02-Oct-2003 -- The saga of this confluence visit begins several weeks before Tony and I even set off.
Thursday 11 September 2003 - As I pass through Shenzhen on my way to 25°N 116°E, I try to buy train tickets from Shenzhen to Yong'an for Tuesday 30 September, but am informed that they are available for purchase only 12 days in advance.
Saturday 20 September 2003 - Now 10 days before our planned departure date, I make a special trip from my home in Hong Kong up to Shenzhen, just to buy the train tickets. I want to buy them in advance because 30 September is the eve of Chinese National Day, marking the start of the so-called Chinese "Golden Week" holiday period, and I expect that demand for tickets then will be high, meaning they'll be in very short supply. However when I arrive in Shenzhen this time, I'm informed that, on account of the upcoming holiday, the rules have been changed, and now train tickets can be purchased only seven days in advance! I return to Hong Kong empty-handed.
Tuesday 23 September 2003 - Precisely seven days in advance, I make yet another trip over the border to purchase the tickets. I reach the ticket window of the Shenzhen Train Station early in the morning, at 8 a.m., only to be told that all hard sleeper tickets to Yong'an on 30 September have already sold out. My prediction that tickets would be in short supply has certainly proven correct. I have no option but to dig deeper into my pocket, and fork out for much more expensive soft sleeper tickets. But finally I have tickets. Or so I think...
Later in the day, back in Hong Kong, I have a careful look at the tickets, and am devastated to discover that instead of tickets to Yong'an, I've bought tickets to Yongding! The Chinese characters for "an" and "ding" are very similar, and the lady behind the ticket window must have misread my note. I check the train timetable and confirm that Yongding is on the same train line, about two thirds of the way to Yong'an, so at least we have tickets on the correct train. I decide it's not worth going back now to get the tickets exchanged; I'll leave it until the time of our actual departure.
Tuesday 30 September 2003, 4:30 p.m. - It's a glorious day--minimum 26°C, maximum 30°C--and the weather is predicted to remain this way for the next three days. I hope that we will experience similar conditions where we're going, roughly 500 kilometres northeast to Fujian Province. I catch an afternoon ferry from my home on Lamma Island to Hong Kong Island, where Tony is waiting for me. We then take the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) and KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) to Lowu, where there is a huge crush of people waiting to cross the border into Shenzhen. "I've never seen it this bad before!" exclaims Tony.
Despite the crowds, we clear customs on both sides of the border relatively quickly, and head straight for the Shenzhen Train Station to try and fix up the ticketing mistake. While waiting in the long queue in front of one of the many ticketing windows, we are approached by a Chinese guy, who, in perfect colloquial American English, asks: "Hey, where are you guys going?" I tell him we're going to Yong'an, and he says that's too bad, because he's got these tickets to Guilin he doesn't need. I'm sure they're of dubious authenticity, and that he regularly preys upon unsuspecting foreign tourists in this way.
Eventually we reach the front of the queue, and I explain the ticketing mix-up to the lady behind the window. But she tells us that there are simply no more tickets available, and that all we can do is try to upgrade our tickets once on board.
7:15 p.m. - We order dinner in one of the many restaurants located in the Shenzhen Railway Station building. As we eat, Tony relates his nightmare jet-ski story, which he says is the worst experience he's ever had in his life. He's telling me because he says the next confluence he plans to do after this one is a water confluence several kilometres off the coast of Thailand, and that he plans to do it on a jet-ski!
8:10 p.m. - We avail ourselves of the facilities in the Shangri-la Hotel across the street, where we perform our ablutions in five-star comfort ahead of the long train journey. We then once more run the gauntlet of the street beggars to make our way back to the train station. My favourite is the lady with a small child who sits at the rubbish bin closest to the hotel entrance, pretending to eat rice straight from the bin. No matter what time of the day or night, she is always there, pretending to eat rice out of the bin. I guess it must be a good money-earner for her. Another perennial favourite is the bloke dressed in filthy clothing who lies on the pedestrian overpass, repeatedly banging his forehead into a small pool of fake blood. He no doubt does all right too.
