Wed 31-Dec-2003, 1:15 p.m. - Outblaze, the company for which I work, graciously decided to let everybody leave early on New Year's Eve. My colleague Tony and I caught the M49 commuter bus from our office in Cyberport, which is on the south side of Hong Kong Island, to Central, on the north side. It was a gorgeous, sunny, and unseasonably warm winter's day--the perfect way to start a confluencing expedition.
1:45 p.m. - In Central, I checked my post box, but alas, there were no new issues of New Scientist waiting for me, so nothing for me to read on the trip.
From Central, we had the choice of a ferry across the harbour or an MTR train under the harbour. Tony chose the train, thus ensuring we'd later be able to say we'd travelled on all major modes of transport in a single afternoon: bus, train, boat and plane.
We emerged from the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station on the Kowloon Peninsular, and then walked the short distance to the China Ferry Terminal. After clearing Hong Kong customs, Tony stopped to buy his regulation carton of duty-free cancer sticks, lamenting the fact that they didn't have his preferred brand of death: super mild as opposed to mild.
Richard soon arrived, carrying the smallest bag of the three of us, even though he was planning to be away for more than three weeks, crossing into Vietnam and then flying on to Thailand at the conclusion of our four-day confluence trip in southern China.
2:30 p.m. - We boarded the ferry bound for Fuyong, the ferry terminal attached to the Shenzhen Airport. There was a myriad of immigration and SARS forms to fill out in preparation for customs on the Chinese side. Once this task was complete, we settled back for the comfortable, hour-long journey. Richard immersed himself in his novel Kindness of Women by G.J. Ballard, while Tony became fascinated by my Xinhua Zidian (Chinese character dictionary), hoping it might help him understand and keep up with his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who has already begun studying Chinese at school.
4 p.m. - We checked in an hour ahead of time for our Xiamen Air flight from Shenzhen to Nanning. Both Tony and Richard then wanted to exchange some Hong Kong currency for Chinese renminbi. Logic would dictate that this ought to be achievable at the currency exchange windows, however in China logic doesn't always prevail. The girl behind the window told us we'd have to go downstairs to the booth selling ferry tickets, and purchase our Chinese currency there. Sure enough, this was the case, and the exchange rate was not exorbitant, as good as anywhere else.
As we passed through the security checkpoint on the way to the departure lounge, a single stick of chewing gum in its foil wrapper in Richard's trousers pocket set the metal detector off, resulting in him being subjected to a thorough search, including having to remove his shoes. Tony then suffered a similar fate, however I managed to pass through without challenge.
From our vantage point in the departure lounge, we watched our Boeing 757 arrive and taxi into position in front of us. Once it had come to a standstill, Tony saw the lollypop man put his paddles into the basket of his bicycle, and then pedal off to meet the next plane.
5:25 p.m. - Our flight finally departed, 25 minutes behind schedule. It wasn't full, allowing us to spread ourselves throughout the cabin. I had a row of three seats to myself on the left side of the plane, which gave me a great view of the setting sun as we hurtled northwards down the runway to take off. It appeared as a huge, dull orange disc on the horizon, surrounded by the murky smog of a particularly bad air pollution day. Once airborne, we swung left and headed west into the sinking sun.
The in-flight meal was quite a pleasant surprise, a proper hot meal, equal in quality to what one would expect on any international flight, and a far cry from the "dried rope" we were once served on a different Chinese domestic airline. The crew did a great job, working very efficiently to get everyone served, and all the finished meal trays collected, before the end of the short flight.
6:40 p.m. - Our plane touched down in Nanning, the capital of the Guangxi Autonomous Region. Temperature on arrival was 17°C. I thought the English version of the trilingual announcements on board sounded like they'd been generated by a text-to-speech engine.
