If I was going to stand any chance of getting on this ship, I needed to head down to the southern port city of Kaoshiung, stat. Luckily for me, the Taiwanese have been good enough to actually building a speedy, efficient and, most importantly, INEXPENSIVE way of travelling from one end of the country to the other. ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION BRITAIN, AUSTRALIA AND AMERICA?
It’s quite a simple concept that they’ve come up with: they have a ‘railway line’ and what they like to call ‘trains’ run along it. For those of you living in backwards, impoverished nations like Britain, Australia and America, a ‘railway line’ consists of two metal rails which run parallel to each other, separated by blocks of wood or concrete that we like to call ‘sleepers’. A ‘train’, a thing that’s a bit like a coach but can hold 1000 passengers instead of 40 and runs off electricity rather than fossil fuel, hurtles along the ‘railway line’ taking people to their destination. But as there is no reason for this ‘train’ to stop at red lights, stop to refuel or get stuck behind an old granny doing 25 in a 70 zone, this ‘train’ can run at speeds of up to 300kph.
In real terms, this would mean you could get from Liverpool to London in around 45 minutes.
Also, because railway lines, mile-for-mile, cost 80% less to maintain than roads, and because, mile-for-mile, electricity is 95% cheaper than paying for diesel to fill the equivalent number of coaches you would need to transport 1000 people, that saving can be passed on to YOU, the customer! And so the turn-up-before-9am fare from Taipei to Kaoshiung is DA-DA-DAAAAAAAAA… £30.
Meanwhile, for the mouldy old coach from Brisbane to Townsville the lizards at Greyhound Australia will quite happily charge you $298 ONE WAY… and have the audacity to call it a ‘saver fare’!!! (Don’t believe me? Check out their website.)
But that’s nothing compared to the unbelievable fisting the British commuter faces every day at the hands of the UK railways. The turn-up-before-9am fare on Virgin trains from Liverpool to London (which is less distance than from Taipei to Kaohsiung… but takes twice as long folks!) is a brain-melting £300 – a week’s wages for the majority of Brits. That’s nearly $450 for a two and a half hour train journey, upon which you have to PAY FOR WI-FI and a sandwich costs a fiver.
LORD GIVE ME STRENGTH. In Turkey, a coach journey over the same distance costs LESS than – yes – signing up for Wi-Fi on a Virgin Train in the UK (never mind the f—ing ticket)… and the Turkish coach companies provide Wi-Fi FOR FREE!!
I do sometimes wonder how much crap people are prepared to put up with before they go postal. When I get back to the Blighty, nobody is going to be safe: when I say that the UK railway system is the biggest, most horrible, most blatant and most disgraceful rip off in the world, I’ve got the passport stamps to back up my assertion. I’ll be John Betjeman’s??? goddamn Rottweiler.
Within 90 minutes of boarding the train in Taipei, I was in the very southerly city of Kaohsiung: the place from where the Mell Sembawang would be departing in just two days time. I checked into the Kaohsiung 202 hostel and jumped online. There was a message from the captain of the Mell Sembawang saying they did have space for me on board the ship. A ray of sunlight. Now all I needed was permission off the owners, Hartmann.
My cousin Christian in Denmark was due to call Hartmann later today, which would be in the morning for Germany where the company is based. In the meantime, I thought it would be a good idea for me to head over to see the charterers, Mariana Express, and say hi. I met with Johnson Sung, the general manager and David Tsai, the operations manager. They were really friendly guys and wished me well in getting the permission I required to get on board.
I got back to the hostel and anxiously awaited 4pm – the time head office in Germany would open. At 4.05pm I received a rather angry email. An email that had been CC’d to everybody involved – the charterers, management, agents, crew, the queen of Sheba…
By the expression ‘the couldn’t accommodate me’, I assumed this meant that they didn’t have any spare cabins, but this was just a nice way of saying ‘no’. And given that fact, the veritable blizzard of emails arriving at Hartmann this Friday morning from the guys in Taiwan, the guys in Singapore, the captain of the ship and your humble narrator here, it looked to the guys in Germany that I was trying sneak onto the ship without their permission. It was really not a good look.
I put my head in my hands and took a deep breath. The resultant expletive measured 5.8 on the Richter Scale. What to do? What to do?
Persistent Googling had discovered a ship leaving once a month from Japan that goes to both Palau and Micronesia, but since the Keelung – Okinawa ferry service stopped a few years ago, getting to Japan without flying would mean getting a Chinese visa, taking the train from Kaohsiung to Keelung, the overnight ferry to Taiwan’s Matsu islands, the day ferry to the Chinese port of Fuzhou, the coach up to Qingdao via Shanghai, the overnight ferry to Incheon in South Korea, the train down to Busan and the hydrofoil over to Fukuoka in Japan. I know this because I’ve already done that same journey in reverse.
The other problem was that this ship seemed to visit every major island of Micronesia before crossing the Pacific to the west coast of the USA – leaving me 13 time zones west from my 198th country, Sri Lanka. I worked out that if I took this option I could be home just in time for the world to end in December.
I wrote back to Hartmann, apologising about the mix-up and explaining that I didn’t mean any offence. To my surprise, they wrote back accepting my apology and giving a phone number for me to call to discuss this matter further. I gave them a call. I honestly can’t recall what I said, but I must have sounded desperate enough for them to take pity on me. If I agreed to pay the deviation insurance (I’m nothing if not a deviant) as well as pay for my own food, they’d take me.
The resultant WOO-HOO!! shook the pillars of Hercules.
But when the confirmation email arrived, it informed the ship that I would be getting off the ship in Guam, not in Hong Kong. Now I was in a pickle. I had been pushing my luck getting permission to travel on the Mell Sembawang in the first place, and now I had to call Germany again asking for more?! The ship’s route is Kaohsiung (Taiwan) > Naha (Japan) > Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands (US)) > Guam (US) > Yap (Micronesia) > Koror (Palau) > Davao (Philippines) > General Santos (Philippines) > Hong Kong. Getting off in Guam would mean not visiting Micronesia and Palau, which was the reason I had just raced up to Taiwan in the first place.
I sent an email explaining the situation, and waited for the response. After a few hours spent frantically hitting F5, there was still no word from Germany. It was now 9pm in Taiwan and 2pm in Germany. I couldn’t take it any more. I had to call them. Again, I can’t remember exactly what I said. But they said it would be alright. And I said THANK YOU.
As I clicked off the Skype call I jumped off my backpacker bunk and danced a goddamn jig around the dorm. Some you win and some you lose. Today, I won.