Tag Archives: China

Top 10 questions about life on a containership

May 30, 2011

While surfing the internet, I ran across this photo of a ship I sailed on a few years ago.

Pix CSCL Felixstowe

Photo of the 800-foot CSCL Felixstowe by Philip Gilston

It brought back fond memories of sailing across the Pacific on the CSCL Felixstowe. I got asked a ton of questions about the trip, when I returned. Here, in no particular order, are some of my answers:

1. What was the food like?

Wonderful, if you like curries. Fortunately, I do. Chief cook Ignacio (Nick) Villanueva had an exhausting job, cooking for 25 of us every day, helped only by messman Lorenzo (Laurence) Ramos.

Nick often ended up cooking separate meals for the Indian officers and Filipino crew. Indian officers don’t eat beef and some don’t eat pork, while the Filipinos didn’t like spicy Indian curries.

A typical lunch for the Indian officers included a freshwater fish called Tilapia, potato and cauliflower curry, rice, salad and melon. Meanwhile, the Filipinos had grilled beef, rice, bitter gourd and melon.

On Sundays, Jina Noronha, wife of first officer Rodney Noronha, often helped out by cooking biriani for the Indian officers, along with raita, a delicious yoghurty dip.

“We measure our time left in birianis. I’ve got two birianis left,” said Capt. Alfred Gomez, who was signing off shortly.

2. Did you drink every night with the Captain?

Capt. Gomez was a staunch Catholic who discouraged drinking and held Sunday prayer meetings with rip-roaring singing to boost crew morale and camaraderie.

“I see it as the only way. Instead of getting soaked in alcohol, you are getting soaked in God’s word,” he said. To this day, I can’t hear “This is the day that the Lord has made” without feeling emotional.

Rum rations for the crew are long gone, replaced by strict anti-alcohol and drug policies. Although beer was allowed off-duty, it was quietly frowned upon. I drank three beers while on board, and even then felt guilty.

The best tales from the captain’s table came during lunchtime, when the captain, chief engineer Anil Sharma and third officer Praveen Prabhu traded stories.

The Suez Canal is nicknamed the Marlboro Canal, and if you don’t pay the pilot with cartons of cigarettes, they won’t move the ship. One time the captain finally got a pilot who said he didn’t take cigarettes.

“I’ll just have coffee,” he said, then but then promptly added tea, butter and a huge list of other demands.

“Better you take the cigarettes,” said the captain, finally.

3. Was it risky, a woman sailing with all those men?

Rodney and Annette Noronha on the bridge

No, they were wonderful! And I wasn’t not the only woman on board. When I boarded, first officer Rodney Noronha was waiting to greet me with his wife, Jina, and six-year-old daughter, Annette. Jina and Annette had been sailing with Rodney for the last four months, and on and off ships since Annette was a toddler. The wife and two-year-old son of second engineer Ravi Singh also sailed with us.

The two wives, two kids and myself were all Supernumeraries, an archaic-sounding word also applied to actors who appear on stage but have no lines to speak. Pretty accurate, in this case. I was the Fifth Supernumerary.

4. How long did the trip take?

The ship was pretty fast, with a cruising speed of 24 knots (nautical miles an hour), so it only took 11 days to sail from LA/Long Beach to Qingdao in northeast China.

We sailed the Great Circle route, skirting the Aleutian Islands off Alaska before arching across the Pacific to Qingdao – more than 5,800 nautical miles in all.

A Super Hurricane northeast of the Philippines delayed us a day and at Qingdao, we hit fog. So we arrived in Shanghai at dawn 13 sailing days (14 days by date) after leaving Long Beach.

5. Did you get seasick?

Streaming across the Pacific

Streaming across the Pacific

I used to throw up regularly on yachts crossing the English Channel. Fortunately, the CSCL Felixstowe rode the waves much better than a small yacht.

The worst times came southeast of Japan, as we hit the aftermath of a Super Hurricane called Dianmu. That night I was lying in my bunk sweating and headachy as the ship pitched back and forth like a bucking bronco. Winds at the time reached Force 8, but we missed the worst of the hurricane.