9:30 p.m. - "Attention please. The train number 2272 for Fuzhou is leaving in no time! Will passengers please get on board." The English version of the trilingual (Mandarin/Cantonese/English) automated public announcement in the waiting room of the train station informs us it's time to board our train. Once on board, I explain the ticketing mix-up to the train attendant, and she says she will help us to upgrade our tickets...later.
Wednesday 1 October 2003, 6:30 a.m. - The train attendant rouses me from a deep slumber, annoyingly bringing a most interesting dream to a premature end. Now is apparently the appropriate time to upgrade our tickets, because we will shortly be arriving in Yongding.
Because Tony does not speak much Chinese, he and I have been referring to the various place names by their literal English translations rather than their proper Chinese names. Yongding has become Forever Stable. Yong'an is Forever Peace.
Tony discovers a bilingual Chinese/English booklet in our compartment containing tourist introductions to all the major cities through which the train passes. It makes for entertaining reading. Here is a brief, unedited excerpt from the page describing our destination, Forever Peace:
Linyin Rock Stone Forest Area consists of more than six scenic zones named New Rock Stone Forest, Hongyun Cave, Cold Spring in Stone Cave, the Eighteen Caves, Emerald Cloud Cave and Shouchun Rock, etc. The rock stone forest are of various and grotesque shapes, some like arrows going to shoot at the sky, some like animals, ready to come out at your call. Examples like Five Fishes Sporting in Water, Frog Gazing at the Moon and Sheep Walking on the Green Grass are too much to cite. Wandering about here, you will feel your mind thronged by thoughts and reluctant to leave.
7:30 a.m. - We go to the dining car for breakfast and consume two huge bowls of noodles plus assorted odds and ends (too much to cite) in soup. Later, back in our soft sleeper compartment, Tony discovers the secret hiding place of the volume control for the public address announcements and the TV--peace and quiet at last!
11:45 a.m. - Our train arrives in Forever Peace. The confluence is still some 40 kilometres to the west. We take a two-minute journey on a no. 2 commuter bus to get us to the long-distance bus station, where we purchase tickets to Ansha (Peaceful Sand). Peaceful Sand buses depart every 15-20 minutes. The one currently sitting on the starting blocks is full, so we have to wait for the next. As soon as it arrives, dozens of waiting passengers engage in a life-and-death struggle to get on board and secure seats. I join in the fray, but it turns out to be unnecessary because the ladies overseeing operations in the bus station ensure that Tony and I both get good seats.
1:35 p.m. - After a 45-kilometre journey, we arrive in Peaceful Sand, roughly 12 kilometres east of the confluence. According to my pre-trip preparations, this is where we should be able to find a boat up the river, but as Tony points out, there isn't much water in the river, and it certainly doesn't look navigable. We wander over to some motorcycle dudes hanging out near the bus station and ask about boats to Dongkou (Cave Mouth). They confirm that there aren't any from here, but they say we can probably get a boat from a place further up the river. We negotiate the fare, and set off on a seven-kilometre ride along a gravel road that takes us over a mountain and back down to the river on the other side, at a place called Longtou, which means "dragon head". It is also the Chinese word for "tap" or "faucet" (because of the shape).
2:10 p.m. - Faucet does not amount to much, just a couple of shops several hundred metres apart, and a number of small boats tied up in the river below. The confluence is 11.3 kilometres southwest. The lady in the first shop, where our motorcyclists have dropped us off, assures us that we'll be able to get a boat to Cave Mouth this afternoon. She says all we need to do is wait for her husband, the boatman, to come back, although she has no idea when this might be. We sit patiently inside her small shop, drinking refreshments and nibbling peanuts.
