01-Aug-2003 -- Continued from 29°N 118°E.
Thursday 31 July 2003 – I got up at 5 a.m. to be sure to be on time for the 6:30 a.m. bus to Wuyishan. Yet another 40°C day was predicted. The confluence was 47.2 kilometres to the south of Shangrao. I arrived early at the T-junction from where the bus was due to depart, so had time to eat some steamed buns for breakfast. The two guys from the Wuyishan bus company from the night before showed up again, and shortly thereafter so did the bus. It departed on time at 6:30 a.m.
En route I realised that there had been some confusion on my part about my destination. Wuyishan turns out to be a major city in neighbouring Fujian Province, and that was where this bus was headed. The Wuyishan I wanted was a smaller town south of Shangrao, still within Jiangxi Province. Fortunately the bus would pass through my Wuyishan on its way to the Wuyishan in Fujian, so it wasn't a major disaster. The ticket seller even very kindly refunded me over half the cost of my ticket, on account of the fact that I wasn't going the full distance.
I disembarked at 8 a.m. at the correct Wuyishan for my purposes. The confluence was now 18.5 kilometres to the east. Quizzing the locals, I discovered that there would not be a bus heading east until about 12:30 p.m. This seemed like far too long to wait, so I decided to head off on foot.
After walking for a while, I got a lift a short distance, no more than a kilometre or so, in a motorised three-wheeler, which got me as far as a small town called Gangkou. There were some fields of beautiful lotus flowers beside the road. In Gangkou itself, I came across a place where they were drying reeds in the sun, spreading them out over every available inch of flat ground. The owner told me that he sells the dried reeds to a factory in Wenzhou in neighbouring Zhejiang Province, which uses them to make straw mattresses, hats and the like, which in turn are then sold to the export market.
I continued walking to the next town, Xiaqu, arriving there at 10:15 a.m. From Xiaqu I was able to hitch a ride in a passing truck for about the next 10 kilometres or so towards my destination. The truck driver wanted me to stay and have lunch with him, but I felt eager to keep pressing on, so once more set off on foot.
Much of the area I was now walking through was bamboo forest, with the flat bits given over to rice paddies. There were no people about, it being the hottest part of the day. Every now and then the occasional cloud passed in front of the sun, providing some welcome respite from the heat.
I heard some melodious "bonk" noises emanating from the rice paddies, and upon investigation, found the ingenious source. It was later explained to me that these contraptions were not set up for their aesthetic quality, but rather to ward off animals when there were no humans around, sort of a sonic scarecrow. I thought they were quite pleasant to listen to as I walked along the lonely road.
At 1 p.m., with the confluence 5.8 kilometres east, I left the road and started following a likely-looking path up into the hills. I got only as close as 5.16 kilometres before the trail petered out however. This was obviously not the best approach. As I turned to head back towards the road, a few drops of rain started falling, and there was a refreshingly cool breeze.
At 2:40 p.m., after continuing along the road, I arrived in a small village officially named Wangcun, but referred to by the locals as Shanqian, which means "in front of the mountains". The confluence was still 5.25 kilometres east-northeast. I asked some locals if I could leave my big backpack at their place while I went and investigated a good-looking road leading off in the general direction of the confluence. They told me the road was used purely for logging, and that no one lived up that way. I said I'd check it out anyway.
The road ended at a quarry after only about 500 metres or so, but then continued on as a wide, well-used path. I passed several teams of loggers manhandling huge logs down the path on two-wheeled carts. It didn't look easy.
The path continued on and up, pretty much directly towards the confluence. There were several bridges made of bamboo to cross. Eventually I came to a point where the path, although it carried on, had obviously not seen any recent traffic. I kept on going. The occasional bamboo bridges along this section were now derelict, and I had to make my own way across the streams.
