-shirt. I was more than hungover now. I was fluey, snivelling, run down and shivering in the back seat as Beth cuddled me, trying to keep me warm. As we drove and the endless Goon Show blaired on, I not so much fell into sleep as failed to remain conscious.
By the time the taxi dropped us off at Tianjin Airport, the meter had been running for over two and a half hours and clocked up 300RMB - about thirty quid.
Piecing together all the available information it seems the following factors conspired against us.
The National Holiday celebrations in Beijing had made the traffic worse than normal forcing the no-show of our booked taxi and the snails pace of our caught one.
Our helpful guide, 'Tina', had translated our destination incorrectly resulting in us initially asking the taxi driver to take us to the Tianjin Tanggu Coach Terminal rather than the ferry terminal - an easy mistake to make.
The ferry that sailed from the Passenger Ferry Port 20minutes before we arrived may or may not have been bound for Japan but in any case it was not our ferry.
The ferry that we should have been on, our ferry to Japan, left dock at 03:00, Monday morning whilst I was running a temperature in fevered sleep in a Tianjin hotel room after having discovered there were no more flights leaving the airport that night.
Check-in time for our ferry was 19:30-20:30 Sunday evening as stated on the second email. However what that email failed to mention, the really critical piece of information without which any attempt to catch the ferry would be doomed to failure was that whilst the summer service sailed from the Tianjin Ferry Passenger Port that we had eventually visited in the night, the revised winter schedule had the ferry leaving from Tianjin's other port!
How close to this mysterious other port we had been I do not know and it is now entirely academic. Having missed our first train, we still should have been able to make it if we'd had the correct information. Even with our detour to the coach terminal we could have just scraped in. But armed with the wrong port name, we were always another world away.