6. Can I sail on a containership, too?

Containerships don’t usually take passengers, so I was very lucky. The crew is too busy most of the time to look after passengers and there are also insurance complications.

Bulk carriers have more leisurely schedules, and are more likely to take passengers, but they are still not cheap. Several companies cater to freighter travel, though. Check out Freighter Travel and Seaplus.

7. What cargo did you carry?

Actually, a lot of empty 40-footers! We left California with 1,768 empty containers and just 225 full ones, carrying mainly waste paper and scrap metal.

The transpacific trade is notoriously imbalanced: ships loaded with consumer goods arrive in the U.S. from Asia and often return empty.

8. What did the crew do all day?

Pix of two of the officers

Second officer Praveen Menon and third officer Praveen Prabhu

They were all pretty busy during their work shifts, and during time off, had different rituals.

Typically they’d slump exhausted or bored watching DVDs or listening to music in their cabins. A hard-core of ping-pong fanatics got together regularly in the little on-board gym. My personal memories are of playing the Memory Game on the bridge with little Annette.

Time and again, as we sailed across the Pacific, my desire to idealize the crew’s way of life received a cold dose of salty water from those that lived this life daily. I was looking for adventure while the captain and crew were looking for their floating office to run as smoothly as possible.

Second officer Praveen Menon laughed when I asked if being at sea was a romantic life. “No, I don’t think so. Maybe in a passenger ship, but not a merchant ship. They have the atmosphere to be romantic, but here the atmosphere is not romantic at all. It’s purely work.”

9. Did the crew speak English?

Yes, they all spoke English. Captains and officers are required to speak English if they trade in international waters, and the Filipino crew had learnt English at home.

10. What flag did the ship sail under?

It was all very convoluted, but typical for international shipping. I sailed with 20 Indian officers and Filipino crew on a ship built in South Korea, registered (flagged) in Cyprus, owned and managed by a Canadian company and operated by a Chinese state shipping line.

* See my full story about the trip: Sailing to Shanghai

Ancient Kashgar destroyed for “safety reasons”

Uyghur men in Kashgar souk
Uyghur men in Kashgar souk

By Alison Bate

When I visited Kashgar just over three years ago, I was disappointed at first.

The road in from the airport passed concrete roundabouts and boring buildings typical of the modern Han Chinese city. There was even a giant Mao statue close to the bus station.

Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque in winter

Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque in winter

While Kashgar – or Kashi as the Han Chinese call it – is inside China, people don’t visit the city to see its Chinese culture. 

Like me, they come to see the ancient Silk Road city famous for its Uyghur market, rabbit-warren streets, donkey carts and the largest mosque in China.

Continue reading

Winter in Urumqi

One of the world’s most polluted cities

The Toronto Star recently listed China’s Urumqi as one of the Top Ten worst places to live in the world. The reason? Pollution. The list prompted my strangely fond memories of coughing and spluttering through winter in Urumqi while teaching English there between 2005 and 2006.

By Alison Bate

Back street in Urumqi

Back street in Urumqi

It’s winter in Urumqi and everyone is out in the streets chipping away at the snow and ice. A huge human effort. Even the local doctor is out in the alley in her white coat and mask, attacking the ice with a spade.

The local government has closed all the major roads downtown until noon, and told the residents to clear the streets. No snowplows here or salting and gritting of roads. Just hordes of people attacking the ice. It’s dirty and grimy, full of soot.

After a token effort, the stall-keepers huddle round tiny coal-fire tin cans, the men wearing Chinese army overcoats and Snoopy sheepskin hats with long earflaps. Only the Uyghurs selling kebabs look warm, with large old-style barbeques for cooking the mutton. Continue reading

Kicked Out Of The Karakoram

How we were turfed out of a village in remote China

It was late January, the start of Chinese New Year, when Chris and I decided to escape the coal pollution, dirty snow and concrete overpasses of Urumqi.

We were teaching English in the capital city of China’s remote northwestern province of Xinjiang. Tired of the daily grind of teaching, drinking Wusu beer and watching DVDs, we caught a flight to Kashgar, close to the Chinese border with various -stans: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrghyzstan, and even Afghanistan.

