Oh, China. Why oh why could we not stay within your borders for longer? I’ll tell you why – your visa policies. But we loved traveling through you on our bikes. There were some hard times of course, but these were more than offset by your glorious food alone. And when you add the people, the scenery, the dumplings, the tea, the rice rolls, the… wait, I’m back on food. You get the idea. You were glorious.
Farewell for now.
We booked a one-way ticket out of China on the last possible day of our visas. We have bicycles, and so a ferry seemed like the best possible way to get to Keelung in Taiwan. Caroline searched online and figured out the logistics while I did less useful things, like writing blog posts about drinks. We booked two cheap bunks from Xiamen to Keelung on the Cosco Star using the AmoyTrip website and paying with PayPal. It couldn’t have been simpler and the service was top notch. A few minutes after making the booking we got an email asking me to please alter my birth date. My entered date of September 2016 suggested I was typing from the womb – possibly without fully-formed fingers (although I know very little about this sort of thing).
Picking up our tickets at the terminal was also very straightforward (the terminal location is here on Google maps). We biked up the ramp, wheeled the bikes inside, spoke to a woman at a counter with no queue, and then sat and waited for the customs gate to open.
We met a fellow cyclist from the states who was a teacher in Xiamen. He was taking a couple of weeks out to cycle around Taiwan, and he told us he’d taken the ferry previously.
“The owner told me there are only about 50 people on this trip,” he said. “Another time I went there were 1000, and the 6-bed dorms were not a good place to be.”
Sure enough, the waiting area was mostly empty. It seemed like even less than 50 people would be boarding this large ship today. The low numbers could certainly be a result of China’s recent efforts to discourage its citizens visiting the island in the wake of the presidential elections. Since the opposition’s win, China has reduced the allowed quota of visiting tourists by 40%. Not that Taiwan seems to mind (I’m on this topic now, so I might as well roll with it), China’s policy of Taiwanese tourism before this recent reduction in numbers was called ‘一條龍’, which translates to ‘coordinated process’ or more excitingly, ‘one dragon‘. This means that all the Chinese tourists were – and are – catered for by exclusively Chinese companies; from transport, to shopping, to meals. So considering that the Taiwanese locals aren’t making any money from these insular visits, they would rather have tourists from other countries visiting instead. Unfortunately, Chinese tourists have a pretty bad global reputation (I don’t need to put a link for that, do I?) and their spread into Taiwan has, according to the Taipei Times, ‘declined the quality’ of travel for other tourists.
Thus, Taiwan doesn’t really care about the dwindling Chinese tourist numbers, but it’s probably not good for a certain passenger ferry company’s business.
Where was I?
Customs was an absolute breeze. There were hardly any people going through, and the only icky part was having to take the panniers off the bikes – which was completely expected anyway.
The Cosco Star was reminiscent of New Zealand’s Interislander but it was a little more run down, much quieter, and I wasn’t playing funk jams in the bar in lieu of payment. With so few people the ship felt all but deserted, and Caroline and I shared our final meal in China – overpriced fried rice – in an empty restaurant. There was a sauna, bath and shower room, but my guess is they only turn on the facilities when the passenger numbers reach a certain threshold. The empty tubs sat in front of wide windows that looked out over the Strait of Taiwan.
There were different tiers of sleeping options ranging from $108 each for a dorm (what we paid), to $667 for the presidential suite. Our American friend was right; we had an entire cabin to ourselves.
Sleep came easy, and the boat docked at 8.30 a.m. in the city of Keelung. A simple, free breakfast was announced which consisted of porridge, buns, and a new thing for me called ‘Klim’ (hint – it’s ‘milk’ backwards), which was basically cloudy water. After the banquet we disembarked, and customs was a breeze once again with chatty, smiling officers and virtually no queues.
And just like that, we were fresh and ready to explore Taiwan. And a good thing too, because we had a 40 km cycle to Caroline’s auntie’s house in Taipei.
When we decided to avoid plane travel where possible we both imagined (at the worst) long, nightmarish bus rides and confusing scams between country borders. Sometimes this has been the case, but usually we get crossings like the Xiamen to Keelung ferry: simple, quiet, friendly, and without enduring that most heinous of experiences: airports.