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We spent all day just sitting around doing nothing much waiting for the ferry. We stole 5 rolls of toilet paper from the swanky White Swan Hotel –  they can afford it – and I tried to change the money on the black market at a rumoured rate of 130 RMB for 100 FEC¹. However the girl I was dealing with reneged on the deal, and a couple of young punks hanging around suggested a possible set up so I left it and walked away.

We made our way down to the ferry dock at 4:30 with two Poms who didn’t know shit about the ins and outs of travelling. They had tickets for the 12:30 p.m. sailing but for some reason, the bloke was adamant that they were for the 5PM boat – they weren’t and they had missed their sailing by four hours!

We boarded at 6:45 and the boat sail precisely at 7 p.m. Our births were just wooden bunks into rows down each side of the boat and every sleeping mat was separated by a petition about 100 mm high. It was fun! After an hour or so, a meal was served and we sat in our bunks eating it, providing a free floor show to the 50 or so Chinese in the other bunks. 

Life aboard a Chinese boat.

While we were fussy and made sure we didn’t spill any of our food, the rest of the people sucked their chicken bones clean and flung them to the floor in an avalanche of flying rice, bits of chicken, bones and boxes. Nobody seemed to care about the surroundings or the mess that they were making on the floor and everyone cheerfully littered until the meal was finished and attendants came through and swept up the mess. After dinner, we settled down to sleep but it wasn’t exactly comfortable so I spent a lot of the night reading Tom Clancy’s brilliant novel Red Storm Rising.

We docked about 2 p.m. the next day in the sleepy town of Wuzhou and we found a cheap hotel to stay in. Getting tickets for the bus to Yangshou [our next destination] proved to be difficult for a start, but a tout from one of the hotels got them for us for a small fee.

¹For foreigners in China, the official currency was the FEC or Foreign Exchange Certificate. This was the only currency that could be bought with foreign cash. The everyday currency for Chinese people was – and still is – the Renminbi (RMB) or Yuan, represented by the symbol ¥. The word “renminbi” means people’s currency.  

There was a black market rate for FEC which could then be exchanged by Chinese citizens for foreign currency. It was a complicated and dangerous process and the extra yuan you could get was hardly worth the risk. However, we sometimes tried it…just for fun!

FECs were used in China between 1980 and 1994.

A 100 FEC note circa 1989.

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