Sweet dreams are made of this.
From Russia (with love) to South Korea by Ferry
I get a good night’s sleep after the wonderful exploration of Vladivostok yesterday. I think about taking a bus to the funicular railway, one of only two in Russia. The second one has just been built in Sochi for the recent Winter Olympics. However, I choose a lie-in and a good breakfast instead. The warmth of the hotel compared to the freezing temperatures outside helps my decision.
The Eastern Dream is the ferry that will take me from here to South Korea and then on to Japan.
It towers over the ferry terminal behind the Trans-Siberian Railway station. I pay a customs fee and am ushered through check-in, ticketing and beyond the boarding queues to passport control. Without smiling or speaking to me, the border official thoroughly reviews my documents, fills in forms and bangs aggressively on her computer keyboard before returning my passport solemnly. From Russia with love …
I am first aboard the Eastern Dream and I find my junior suite. I leave my luggage to explore the vessel. The class system for rooms runs from presidential suite, royal suite, junior suite, first class, second class and, finally, down to economy. Across the corridor from my suite, there is a second class room, which consists of twenty bunk beds. Wandering upstairs, I pass an empty room with eighteen rolled up futons against the wall. This is economy class. The ship has a small restaurant, a small bar, a duty free shop and a food shop; all are closed except for the bar. The food shop which only sells soft drinks, crisps and biscuits is oversold as the “Dream Mart”. At the back of the ship are the nightclub, the sauna and the two karaoke rooms.
I grab a Coke in the bar and wait for sailing. The other customers are mainly Korean and Japanese. Korean food is being cooked in the bar. The smell of the spices and the sounds of the sizzling woks fill the room. The few Russians on board look totally alien. To add to the feeling that I have left Russia already, the ship’s currencies are Korean won, Japanese yen and American dollars. Roubles are not taken and the clocks have already been set to Korean time, which is two hours behind Vladivostok time.
Just after midday Korean time, the ferry leaves for Donghae on the northeast coast of South Korea. It is a 705 kilometre sailing, which will take us twenty three hours to complete.
Out of the port of Vladivostok, Eastern Dream breaks the thin ice of the harbour. As we head under the bridge that connects the Golden Horn to Russky Island, the ice is much thicker. The winter sun beats down but fails to thaw the thick ice. A few hardy souls stand with me on the outer deck, wrapped up against the cold, watching the wondrous departure. The occasional crack is heard as the ferry breaks the solid ice. Without seeing the flowing water of the sea, just the hard, motionless ice, the movement of the ship has a strange sensation. It doesn’t feel like I’m on a ship at all.
As we enter the Sea of Japan, we finally leave the ice and move into open water.
I stay out on deck for over an hour and enjoy the fantastic views. Back inside, the Koreans in the economy room are clapping and singing songs, practising for the karaoke when it opens. Back in my suite, I notice water on the floor underneath the window and on the bed alongside the outside wall. All that side of the room feels damp. I check with the information deck and they tell me that it’s normal; it’s just the ice melting on the outside of the vessel. It’s also now colder inside than outside on deck, but none of this affects my spirits.
This departure is a fitting ending to my time in Russia and I head back outside to take in the view for a final time.
I skip breakfast and on my way for a morning coffee, I walk past the bunk bed room and it stinks of human sweat. I take a detour up to the outside decks to get some air. In every direction, I see open sea and sky. This is what travel dreams are made of.
There’s an announcement that we will arrive in Donghae thirty minutes earlier than scheduled. There’s mist covering the mountains in the distance. The sun also begins to break out, slowly turning the broken sky to blue. Closer to the coastline, it is a beautiful vision of steely-blues and greys. The snow on the dark mountains beyond the city provides for a dark grey hue that mixes with the greyish-blue ocean and the light-blue hazy sky. An orange barge adds the only colour to the scene. The arrival into Donghae is as beautiful as the departure from Vladivostok was. The ferry navigates the working inner harbour to dock. It’s quiet and peaceful. The only sounds are the echoes of occasional bangs from the working cranes loading and unloading containers and raw materials.
