Wednesday 31 May 2006 (Day 1)
It had been raining incessantly in Hong Kong, and today was no exception. We were awoken at 4 a.m. by a particularly heavy downpour. It was Tuen Ng Festival (端午节, otherwise known as the Dragon Boat Festival), and I wondered just how much fun it was going to be for those poor rowers out there in the pouring rain.
We followed the same route as we had with Sasha and Carmen a year before on our way to 30°N 116°E: the 6:40 a.m. ferry from Yung Shue Wan (榕树湾) on Lamma Island (南丫岛) to Central (中环) on Hong Kong Island (香港岛), then the 8 a.m. ferry to the Shēnzhèn Airport (深圳机场), from where we caught the 10:50 a.m. China Eastern flight MU2478 to Wǔhàn (武汉), capital of Húběi Province (湖北省). The plane touched down at 12:20 p.m., and we got the last two seats on the airport bus to Wǔchāng (武昌) in the heart of Wǔhàn.
The airport bus arrived at the Fùjiāpō Bus Station (傅家坡汽车站) at 1:20 p.m. An extremely helpful station attendant not only assisted us to buy our tickets to Bǎokāng (保康县), saving us having to queue up like everyone else, but then took us to a shoe repairman a good many blocks away from the station so that Ah Feng could get her shoes mended. This pair of shoes was already the veteran of many a confluence trip, and Ah Feng was determined to extract one final trip out of them. Our faithful helper, whose name was Qín Chángxǐ (秦长喜), having waited patiently while the shoes were being repaired, then escorted us back to the bus station and into the VIP lounge, to await our 2:20 p.m. departure.
It was reassuring to learn that, unlike Hong Kong, it hadn't rained in Wǔhàn for days. The temperature was a pleasant 25°C.
The bus turned out to be a nice clean sleeper bus. We had two top bunks at the very front. Because the bus's final destination was Zhúshān (竹山县), we asked the driver if we could remain on board as far as the township of Sìpíng (寺坪镇), which was only about 10 kilometres from the confluence. He said this was no problem, and reckoned we'd arrive at around 1 a.m.
In her final act of benevolence, the station attendant Qín Chángxǐ got on the bus and had a word with the crew, asking them to look after us at dinner time, which meant that we would be enjoying a free meal together with them.
We stopped for dinner at about 7 p.m. in a place called Zǎoyáng (枣阳市), some distance before the large prefecture capital of Xiāngfán (襄樊市). Dinner was excellent. The two drivers and Ah Feng split three large bottles of beer, while I abstained. They did their best to get Ah Feng drunk, and judging by her red face, succeeded. The whole scene seemed so surreal: the long-distance bus drivers drinking with the passengers at a rest stop. Well, this was China after all.
We arrived in Sìpíng shortly after midnight, just as a police car was cruising the otherwise deserted main street. The four occupants, who were no doubt quite bored, immediately took a great interest in the disembarking foreigner, and spent a long time questioning both of us and poring over our travel documents before eventually pointing us in the direction of a very nice clean guesthouse, on the promise that we would front up at the police station after 8:30 a.m. the next morning to register.
Thursday 1 June 2006 (Day 2)
It was already light outside when we awoke a bit after 5 a.m. I was finally able to get a reading on the GPS from the window of our room: the confluence was 12.6 kilometres due west.
We set out at 6:30 a.m., only to return five minutes later to get Ah Feng's GPS that she'd left in her luggage at the guesthouse. Setting off once again, we stocked up on supplies for the trip (bottled water, bananas and crackers), ate some steamed buns for breakfast, then negotiated with a motorcyclist to take us to the village of Yùhuángmiào (玉皇庙), which I figured from the map must be fairly close to the confluence.
We travelled WNW on the main road towards Fáng County (房县), passing an impressive, newly constructed dam on the way.
With the confluence 5.5 kilometres SW, we left the main road, at an elevation of just under 300 metres, and turned left onto a dirt road. Not far along this dirt road, at an appropriately isolated spot, our motorcyclist stopped and demanded extra money, citing the poor condition of the road as justification. This ruse was almost inevitable. I reminded him that he'd agreed to a fee of 2 yuan per kilometre to take us all the way to Yùhuángmiào, and that if he didn't want to continue, then we'd pay him off here and now, and walk the rest of the way. This was a bluff - it was too far and steep to walk - but he fell for it, and agreed to abide by the original agreement.
The road ran SE through a mountain pass, then climbed sharply as it headed west along the southern slope of a relatively tall mountain range, offering great views of the valley way below. There was also some interesting wildlife along the way. Unfortunately, our motorcyclist's riding skills did not extend to dirt mountain roads, so enjoyment of the scenery was tempered somewhat by numerous harrowing near disasters as the bike repeatedly slid out from under us.
At 9:45 a.m., with the confluence 780 metres south, we left the motorbike and started up the hillside on a little path. We'd actually gotten to within 400 metres of the confluence on the road, however this was the only path that we'd seen, and it looked to go up to the crest of the mountain, so seemed like a safe bet.
Although we'd already paid the motorcyclist for the 25 kilometre trip in, he was keen not to lose us, hoping to earn another fare going back, so after parking the bike, he joined us on the path.
The path led almost all the way to the confluence, with only the final 50 metres requiring a bit of a scramble across a fairly steep hillside. Satellite reception was somewhat erratic, causing the confluence point to jump around a bit. I eventually managed to snap the GPS at under a metre's distance, then took the customary north-south-east-west shots, although there wasn't much to see due to the fact that we were surrounded by trees.
As we were walking back along the path to where we'd left the motorcycle - with me in the lead, followed by Ah Feng, and the motorcyclist bringing up the rear - all of a sudden Ah Feng started screaming hysterically and running back past the startled motorcyclist. Once she'd finally calmed down enough to utter anything coherent, I learned that, without even being aware, I'd stepped on a huge yellow snake coiled up asleep on the path! Our motorcyclist assured us it wasn't venomous, however it still took a long time for Ah Feng's frazzled nerves to return to normal.
We were back at the bike at 11:05 a.m. We then endured another harrowing ride back along the mountain road, arriving safely in Sìpíng at 12:40 p.m. We stopped in at the police station to register as promised. The police spent another 20 minutes poring over our documents before eventually letting us continue on our way.
Story continues at 30°N 110°E.