28 July 2009

Boat stories

In order to continue travelling on the surface of the earth, we have had to take a few ferries, one in Russia, one in Japan and one between the two countries. The experiences couldn't have been more different....
First of all, we had to get from mainland Russia to the island Sakhalin. We had done quite a lot of research on the internet which revealed that getting tickets for the ferry to Sakhalin was close to a nightmare, especially for foreigners, involving up to 12 hours of queuing and ferries leaving at 2 am. We didn't feel like experiencing all this, but we really wanted to get to Sakhalin and from there to Japan... so, we found a travel agent who organised the tickets for us.
I won't go into all the details, just the result: It was very expensive; we were picked up at the train station from our night train by a travel agent; 5 minutes later we met a Russian backpacker who told us he had only just bought his ticket and that there was no queue at all. But there's no point in regretting when you can't go back, so we just put up with it.
Then it all went the Russian way, but we already expected it:
- Waiting for about 2 hours for the bus to take us to the port
- Boarding a pretty rusty ferry (but everything seemed to work more or less, there were even life vests)
- Waiting until the ferry left (earlier than we thought), queuing for lunch (included in the price), communicating with our (non english speaking) room neighbours
- Watching some ferry employees scratching away the rust on the ship and painting over it (at least this one had a helmet...):
- Spending the night in a cabin as hot as a sauna (we had to open the door in the middle of the night in order to get some fresh air), having an improvised breakfast on deck in the fresh air, watching the green hills of Sakhalin approaching.
A journey of about 20 hours, the Russian way. Fortunately the sea was very calm and the weather always nice.

After a couple of days in Sakhalin, we got up early one morning to take the ferry to Japan. It was raining heavily and we were afraid of a typhoon arriving and the ferry not being able to leave, but the weather improved and we left on time. Arriving to the port was still the Russian way, with a very slow bus (we almost had to get out and push so it would go uphill), followed by a local bus and (fortunately) a local guy showing us the port.
The ferry was Japanese (and the ticket price as well). Meaning: Super clean, nicely repainted, the ship workers were wearing helmets and appropriate clothing, it left exactly on time, the crew was very friendly and smiley and happy to help, there were 4 rolls of toilet paper in every toilet which also had a heated seat. Next to the stairs there were even signs reminding people to hold on to the hand rails (in this lovely Japanese English...):

In economy class, seating was on tatami floors, and a boxed breakfast was served to all the passengers.
The trip took 5 hours and 30 minutes, the sea was calm.
Going out of the port in Wakkanai, the streets were perfect, no holes, perfect white middle lines, the drivers polite. The landlady at the hotel bowing and saying thank you all the time.

In brief: Some kind of a culture shock.
It took us some time to recover from it...

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