Inside the ferry, it’s not peaceful at all. The passengers almost fight each other for prime positions to disembark. There is luggage everywhere. I go back out on deck to wait as I am in no rush – the perfect mode for travelling. Down below, I can see the porters carrying huge cello cases, massive suitcases and ginormous cardboard boxes. Each passenger is struggling down the gangway carrying three or four bags each. Finally the queue subsides and I make my way off the ferry. I join the queue for immigration. Again, it’s total chaos inside the terminal building. People at the front are being sent back to fill in forms. The signs above the desks are in Korean and English. Unhelpfully, every English sign just has the word “Foreigners” written on it. I find a seat, play Sudoku on my iPad and wait my turn.
Once through passport and customs, there’s a tourist information booth and I enquire as to what I can do for the five hours I have in Donghae before I need to re-board for the onward journey to Japan. The recommendation I’m given is for the city centre and shopping. I ignore this and I wave over a taxi. I negotiate a fare to Mureung Valley, which, according to the tourist map just handed to me, is the …
“Grand Canyon of Korea, where mountain wizards used to take a stroll”.
At the entrance, I pay my fee and wander in. I follow the pathway over bridges back and forth across the river that flows gently beneath and around the snow covered mountainside. The route is deep with snow and difficult to walk on. After slipping and sliding across the fourth snow-laden bridge, I come across the Samhwasa Temple.
It’s a fairy-tale world. It takes my breath away. I didn’t expect this.
There are a few buildings around a central Buddhist temple. The roofs are covered in thick snow and only narrow pathways have been cleared. The colourful buildings contrast with the white snow and the dark mountains beyond. The thousand year old temple was built by the priest Jajangyulsa during the reign of Queen Seondoek of Silla and it was then renamed Samhwasa Temple during the reign of King Taejo of the Goryeo Dynasty. One building houses a giant drum along with a bell and gong. The main temple itself is through a courtyard and rises above the other buildings. Next to it is a life-size golden Buddha statue. Inside the template, two locals are praying and chanting in front of another Buddha. There are red and yellow frescos on the walls and hundreds of red lanterns dangle from the ceiling. Apart from the worshippers, there is no one else here but me.
On my way further up the hill, I’m stopped by a man covered in sweat. In broken English, he tells me the way into the valley is difficult in the snow and to get to the waterfalls would take at least two and half hours there and back. I’m disappointed. The pathway so far has been treacherous too and I don’t have the time to do such a long walk, nor take the risk of missing my continued journey on the Eastern Dream. I wander further up for a couple of hundred metres to the tourist signs. None are in English. A group of four Koreans, in full ski gear, are sliding down the pathway on their backsides as the only means down. I decide to head back to town. It’s much more slippery on the way back, going downhill, and I have to be careful. I’ve definitely made the right decision not to go further, but the temple was a fantastic place; so picturesque in the deep snow.
Back in town, I still have an hour or so to spare before I need to re-board Eastern Dream, so I make my way to Chuam beach. I climb up the wooden steps to a rocky precipice. There are a number of rocks protruding up from the water’s edge and one is clearly candlestick-shaped. The rock is mentioned in the first verse of the Korean national anthem and Chuam apparently means auger-shaped rock.
The spot is one of the most photographed places in Korea, particularly at sunrise.
Just after four o’clock, I’m back aboard Eastern Dream for the overnight journey to Japan. What a day. Samhwasa Temple is a WTF place. I had written off the day as being a waiting-around day, thinking I probably would just be stuck at the ferry terminal for hours, but now, based on today, I’m really looking forward to being back in Korea in a couple of weeks. Eastern Dream is only half full for the shorter portion of the voyage; the four hundred kilometres across the Sea of Japan to Sakaiminato. Listening to Western rock songs sung in Japanese, I have the bar to myself for a beer and a “lunch box” dinner (boiled rice, egg, seaweed, fish and Korean sausage). It really has been an incredible day.
I will be in Japan tomorrow; the land of the rising sun, the bullet train, sake and sophisticated toilets.