Usually I have to have a reason to go someplace: There's a museum, some cultural item
of interest, I'm meeting someone, or I'm being paid to go there for some reason or
For me to go someplace just cause its on the map is - WAS - a bit farfetched!
So there I am in the western part of China visiting friends and relatives and doing
some people exchange groundwork to bring Chinese and Americans together and get to know
each other better.
Now I have a friend who lives there who've I've known for years. Peter Cao, an old
friend who I look forward to seeing and eating a favorite food of China together with -
Huo Guo (aka Hot Pot) - a bubbling cauldron of spice in which you dip your meats and
vegetables in to cook before devouring.
But this time, he had something a little more adventurous in mind.
Idly he mentions to me about this "confluence" thing.
He explains about this impromptu group. And the rules.
And he asks me if I'm interested.
So why would I go to the middle of nowhere just to stand there and say "I'm here,
and this is where I am supposed to be!"
Well, because it was in the middle of nowhere. And it was someplace I'd never been. And
what is life without experience?
So off we go on a Friday morning - 26 Dec 03.
Now you have to understand that we are in a major city in S.W. China - Chengdu, Sichuan
And where we are going is out - way out in the toolies/boonies/ middle of nowhere -
also known as "The Countryside".
Now we are going somewhat South East - kinda in the direction of Chongqing aka
But it's a bit off track.
So we head down a nice divided highway in his VW (Is it Peter?). And we are just
rolling along. 50 to 60 mph plus.
Then we get to our first exit. Ah - the beginning of the real journey!
Actually Peter overshoots the off ramp but this being China, he just backs up a couple
of hundred yards and gets off the highway where we were supposed to!
Then begins the GPS snipe hunt. Now I must add that my friend Peter has had the
industriousness (unlike me) to learn the local lingo. Yes, he speaks and reads Chinese.
So when we find ourselves having gone down into a town, turned around and gone back and
then stop to ask some locals about some road we want, he actually can understand. So we
wind up going back into the same city we just extricated ourselves from.
Now in China you have to understand there are a lot of Chinese. Especially in the
cities. But this makes it interesting to watch people. Everybody is doing something. On
their way to the market, standing in the doorway of a small store waiting for patrons,
picking out some fresh vegetables, on their way to school, or standing around a car
accident which we saw three times (remember the to and fro!).
All this time as Peter is navigating the streets of Jianyang, I am trying to fathom the
intricacies of this GPS thing which heretofore I only knew by name.
First we're in the right direction. Then not. Then we are. All the time, though we are
moving through the city. Then through some towns, then villages. Then just past paddies
and fields and more paddies and fields. The interesting thing is that you are also going
back a bit in time. You see, on the sides of some buildings are painted various slogans.
Some of which are from the old days of the hard line communist rule. (There's a lot more
market economy going on now, if you haven't noticed!). Handpainted on the sides of a house
or building or shack even are phrases like "One family is good." Or Strive to
make a good country or "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco" (The last one I just
made up, sorry!). These slogans tell a bit about the mindset of a culture.
But more interesting are the little places we have to pass.
We stop and ask for directions at a noodle factory. Factory is an overstatement. Just a
mom and pop noodle making joint with some rope strung next to the road, with long strands
of golden noodles dangling. Or we stop in some village in the main square. And while Peter
gets out and crosses the street to find someone who looks like they know and will tell us
where we want to go, I stand outside the car while a crowd gathers to gawk at me. Don't
know if they ever saw a Westerner before, but they act like I am an object of curiosity.
Which I am , and don't mind. What I find almost inevitably
breaks the ice is a "Ni Hao" (hello in Chinese).
Now mind you, my friend is so danged determined to get to this confluence place (did I
mention it is at 30 degrees N. Latitude and 105 degrees E. Longitude?), that he must have
truly asked for instructions 12 to 15 times. Really.
And who says men don't ask directions!
Well, usually the directions were encouraging. Except in one small village. The fellow
tells us where to go. And then says - "you can't get through". And when we get
to the turn, we see why. Seems like the recent rains have made a mudpie of the road.
Peter, in his interminable optimism and commitment to this endeavor, suggests we rent a
ride on motorcycles. But, seeing a local beat up bus make it through, we'll be danged if
we don't too!
So we plow through the mud and then around craters, and berms and potholes 1 foot wide
and deep. And bumps and more bumps. And more dirt and rocks - on and on and on. Is this
This trip is three hours now going through the back roads. There are no stores now.
