07-Jul-2012 -- Story continues from 40°N 113°E.
I check out before 6 am, foregoing the complimentary breakfast once again, which I’m sure would have been good at this up-market hotel. The commuter buses have not yet started running this early in the morning, so I take a taxi to the New South Bus Station (新南站).
At the station, I buy my ticket on the 6:50 am bus southwest to Shénchí County (神池县). For some reason, they would not sell tickets for this bus the previous day.
All the breakfast action is happening just outside the station at some impromptu stalls, so I go out and enjoy a bowl of wontons (馄饨) while waiting for my bus.
The bus leaves on schedule at 6:50 am. As we exit the station, a policeman gets on to ensure everyone is wearing their seatbelt, which of course they’re not. This is the first time I’ve witnessed such an inspection in China. It is obviously part of a new safety drive, because there are posters prominently displayed at the exit of the bus station promoting seatbelt use.
The bus driver estimates we shall arrive in Shenchi at 11 am. But first, we head northeast into Dàtóng (大同市), where we stop to pick up about three dozen youths, predominantly female. Commotion ensues as they get themselves organised and seated. When the bus finally sets off again, it is filled with people and excited chatter.
We arrive in Shénchí a little later than the predicted 11 am, but only because there is a traffic jam of trucks for the final five kilometres. In Shénchí, I get straight onto a bus bound for Hǔběi Township (虎北乡), 20 kilometres to the southwest, which leaves immediately.
As we reach the outskirts of the tiny town of Hǔběi, I ask the driver to stop and let me off. But after I get off the bus, the ticket seller, a young lady who has been friendly to me ever since I bought my ticket at the Shénchí bus station, pleads with me to get back on, and to come and have lunch at her place before I go off to “do my stuff.”
Finally I relent, after she informs me that the bus will leave Hǔběi via a different route. I don’t want to have to go on a wild goose chase looking for it. So I get back on, and a short while later, in a small house in the middle of Hǔběi, am treated to a great lunch attended by the ticket seller and her mother, as well as about two dozen or so family and friends. We take turns to eat, sitting on a large kàng (炕), a heatable brick bed.
The ticket seller assures me that lunch is like this every day, and I have to believe her, because everything is already prepared before I arrive, so I know it’s not something they’re putting on specially for the visiting foreigner.
I eat quickly, make my excuses, then head off to find the confluence, leaving my heavy backpack there. As I make my way through Hǔběi, I discover many photo opportunities: the merry-go-round, the roadside dentist, the man with his donkey cart, etc. I really like this place!
Finding the confluence poses no difficulty whatsoever. It is located about one kilometre west of the centre of town, on a gentle slope among terraced fields of corn and potatoes. I snap the usual GPS and north-south-east-west photos.
When I return to the ticket seller’s house, I am encouraged to eat some boiled dumplings (饺子), which were cooked after I left for the confluence. I wolf them down, then grab my bag and head for the bus station to catch the 2 pm bus back to Shénchí.
I needn’t have rushed. It turns out to be the same bus, with the same driver and ticket seller!
Earlier, at the home of the ticket seller, I’d mentioned that I had looked for a herb called Chinese prickly ash (Huājiāo 花椒) in the Hǔběi market, but found only the ground up powder. When the ticket seller arrives at the bus, she has a large bag of Chinese prickly ash for me! We then engage in a customary Chinese “politeness contest,” which I eventually win when she finally accepts the money for the condiment.
Story continues at 39°N 111°E.