Thu 25-Dec-2003, 12 noon - This two-confluence trip began with a Christmas lunch buffet at Hong Kong's Marriott Hotel, which always puts on an excellent spread, especially the desserts. During the meal, Father Christmas made an appearance, much to the delight of the children. Later we were entertained by a rather mediocre magician, who now has an entire year to polish off his act before next Christmas.
3 p.m. - With a bulging stomach, thanks to way too many helpings of those delicious desserts, I bid farewell to my friends and hopped on a tunnel bus from Hong Kong Island under the harbour to the Hung Hom Railway Station on Kowloon Peninsular.
Upon attempting to purchase a ticket on a cross-border train to Guangzhou, I discovered that many Hong Kongers had the same idea of heading to the mainland for the four-day Christmas break, and all trains were solidly booked until 6:30 p.m. So I changed plans on the fly, took a KCR train to Lowu instead, and from there crossed the border into Shenzhen.
5 p.m. - At the Shenzhen Railway Station, as well as a ticket to Guangzhou, I tried to buy a ticket on the 8 p.m. train from Guangzhou to Yulin, only to learn that tickets for trains departing from places other than Shenzhen had to be purchased at least one day in advance. I came away with just a ticket on the 5:30 p.m. train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou. Even though this was fully booked, in China one is fortunately able to purchase a "no-seat" ticket in such circumstances. As it turned out, after the train made its first stop, in the city of Dongguan (very near 23°N 114°E, which I had revisited with Peter just 12 days before), enough passengers alighted to allow all the no-seat passengers to find seats.
7 p.m. - The enormous Guangzhou Railway Station was a writhing sea of humanity as always. I eventually found my way around to the ticket windows where I tried in vain to purchase a "hard sleeper" ticket on the 8 p.m. train to Yulin. This too turned out to be completely sold out, with not even any "hard seat" tickets available, and once again all I could obtain was a no-seat ticket for the nine-hour overnight journey. I bought one anyway, hoping and praying that it would be possible to upgrade once on board.
8 p.m. - My first bit of good fortune came when I boarded the train and miraculously found an empty seat. The train's ultimate destination was Chongqing, and there were many pretty Chongqing women on board, several of whom engaged me in pleasant conversation. (Chongqing is renowned for having the prettiest women in all of China.)
The second bit of good fortune was that I just happened to be in the one and only train carriage in which it might be possible to upgrade my ticket. On every Chinese train, there is a single carriage designated as the one in which passengers may apply for upgrades; anyone in any of the other carriages must come to this carriage if they want to upgrade.
My first attempt to upgrade to a hard sleeper berth ended in failure, but the bloke in charge of upgrades asked me where I was sitting, and promised to let me know if anything subsequently became available.
Our first stop, about an hour out of Guangzhou, was in Foshan, near 23°N 113°E, the other confluence Peter and I had recently visited together. There was a massive influx of new passengers in Foshan, and the hard seat carriage I was in rapidly deteriorated into the utter chaos of a typically overcrowded Chinese train.
All the men--and sadly to say quite a few of the women too--were smoking non-stop, filling the air with asphyxiating smoke, and spreading cigarette ash and butts everywhere.
The overhead luggage racks were filled to overflowing. A sizeable suitcase came crashing down in the aisle not far from where I was sitting, mercifully and miraculously without causing any bodily harm. If someone had been in the line of fire, a very serious injury could have resulted.
The train staff were blowing their whistles as they attempted to push carts bearing various items for sale--predominantly foodstuffs--down the narrow aisle that was obstructed by both passengers with nowhere to sit and the rest of the luggage that couldn't be jammed into the bulging overhead racks.
Garbage was being chucked out of the windows willy-nilly, a Chinese custom not likely to die out anytime soon.
Sitting in the seat opposite me were now a young lady dressed head-to-toe in a hideous DayGlo yellow outfit, and her considerably older boyfriend, wearing an expensive-looking suit, and looking totally out of place amongst all the peasants and other general riffraff. I subsequently learned that he was in the clothing business, and his girlfriend's unbecoming outfit was one of his designs.
A cart came by offering for sale noodles in a thick black broth composed mostly of oil and ground up chilli. This was a great favourite among all the Chongqing passengers--Chongqing also being renowned for its fiery hot food (so too Sichuan, of which Chongqing was a part until quite recently). The deadly concoction was being served out in wholly inadequate biodegradable cardboard boxes, and the potent liquid was consequently being spilled everywhere, all over the tables, the seats, the floor, people's luggage...
