25-Aug-2006 -- My wife had a business trip and I always like to go with her whenever possible. This time it was to Xi’an, so I did a quick check for unvisited confluence points in the area. All of the low-lying fruit was already picked, but there was 35N 108E that looked doable as a day-trip from Xi’an. Our agreement is that she will tolerate my confluencing habit so long as I am back at night. But as more confluences around the provincial capitals get visited, it is getting harder and harder to reach unvisited points and be back at night.
Another aspect of our recent trips is that I have brought along a folding bicycle. Its tiny wheels and collapsible frame folds up into a pint-sized package in less than 30 seconds for easy carrying on planes, taxis, buses and trains. Once I am at or near my destination, I pop it out, unfold it and I am on my way. This is a new way of travel for me. Traditionally, I have always preferred using a full-sized bike and have developed a bike touring company called Bike China Adventures, Inc. to assist foreigners who wish to travel by bike in China. But I have come around to embracing the flexibility that a folding bike gives, particularly in this age of short-term stays in far away places. Using a folding bike, I can pop out of the hotel and explore the city much more comfortably and enjoyably. I have extended this concept to confluencing as this report will show.
Xi’an is an ancient capital of China and with its primary draw being the Terra-Cotta Soldiers. It is a dry, dusty place and the recent economic boom in China has resulted in a massive increase in vehicles and pollution. Getting from the airport to the Hyatt where we were staying was a long frustrating trip through stop and go traffic.
With the beginning of a new day, I had a sketchy plan to get to 35N 108E about 110 km northeast of Xi’an. With a sumptuous four-croissant breakfast buffet at the Hyatt under my belt, I unfolded the bike and rolled out of the lobby into morning rush hour traffic and zipped up to the bus station.
Bus train stations are always chaotic places in China and Xi’an was no different. Getting a ticket with a minimal amount of line cutting going on was a bit of a surprise. On the bus I was delegated an aisle seat a the rear. When I saw the person with whom I was to share the next three hours and saw him smoking on a non-smoking bus, my spirits sank. He gave me a big smile and invited me to sit. I hesitated, then told him I have a tobacco smoke allergy. It was his turn to look crestfallen, but then took one more puff and threw the cigarette out the window. While I expected a battle, it turns out he was one of the best bus passengers I have met. He is an underwear salesman working for a “very small” company of 300 employees and travels all over the country getting orders. The time flew by and I was in Binxian before I knew it.
I had bought a Shaanxi provincial road atlas at the bus station, which showed the confluence near a village by the name of Lujiandian. Upon arrival in Binxian, I unfolded my bike and cycled up to a policeman and asked how to get there. He never heard of the place. Uh-oh. I tried several other people both young and old and no one knew. So I decided to cycle to the next nearest village along the way, Shuikou.
The terrain around Xi’an is flat as a pancake, and I mistakenly assumed that the area around the confluence point would be the same. It is not, not by a long shot. The geology near there is deep clay eroded into narrow and steep canyons. Binxian is in the valley of one of these. The road to Shuikou involves climbing out of this canyon on a steep road for about 8 kilometers. Not a problem on a geared bike, but on my single speed I climbed by slowly weaving back and forth up the hill. Along the way, I passed by many cave homes common in this area. They are the ultimate earth-sheltered house: cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and no need for vinyl siding! Craved out of the side of the hills in arch shapes, they form a fascinating sight.
Continuing on to Shuikou, I was passed by a tricycle truck used as a cheap bus by the local farmers. It moves slowly, and the human cargo was alive with smiles when they saw me struggling up the hill on the folder. I passed them when they stopped and then when they cruised by me again I couldn’t resist snagging a hold of a basket hanging out the back and getting a free pull up the hill. The cargo loved it, with the old guys giving me big toothless grins.
The farmers here grow mostly apples and they have a unique practice of wrapping each apple in a bag to protect it from bugs and disease.
Further up the road I hit Shuikou and the confluence is about 2.5 km away. I turn right and stop to ask a couple of people about Lujiadian. Neither one heard of it. Chalk it up to another China atlas cartographers fantasy.
Down the road there is another that veers off in the right direction and the GPS is counting down to just under one kilometer when the road turns right and the GPS arrow turns left. A small foot path is there and I cycle down it a hundred meters when the path takes a plunge down the hill. The area is like a canyon with steep narrow sides. The GPS arrow was jumping all over the place making it impossible to determine the location of the cp. I ditched the bike in a nearby shed and started going cross-country. Wearing only Teva sandals and shorts, I trudged through the low scrub and sticker bushes to the edge of the canyon. With less than 400 meters to go, the cp appeared to down at the bottom of the canyon, but getting down there was problematic as the sides of the canyon we almost vertical except at a few places. The tall grass and scrub bushes cut my feet and legs making it painful going. Searching the area, I found a faint path to follow leading down into the canyon. Once in the bottom, I made good progress toward the cp until I reached the 180-meter mark when the arrow jumped to the right, straight up the side of the canyon. Scrambling as best I could grabbing onto rocks and bushes, I climbed up a narrow ridge following the arrow hoping that it did not lead to a cliff. My luck held out, mostly, as I was able to get within 19 meters of the cp when it dived over the edge to a point some 100 meters below. Time was running out and I decided that 19 meters was close enough for this tired puppy.
Taking the four-compass point photos, I made my way back to where I parked the bike by circling around the rim of the canyon. If I had only continued with the bike a kilometer further, I would have found a much easier access point along a well-worn path.
While walking back, I spotted an old apple farmer tending his trees and asked him if I could buy a few apples. He was a friendly chap who gladly gave me as many apples as I could carry and refused any payment. Returning to where I hid my bike, I was delighted to find it was still there.
Cycling back was a breeze as most of the 12 kilometers was downhill. On the way back I spotted several huge marijuana plants growing by the side of the road.
Back in Binxian, I got on a local bus to Xi’an. The drivers were playing games with the passengers switching midway and then refusing to take them all the way into town. I got a small refund and took a taxi the remaining distance. It was a rewarding trip combining my two passions, cycling and confluence hunting and the success of the visit made it all the more fun.
The next day I tried to visit another confluence east of Xi'an, but the road was under construction, so I gave up halfway there and enjoyed the rest of the day by cycling back to Xi'an.