January 31- We didn’t berth in Pusan until 3 am this morning. Although four of the crew were able to leave for the airport and home (and their replacements came aboard), I would need to be cleared by Korean immigration before being allowed to wander, and there wasn’t time to get the necessary clearances. It was unlikely that there would be much to see at that hour anyway. Still the Pusan harbor is pretty, the sun was shining, and I was able to enjoy another breakfast of “Melva Toast” – fried bread topped with Canadian bacon, and canned peaches, all covered in cheese. I also picked up part of a Korean soap opera on the TV in my cabin. Although I couldn’t understand the dialogue, I believe an attractive young woman was about to have her heart broken.
The East China Sea is flat today as we head south and the sun is taking care of the remaining snow on the deck. I am able to listen to unusual Japanese FM radio stations and have a porthole open for the ocean air.
January 29 – Daybreak in the Sea of Japan and I am doing laundry. Every day is a new experience – never before have I cleaned my clothes in such an exotic location.
It is snowing again, but without the high winds. Snow makes the Tetris-like arrangement of the containers look pretty, but also makes the deck treacherous.
We arrive in Pusan tomorrow, and I am debating whether to take shore leave. The ship arrives on Sunday evening and shore leave will end at 5 am on Monday, February 1. (Happy birthday M). The Captain points out that Pusan harbor is a long distance from town, maybe a $50 cab ride, and the crew doesn’t appear to think it is worth it, but I want the passport stamp and am desperate to find a wi-fi hookup after 15 days without Internet access. When I ask one of the Filipino crew where I should go in Pusan he gives me a wry look and says “Texas Street.” This doesn’t sound like the home of Internet cafes.
To remove the foul taste of the Keith Richards’ autobiography I am re-reading Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a free Kindle download.
January 28 – I got my first view of land today since leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca on January 17. It is the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan as we pass between it and the Japanese mainland on the way to Pusan, South Korea. The weather is sunny but still below freezing. Ship traffic is increasing and sea birds are much in evidence.
The picture is of Mt. Toyomi on the south-central tip of Hokkaido.
I finished Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, and wish I had the time and money back. I’m hard pressed to recall a more self-deluded tome. Nothing is his fault and he emerges the hero in every rotten anecdote. Richards spends as much ink on the stray animals he collects as on the death of his second son, whom he left in the care of his junkie common-law wife while he embarked on the 1976 Rolling Stones tour. (The tour continued uninterrupted: “I don’t even know where the little bugger is buried, if he’s buried at all.”) He does offer some useful tips: When you relapse after going cold turkey, reduce your heroin intake by 2/3 initially in order to avoid Gram Parsons’ fate. Throughout Richards stoops to name dropping and even posts his favorite recipes as filler toward the end.
January 25 – Today the ship crossed the International Date Line, meaning we advanced the calendar from Sunday, January 23 to Tuesday, January 25, without pausing for Monday the 24th. At the same time we were required to “retard” our clocks by one hour. This is the fifth time we have set our clocks back in this manner, due to our heading west through multiple time zones. I again embarrassed myself today by showing up for breakfast an hour early, although the steward assures me it happens all the time.
There is light snow on the deck and containers, and it is below zero Celsius. It is a bright sunny day without fog and for the first time I can see the landless horizon in all directions. There is not another ship in sight. The North Pacific is choppy but without whitecaps, and the ship has a gentle pitch and roll. We are travelling at between 14.5 and 16.5 knots. The ship can do 25 knots, but is throttled back to save fuel, and to arrive in Pusan at the designated time.
I was allowed to take the wheel on the bridge and asked to keep a course heading of 267. This proved impossible for me as variables like wind, waves and the sheer mass of the ship caused me to overshoot the course and then to overcorrect. This amused the crew and the suggestion was made that I was trying to spell my name in the ship’s wake. Also, I was reminded that 23 souls and $150 million in cargo were in my hands, and I gladly returned the steering to the autopilot.
The galley is sandwiched between the officer’s and crew’s messes. For each of the three daily meals the cook prepares different dishes for the Northern European officers and the Filipino crew. The food preparation areas are spotless and meals are served on attractive NSB china. I have not tried the dishes made up for the crew but the officer’s meals are hearty and bland. This is to be expected given that the ship couldn’t possibly be re-provisioned with fresh food at each port of call. The galley crew therefore makes do with frozen or canned products, although there are often fresh treats like Kiwi or watermelon.
The plentiful coffee is much better than I expected.
At breakfast one morning the Captain overhears me decline the Steward’s offer of “liver cheese,” and orders me to eat it. I refuse and am humorously warned against insubordination. It turns out that liver cheese contains neither liver nor cheese, but is instead some kind of pork cutlet. Why then do ze Germans insist on the hideous name?
January 24 – I am rethinking my decision to take the Trans Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow. Part of it has to do with the realization that there is nothing in Siberia that I am anxious to see, and making a 6000 mile trip by train just to say I did it feels like a stunt. Also I reread Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar on the ship and was reminded that, by the end of his first Trans Siberian journey, Theroux had been driven insane.
The train was going at half-speed for the approach to Moscow. I walked down the corridors of Hard Class to my compartment, to pack my belongings. The other passengers were already packed. They stood in their arrival suits, smoking by the windows. I passed each one, seeing criminality and fraud in their faces, brutishness in their little eyes, fists protruding from unusually long sleeves.
“Monkey,” I said, squeezing through a group of soldiers.
A man stroking his fur hat blocked my way. I went up to him. He agitated his enormous jaw with a yawn.
“Monkey!” He moved aside.
Monkey to the provodnik, monkey to the man at the samovar, monkey to the army officer in Soft Class; and, still muttering, I found the zombie sitting by the window in an overcoat, his jam-flecked thumb on Mockba. “Monkey!”
I can’t recall any written account of a trip on the Trans Siberian that praised the food, accommodations or companionship. Nor have I read one which fails to mention that many of the passengers spend the long trip drunk on vodka. So to hell with it.