Cruising with penguins, seals, whales in mystical Antarctica

Antarctica is perhaps the closest travelers can come to experiencing an alien planet.

I took on a cruise to the mystical continent in January and spent half a month there. It was amazing.

It was a long trip. It was 11 hours from Beijing to Frankfurt by air, then 14 hours to Argentina's Buenos Aires and three and a half hours to Ushuaia, where we boarded the ship to the compass' southernmost point.

The guestrooms looked like soft sleepers in a train. Each room housed two passengers, and hot water was available 24 hours.

We were warned against disturbing or feeding animals, littering, introducing alien species, stepping on plants or blocking penguins.

We first entered the Beagle Channel. Serenity prevailed. Snowy mountains stretched in both directions.

That serenity was shaken as winds blasted, pushing up waves that shoved the boat around as we crossed through the Drake Passage.

It felt like my body was being twisted inside out. But I'd heard this stretch could be even harsher.

The captain explained that 15-meter-per-second winds were splashing up waves 5 meters high.

The clouds above Elephant Island were dark and rolling in contrast to the colossal silver-white peaks in the background.

Stillness returned at Danco Coast. Giant ice hunks floated on translucent green water. The clouds were red. Sunrays cut through the haze to spotlight the snow peaks.

Snowflakes danced on the breeze when we reached Deception Island.

Yellow kelp was scattered on the banks like confetti, and craters dotted the topography, while white snow marbled black rocks.

We saw abandoned oil tanks and a research station. Tens of thousands of penguins speckled the alps.

Steam twisted off hot springs in the nearby sea. Some of us shed our clothes and dove in.

A 250-meter-high peak crowns Isla Cuverville. It was covered with penguins.

They swaggered everywhere, building nests, hunting and feeding their offspring.

Seeing how they lived was an epiphany that revealed the essence of life.

Humpback whales bobbed in Wilhelmina Bay.

Their massive mouths and eyes are unforgettable. They sprayed water and blasted calls.

There was hardly a trace of humankind along the journey. It was like another planet.

To me, it evoked the water planet in the sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar. My shipmates likened it to a world from the Harry Potter fantasy franchise.

Neko Port appeared as a post-apocalyptic vision. It was a gray-and-black chromatic dreamscape.

It was hard to tell where the sea ended and sky began.

Ice-glazed mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, straits and juts of rock towered over the huge waves that scraped the skyline.

Penguins and seals lazed on ice without a care in the world. Whales sporadically popped up near icebergs, their cries punctuating the relative quiet.

Much of the voyage was spent slaloming among icebergs. Skyscraper-sized hunks sailed past. I found it trancelike to glide past a world that looked as if computer generated in 3-D.

Photographer Peng Zheng was nearly in tears.

The 60-year-old has taken pictures of Qomolangma (known as Mount Everest in the West) and the Tibet autonomous region's Ngari.

But he wasn't prepared for the Antarctic.

Wildlife didn't fear humans like elsewhere.

It wasn't just a tour but an adventure.

Heaven showed fickleness every day. There were blizzards, sun blasts and roiling dark cloud casts that rendered everything in black and white. I enjoyed the blue of pristine skies and water.

We disembarked to canoe and camp.

An Antarctic trip costs roughly 100,000 yuan (S$22,181) for a safe journey with decent food.

The ship's eighth floor houses a "sightseeing bar", library, gym and conference room. It also offers 24-hour snacks and coffee.

Room temperatures hover around 20 C.

More Chinese have been sojourning to the Antarctic in the past few years, a guide in Argentina says.

The ship I boarded had 60 Chinese out of 200 passengers.

Some were thrill-seekers. Others were scientists and businesspeople. The more than 40 Chinese entrepreneurs held meetings and updated social media while the Americans and Europeans took in the views from the deck.

These company men also didn't dash out to see penguins or glaciers but instead posed for photos in front of company logos or recorded speeches to be delivered far from the world's southernmost point.

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