14-Feb-2002 -- This story continues from
THURSDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2002. The first bus from Xiaozhen to Xinfeng left at 7 a.m., and I was on it. So were boxes and boxes of mushrooms, piled to the ceiling! There was barely any room left for people to sit. This 7 a.m. bus obviously served as the daily "mushroom run," on which all the local mushroom farmers took their produce to market.
I left Xinfeng on the 8:20 a.m. bus to Shaoguan, arriving there at 11:30 a.m. Shaoguan is a huge city of over three million people. For most of us, a city of this size in our home country would be one that we would have most certainly heard of. But in China, there are hundreds of such cities, and very few people indeed -- including the Chinese themselves -- would have ever heard of them all, let alone be able to recite their names. And so it always amazes me when I visit one of these metropolises for the first time, see it teeming and bustling with people going about their busy lives, and realise I'd never even heard of this place until I saw it on the map a short while earlier, a mere stepping stone on the way to a confluence.
Within 20 minutes of arriving at one of the several bus stations in Shaoguan -- this particular one next door to the railway station -- I was on a bus out of Shaoguan again, heading towards the town of Jiangkou. I arrived in Jiangkou at 12:30 p.m., and immediately noticed a very nice, clean and modern-looking hotel restaurant, conveniently located right on the main road, only a stone's throw from where the bus had dropped me. It being lunchtime, I decided to give it my patronage.
The food was nothing to write home about. However, just after my meal had been served, a private mini-van, chock full of people, all apparently belonging to the same extended family, pulled up outside the restaurant, and disgorged its human cargo into the restaurant. Shortly thereafter, a quiet but well-spoken young lady detached herself from the throng of relations, and came over to talk with me. (In hindsight, it seems kind of apt that such an event should have taken place on Valentine's Day.)
Her English was extremely good, and she engaged me in some very intelligent conversation. I learned that she was a structural engineering student from the provincial capital of Guangzhou, her Chinese name was Jiang Cuiwen, and that she had chosen for herself the rather unbefitting English name of Man! She also confided in me that her parents had "forced" her to speak with the foreigner. Nonetheless, I'm glad they did, because she was very pleasant company for the remainder of my meal. When I explained what I was up to in these parts, she became genuinely very interested. Had it been a viable option, I think she would have abandoned the relatives there and then to join me in the afternoon's quest. Instead, we exchanged e-mail addresses, and I promised I would let her know the next time I was planning a confluencing trip.
Before I left, Man's mother came over and used my camera to ensure the moment was recorded for posterity (picture #2). In the photo, note the TV monitor behind my head, part of the ubiquitous karaoke paraphernalia that all good Chinese restaurants worth their salt simply can't be without.
I was able to leave my backpack at the restaurant while I went off in search of the confluence, which was some two kilometres away, on the other side of a very wide river. Fortunately, the town of Jiangkou, so close to the confluence, sported the only bridge over the river for a very long way in either direction. At least, that's what the map indicated. But, despite my map being a couple of years old, it was apparently somewhat ahead of its time when it came to this particular bridge, construction of which had not yet been completed! The only way over the river was to pay a local entrepreneur a small fee to cross in his boat (picture #3).
Once across, I was soon confronted by a choice of two valleys, both heading in the general direction of the confluence. For the benefit of any subsequent visitor to this confluence, take the valley on the left. I took the one on the right. The end of the right-hand valley is truly a dead end. I was only 300 metres from the confluence, but I could simply find no way to penetrate the thick scrub on the hillsides. I explored several likely looking spots, all to no avail, and all to the great amusement of a peasant farmer, who had assured me that there was absolutely no way through, even though I steadfastly refused to believe him. After he had been observing my futile attempts for about 45 minutes, I had nowhere else to go but back down the path from whence I'd come, and past where he had been sitting all this time, enjoying the show. It was humiliating.
But he turned out to be a nice guy after all. As I began the very long trek back to where I'd chosen to go up the wrong valley, he took pity on me, and indicated where there might be a way over the hills. I asked him if he'd be my guide, and I guess he had nothing better to do (the afternoon's entertainment had just concluded), so he agreed to take me across.
Well, I myself certainly wouldn't have classified it as a way across, but with him in the lead, crawling and burrowing under the thick canopy of vegetation, and pushing aside some (but not all) of the inevitable thorn branches, we ever so slowly made our way over 300 metres of rolling hills to the confluence. That's an awfully long way on your hands and knees, with your body forever entwined in branches and vines! I can testify to the fact that a leather jacket, gloves, and a pair of sunglasses serve not only as defences against the cold and sun, but also against getting scratched to death and having your eyes poked out.
When we reached the general vicinity of the confluence, there was simply no question of moving to and fro to get a perfect reading on the GPS. Any movement at all was an extremely hard slog. The photos facing south and east (pictures #5 and #6) show the view under the canopy; I managed to hold the camera high enough above the canopy to take the photos facing north and west (pictures #1 and #7). In picture #7, you can just make out a dirt road that runs all the way up the valley that I should have come up, but unfortunately didn't. That road would have taken me to within a few dozen metres of the confluence with virtually no effort at all. Picture #4 was taken from that road, looking back at where we had been ensconced in the hillside vegetation at the site of the confluence.
I walked back to Jiangkou, took the boat across the river again, collected my backpack from the restaurant, then flagged down a passing bus to take me back to Shaoguan. I was in dire need of some R&R, and decided that, upon arrival in Shaoguan, I was going to find the best hotel in town, and stay there for the night--hang the expense! I ended up in a presidential suite in the President Resort hotel, a room featuring its own private jaccuzzi, sauna, the works! My clothes were filthy, and my hair, shoes, pockets -- everything -- was filled with twigs and leaves! I emptied half the forest out on the hallowed carpet of the presidential suite as I undressed. After a shower and sauna in my room, followed by a wash and blow-dry at the hotel hairdresser, I was at last beginning to feel human again. I had a fantastic late evening dim sum dinner at one of the hotel's fine Chinese restaurants, and I would have tried out the hotel's foot massage salon too, had it not already been fully booked out.
All this luxury was marvellous, but I began to feel myself becoming distracted from my ultimate goal of 12 confluences in eight days. So, with eight successfully under my belt, my thoughts now turned to how to tackle the ninth, at 25°N 113°E.