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Jincheon Ferry Across the Yellow Sea

Leaving Tianjin, city of rust, was like a long goodbye kiss with China. And china had  abstaining from brushing and been smoking packs of cigarettes in preparation.

I love you China be back soon

We had no “clean break” as one might in a plane launching from an airstrip, rather two hours stalled ferry, as our ship was continually delayed due to smog cover. We passed the time gawking at the Port of Tianjin. The acrid fog refused to thin, and when we finally departed, it was half an hour of snaking through the smokey labyrinth of docking canals, as our pilot ship escorted our own “Tian Ren” to the mouth of the Yellow Sea.

Tian Ren Jincheon Ferry

It seemed the port was home to a single ferry, ours, and was a place clearly developed for transporting cargo. This cargo was being loaded onto all manner of ships, painted in primary colors that oxidized through the fog into twisted pastels. Cranes poised idle, weather on the dock or mounted to the boats themselves. Names of ports beckoned from the ships’ helm, and mounds of red dust awaited loading adjacent to nondescript corrugated metal containers.

Arachnoid CranesThese are the kind of sights that really get me going. Countless blogs cater those hounding over the latest consumer electronics. Most tech guys like watches, mobile phones, mp3 players, and little gadgets. I like the gigantic steel things that enable global trade.

Armed and Ready

These gigantic unglamorous vessels oddly poetic names like “CNA CCM AFRICA” “Overseas Soverign,” and “Shining star” are owned by greek tycoons vacationing thousands of miles away in St. Moritz, shouting orders at teams of bankers who scramble in New York to value these rusting money machines.You see, the cargo ships are not trivial.Non-trivial to finance. New builds are expensive. The bigger the boat, the bigger the earning potential, the bigger the bet. You must spend a staggering amount of money and engineer a stream of payoffs from operating profits during the lifetime of the ship. If everyone wants ships, everyone will be building them and materials, labor, and dock space will be costly. By the time you’ve finished your ship, Hanjin, Samsung Heavy, Hyundai Heavy have just rolled out new builds too. Atop that, the (roughly) six year American economic cycle has hit an inflection point and supply outpaces demand for your services, dropping the price. Oops. At least now you have a gigantic boat with a nice shiny paint job.


Non-trivial to build. These gigantic things take time, space, a surprising degree of engineering expertise. Korea has a lockdown on this market, producing many ships in Incheon and Busan. Tianjin, too is trying to match the quality and undercut the price, but the Korean Chaebols have experience where the Chinese have a lot of mistakes yet to make. Additionally, these Chaebols are locked into stayed relationships with banks, governments, and may be cushioned by the other constituent firms that make up their holding conglomerate.

In Incheon Port

Non-trivial to own or operate. How long will the given economic boom last and will it overlap with the life cycle of your ship? Ever dealt with Philippine pirates armed with Russian made machine guns in the Sulu seas? They’re a real pain for your insurance premium (sea piracy and shipping accidents were the reasons Lloyds of London came about). It’s also a pain when Chinese people smugglers, known as “snakeheads,” were paid $60,000 per head to transport illegal immigrants in a shipping container, and you’ve been summoned to court to explain why they were discovered getting off your boat in Oakland, CA, rather than while getting on in Xiamen, Fujian. If the stress is too much for you, you can sell the freighter on the secondary market, like the Hua Run below: Manufactured in Vladivostok by the Russians then purchased and painted over by the Cambodians, ushered to a new home in Phnom Penh for a new life of dry goods transport.

Ren Hua

Non-trivial to liquidate. What if the supertanker is leaking crude across the Arctic ? When repair costs exceed the expected future profitability of a vessel, its time for the graveyard. These graveyards are located in Gujarat, India, and Chittagong, Bangladesh. Why? Miles of shallow water near the mainland of these South Asian countries provide a place for the ships to sit lopsided in the sand while skinny, muscular, men are paid USD $1 per day to extract all the valuable scrap metal and disassemble the rusting beast. In industry jargon, this is referred to as “Shipbreaking.”

Gigantic Supertanker

Assuming you’re not one of these misfortunate shipbreakers, and rather you’re a more fortunate shipbuilder its possible to get the timing right. You can borrow when money’s cheap, build where labor’s both cheap and skilled, and by the time you smash a bottle of champagne on the helm, the ever cycling economy is banging on your door to shuttle iron ore from Perth to Shanghai. That’s at least what Baosteel or Rio Tinto wants. Or it could be GE sending washing machines from Shenzhen, China to the Bahamas, where products sit in untaxed warehousing zones before going to market. A Nigerian oil magnate may send thousands of barrels of black gold from Lagos to Hong Kong. Or it could be shoes, motorcycles, steel pipe fittings, soccer jerseys, and diesel generators from Hong Kong to Lagos by Guinean traders in Guangzhou. There are ships for dry goods, ships to hold containers, and tankers to hold oil. There are even ships specially fitted to accommodate gigantic chemical tanks. Where do you think American food processing facilities off the New Jersey turnpike get their raw materials?

