Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Sea Voyage

Several novels I read recently all contained passages of sea voyages, long or short - The Prospector by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel, and The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, and they reminded me the sea voyage I had when I was in college in China.

My university was in Dalian, a port city in the northeast Manchuria, on the Southernmost tip of the Liaoning Peninsula.  One-third of the student body of my university came from my home province, the other one-third from the rest of Manchuria (Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces) and the last one-third from the rest of the country.  There were many students from Yangtze Delta region and they would travel by ship to and fro Shanghai, instead of traveling by train and making a huge looping detour.  Traveling by ship was also much cheaper.  At that time, I had never traveled by ship and I was burning with jealousy during school breaks, seeing my friends and classmates banded together and hanging out in close camaraderie during their two-day and one-night or two-night one day trip on the open sea.  All my best friends were from that region and I felt left out; I was also drawn to the irresistible romantic atmosphere the sea voyage conjured up and was dying to be able to do it, preferably with my friends.

Finally, the last summer break of my college years, the one before my senior year, I successfully extracted enough money and time away from my parents, and invitations from a couple friends near Shanghai, and began my trip to the most cultured region in China.

Before the trip, my experienced friends warned me that it would be very likely that I would get sea sick since their usual trips had always been tumultuous and eventful and many seasoned seafarers got sick often.  I, however, was unfazed - even the seasickness sounded alluring.

Joining my two best friends - part of a sort of ménage à trois - whose family I was to stay with in sequence, and other friends, I boarded the three or four-level huge passenger ship in Port of Dalian.  There were three classes of cabins, plus the loose seats , the ticket-holders of these would be allowed to sleep on the decks and hallways at all levels.  As students, we were allowed to purchase the already cheap third-class tickets at half-price.

Dalian Harbor
Historical picture of Dalian Harbor

Our cabin had eight berths.  Unfortunately, it was near the engine room and was extremely noisy and hot.  During the day time, I mostly stayed on the deck, looking out at the vast body of water, which was mostly gray and dull.  The voyage was very smooth, therefore debunked my friends' claim of their bi-yearly bravery.

After a while, the boundless sea became very boring and in order to keep me entertained, the sea called out some of their dwellers to do some gymnastics for me, and many veterans benefited greatly from my presence.

There were many fish competing with one another and our ship.  The best of them was some flying fish which shot up from the water and led a very long and graceful curve in the sky and then gently submerged into the water, without much splash.  My friends told me that they'd never seen such phenomena before, though they were reluctant to thank me for the great favor they just enjoyed.

When the night fell, the cabin became intolerably hot.  I managed to fall into dreamless heavy sleep till the smothering heat drove me out to the deck again.  My friends, who were more or less tortured by the heat and was only half-asleep, didn't want to go to the deck - there was nothing to see but dark water.  Craving for some cool air, I persisted and dragged one or two friends with me to the deck, therefore, I rendered them even greater favor.

It was like in a dream.  Our ship was encircled by an unbroken chain of lights.  The lights, from other ships, formed a beautiful orange necklace adorned the not so black ocean.  The sight was incredibly beautiful and we were induced into a trance.  It was utterly unforgettable though the image did fade from my memory eventually and I had to use the power of imagination to conjure up that image.  My friends were incredulous and had to concede that traveling with me did yield something very unusual, hypnotic and gratifying.  The tranquility of out voyage also was extraordinary.

Eventually, the dreamy atmosphere lulled us back to our desire to sleep.  Half dazed, we retreated back to our cabin and the heat seemed had subsided somewhat and I was able to sleep till next morning.

The second's day's voyage was more or less the same as the first, except that it rained a bit - not stormy one as my friends had always encountered, but gentle caress to make the seascape less dull for me.  The sailing was as smooth as it had always been since I boarded, like cruising in a deep and low flowing inland river.

The sea was determined to entertain me even further and called out some dolphins to swim by us now and then and I was absolutely delighted by their gracefulness and swiftness.

When we finally spotted the cityscape of the great metropolis, Shanghai, the entire journey concluded as perfectly as it could be and I had just enough time on board so as not to regret leaving it or bored by it, and was ready to explore Shanghai with my friends and see the daily life of those southerners which had always been enigmatic therefore deeply attractive to me, a lad grow up in the far north Manchurian Shenyang.

Drifting / 漂流 / Treiben

One Fine Day / 美好的一天 / Ein schöner Tag

After my time with friends' families and a grand tour of the Yangtze Delta region, my best friend and I took train back to my home, and a few days later, we returned to Dalian for our senior year.  It also marked the end of our uneasy ménage à trois - in order to circumvent the restriction imposed after the Tian'anmen Massacre in 1989 on students who desire to study abroad, one of the us chose not to return to school in order to scape from the shackle but that will be another story by itself.

That was the only time I traveled on an ocean ship.  I'd love to do it again but unfortunately, according to discussions on Lonely Planet, the line had been discontinued.  I did some search and found an official notification online stating that, indeed, the passenger line from Dalian to Shanghai has been discontinued due to lack of passengers, who had opted to either fly or travel by cars and higher-speed trains.


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