Coalman in Kashgar (pix: Alison Bate)

Coalman in Kashgar (pix: Alison Bate)

It really felt like frontier country as we headed up the Karakoram pass for eight hours on a rickety local bus. Stark snow-capped mountains reached 7,500 metres high, and we passed loaded camel trains, and scattered villages with small herds of yaks, sheep and goats. It was a chilly minus 25C, and the villagers wore a fascinating array of fur hats: Snoopy hats with long ear flaps, upsidedown flowerpot hats and flat fur hats with woolly bits on the outside. While we were busy staring at them, the locals were equally busy staring at us.

“It’s because you wear such bright colors all the time,” Chris insisted, glancing at my bright blue jacket.

“Maybe it’s because you’re a 6′5″ American,” I retorted.

 Villagers in Bulunkol valley

Chris with the villagers in Bulunkol valley (Pix: Alison Bate)

But never did they stare at us as much as near the hilltop village of Bulungkol, where we stayed for two nights on the way back to Kashgar. As we hiked up a side valley, men, women and children literally ran out of their houses to look at us.
A family of Kyrgyrs, one of the semi-nomadic ethnic groups in the region, invited us to stay in their simple home, for a fee, of course. So that night we settled in comfortably while they watched local XJTV2, Chris read Herman Hesse’s “Siddartha” (in true backpacker style), and I updated my diary. Come nighttime, the family pulled colorful eiderdowns out from behind a curtain and we all lay down to sleep on the carpeted floor, packed together like sardines.

After a breakfast of yak milk tea and nan bread the next day, we went walking again, but Chris was itching to play soccer. We’d seen a wonderful soccer pitch carefully cleared of stones, and headed there again.

“Any of you guys play soccer?” he asked the villagers, miming in true ESL teacher-style. An impromptu game began, with more boys and men joining in all the time, while the women gathered around me. After several minutes of action, though, the ball was suddenly kicked away and everyone disappeared mysteriously.

 Bulunkol valley

Iced-over river in Bulunkol valley

A little uneasy, Chris and I carried on walking across the ice-filled river valley. I started a rambling story about my scary experiences in Kashmir, and how I’d run into a risky situation after being out after curfew. Perfect timing, as just then a police jeep came bumping along a dirt road toward us.

“Hope that’s not for us,” I said half-joking.

Unfortunately, it was. Four uniformed officers got out, along with one of the villagers who’d been watching the soccer game. He gave us a long, long stare before slipping away.

“Where are you staying?” asked one of the officers politely, after they’d checked passports and herded us into their vehicle. He was a good-looking Han Chinese guy in his mid-20s, with pretty good English. Foreigners were not allowed to stay in this border village, he told us. As they grilled our hosts, and we worried they would get into trouble, he played the good cop, while a veteran Kyrgyz officer played bad cop, exchanging harsh words with the feisty lady of the house. After long discussions in the local language, which we couldn’t understand, the tension eased, there were smiles all round, and we were told to be ready to leave in the morning.

They came for us the next day, the same young Han Chinese officer and a different colleague, and for the next 90 minutes, we sat chatting in the back of the police car.

The officer talked about growing up in China, studying English at university, and how he wished he’d been posted to a city where he could meet foreigners. We were the first foreigners to stay there for two years, he added. I practised my shaky Mandarin, and he was thoroughly charming.

Every now and then, he remembered he was a police officer, and became more menacing. He checked the digital photos we’d taken, and there was an awkward moment when he saw that my “Lonely Planet” guidebook marked Taiwan in a different colour from the rest of China.

“Taiwan is in China. Why is it a different colour?” he asked, suddenly angry. We could see he was caught in a dilemma: very proud of his country, but also wanting westerners to enjoy themselves in China.

Finally, a private vehicle came down the lonely mountain road, and the men inside were ordered to take us to Kashgar. As we said goodbye to the young officer, his last words were: “When I’m in Urumqi, I hope we can meet up again.”

Sadly, he never did call to meet for a drink. It would have been neat — to visit with the guy who kicked us out of town.