An Eastern Dream: Two days spent (mainly) on water between Russia and Japan

It was a sunny Wednesday morning when we said goodbye to our marvellous Vladivostok hosts as well as Russia, the Trans-Siberian and, in a sense, Europe. We had been travelling for three months overland, and the DBS ferry crossing the Sea of Japan/East Sea meant a new chapter in terms of travel means, culture and geography. Despite the differences, there was always something familiar about Russia. Even if Vladivostok is seven time zones away from Finland, it’s still part of the country I’ve spent most of my life as a neighbour with. Japan is new.

We gave the homeland one last wink by lunching on that “legendary Finnish burger.” I last saw a Hesburger at the Helsinki central station in May and didn’t expect to cross the brand again, but as it happens, the company has at least three restaurants on the Pacific coast. Who knew? Even more surprisingly, it tastes just like at home.

The authorities’ exit check went smoothly and we got a big smile, a determined passport stamp and our last pozhalsta and da svidanja from a young and friendly customs clerk, who had managed to apply an insane amount of mascara in a very tasteful way. I have neither the lashes or the ability to pull that off

We had booked economy, but got an upgrade to second class for unknown reasons. Maybe the crew figured meek Europeans wouldn’t manage two nights on the floor with 72-100 local budget travellers. We shared a windowless room with six others, including two quiet, young men we hardly saw and a kind, platinum blonde in her early 40s, originally from Vladivostok but working in Moscow. She also kept to herself. The third man spent most of his time drinking vodka with his dad, who we later found passed out on the floor in another room, door open. Had it not been for some occasional, loud snores, I would have thought he’d had a seizure. Our biggest surprise was meeting Anja from Armenia again, who we had shared a train compartment with from Ulan-Ude to Birobidzhan. What are the odds of that?! She was heading for Korea to sightsee and possibly study. She talked about proper Armenian shashlik with longing in her voice and gave me an apple and a red ribbon for my hair before disappearing somewhere else on the ship.

We spent most of our time with Roman, a funny Russian in his 20s, on his way to Korea to get spare parts (electronics, I think) to import to Russia. It was business for him, but he didn’t like flying so he wanted to give the ferry a try. He thought the boat took too much time, but “if I pay a lot, I get a good flight, and if I pay little, I get a horrible flight.” It’s all about pros and cons. After securing one of the few tables on the ship not in the restaurant or café, we brought out our rather unused card game and taught Roman my grandmother’s Spader Maja, which he said was too difficult. He countered by teaching us a more “simple” game, which turned out to be the most complicated thing I have ever heard of. New rules kept appearing and old ones changing and neither Christophe nor me understood what to do with our “special cards” and when. In short, we were hopeless students and Roman finally gave up and reverted to kicking our asses in Maja over and over. If the import business doesn’t work in the long run, I think he could make some decent money in online poker. The man has an eye for cards.

The ship arrived in Donghae, a port town on the east coast of South Korea that I doubt gets much attention in guidebooks, at 10:00 the following day. But since one of my goals in this area was to see the sunrise over the ocean, we woke up insanely early to do just that. We weren’t alone. This was probably the moment when leaving Europe and entering Asia felt the most obvious as we shared deck space with a bunch of Koreans, some Japanese and maybe Chinese, doing morning gymnastics and taking photos of the rising sun. What a cliché, but it was a beautiful morning all the same.

We packed our belongings, left them by the ice cream counter near the information desk, and, armed with our immigration forms, left for four hours in South Korea. Donghae was pleasant enough but not pretty and, in August, extremely hot. We walked on deserted streets for ages until we realized we were still in the harbour area. When we finally found the actual town, we also found a beach with the most gorgeous water I have seen in ages. At that point, I felt like cancelling the rest of the trip, setting up a tent along with the locals, and staying there indefinitely.

We’re practical folks, so we didn’t, and when we left our second harbour we were sent off by a dozen DBS officials standing at the quay, waiving at us while the loudspeakers blared out a farewell ballad. I can’t imagine that happening in Russia. The goodbye song replaced another power ballad about an “unsinkable ship” (not by Ms. Dion), which must have been chosen by someone with a sense of humour.

The second leg of the trip was definitely different from the first and that’s in no small part due to alcohol. If you’re used to the boats between Finland and Sweden, the Vladivostok-Donghae tour wasn’t weird. People fall over, bruises and scars are made. We walked through Korean customs with the same Russian who, the night before, had emotionally insisted that Christophe and I were such a “beautiful couple” and who, in daylight, showed off a nasty cut on his cheek and severe problems walking straight as well as upright. He picked his passport up each time it fell, though – good reflex. On the Donghae-Sakaiminato voyage the average age went down, but the trip was decidedly calmer. Chairs and tables were put out on deck and someone organized a Korean barbeque. The brunette with braises, who welcomed us on the ship, showed off an impressive singing voice in the nightclub, backed by a band made up by other staff members. But later, when I heard Gangnam Style being played and I ducked in to check if the Koreans would be rocking it, the floor was empty.