After one such stream crossing, the path became completely overgrown and simply vanished altogether. The confluence was still 2.42 kilometres east-northeast. My GPS told me I'd walked a distance of 3.75 kilometres from Shanqian, and was now at an elevation of 1,254 metres, having climbed all the way. The elevation at Shanqian was just 724 metres. And the locals had been quite right, not a soul lived up in this direction. There were no signs of life whatsoever.
It was now 4:10 p.m., and the only sensible thing to do was to turn around and head back to Shanqian. The people at the place where I'd left my bag welcomed me to stay the night, wash, eat dinner, etc. They were exceptionally kind, just like everyone else in Jiangxi Province. Their surname was Xie. They had a son 18 and a daughter 16. The daughter was majoring in English at school, although she needed an awful lot of coaxing before overcoming her shyness enough to try some out on me.
The household was not limited to just these four persons; there was also the animal population. Two dogs, a young kitten, half a dozen piglets, several chickens and a few ducks all had free reign of the house, and all seemed to coexist in harmony. And then there were the bees! One day a swarm of honeybees had decided to make their home in the kitchen crockery cabinet, and had lived there happily ever since, coming and going without any fuss, and providing the family with a constant supply of fresh honey. In fact, such was the level of symbiosis that the bees used only half the cabinet, while the other half was still used by the family to store their crockery! Mr Xie gingerly opened the door to the bees' side of the cabinet to allow me to take a photo.
Friday 1 August 2003 – The 18-year-old son, Huangpeng, had expressed an interest in joining me in the confluence hunt, and I welcomed his company. He also invited along a couple of his friends. We all set off at 7 a.m., and followed the same path up to the point I'd reached the previous afternoon. They then asked me what direction the confluence was, I pointed the way, and that's the way we went. This pattern repeated itself throughout the day. There was no question of considering what might be the best approach. If that was the direction to the confluence, then that was the direction we headed, even if it meant going straight up.
We were not following any paths (there weren't any to follow), and much of the time we were in dense forest, making it hard for the GPS to pick up the satellites. It was impossible to rely on the GPS pointer to indicate the correct direction. I soon taught myself how to use the "bearing" function. Whenever I could get a reading on the GPS, I'd dial the bearing into the fancy new compass given to me by my father for Christmas, and then I'd be ready for the next time the boys asked "Which way?"
At 11 a.m. we stopped to rest for a bit. The confluence was still 1.62 kilometres east-northeast, and we were now at an elevation of 1,710 metres. The going was extremely tough and demanding, certainly something I would never have tackled on my own. One of Huangpeng's companions had long since dropped out and headed back. I wasn't surprised. He'd been wearing only sandals, and didn't look like he'd make the distance, right from the start.
It was not until 1:55 p.m. that we finally reached the confluence. The two boys sat relaxing on a large rock while I walked to and fro in the forest, trying to get a perfect reading. I'm sure they were starting to have severe doubts about my sanity. We'd just expended all this effort to come all this way, and this was it?!
The elevation at the confluence was 1,630 metres. (The highest point I'd recorded on our journey there had been 1,912 metres, which was approximately 1.2 kilometres higher than our starting point.) The GPS was registering an accuracy of 10 metres. I shot the north, south, east and west photos, which frankly could be anywhere, and give no indication whatsoever of everything we went through to get there. Later on, as we rested on a mountaintop on our way back, I took a shot of the two boys contemplating the return journey. Although a bit hazy, I think this gives a much better impression of what we'd really accomplished.
It was 7:30 p.m. and the light was fading rapidly when we finally arrived back in Shanqian. We'd been gone twelve and a half hours. I was absolutely exhausted, completely drained of all energy. On the way back, I had severe doubts I was ever going to make it, but the boys were great, helping and encouraging me all the way. My feet were blistered, and several terrifying, death-defying leaps at high altitude kept replaying themselves over and over in my mind. But despite all this I was ecstatic. I had truly extended the limits of my own physical endurance well beyond what I could have ever imagined possible. I felt a great sense of achievement. People often ask me why I do this crazy confluence-hunting thing. This is why.
Story continues at 28°N 117°E.