This is a tale about taking the 23-hour ferry from Donghae, South Korea, to Vladivostok, Russia.
“Maybe we’ll have the boat all to ourselves,” Caroline wondered aloud. It was extremely quiet in Donghae, the Korean port which hosts the weekly Japan-Korea-Russia ferry. However, when we arrived at the terminal there was already a large queue of Russians waiting to get their tickets. In our 2.5 years of travelling, this was the largest collection of white faces we’d seen since leaving New Zealand. I found myself briefly overwhelmed by the distinct lack of Asian features. A large group of Koreans on a tour soon showed up to balance things out.
There was a particular aroma that exuded from the Russians; it was a warm, pungent mix of old cigarettes, recently consumed spirits, and cologne-tinged leather. They were immediately more boisterous than the Koreans, who had in turn been more boisterous than the Japanese on our previous international boat ride. We tried to find a pattern in their features, but it was impossible; the far eastern Russians had a diverse range of looks and sizes. One noticeable mention was a gaunt, lanky fellow with a thick moustache, whom we dubbed ‘Mario’.
Immigration took much longer than any other ferry rides we’ve had. Everybody in the queue was asked to stick their bags in a scanner, and then told to move to an individual guard who would rifle through their personal possessions. Our wallets were opened and pawed through, and we were asked to undo the zips on our jackets to make colourful batman wings. Nobody was harbouring dynamite in their wings. While we were waiting, a man in a leather jacket said many things to me in Russian, and then raced off without his bag. He returned presently, took the bag, said ‘thank you’ in English, and then pushed his way to the front of the queue.
It’s difficult to describe the décor of the Eastern Dream ferry. ‘Anything goes’ would be start. Aged Christmas decorations decorated the main foyer; faded baubles hung from the ceiling, and a snowman with a missing eye stood watch at the duty free shop with a dishevelled broom shoved into his polystyrene exterior. The two main staircases depicted three-dimensional, faux-stone renditions of ‘The Birth of Venus’ and (part of) the Trevi Fountain. The lower floor was filled with Banksy-esque stencils, including at least one famous Banksy piece – the flower thrower. On other floors, various Marvel heroes and silhouette people covered the walls, and an inaccessible door was guarded by two identical storm troopers.
The Korean tour group was shuttled upstairs to the same communal quarters we were accustomed to on Japanese ferries. We’d paid for the cheapest of the cheap economy tickets but we, along with all the Russians, enjoyed our own bunks. The bunks were adequate enough, with a reading light, a pillow, and a blanket. Headphones reduced the noise of drunken Russians after midnight.
There was a communal shower upstairs, and I decided to go late to avoid the inevitable rush. There were three other guys in the changing room when I got there, and one of them was Mario. I could hear him before I even entered, talking loudly at somebody non-stop. I showered quickly, hoping he would be distracted with the person he was already accosting (a Korean), but he locked onto me as I was putting my pants back on. He declared something to me, then he realised I couldn’t understand him.
“Russki?” He asked
“No. Nyet,” I replied. “New Zealand.”
“Noo Seee lahn”
“Nouvelle Zelande?” I tried.
“Ah! Nouvelle Zelande!” He said happily. “I… Sacha.”
Sacha was very drunk and had a mouth full of golden teeth. He looked like the sort of moustachioed caravan traveller who would completely dominate a violin if he was handed one. He smelled faintly of vodka despite having freshly showered.
“Sacha two. One..two..three.” Sacha looked at me as if this was a question. “One, two, three?” he repeated. This time it was definitely a question. I decided he was asking about which floor I was sleeping on, so I said two. We high fived, and I managed to escape.
The next morning Caroline and I were sitting in the restaurant drinking ginger tea. Our leather-jacketed friend from the day before noticed us and said hello. We waved hello, and before we knew it we were joined by him and his three friends. They’d all had at least one drink, and one of them was giggling and slurring his words.
Nick, as he said his English name was, was heading home after working for two months at a pool noodle factory in South Korea. As fun as they are to sword fight with, making pool noodles looks awful. Nick showed us a 5-minute video of him inside a warehouse where screaming machines chopped polyethylene onto sausages. The workers would gather a pile of the sausages in a big blue bag and strap it up using a loud cable tying machine. The ‘fun’ colours weren’t administered at Nick’s factory; all the noodles were grey.
He told us that he worked around 12 hours a day with no real breaks and had one day off per week on Sunday. His two months of labour had netted him $3,000.00 USD.
“Is that good amount in New Zealand?” he asked.
It works out to be $5.20 per hour, which isn’t great. But then, New Zealand also has a very high cost of living to balance out our higher pay rate. In hindsight, we should have just lied and said yes. He was a 40-something husband and father of two.
“In Russia,” said another guy called Dima, “This is good amount.”
Dima had also been working in South Korea. When we asked him what he was doing, he gave a faraway look and said, “It’s difficult to explain,” and we left it at that.
“Are you happy to be going home?”
“Yes,” he smiled.
Conversation stuttered around in a friendly manner, and soon the conversation turned to food. We asked what we could expect from Russian cuisine.
“Potatoes, lots of meat, and – you know borscht?”
We did. “What about rice?” I asked.
“Yes, rice too. But not like in Korea. Always rice rice rice. Too much rice.”
Another guy, quite drunk and grinning wildly, ambled over and slurred a few things.
“He has lost his cup last night,” Dima told us.
“He has his own special cup?” I asked.
“Sure. You don’t have your own cup?”
The closer we got to Vladivostok, the colder it became. Large ice sheets had formed on the surface of the water and the Eastern Dream was simply ploughing through, cracking the sheets into frozen islands. We docked at 2 p.m. as scheduled, but we were held captive until 3.30. The passengers, many of them hungover, were slowly drip fed off the boat and into customs. We were worried about getting through, considering how hard it had been to get the visas, but the officers were smiling and polite.
Vladivostok was a completely different experience for us. It was fresh and cold with floating snowflakes and ice coated paths. Everyone was rugged up for winter in their big Russian fur hats. The train yards and docks became postcards with a dramatic coating of white. We hurried the streets behind our AirBnb host and her grey schnauzer.
But that’s another story.
- Ferry company name: DBS Cruise Ferry
- Website: Click here
- Price chart: Click here
- Timetable: See here
- Location: 37°29’33.6″N 129°07’30.0″E
You can’t book on the DBS website, because the booking thing doesn’t work (as of this writing). We emailed them to reserve our places and they replied quickly. We made payment on the day at the terminal. Email is email@example.com