February 6 – We arrived in Yantian yesterday afternoon. It shares part of its harbor approach with Hong Kong. The Hong Kong portions are marked with a line of buoys and a customs station floats among them. The approach to Yantian is pretty but the Port itself needs to be seen to be believed. It is massive, with at least 65 of the huge gantry cranes used to load and unload container ships. Every couple of years they tear down an adjacent hill, dump it into Mirs Bay, and erect 20 more cranes on top. The process is underway in at least two locations in Yantian. The Baltimore was shoehorned into a slip with what appeared to be inches between it an its neighboring behemoths berthed immediately fore and aft. The cranes went to work within minutes, positioning themselves even before the ship was tied up.
The Port is completely nuts. A seemingly infinite number of unlighted rattletrap trucks veer wildly around the approach to the ship taking on the containers from the cranes and delivering new ones for loading onto the ship. There are no traffic signals. The air in the Port is choked with diesel exhaust, and the noise of the trucks is deafening.
I went ashore at about 7 pm, with a proper ship’s ID card and my shore pass. There were two young Chinese men waiting at the gangway on the “U” deck. One spoke rudimentary English. They had gadgets for sale and offered to drive me into Yantian proper since the buses allegedly weren’t running due to the Chinese New Year – a transparent falsehood as several passed by the ship as we were talking. I hitched my wagon to the more experienced crew members and climbed into the two hustlers’ van with about six of the them. The mix of Tagalog, Chinese and broken English in the van was bewildering. Shore leave was to expire at 4 am.
After careening wildly through the unlighted Port facilities and out the porous security gate it quickly become clear that the plan was to take us on a tour of their friends’ shady businesses. Whenever an idea was floated about where we might go (a casino perhaps or, in my case, a coffee shop with wi-fi) the suggestion was shot down as impossible given the Chinese New Year holiday. We were deposited at a small storefront featuring cheap stereos, toy remote-control helicopters, flashlights and San Miguel beer among other things. Several more touts showed up while our original hosts ate noodles seated on plastic kiddie stools on the sidewalk, presumably their reward for delivering us. I was targeted as weird Internet guy by one of the female proprietors and a young metrosexual and repeatedly steered toward the back office, where I might indulge that vice on their computer. Really I just wanted to check my goddamn email on my goddamn laptop after 20 goddamn days on a ship, and didn’t think that should be back office stuff. It got skeevier; I decided to strike out on my own.
This was a big mistake. At least the touts spoke rudimentary English and accepted dollars. More important, they knew the way back to the ship. I didn’t, but figured any taxi driver would. But for the first time in my life I found myself unable to communicate with a single living soul. I tried to ask a woman working the front desk at a bar for directions to an ATM machine. I imagined that “ATM” was universal lingo but it’s not. When I did stumble onto a machine I (ridiculously) didn’t know the exchange rate, selected “200” and received two banknotes with Chairman Mao’s visage, honestly not knowing whether this was equivalent to $2 or $2000 US.
I also thought the word “taxi” was world standard, but was quickly proven wrong as I was reduced to miming holding a steering wheel to a uniformed official. He wanted to help, he truly did, but we just could not communicate on any level, although we parted friends.
I managed to flag a taxi but again the language barrier remained insuperable. And then – a miracle. As I was standing on the curb gesturing through the passenger window to the driver (how does one mime “container ship” or “Port”?), a young woman approached. She brought with her an older Chinese man whose English was exceptionally good. She had seen me on the curb with the taxi and had the man pull their car over to offer assistance. They spoke with the driver and could not get through to him either and so they put me in their car and drove me miles to the labyrinthine Port facilities. He was a British subject from Hong Kong and retired from the restaurant business. Two of his sons are doctors practicing in England. He has traveled extensively in the US. The young woman was his girlfriend and is studying English. I have not encountered a more generous spirit in a very long time. I fear that I insulted them by offering to pay for gas, but felt at the time that I should as we had traveled a long distance. “This wasn’t about money” the Good Samaritan gently stated as he and his angelic companion left me safely at the Port security office.
Two young men enthusiastically drove me all the way to the ship in a dilapidated pickup truck, with many gesticulations on our respective parts signifying love and respect for America and for China. I think alcohol was involved on their end, but they were fun guys. I gave them one of my Mao banknotes not knowing if I was letting down my country by being the Yankee cheapskate or setting them up for the month. (As it turns out it was the equivalent of about $15 US). The Chinese security man guarding the dockside approach to the ship’s gangway was fast asleep; I had to wake him so he could put me properly through his detector machine.
Almost lost in this is the fact that I enjoyed wandering around Yantian for several hours seeing the sights. Most restaurants have a prominent picture of Chairman Mao on the wall. There were many idiosyncratic businesses (a welding shop open downtown at 10 pm), and lots of families out for an evening stroll, including grandmothers and tiny children. I had to laugh when one small shop’s resident dog regarded me with deep suspicion as I passed in a crowd on the sidewalk and began barking at me, and me alone, to the owner’s chagrin. It had apparently never seen a Caucasian. I never did find a coffee shop but there were lots of fireworks for the holiday and I watched a family launch a large purple paper lantern with a small flame at its base, which soared up over ten stories.