Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 13 2011

Last day

Good weather had returned by the next morning when we exited the hotel and got into Mr. Cai’s car once again. We were headed out to another fishing village, this one much closer to Quanzhou, and the goal was once again to take pictures of women with unusual headgear. I didn’t quite understand the appeal of the “women with unusual headgear” aspect, but the others seemed interested, so I just went along with it. As before, we walked along a market street taking photos. No rocks were forthcoming this time, but one small boy did spit at us several times, to the delight of the adults present. We walked through the alleys, lined with houses constructed largely from massive oyster shells and being cussed out by a series of old women engaged in various tasks. It was Qingming, so firecrackers were being set off here and there, and vats of ghost money was being consumed by flames, lending the scene a smoky, slightly surreal atmosphere in the strong sunlight.

We walked across the broad new road to the waterside, where dozens of blue fishing boats were moored, Matzu’s flag flying along the PRC’s on many of the masts. Chenbl dared me to walk across one of the thin metal gangways leading to the boats, and I did so; it didn’t seem like such a big deal, but when Mr. Cai tried it he lost his nerve halfway across and ran back giggling like a frightened schoolgirl.

We had lunch at one of the shops on the market street, fresh seafood mixed with firecrackers being set off at the temple next door. Afterwards, as I walked back to the car, I came across an old women trying to buy something from a vendor who was apparently not from around there. She was speaking in Minnan, which he didn’t understand. It was interesting to watch, but I felt that intervening to help translate would cause more problems than it solved, and they managed to strike a deal eventually without my help in any case.

Mr. Cai drove us back out to the HSR station, which in daylight was revealed to truly be out in the middle of what looked like a desert. Only a few small villages were located nearby; Mr. Cai lived in one of them. He had to rush back home to take part in his family’s Qingming activities, and we were left alone at the station a full two hours before our train. While the others slept, I prowled the station taking photos of passengers, rows of seats, the ceiling, and the appetizingly named “Corn Juice” stand.

When the train back to Xiamen finally came, I got a window seat and almost immediately regretted it as the train wasn’t fast enough to escape the depression issuing from the industrial wasteland through which we passed. Next to me, a local girl did not pause to take a single breath as she complained to her friend about various boys she knew. I glanced at the railway magazine, which promised a glorious future for the nation’s HSR network, but I’d seen the idealized paintings next to their real-life counterparts and knew that such reading required a metric mountain of salt.

The ride was smooth enough, though each and every tunnel made my ears pop. It was late afternoon by the time we returned to hazy Xiamen, which felt almost familiar by now. We picked up some fast food in case the shipboard fare was unpalatable, and caught a taxi driven by a middle-aged women out to the port. “You shouldn’t catch cabs there,” she admonished us as we set off into traffic. “That’s not the place where you catch cabs.” I wanted to tell her we were from Taiwan, where everywhere is the best place to catch a cab, but I kept my mouth shut. She was a great driver, and got us to the port with plenty of time to spare. This was a good thing, as Chenbl and the others spent a while arguing with the people at the counter over some fee they hadn’t expected to have to pay.

Despite the fact that hundreds of people were waiting to board the ship, there was exactly one (1) woman checking people through, and of course this took quite a while. In immigration I was asked for my Taiwan passport in addition to my Taiwan compatriot passport, and as this was a waste of time that I hadn’t encountered before in my travels to China, I pressed the “This official wasted my time” button on the “How is my service?” machine at every counter. I’m sure it doesn’t do anything except make the presser feel slightly better about being inconvenienced.

Back aboard the ship, we put our things back in the same cabin we’d had on the way over and went back up on deck to watch the sun set over the harbor, all kinds of vessels, large and small, plying back and forth in the gray water. Many were fishing boats hauling in their nets for the day. As dusk fell and the ship cast off, issuing blasts to warn other ships, the port building flickered to life as thousands of apparently cheap fluorescent lights, the kind you find at small utilities shops, struggled to life along the building’s dusty roof line.

The ship moved slowly out into the harbor, past Gulangyu, the city beyond a bright, colorful horizon. I could make out the path we’d taken around Gulangyu as the ship slid past, and the dock where we’d taken the ferry back to the city. The wind picked up, and most of the passengers went below, but I stayed on deck, savoring the feeling of being on a ship headed out from a Chinese port, out to sea as the last glimmers of the sun faded from the sky. Wonderful.

Our dinner was cold by the time we got to it, but I didn’t mind. The waves didn’t build up as quickly as we headed out to sea. The baths were fuller this time, the water sloshing out and across the floor to the door, where a crewman was frantically mopping it up. I lay in my bunk, perfectly content, reviewing photos and writing in my notebook as the ship rolled across the sea.

I slept soundly; we were already approaching Taichung Harbor by the time I made it up to the restaurant for breakfast. I chatted with one of the deckhands about the possibilities opening up for ship travel, including perhaps a Keelung-Shanghai route that would take about the same time as the Taichung-Xiamen trip. We agreed that there was demand, and since the Japan disaster it seems a lot of the tourism is moving south. A Taiwanese businessman agreed with this assessment later as we lined up to get off the ship, which was being turned around in the harbor by a tugboat. “Air travel is just terrible these days,” he said. “They treat you like crap, you’re always being rushed, and all the time you might save is just wasted on all the extra security and getting to and from the airports.” True enough if you’re shipping out of Keelung, I thought, but Taichung Port is just too inconvenient.

In the meantime, I had to get to work. We were first out of the gate, and Chenbl had called a taxi when we were entering the harbor. We bought standing tickets on the bullet train back to Taipei, and within an hour I was walking in the office wearing my travel clothes and a week’s growth of beard. It was good to be back.

So that was my trip; hope you enjoyed the account.

posted by Poagao at 4:49 pm  


  1. I enjoyed it. It was fun to read. I’ve never taken a ship this way, I rarely have enough time off to do so.

    Comment by range — April 13, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

  2. your travels are so enjoyable to read about

    Comment by karen — April 14, 2011 @ 10:57 am

  3. Sounds like a fun trip. I just got back from 5 days in Penang. I liked it, but I now have a raging ear infection and the cold which I thought was gone is back with a vengeance–or maybe it is a new one altogether. I’m totally with you on boat travel. I wish we could still do that in the Foreign Service.

    Comment by Prince Roy — April 16, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  4. Great account, filled with lots of atmosphere only you could capture. I don’t know if I’d ever follow the route, but you do paint it well.

    Comment by persimmonous — April 19, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

  5. Thanks, I’ve been thinking of taking that route for a while…I enjoy traveling by boat, and I’ve taken ships from Taiwan to Matsu, Okinawa and Macau before, so this was another interesting experience. I’m hoping there’s eventually a route to Shanghai.

    Comment by Poagao — April 19, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

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