DayGlo Yellow purchased a serving, and when she'd finished the noodles, attempted to chuck the cardboard box containing the remaining liquid out the window, but instead only managed to spill most of it into Suit's lap, all over his good trousers. Surprisingly, far from being outraged by such an affront, Suit totally kept his cool, continuing his lively conversation with the fellow sitting next to me without so much as missing a beat, while DayGlo Yellow busied herself using two packs of tissues to mop up his soaked--and undoubtedly irreparably stained--trousers.
Not very long after we'd left Foshan, out of the midst of all this bedlam, the upgrade bloke's assistant emerged, and beckoned me to come with him. An upgrade was quickly organised, and by 9:30 p.m. I was lying in my comfortable hard sleeper bunk, far from the mêlée.
Fri 26-Dec-2003, 5:15 a.m. - I arrived in Yulin well before dawn. I asked a station attendant where I could get a bus to Bobai, and she told me to catch a no. 1 commuter bus to the Central Bus Station. I walked out of the railway station but had difficulty finding the no. 1 bus stop in the dark. I asked the owner of a small outdoor all-night restaurant for directions, only to learn that the commuter buses didn't begin operating until 6 a.m. One of the restaurant patrons overheard my enquiry, and said he'd give me a lift. He was the driver of a large intercity bus, and was himself on his way to the Central Bus Station.
Once I got to the station, I soon found the 5:45 a.m. bus for Bobai, which simply meant that it backed out of its parking spot at 5:45 a.m.--it was 6 a.m. before we finally left the gates of the bus station.
It was an uneventful 45-kilometre journey from Yulin south to Bobai. The countryside was relatively flat, and the road quite straight.
6:45 a.m. - It was still dark when I arrived in Bobai. I got straight onto another bus, a Wendi bus that would pass through Fengshan to the southeast, my next target. The ticket seller was a very talkative, pretty, 18-year-old girl, who assured me the locals in Fengshan would be most surprised to see a foreigner suddenly appear in their midst. The driver had one very prominent characteristic, a small spot on his lower right cheek from which half a dozen thick black whiskers grew. Like many Chinese men thus endowed, he had allowed these whiskers to grow to an extraordinary length.
7:50 a.m. - The bus dropped me off in Fengshan, the confluence now just 5.5 kilometres due south. I started walking down a dirt road in the direction of Dashatian, which by my reckoning was pretty much at the confluence point itself. Ten minutes down the road, a bus came by, and I hopped on board. After another 10 minutes, I was in Dashatian, where the ticket seller flatly refused to accept any fare for the short journey.
The confluence was now only 400 metres to the southeast, and there was a dirt side road conveniently heading off in the required direction. I followed the road as it ran along next to a stream on my right, watching the distance steadily decrease on my GPS, until eventually the confluence was just 85 metres to my west, on the other side of the stream.
I started retracing my steps along the dirt road in search of a bridge, then found some locals and asked them where to cross, and was told that there was a bridge still further down the road, beyond where I'd turned back before. So I turned around again and headed past my previous closest approach, and eventually found the bridge the locals had mentioned. After crossing this bridge and then following the GPS arrow towards the confluence, I was surprised to find myself crossing yet another bridge--all very confusing, until I later realised that the first stream I'd crossed was actually just a tributary of the other main stream.
8:55 a.m. - I found the confluence near the edge of a harvested rice paddy. The ground was still pretty mushy, which precluded actually stepping into the field, but by standing on the edge of the embankment and holding the GPS with my arm outstretched, I was able to muster up the coveted zero reading.
While I was taking the standard photos facing north, south, east and west, a man and woman approached. The man was Mr Li, the owner of the field containing the confluence, and the woman was his neighbour. Mr Li told me that his primary crops were rice and bananas. Portions of his banana plantation can be seen in the photos facing east and west.
With the confluence duly done, I walked back to Dashatian and waited by the roadside for a bus. My presence soon attracted a huge crowd of inquisitive motorcycle dudes. I had a long wait of over an hour, during which time I also became the object of great curiosity for dozens of schoolchildren passing by on their way to school, some on foot and others riding bicycles.
Three buses went by going in the wrong direction before one headed for Bobai finally came along. It was a terribly dilapidated and dirty old sleeper bus, crammed with passengers. I was relegated to half a bottom bunk at the very back of the bus, where there was a half-inch layer of dust over everything. I had no choice but to simply get dirty, promising myself I'd find a nice hotel once back in Yulin where I could shower and change into clean clothes.
I arrived in Bobai shortly after noon, and this time there was no waiting, as I immediately got on a bus departing for Yulin.
Story continues with 23°N 110°E.