Travel: The slow boat to - Shanghai

Kate Weidmann travelled from Hong Kong aboard a Chinese container ship

It's the best view you're going to get of Shanghai. The Hai Hua arrives at midnight at the mouth of the Huangpu river and anchors for the last-night karaoke party. Small Chinese girls in party frocks come up on stage to dance; the ship's crew do a mixture of stand-up, sword dancing and drag routines that have the Chinese audience in fits of laughter. A highlight of the evening is when the one and only disco track comes on and Westerners clutching their Tsing Tao beers are cheered on to the dance floor - a 6ft blonde Belgian and an Israeli grandmother dancing gamely to Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Early in the morning the boat puffs up the river, with the gleaming pink Oriental Pearl TV tower soaring on the eastern Pudong bank. The famous row of old colonial banks and customs houses that form the Bund emerge from the morning haze straight ahead.

The Hai Hua takes two-and-a-half leisurely days from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Time to sit on the blue-and-white-striped deckchairs and watch the coast of China roll past on the port side of the boat; time to be carried back and forth on the single wave created in the small swimming pool (filled with sea water every day); time to read a large number of paperbacks from the "library" in the mah-jong room. Time to wonder why, with all these hours available, we have to have lunch at 11.20am. Breakfast is at 7.30am, dinner at 5.50pm, as the charming crew relentlessly remind you, tapping at your cabin door and fluting "You come breakfast/lunch/dinner now!"

The boat is part container carrier, part passenger vessel. Accommodation is in shades of the Seventies: yellows, browns, orange and lime green, but clean, with crisp linen and hot showers. The food is Chinese-canteen style, with first-class passengers able to choose two out of three dishes on offer, while hoi polloi get one. The small shop sells tea, noodles, sweets, biscuits, canned fruit, cigarettes and writing paper.

Being a good Chinese boat, there is a multi-layered system of privilege and price. Economy class is 16-bed dormitories, third class is six to eight beds, second class divides into B class with four people and A class with two. Spend your money on first class and you get big, comfy chairs, long windows with a good view, and a fridge - a facility one sensible gent made much use of, disappearing after each meal to top up with fine cheeses and wines he had thoughtfully carried aboard. Regardless of class of cabin is the little yellow ribbon attached to your door to denote "foreigner inside".

You arrive rested, within 20 minutes' walking distance of the Bund and with the crew lined up to wave goodbye while the public address system translates the farewell speech with the closing words "Goodbye, dear passengers, goodbye". Definitely more fun than being just another cipher at the airport.

The latest information we have is that the boat leaves Hong Kong on the 5, 15 and 25 of each month at midday, arriving in the early morning three days later. The return trip from Shanghai leaves at 3pm on 10, 20 and 30 of the month, arriving at midday in Hong Kong three days later. This programme varies seasonally.

Journey costs (as given by China Merchant Shipping, Hong Kong) range from from first class A: HK$1,850 (pounds 154) to third class HK$850 (pounds 69). Tickets are available from China Travel Service, Central, Hong Kong, or China Merchant Shipping, 152-155 Connaught Road, Central, Hong Kong (00 852 2852 7688, fax 2541 1462).

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