4:45 p.m. - After a very long wait, we are finally on board hubby's boat, waiting as he goes off to obtain sufficient fuel and beer supplies for the journey. Tony suddenly realises he's left his sunshades in the shop, and clambers back up the steep bank to look for them, but they have vanished. The shop lady remembers seeing them on the table, but doesn't know what happened to them. Meanwhile, I am very tired and not feeling 100%, so I lie down in the boat, and, apart from leaning over the side once to "feed the fish", remain horizontal until we get to Cave Mouth.
7:30 p.m. - We arrive in Cave Mouth after completing the boat journey in darkness, then walking about one kilometre to the small town, guided by the boatman. He leads us to a guesthouse where we can have dinner and stay for the night. I decide against dinner and opt for an early night, while Tony elects to shout the boatman a seafood dinner. The guesthouse proprietress cooks up a hearty meal for three, but the boatman ultimately slips away, leaving Tony with a ton of food all to himself.
Thursday 2 October 2003, 5:20 a.m. - Our "hotel" has a special feature, an indoor alarm clock in the form of a caged rooster right beside the stairs. The voice of this top form rooster--the noisiest either of us has ever heard--bouncing off the walls of the house, makes one major racket, waking us very early.
I'm feeling much better after a good night's sleep. The hotel proprietress is soon up and preparing breakfast, which includes many of Tony's leftovers from the night before. It's good, and we both tuck into it.
6:30 a.m. - We head out of town on foot, leaving our backpacks at the guesthouse. The confluence is just 2.5 kilometres to the southwest of Cave Mouth. We follow a narrow dirt road south alongside a river. When we are two kilometres due east of the confluence, the river bends to the southwest, and we continue to follow it.
7:25 a.m. - The path alongside the river is in disrepair and after a while gives out completely. We climb up the south bank of the river, through many terraced paddy fields. Tony finds the climbing hard going and stops to rest several times. Perseverance pays off in the end however, when we reach an aqueduct with a nice wide ledge along which we can walk easily.
8:30 a.m. - We follow the aqueduct for a long way, until it ultimately joins up with the river on our right. There do not appear to be any more paths from this point onwards. We are now 865 metres southwest of our goal. We cross the river and start to scramble up through the trees on the northern bank. Tony decides that he's had enough, and says he'll wait for me here. I put in a waypoint for his position, then continue up the slope alone.
8:35 a.m. - Five minutes later, I come to a wide path, and excitedly call back down the slope to Tony: "Hey, there's a road up here!" "Is there a taxi rank?" he asks. "No, but if a taxi comes by, I'll flag it down," I assure him. He reluctantly scrambles the rest of the way up the slope to my "road".
After Tony catches his breath, we start walking along the wide path. Disappointingly, it deteriorates after only a short distance into a rather overgrown, narrow walking trail. Nevertheless, we are able to continue along it for some considerable distance before it eventually starts to take us further away from our goal. At this point, we once again take to the scrub, and slowly begin scrambling our way up the hillside. We carry on like this for an hour and a half, and I can tell it's really taking its toll on Tony. We stop to rest often, and I keep up a barrage of encouraging words.
After a very long while we come upon a collection of large trees that have been scored so that the sap can be collected. There is a path here that we follow for a short distance before again having to fight our way through the undergrowth. It is not long however before we finally make it into the "success zone", within 100 metres of the confluence. Tony finds a comfortable place to sit, 95 metres from the confluence, satisfied that he's qualified for a successful visit this time (unlike a couple of previous occasions: 26°N 114°E and 25°N 112°E). He's happy to leave it to me to fight the rest of the way through the bush to capture the perfect reading.
11:00 a.m. - I locate the exact spot without too much difficulty, and take the regulation photos of the decidedly unremarkable views to the north, south, east and west. Now I head back to where I left Tony, glad that I'd put in a waypoint for him, because 95 metres is a long way on a forested hillside, and I might have ended up searching for him for a long time otherwise.
