11-Feb-2005 -- The Rooster has Landed, by Andrew Scanlon
Two Englishmen, an Irishman and an American went up a mountain. Purportedly for some hiking and exercise after an especially hectic Chinese New Year of the Rooster, but in fact for yet another crack at one of the most difficult and out-of-the-way confluences in the West of China.
Confluence 32N 104E, in Northern Sichuan province of the Peoples Republic.
The Crack of Dawn
Peter, seasoned Confluenceer that he is and proud we are of him, wanted an early start. With three hundred kilometres to final destination, plenty of daylight would be needed to make the point and arrive back on reasonably civilised roads before darkness fell. A one-day effort was envisaged. Right so, Peter, six o clock it is then at Yulin in Chengdu. Peter "I am not ** getting up at six o clock" Snow was quick to shoot that one down.
Andrew "The Ambassador for Style" Scanlon, Peter "Snow Joke" Snow, Richard "Eggs" ??? and Tony "Colin MaCrae" Lloyd duly met at seven, on a wet and slippery corner in dusk dreary Chengdu city, capital of Sichuan, population 10 million. Squeezed into a zippy sparkling new Mitsubishi, borrowed from Peter's better half Misha, for a short jaunt in the countryside as far as she was concerned these four well-proportioned men were enjoying this first leg immensely. Eggs cracked open one hard-boiled one in the vehicle.
Jia You (Dodgy Fuel?)
An hour of smooth motorway to reach Dujiangyan, was sadly not a taste of things to come. The Zi Ping Pu Dam, under construction above this historic old town, has fundamentally changed all routeways in the region. The roads were empty, all of the workers having gone home for the holiday. However the absence of other traffic served only to heighten the sometimes chasm like depth and loneliness of these now Canadian Rockies-like roads. The Mitsubishi put its best foot forward, up and down potholes as far as Wenchuan, careening around landslides and boulders till finally a brief lunch was called by Two Eggs in Maoxian. Fresh noodles and spicy Sichuan peppers were perhaps not what he had in mind, but the rest of the team managed admirably and within half an hour everyone was rearing to go. Except the vehicle that is. Was it the altitude? Had some mischievous child put sugar in the tank? Snow Joke was stewing, with thoughts of the Chinese torture his spouse would inflict later. Some highly technical mechanical discussion with the co-pilot McCrae didn't seem to help. Banging dashboard with glint-in-eye, seemed to cut no ice with the troublesome car. What next? Five hours of bad roads from the starting point only to be flumoxed by an uppity sportscar. McCrae himself appeared especially flummoxed. "We are up the ** without a **. " he offered. Insightful! Not to worry. A brief respite at a roadside restroom and lo and behold, everything was back in working order. The penny dropped, "the anti-theft system was acting up.? Glad that its co-pilot was in such cracking form the intrepid four continued on the road to 32 North, 104 East with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.
This was too easy, something has to go wrong. A bend in the road on the 2,500-meter pass between Maoxian and Beichuan, snow up to the wheelrims, a young Chinese fellow in a suit, waving crazily; What the hell is going on?
Public transport from Mianyang to Miaoxian has taken a bend at speed and come a cropper. Landsnakes! The four passengers, cower cold frightened and confused by the road side. The bus is stuck well and solid in a drift, front wheels spinning crazily. 200 metres below, lies the Min river, and cruel rocky buttresses and outcrops. Of more immediate relevance to the confluence hunters, the back of the coach has swung around and is blocking the road, What to do?!?!
A brief consultation with Mc Crae and Snow Joke. Technical stuff. "Put your big shoulder up against the back of that ye big lout and swing her back on the road." The Joke doesn't beat about the bush.
But wait, what's that, a human form lies prostrate under the back wheels?!? What is going on here? Is this an accident scene? Of course not, this is China! The driver, drunk no doubt, trying to jack the back of the coach up to make it more mobile, has gotten himself into a compromising situation. Eggs, useful as ever, is snapping away like a paparazzi with his new Cannon. The clock is ticking. It's one in the afternoon, and this bridge needs to be crossed, sharpish. A couple of one two one twos, what ever happened to three, wonders McCrae, in a philosophical mood and everything is okay again. Almost before the gap has opened The Joke is back in the Mitsubishi and has squeezed past, inches to spare. Good work men.
Now the hunt is on in earnest. Eggs and The Ambassador, cramped in the back have turned the GPS on. Thirty-six kilometres as the crow flies. But in this topography, four thousand metre ridges and steep gorges it could just as easily be another hundred. This is going to be tight. Flying down from the pass, the car picks up speed, and mud. The map is good if a little vague. At 1:500,000 these distances are hard to judge.
Towns fly past as roads improve, and the seasoned troubadour Snow Joke scents the whiff of longitude and latitude meridians crossing. Town names blur and intermingle. Finally its Jin Pian and only six kilometres to go. The possibility of marathon-hiking begins to fade, to the delight of at least some of those in the front seats. McCrae in the passenger seat is going mighty. He urges the Joke on, with whip-like directions and snake-like advice. "Drive ahead, I hate bloody walking". There is mounting excitement in the vehicle, but how close to the point can the car reach. After a whole day driving, surely the intersection point can't be slap bang on the road. " I hate bloody walking" McCrae is putting money on it, and is urging the chauffeur up ever more hairy, rocky and unroadlike looking trails. " That was a river we just crossed," Eggs snaps a fleeting shot out the window, on a high shutter speed. He's been shooting bridges all day, big, small, round and square, and is as surprised as anyone that the car makes it across the raging torrent. Earlier an old woman with a sow trudging Confucian-like over a bridge over some particularly troubled water felt like watching an old Chinese painting come to life. "The laobaixing (Chinese peasants) have it hard, but my god that's a fine looking sow." The Ambassador of Style knows China well, and is pleased to witness this lovely old scene.
