Slow boats to China

St. Michael’s Cathedral is one of many German-built heritage buildings in Qingdao, China.

CHINA - Some travelers enjoy the leisurely pace of train journeys, while some are hooked on the efficiency of air travel. Others fancy the freedom of road trips, or the challenge of long-distance cycling. Korea can satisfy all these types, but the happiest group of all might be the island hoppers and the seafarers.

Apart from the dozens of local ferries, there are sailings to Vladivostok, Russia, from Donghae, Gangwon Province, and to Fukuoka, Osaka, Shimonoseki and Tsushima Island in Japan, departing from Busan. But the bulk of the international sea journeys are to China, a country with a monstrously long, heavily populated coastline. In all, 12 companies in South Korea shuttle freight and passengers to 12 ports throughout three Chinese provinces.

The boats leave from the international terminals at Incheon and at Pyeongtaek, South Chungcheong Province, and trips are as short as 12 hours ― meaning that after boarding, eating dinner and doing some bedtime reading, you're in China at the break of day ― or as long as 24 hours, with all the more time to enjoy the cruise.

Generally, the ferries are no cheaper than the flights, so a boat ride will probably be more about the experience than the savings. For passage to Dalian, a one-way ticket costs 115,000 won ($107) if you're willing to share a room with up to 63 other people, while the cheapest flight goes for 220,000 won round-trip. Some of the Chinese port cities in question can be reached only by ferry, though, with no international airports nearby.

Most of the passengers are Korean, Chinese or Korean-Chinese, and the companies cater more to the needs of business than tourism. For those who like to go local, and enjoy the journey just as much as the destination, this is a strong draw. Depending on the boat, the cheapest ticket may entail floor sleeping in a common space stretching from port to starboard, with card games going on late into the night, or else on a bunk in a large compartment. Those willing to pay more can secure greater privacy with an unshared berth, though bathrooms are usually communal.

Food needs are covered by buffet restaurants, usually serving Korean and Chinese fare during certain time slots, and by on-board convenience stores that many depend on for instant noodles and canned beer.

Be sure to get a Chinese visa before arriving at the terminal (two to three hours before the sailing), and note that English service may be scant. Rough waters are not usually a problem, though snoring can sometimes overtake the noise of the engine.

Liaoning province

From Incheon, Dandong Hangun sails to Dandong a town on the border with North Korea. While the city smells like Birmingham circa 1790, it offers fascinating North Korean dining experiences, complete with karaoke performances by the servers and views of the Hermit Kingdom across the Amnok River (the Yalu to the Chinese). Of interest to DPRK watchers, the country's west coast islands can be viewed from the deck of the ferry before nightfall.

Also from Incheon, Daein Ferry makes voyages to Dalian, a former Russian concession at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula. Called Port Arthur at the time, the Japanese laid siege to this erstwhile Russian port for five desperate months during the Russo-Japanese War. Dalian is worth visiting in the summer for its beaches.

Last of all for Liaoning, Beomyeong Ferry sails to the former British treaty port of Yingkou, northwest of Dalian.

All of these coastal cities are good stepping stones to the great interior. From Dalian, for example, it's a short train ride to Beijing (six hours), Changchun (four hours) or Shenyang (three hours). Getting to Baekdusan Mountain (Changbaishan in China) is a more serious venture, as it takes 20 hours just to reach the gateway city of Beihe.

Shandong province

Probably the most popular destination for travelers who brave Korea's international ferries is the city of Qingdao in Shangdong province. Widong Haeun in Incheon makes the 13-hour passage to the former German concession where kegs of Tsingtao beer, widely considered the best in China, fill up take-away plastic bags at stores on every block. Like Dalian, Qingdao has a number of beaches reachable by city bus, though mysterious algal blooms have put a damper on the swimming in recent summers.

North of Qingdao on the Shandong Peninsula, Weihei is also serviced by Widong Haeun as well as by Pyeongtaek Jiaodong Ferry, while Yantai ― which has a historical park of embassies from the days when it was called Chefoo ― can be reached with Hanjung Ferry from Incheon. While going for a dip at Yantai's No. 1 Bathing Beach is like swimming in a sunken landfill, locals are keen to recommend beaches outside of the city centre.

A more obscure Shangdong destination would be Shidao, which can be reached from Incheon with Hwadong Haeun. Rizhao, serviced by Rizhao Ferry, and Rongcheng, with Dalong Ferry, can both be reached from the Pyeongtaek Port International Ferry Terminal.

Once on dry land, journeyers to the province can ride the rails to Qufu to pay homage at the tomb of Confucius, or to Mount Tai, one of China's Five Great Mountains and a pilgrimage site for the past 2,000 years.

Tianjin city and Hebei province

For those bound for Beijing, the most direct course is between the Liaodong and Shandong peninsulas, into the Bohai Sea and straight to the port of Tianjin. Jincheon Ferry Incheon plies this route to the Chinese counterpart of Incheon, where industry is king and the air is none too clear, but colonial-era European architecture makes for eye-watering scenery.

Northeast of Tianjin, the port of Qinhuangdao can also be reached from Incheon, with Jinin Haeun. While Tianjin and Beijing are autonomous cities, Qinhuangdo belongs to Hebei province. Not just an average Chinese city of 3 million souls, it contains the Beidaihe Beach Resort, where Chairman Mao spent many a summer.

Jiangsu province

The last of the options is Lianyungang, just south of the Shandong border in Jiangsu province. Yeonunhang Ferry sails here from both Korean ports, though leaving from Pyeongtaek shaves an hour off the journey, making it a 23-hour cruise. One might opt for Lianyungang if the final destination is Shanghai, an 11-hour train ride south. As far as distances go in China, Lianyungang is also relatively close to the former capital of Nanjing and the garden city of Suzhou, which got good reviews from Marco Polo.

The Korea Tourism Service lists the telephone numbers and websites of the 12 companies offering Korea-China ferry service at asiaenglish.visitkorea.or.kr/ena/GK/GK_EN_2_3_2.jsp.

(mattcrawford@heraldcorp.com)