The Used Car Ferry
The Sea of Japan
As I traipsed through fields and shipyards, past small homes with fish hanging in their windows in an obscure village in Japan, I wondered whether I had made the right choice in opting to take a cheap boat to Russia rather than an expensive flight. It had seemed like a good idea when confronted with the extortionate cost of flying, so I had exchanged emails with the Japanese representative of a shipping company I found on the internet that the company transported used cars – and some passengers – from Fushiki to Vladivostok.
A few days previously, in Tokyo, I had eventually found my way to a nondescript, out of the way building where Iâ€™d wandered through various offices full of busy clerks tapping away on keyboards before picking up my ticket. I had stumbled upon the representative purely by chance in a tiny side room full of men sipping green tea and filling in forms. He had the messiest desk Iâ€™d ever seen, but after lots of digging around, he produced an ancient typewriter and typed a ticket for me. It had been a pretty strange process and I was beginning to have my doubts about the whole thing, but I tried to keep thinking of all the money I was saving as I wheeled my suitcase down a long windswept road towards the distant ship.
I knew that I was in the right place when I started to come across gaggles of shifty-looking blokes in leather jackets and shell suits, smoking and chatting in Russian. I wended my way to the gangplank through used cars with numbers on their windscreens, crushed cars stacked in blocks and piles of tyres, then heaved my giant red suitcase aboard.
I was assigned a cabin down on the water line with two Russian women, Lena and Luda, and the mountain of stuff they had purchased in Japan, which included a small tree. The room was cramped but clean, and there was a private bathroom with a toilet, sink and shower, where the tree was installed. I tried to stash my huge suitcase as unobtrusively as I could, and then climbed the four flights of stairs to the main deck to watch the used cars being hoisted onto the ship and wait with everyone else for the immigration formalities.
We set off three hours late after Japanese police boarded the boat to interrogate some passengers about a theft recently perpetrated by a Russian national. Apart from my cabin-mates and a group of over-excited schoolchildren, most of those travelling seemed fairly sketchy. The saloon was full of used car dealers in tracksuit bottoms, slippers and gold necklaces conducting what looked like shady deals involving lots of alcohol. Everyone got drinking before we had left the dock. They put away incredible amounts of vodka and beer throughout the 36-hour journey, swaying from side to side rather more than you would expect on calm seas.
The ship was twenty years old and had sailed all over the world and had even been visited by President Putin. She had clearly seen better days; the 1980s dÃ©cor was shabby now, and the sundeck and swimming pool were crammed with used cars. This was her last voyage before being put into dry dock and undergoing extensive repair – which obviously filled me with confidence.
Food was included in the price of the trip, but there was a complicated system of shifts in the dining room. I was unable to understand the frequent Russian announcements on the tannoy, and I could not figure out whether we were in the Japanese or Russian time zone. I mentioned this apologetically to the person manning the tannoy, who was one of only a couple of people on board who spoke English. He took pity on me and, when he remembered, made special announcements for me, the only non-Russian on the vessel. I was, therefore, very pleased to make it to breakfast, but rather less so when I saw the slab of spam on my plate.
Entertainment was provided on both nights of the journey: a cheesy lounge singer belting out Russian classics at increasing volume on the first night, and a dance by the kids on the school trip the next. I made friends with a few of the used car dealers, though our friendship consisted mainly of smiling occasionally and sharing booze. Sergei and Evgeniy and I toasted each other with a series of vodka shots, and another Evgeniy kept mysteriously producing large cans of beer from different pockets in his shell suit.
We pulled into port in Vladivostok on the second morning and everyone hung around in a haze of smoke and blur of stonewashed jeans, waiting to be let off the boat. The door finally opened and we surged forward – me with my ridiculously large suitcase and the others clutching their tyres and car bumpers. We piled into the customs and immigration offices. I disregarded the signs stating that foreigners should let Russians go ahead of them. There was no way I was going to allow every single person on the boat push in front of me, though I began to question this decision when the official took forever to fill in her forms and the lengthy queue of Russians behind me starting giving me dirty looks.
Eventually, she let me through and I looked at the piece of paper she had given me which read “visa” on the front, and on the back “to be shown to Soviet authorities when crossing the frontier of the U.S.S.R”. Either theyâ€™re very much behind the times in Vladivostok, or theyâ€™re being extra-diligent about using up old stocks of forms. I walked out into the bright sunshine of a chilly Russian morning.