Jia You (Come on Lads!)
Following the road westwards from Jin Pian, suddenly, its two kilometres, it's straight up a small valley to the south, narrow but passable, the daylight is holding out and it looks like things are in the bag. Stopping the car at the last house, in the last village on this last dirt track, McCrae, unusually animated can hardly squeeze out of the car fast enough. The car is left safely in the hands of old China, a grandson, father and grandpa trio, with barely a second thought; the trekking is finally on. Just one more kilometre and all along well-trodden paths. Leaping streams, walking rapidly due South, we are there in under half an hour.
Snow Joke directs the ceremony, photos are taken, it's just off the east side of the goat track in the trees, and it抯 a real old-time celebration. Firecrackers let off, Style almost loses an ear, as the gunpowder has been packed especially tightly it seems, and then bliss, heaven, Snickers bars all round.
A hasty retreat is made since it is now five o'clock and Chengdu is far away. No time to waste. Rather than going back over the pass, the loop back is via Beichuan,Jiangyou, and Mianyang. Darkness falls. Snow Joke drives carefully. Stories are recounted of previous confluences, and various road traffic accidents. Reality starts to bite as the city gets closer and Peter realises that all the car washes are closed and the car has about a whole ton of mud caked to it, never mind the structural damage. Misha Snow will be raging tomorrow morning. It can't be helped, back into the city and bowls of noodles all round.
"Da Fer" as the old lady says. The clock on the wall in the noodle shop reads 10.30 pm. It's been fifteen hours since departure, but the dou nai is sweet, the noodles melt in the mouth and the four of us are as pleased as punch.
Time: 4:58 PM, Feb 11, 2004
Elevation: 1526 meters
Accuracy: 5 meters
Peter Snow Joke's postscript:
This was actually my second attempt on this confluence. I attempted it last year using public transportation, but only got within eight kilometers before having to give it up due to lack of time to reach the point and return home in time for work the next day. Actually, as it was, I made it to work with only 10 minutes to spare. Using four different public buses I made it from Chengdu to Bai?? by 3:30 PM. The last bus driver told me there were no buses returning back down this dead-end road today and I would have to wait until the next day.
That wasn't going to fly with either my wife or my boss, so reluctantly I abandoned the hunt. I then had to find a ride back to the
"main" road. This was procured after a lot of hard bargaining with several motorcycle drivers. The motorcycle taxi took me to the T-intersection but would not go to Maoxian where I needed to be go in order to catch one of the many buses heading from Jiuzhaigou to Chengdu. His reason was that he had never been there before and didn't know the road. No amount of money could change his mind. I found it amazing. Here was a
"transportation professional" that had never been to the town just 50 kilometers to the west!
So I had to hunt for another motorcycle taxi. It was now about five p.m. and choices were few. In fact, there was only one guy, and he had been drinking
baijiu, a rice liquor that makes tequila seem mild by comparison. First comes the bargaining. I have no chips to play, but still put up a fight and finally get it down to a moderately reasonable level.
Off we go, sort of, on a 125 cc engine and start to climb over a 2,500-meter pass. Darkness falls quickly here, and the dirt and gravel road seems especially unpredictable. I keep reminding my inebriated driver to
"SLOW DOWN!" but with little effect. Fortunately. it is only a 125cc
motorcycle! About halfway up the hill, the driver goes to downshift and the gearshift level breaks off. Oh my! What to do? He says we can't go on without it, so first we find it, and then cruise back down the hill in search of a welding machine. Down, down, down, asking each house along the way. Finally after about six kilometers of coasting we get to the place several people said there was a welder. But, of course, he is not around. Some kids volunteer to get him. We have interrupted his eating and drinking and he seems to be barely able to do the work. I worry a bit about their breath igniting during the process. After much consolation and misaligning the gear lever, it finally gets tacked back on and we are off again.
We cross the pass and the valley below with Maoxian spreads out below. Arriving around 9 PM, I station myself in a brightly lit area where the local souvenir sellers are set up to snag the tourists on their way back to Chengdu. They relentlessly try to get me to buy something, and I tease them a bit between trying to flag down Chengdu-bound buses. After an hour and a half, I finally get a sleeper bus to stop and board thinking my troubles are over.
At midnight we make a stop in the middle of nowhere and park with several other buses. I ask what is going on. The driver informs me that they must stop for the night since the government closes the road between midnight and 6 AM in order to facilitate the construction of the Zipingpu Dam. Damn!
Fortunately, it is not too cold and the sleeper bus is moderately comfortable with seat/beds. However, it is a fitful sleep and I awake at every sound or movement during the night. Promptly at 6 AM, the driver starts out again and I think I will be back in Chengdu by 8 AM.
Once again, not quite.
Just outside Dujiangyan, the bus breaks a water pump. The driver assures me he will get it fixed soon, but then I view his paltry spare parts and as entertaining as watching bus repair can be, I decide to give it a miss.
Jumping off I soon find myself on a city bus becoming increasingly packed with every stop bringing commuters into Dujiangyan. Finally I extract myself from the sardine situation and head for a the long distance bus station by taxi. The Chengdu bus is leaving in 15 minutes. Back in Chengdu I transfer again to a local bus to my house arriving at 9:15 AM, exactly 24 hours after I left and returning empty handed. A quick shower, and hop on my bike and make it to work in time for my 10 AM start time. Talk about cutting it close.