The second night we shared a room with two Australian girls as well as Dutch and Belgian bikers. These guys, together with a British couple, another Australian, a Finn and us, were among the few passengers that I noticed doing the full two-day trip. The weather was good and the sea was calm as we plied the waves through a tunnel of lights on buoys. I forgot to ask what they were for – seems you could find your way on sea easier than that – but they made for a pretty crossing.

We arrived in Sakaiminato at 9:00 on Friday morning and Japanese immigrations was a breeze. I had expected them to ask for an exit ticket and bank statements proving we could support ourselves, but there was nothing but polite bows and apologies for keeping us waiting for a few minutes. The customs official in charge of searching my bag looked surprised when I described what route we would take and desperate when starting to go through my luggage. After checking my sleeping bag and rain gear he concluded the rest would not be hazardous and sent me off with more apologies.

And so we were officially in Japan, a country running so smoothly I wonder how we’ll ever manage anywhere else after being spoiled here for weeks. There are information desks everywhere and as soon as you ask a question you get a handful of maps and brochures. Signs are plentiful and people are polite, although we meet surprisingly few English speakers. We took the train to the quaint village of Yodoe and our lovely couch surfing host Sakio and got ready to tackle the rest of the country.

 

Travel on the Eastern Dream – How does it work?

Before leaving, I looked all over for recent information about the DBS ferry between Russia and Japan and found precious little. In case anyone would be looking for the same thing, these are some notes from August 2016.

  • First off: This is not your regular cruise ship, which I felt some commentators had expected when I looked through old reviews. It’s a good way of getting from A to B to C if you don’t want to fly, but if you want an on-deck pool and margaritas, look elsewhere.
  • We had booked our tickets by e-mail several months in advance to be sure to be out of Russia before our visa expired as August is peak travel season and DBS only has one boat leaving Vladivostok per week. We used the website e-mail address and got quick and helpful replies by Olga every time.
  • We paid (by credit card) and picked up our tickets at the DBS office a few days before leaving and we were probably an exception. Most people just lined up on the day of departure. We were asked to show up for boarding at 12:00 or 12:30 the latest and the ferry left at 14:00. The DBS office is on the water side of the train station building on the second floor.
  • The Vladivostok port tax was 760 roubles per person, payable only in cash on the day of departure at the same office.
  • Both times we boarded it didn’t matter what nationality we had. Both times we left the boat we were in the “other foreigners” group and left after the Russians and Koreans in Korea and before everyone else in Japan.
  • Second class accommodation: We had a room with bunkbeds for eight people. The beds have curtains for privacy, but there are no lockers. You can leave some small valuables locked up at the information desk on the second floor. There is one room key that stays in the room as long as someone is there. When the last person leaves, he or she locks up and returns the key to the information desk. If you arrive at the room and the door is locked, you go to the info desk to pick the key up.
  • Toilets and showers are shared and clean. There is a (heavily air-conditioned and quite empty) nightclub, a restaurant, a café, a (meagrely stocked) shop selling soft drinks and snacks, and some tax-free shops selling more pricey goods.
  • There are no meals included in your ticket price, so if you want to eat in the restaurant, you have to buy a voucher and you’ll be allotted one out of three dining hours. Alternatively, you can buy food and drinks in the café à la carte, which seemed decent. If you want to cut costs, there are hot and cold water dispensers, so you can bring your own pot noodles. Just note that the hot water isn’t really that hot – more like a degree over lukewarm. You’ll know what I mean if you use it for coffee.
  • There isn’t really any common space where you can sit down without buying anything to eat or drink. A lot of people sat on the carpet on the third floor or, on the second night, by tables on deck outside of the nightclub.
  • We counted zero (0) electrical outputs, so if you want to charge your phone, you need to bring it to the information counter where they’ll do it for 1 dollar.
  • You can pay in US dollars, Korean won and Japanese yen. You cannot pay in Russian roubles. Didn’t try credit and debit cards.
  • If you do the full trip from Russia to Japan, you still have to change rooms as the boat docks in Korea. Unpractical, but true. You can stay in Korea for about four hours or on the boat. We were asked to leave our luggage in a pile by the ice cream counter near the information desk. There are templates for how to fill out the transit immigration form and the Korean customs officials were used to people stopping off for the day. Dollars and won accepted at the ferry terminal.

 

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