Just huts and paddies and some fields. But we keep rolling along. Poor Peter's car! Well,
we pass by a pagoda next to a cell phone tower (The Chinese are incredible at making sure
every area is covered. I think cell depleted areas only exist when your batter dies.). We
pass a monastery converted to a school.
Now we are getting close. We are just a few miles away. But wouldn't you know it. The
confluence is straight ahead but the road forks right and left. So we pick the left. Good
choice because it later kinda bends back to the right.
Well, we pull over because we are just about half a mile away now! Now mind you that we
haven't passed a car in an hour or so. So we don't worry about parking next to the road.
So we gather our stuff. GPS, cameras, a roll of fireworks, and set out with a sprightly
We walk down a dirt road past some kids playing with some bricks. (local toys). We head
over a hill and down into a small group of concrete homes. Well, those kids have now
tagged along and others begin following them too. Kind of like the Pied Piper. But here
are these white boys in the middle of nowhere and now where are they going?
Well, we reach the edge of this huge farmland area separated into dikes. Well, wouldn't
you know it, but the confluence is out there somewhere!
But thank goodness there are some paddie berms we can walk on to get there - kinda!
So off we go walking on these two-foot high and 8-inch wide berms - going out in right
angles. And wouldn't you know it, I get so focused on where we are going that I slip and
fall into a rice paddie!
But fortune is with us!
The confluence is dead ahead - almost next to a berm. And, to boot, its in an
"O" (lotus root) paddie. Meaning its relatively not soggy or wet. So out goes
Peter. And with him some kids. And Peter walks slowly announcing
10 meters -
5 meters ?
one meter ?
this is it!
And after Peter translates to the local farmers who have gathered round, and explains
what is going on to the boys, and shows them the GPS, this 12 year old boy takes a this
stick Peter earlier asked him to bring (to hang the fireworks on), and like an explorer of
old, raises it up and then thrusts it down into the earth with great deliberation and
And to think that a few minutes before, this kid would have - as I did - thought us
But it was sooooooooo cool.
And Peter says he has to take photos from 4 angles. And does so. And of course my video
camera is out of juice. So I am just trying to eke out a couple of seconds of tape of this
event. (I did get the boy planting the staff!).
And then Peter, with his unbridled enthusiasm, rolls out the firecrackers, and just
when I'm about to turn on the camera again, sets it off. And it goes off so fast and with
such a rapid fire, that he has to leap out of the way and falls off the paddie berm!
So then that's it. We have accomplished our mission.
We then say goodbye and take a couple more photos, and head back to the car.
We wave good bye with a "Zai Jian" (goodbye). And the boys
follow us to the car and bid us goodbye with lots of smiles! We set off now for Zizhong. A
local City about 3 hours away. And as we roll along the back roads, we now see the older
kids coming home from school. Walking their mile or two to get home. Sometimes a tractor
will give a few a lift. But almost all are walking. And they are so happy. To think how
kids in the good ol' USA will complain about having to wait for a bus, and then to see
these kids whose parents have to scrimp and save for them to attend high school, slogging
their way, but with smiles on their faces as they walk with their classmates, home. Makes
you put things into perspective, eh?
Well, we ask for directions a whole bunch more times.
The light is dimming from the journey.
The fields and paddies with the occasional farmer toiling past dinner time, man and
woman - with baskets on their back, thrusting a crop into it having plucked it from the
soil. And we drive on and past.
The road starts to improve more and more. Which is good as it gets darker and darker.
No street lights out here, of course!
We hit Zizhong around 7 PM. It's a bustling city with wide boulevards and bikes all
over - the way Chengdu used to be 10 years ago before they got car fever.
And we hit the Chongqing - Chengdu Highway, and we are on our way home.
The highway is filled with trucks filled with goods or gravel - China is leaping
forward, you know.
We get back late to the Sichuan University campus where Peter drops me off.
We say goodbye. Each of us grubby but satisfied.
And I, as that bridegroom in the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, go forth a wiser man.
Reflecting back, it was silly to go. But boy am I glad I did.
A good and fond memory.
Now I know why they do it.
[Peter's note: Mark is much to modest to mention it, but since I am helping submit
this story, I will put a plug in for one of his many good projects, Earthdiary (http://www.earthdiary.org/) whose mission it is to
save the life history of people and use them to educate and mentor our young people. Check
And while I am at it, I must say that Mark was a terrific confluence hunter, taking all
the set backs and discomforts with a more than a bit of humor. Thanks Mark, for making
this trip and writing up this report.]