Surgery on a Grand Scale

Shipping connects some of the worlds poorest with the worlds mass market middle class, and is overseen and orchestrated by some of the world’s richest. Catching a glimpse behind the scenes of the international logistics market on the Tianjin to Incheon ferry was stimulating and eye opening, driving my curiosity to new levels. As AsiaWheeling’s resident adventure capitalist, I will research further and determine what kind of inefficiencies or injustices exist in this market. Ones that we may address and continue to investigate on AsiaWheeling 2.0.

Industrial Parking Lot

Back to our storyAs the Tian Ren neared the sunny Korean peninsula, shore birds began to ride the airstream created by the ferry. schoolchildren and ship engineers alike held out snacks which the birds snatched mid-flight with their beaks.

BaitCommuning with NatureBird Eats Korean Snack

As the birds circled, darted, and arced, an engineering feat riving the natural one of the birds progressed around us.

Building a Bridge in the Middle of the Ocean

A bridge connecting the island two bodies of land across many miles of water seemed to erect itself, as large machines filled pylons with cement mix and crane barges lifted road crew trucks up onto the causeway.

Lifting a Truck

Korea was flexing its muscles. Samsung had branded this bridge, and the work itself has changed the way I consider civil engineering and its disciples.

Making Pylons

The people on the boat began to buzz with the energy that accompanies a return trip home, and the clean sea breeze of Incheon welcomed us in a way that no burgeoning city in China could. Seoul lay before us, and with it, wheeling, drinkable tap water, post-modern metropolitan nightlife, and a new level of gonzo attitude.

One Day We Will Wheel This Bridge

Armed with a makeshift Korean phrase sheet, we dismounted the ship onto a packed bus which spilled into the customs hall.

Navigating the Next


  1. Rex Pechler | July 22nd, 2008 | 12:26 pm

    Epic, dude. Taking any videos?

  2. Scott | July 22nd, 2008 | 5:31 pm

    We are taking videos and are about to do a video post.

    Thanks for reminding us!

    Scott Norton
    Chief Adventure Capitalist
    AsiaWheeling LLP

  3. crosby | July 26th, 2008 | 11:33 am

    dang. you certainly seem to have done research. me, if i was riding a bike all over, would just be riding it and would not even think of doing research on shipping magnates and such. i guess that adds to your experience.

  4. crosby | July 26th, 2008 | 11:37 am

    by the way, when I access this website I always get this entry. I tried to find the very first entry (so I could go in order) by going to your index at the top, but I must not know how to do that because I seem to only get other intermediate entries. Any way to make it easy to have a legend in your index which says “Start at the Beginning” and then takes you to the very beginning?

  5. Woody | July 26th, 2008 | 2:17 pm

    Great Idea Crosby. We’ll get all over making that. In the meantime you can go to <http://asiawheeling.com/?p=28> that’s essentially the first entry.

  6. Arvid Tomayko-Peters | July 28th, 2008 | 11:42 pm

    beautiful! I love huge rusting hulks of seaborne iron ☄☠

  7. Nate | July 31st, 2008 | 3:02 am

    This whole blog was so fucking good

  8. Charlie Bellanger | January 23rd, 2010 | 4:01 am

    Um This is pretty sweet verbage, I totally agree so I am still interested in this.

  9. AsiaWheeling » Blog Archive » Stranded Near the Saudi Border | September 27th, 2010 | 8:19 am

    […] and unloading all kinds of goods from all over the world. The shipping industry has always been a particular fascination of AsiaWheeling, and we are always happy to indulge in a little port viewing whenever the […]

  10. AsiaWheeling » Blog Archive » Leaving Us Wanting More | January 23rd, 2012 | 2:45 pm

    […] This, we would come to find, was not the Karaoke and booze filled cruise that we had experienced when we had taken an analogous ride on AsiaWheeling 1.0. […]

  11. AsiaWheeling » Blog Archive » Welcome to Korea (again) | January 25th, 2012 | 3:07 pm

    […] of passing under the same monstrous bridge which we had seen under construction years ago when AsiaWheeling had first taken a ferry from China to Korea. The bridge was now finished and extremely impressive. It loomed way above our giant ferry and […]

  12. Maryam | March 17th, 2012 | 11:44 am

    Hello there Mr.!
    I just would like to know what’s the cost for one-way ferry ride? im planning to go Seoul-Tianjin, do u have any idea? It’s interesting that you talked about world economy and all… but it will be more interesting if you could include photos of your cabin, etc. Heh. i believe it’s a 25 hour journey, right? What did u do to fill that time?

    Advance thanks for the reply 🙂

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