Tony and I head back to the large sap trees, hoping to find a path leading out, but the only paths we can find simply run between the trees and nowhere else. Instead we start following a streambed down, sometimes walking in it, sometimes beside it, wherever we can find a way forward. This strategy pays off, as we eventually emerge on the "road" that we had been on previously. We decide to try following this back towards Cave Mouth, rather than cross the river and walk along the aqueduct again. It turns out to be the wrong decision. No one seems to have used this path for ages, and we have to circumnavigate several collapsed bridges--not easy going. When we come to a small path leading off to the right, down to the river, I suggest that we cross over and make our way back up to the aqueduct on the other side. We do so, and the rest of the walk back to Cave Mouth becomes relatively easy.
3:00 p.m. - We arrive back in Cave Mouth eight and a half hours after we set out, having covered 17 kilometres on foot, much of it through heavy vegetation. Tony is extremely exhausted. We shower, change our clothes, and then sit down in the guesthouse to relax with some cold beers for Tony and some Chinese tea for me. We try to arrange a boat back to Faucet for this afternoon, but the boatwoman who the proprietress's daughter rustles up does not want to go now, saying it's too late for her to be able to get back before dark. We are tired and don't mind staying another night, so ask her to come back at six o'clock the next morning instead.
As we sit relaxing downstairs in the guesthouse, the proprietress, who hasn't changed out of her pyjamas all day, reveals that apart from the guesthouse business, her establishment also serves as the processing plant for the local delicacy, dried fish. She offers us some. "I don't like dried fish," says Tony, turning it down. I try one, and after tasting it, exclaim: "This is really nice!" which prompts Tony to change his mind and try it after all. He reaches the same conclusion as me, saying "I've tried it many times before--big ones, little ones, salty ones, smelly ones--and until now, I just didn't like it. But this is good." So good in fact that, when the proprietress gives us a vacuum-sealed gift pack of the stuff, Tony asks for a second!
Friday 3 October 2003, 6:30 a.m. - We leave Cave Mouth and head back to Faucet on a wooden boat this time--the one we'd caught in the opposite direction had been a steel-hulled affair.
8:30 a.m. - The boatwoman drops us off in Faucet below the second shop. We clamber up the slope and walk around to the first shop, where Tony is disappointed to learn from the shop lady that his sunshades have still not materialised. At this point a small truck comes by, carrying plastic crates of freshly caught fish to market in Peaceful Sand. I rush out of the shop and flag it down, and we're able to hitch a ride in the back. It's a bumpy ride, and the crates of fish slide around, oozing fish blood, with us wedged in amongst them all. We can't complain though, as the ride is gratis.
9:00 a.m. - We arrive at the Peaceful Sand market, which is in full swing. From here, we walk the short distance across town to the quiet little bus station, where a bus to Forever Peace is just preparing to depart.
10:30 a.m. - Back at the Forever Peace bus station, Tony buys a ticket on the afternoon sleeper bus to Shenzhen. We will part company here in Forever Peace, with Tony returning to Hong Kong, while I continue on to 26°N 118°E. Tony asks me to write down the Chinese characters for "hotel", "bus station" and "train station", just in case he needs them.
4:50 p.m. - Tony departs on his overnight bus from Forever Peace to Shenzhen. He has a horrible trip. The bus is a sleeper bus, but it's not a civilised bus. It's one of those very old and noisy jobbies. The driver gives Tony the honour seat in front, right next to the noisy engine--not very conducive to sleeping. It's an uneventful trip--just long. A number of accidents on the road combined with a tire problem make it into an extremely long journey. Tony doesn't get into Shenzhen until about 9 a.m. He crosses the border and thanks his lucky stars that he has been one of the fortunate ones. The same night, on the same road, several bus accidents have taken place, and a number of Hong Kong residents have died on their way home from Golden Week vacations.
Story continues with 26°N 118°E.