01-May-2002 -- This is one of those confluences that is truly "way out there". I don't think there will be any second visits to this confluence in a few centuries. But for anyone who's willing to try, you're in for a fantastic experience. Although it was my most difficult completed confluence, I had the greatest adventure finding this one.
So here I was on a rickety sleeper bus plying a route seldom seen by outsiders, consisting of tiny, meandering and more often than not, unpaved roads. Imaginative Traveller, a British-based adventure tour operator had sent me on a mission to investigate southern Yunnan for the potential of running future tours. More of a quest, I had to explore backroads near the Burmese border to find out if a route could be taken between Ruili, at the Burma road crossing, and Jinghong, the favorite minority trekking capitol of tropical China. Along this route my detailed map presented me a confluence point in the middle of a big white space with few other features, including roads.
The sleeper bus had broken down the day before. We had already traveled about 12 hours on this animal-cage of a bus, and we had more hours to go on the morning of our unscheduled, "day 2". Although all of the passengers (all Chinese or local minorities) were traveling individually, we had all bonded by the time I stepped off into the seedy little village of Meng Ban at 11 AM, April 30th. Although I was separated from the point by a whopping 7.5 km of mountains, Meng Ban was what I though might be a good starting place.
Everything was dirty in Meng Ban, a village of obvious poor economic standing. People threw their watermelon rinds in the street and flies were all over the place as a result of it. An eager speed-demon of a teenage boy took me out on his motorcycle down the main road so that I could figure out how to make an approach into the mountains. I got within 6 km but we didn't find a single road. Without any clue of what to do next, it was time to go back to the drawing board.
If you look closely at this map's conspicuous 'white area', you notice that there are two small villages, translated to me as Mang Gong and Da Zhan which might also be close to the point's uncertain exact location. It was, however, um, a bit unsettling that there were no roads leading to these towns! I was told by what seemed to be the village elders of Meng Ban that I must first go to a medium-sized town called Zhen Kang to get to Mang Gong, but the audience that had gathered around the map had confirmed that there were very few people who even knew of Mang Gong.
Without further ado I hopped on a 5 person microbus to Zhen Kang, and then something happened which turned out to be an extraordinary coincidence. At this point I should mention that people on the route between Ruili and Jinghong would often say things like, "I remember there was a foreigner here back in 1999 - I think he was Swedish". On the entire route I didn't see a non-Chinese person for more than 2 weeks. It's also worth mentioning that Mang Gong of all places was unknown even to policemen of Zhen Kang, the closest town to it by road - and this was no language problem as I later found out.
The coincidence was that when I mentioned Mang Gong on the bus to primarily blank stares, there was one woman in the back who was actually going to Mang Gong - and she was absolutely amazed that I also wanted to go there.
Finding an escort to this village of unknown access was fantastic news but with all this fussing around the day was getting old. There were hotels to stay in in Zhen Kang, but god knows what was up in this isolated village of Mang Gong. Knowing that it would be nearing dusk when I reached Mang Gong, I asked the woman if there was a place to stay and food to eat. She seemed to understand my Mandarin, but I understood very little of what she was saying in her local dialect. She laughed and said something which didn't sound like 'yes' but there seemed to be little resistance to my plans.
After arriving in Zhen Kang about an hour later I followed her lead by waiting around on a busy street side before jumping in the back of a dusty, canvas-roofed work truck filled with children and a group of loud, drunk men. As we drove off down cobbled narrow roads a driving tropical downpour doused the truck and soaked through parts of the canvas. I wanted to use my GPS to see how close we were getting to the point but the crowd was too big and the rain was too strong to poke out from the canvas roof.
About 45 minutes later we extracted ourselves from the over-packed flat-bed. It was still raining but not as hard. I was pleased that my GPS indicated 5km from the point, albeit it's a long distance to negotiate through the mountains. There was an bleak shack with a small store, but as I looked around for places to stay, I noticed the woman signaling me to walk up a muddy road into the mountains. But we kept on going. Eventually we left the road and walked up steep squishy mud paths with streams of rain runoff. I had my full pack on so it was a lot of work, but I hadn't expected such a hike. As we went up we picked up more and more of her friends who had been working in the terraces and fields. Pleasantly, our hike up was all in the direction of the confluence point.
Through most of the hike there was nothing but tropical shrub bushes and farmland. After an hour and a half of hiking, I figured we were heading up to someone's remote farmhouse. Suddenly we turned a corner and there was a beautiful village of about 100 traditional farming houses tucked away on a steep slope in the fold of the mountain. This, one man signaled to me, was Mang Gong!
Everyone felt good to reach the pleasant village they called home. But what was I to do now, alone in this remote village. I was excited to find that my GPS now read 3.8 km from the point, but it was now about 5 in the afternoon and it was too late to make an attempt.
A man I had befriended on the hike (because he and I walked faster than the rest of the group) directed me to his farmhouse. It was a simple place with mud walls and chickens and pigs walking all over the place. He fed me dinner and we drank rice liquor as a very muddy dusk fell upon us. My conversations with him were more successful than with the woman though they were still skewed to one-side with him understanding my Mandarin, but my understanding less of his conversation. My apprehensions about finding a place to sleep were laid to rest when he showed me to my bed.
In stunning contrast the next morning was bright and beautiful. We ate some spicy, pickley things for breakfast, while we looked over a sea of clouds. With such weather and a 3.8 km distance pointing toward the local highest peak, I was eager to head out. I gave them a little money for helping out and then I was off at about 9AM, leaving my big pack at the farmhouse.
I knew that 4 km would place the point somewhere on the other side of the mountains. I just had to figure out how to get up the mountains, and it was not easy. I found a few small trails but it was mainly climbing up through very steep farmland and terraced crops. Finally some farmers directed me to a trail which led to another small village they called 'Da Shan Tu'. Could that have been the other small village in the 'white space', referred to as 'Da Zhan'? Upon arrival at this high mountain village, the people there just stared at me and looked scared. I was now a little under 2 km from the point.
I took a trail which meandered, and little by little got closer to the point. On my hike I saw stands of tropical rain forest, but I also saw singed areas which had been recently burned down. All of the farmland around had probably originally been tropical forest and most of it was on steep slopes from which topsoil could easily be eroded. Other noteworthy things I saw were a bright yellow and black butterfly that was the size of a bat, a skunk/badger-like black and white animal trying to get into some of the crops, a bunch of huge flying beetles and a sticker bush with what looked like yellow raspberries (I had seen the berries before in local markets).
Finally I had to go off the trail and up a mountain. Alas, I had a view down the other side, and the GPS now said the point was only 800 m away, placing it in some farmland just 200 m to the side of a small village. It was on a small slope between plots and next to a large, full-canopied lone tree. I descended and documented the point at about 1PM, it haven taken me 4 hours to get here.
I went to the adjacent village and met some friendly people (however one old man just wanted me to go away!). I found out that the village was called Pin Zhan Jie. Some of these friendly people took me in and fed me lunch which consisted of huge cubes of fried fat. They told me their village was accessible by a 2-3 hour hike on a trail from Meng Ban. I hadn't seen that trail from the Meng Ban side, but it would have made reaching the point easier.
I explained the confluence project to a teenage boy who was going to school. He was proud that his village was near 24N99E and he said he would tell the village elder to mark the site as a source of pride for the village.
On the way back to Mang Gong I found a much more direct trail (as often seems to be the case in confluence hunting). It was almost all downhill and only took me about 1 hour. To get back to Zhen Kang I rode on the back of a truck carrying freshly cut tree logs, another sign of the disappearing forests.