Nanning Airport is situated a fair way southwest of the city. We took the airport bus to the outskirts of town, where the helpful driver dropped us off and instructed us how to catch a no. 11 commuter bus to the large Jiangnan Bus Station. Unfortunately, we arrived just a little too late to make the last bus from Nanning to Shangsi that evening, so instead bought tickets on the 8 a.m. express bus the next morning, then went off in search of a place to stay for the night.
7:45 p.m. - We found a small, cheap, but very clean guesthouse half a block away from the Jiangnan Bus Station, checked in, deposited our luggage in the room, and then went out to explore our surroundings.
Tony had it in his mind that he wanted to dye his beard white. After several attempts, we finally found a hairdresser willing to give it a go, although Tony had to settle for a pale yellow colour called Rubio Medio Tabaco (medium tobacco blonde) because they didn't have any white colouring. The entire staff applied themselves to the task, like a team of surgeons performing a lobotomy. It was initially estimated that the entire operation would take an hour and twenty minutes, but it ended up taking well over two.
An expensive Australian concoction called Oxycream, containing 12% hydrogen peroxide, was employed, and Tony was warned not to open his mouth for the entire duration. The dye came with a warning on the packet: "May cause blingness" (sic). This basically gave the game away, and the head of the operating team, whom we'd nicknamed Spike, then admitted that it was actually a cheap, Shenzhen-made rip-off of the original Australian product.
The treatment was supposed to require four applications, but after only three, Tony could endure the pain and itching no more, and pleaded for the ordeal to end. The result was still quite astounding, although not exactly the white he was originally hoping for.
Thu 01-Jan-2004, 7 a.m. - New Year's Day. We awoke to the alarm, checked out of the guesthouse, and then went for some breakfast at a small open restaurant across the street from the bus station.
8 a.m. - We finished breakfast with little time to spare, then hurried across the street to try and find our bus in the huge bus station. An English-speaking hostess found us instead, and quickly shepherded us onto a luxurious, clean, spacious, long-distance coach, complete with on-board toilet. "This doesn't seem like China! What's going on?" exclaimed Tony. During the two-hour journey, which took us southwest through many fields of sugar cane, we were entertained to an un-dubbed Jackie Chan movie. (Foreign movies are normally dubbed into Chinese before being inflicted on the local populace.)
10 a.m. - We arrived in Shangsi, 17 km north of the confluence, then took a three-wheeler across town to the departure point for minivans going to the local tourist attraction known as Shiwan Dashan ("100,000 Big Mountains"). Conveniently, the route went right by the confluence, so no one though it was strange that three foreigners would want to catch one of these minivans, and we were spared all the usual questioning.
The driver was quite surprised though, when, with our eyes glued to our GPSes, we suddenly ordered him to stop, not even halfway to Shiwan Dashan, and we all piled out. Just as predicted, based on the excellent, 10-metre resolution, black-and-white satellite image downloaded from the NIMA website, the confluence was only 215 metres due east of the road.
We made our way past a roadside beekeeping operation, consisting of about 100 hives, into the fields of sugar cane. A team of peasants was hard at work harvesting the cane just a few dozen metres short of the confluence. The confluence itself was located in a very narrow gap between two fields of the tall cane. Photos taken from the spot facing north, south, east and west show nothing much but cane, cane, and more cane.
After documenting the confluence, we went back and talked to the peasants doing the harvesting. One of them adeptly sliced the bark from a stick of cane and gave it to us to try. It was sweet, as you would expect. The method of consumption was to rip off a mouth-sized chunk with one's teeth, chew it until all the sweet juice was extracted, spit out the pithy remains, then repeat.
We went back to the road to wait for a minivan heading back to Shangsi. Quite a number went by, but they were all stuffed to capacity. We had a long wait, during which time we were entertained by the antics of some young local children playing.
11:50 a.m. - At long last, a minivan that had room for us finally came along. The driver drove like a maniac however. He went way too fast, and behaved as if he were the only vehicle on the road--"oncoming traffic" was not in his vocabulary. We were most relieved when we eventually disembarked, shaken but safe, back in Shangsi.
Story continues with 22°N 109°E.