11-May-2003 -- Continued from 30°N 111°E.
Friday 9 May 2003 (Day 18, continued) - The bus ride south from Taiping back to Shimen was fairly uneventful, save for a large mob of schoolchildren who all wanted--but most were too timid--to try out their English on the foreigner. They all disembarked fairly early into the four-hour journey, leaving me in peace to contemplate the heavy downpour outside. It was not only wet, it was considerably colder than it had been.
The following bus ride, from Shimen back to Changde, went smoothly, taking just two and a half hours, and by the end, the rain had stopped. My next bus was not until 12:30 p.m. the following day--the one and only daily bus to Niuchehe--so I checked into the relatively plush Huadu Hotel, where I enjoyed a big dinner in the hotel restaurant, availed myself of the hotel hairdresser, and submitted some clothes to the hotel laundry, with explicit instructions that they be returned by 11 the next morning.
Oh yes, and I had my first hot shower since Huaihua, three and a half days and two confluences before.
Saturday 10 May 2003 (Day 19) - Breakfast was included in the hotel tariff, and I was in no hurry, so I gorged myself. My laundry came back well ahead of time. Everything was going fine except for the weather--raining again.
At 11 a.m. I took advantage of a break in the rain to check out of the hotel and make my way to the Changde North Bus Station, where I made sure I secured a good seat on the Niuchehe bus. The driver, ticket seller, and several other passengers were already on board, and I got the normal barrage of inquisitive questions. However, my usual glib answer to "Why are you going there?"--"To roam around in the hills", apparently struck a discordant note, because the driver, ticket seller, and an elderly male passenger then made it their own personal vendetta to ensure that nothing of the sort would ever happen. In their efforts to dissuade me, they told me stories of venomous snakes, and kept saying that they were only concerned for my own safety.
They didn't let up for the entire trip, which lasted until 4 p.m., and even after we arrived, I was held a virtual prisoner by the three, who insisted I check into the guesthouse of their choosing (at the same time enlisting the proprietor--obviously a close friend--into their conspiracy), then escorting me to the police station to register, where they fully intended to coerce the police into instructing me that all hill-roaming was strictly forbidden. What saved the day for me was that the police station was totally deserted. After hanging around waiting for a good while, they all eventually gave up, presumably with better things to do with their time.
It was much too late to mount any sort of a confluence attempt before nightfall, so I strolled around town for a while, taking a few photos. The town of Niuchehe, meaning "Ox Cart River", is dominated by the river, which flows right through the middle of it, making it quite picturesque. After a while, I started wandering down a road in the general direction of the confluence, getting considerably further than I'd planned after managing to hitch a ride in a passing truck, which was the only vehicle I saw on the road all evening. This allowed me to conduct some valuable reconnaissance, and I was able to identify exactly where I would need to leave the road the next day, 3.5 kilometres due north of the confluence. I marked a waypoint for it in my GPS.
I got back to the guesthouse at 7 p.m., whereupon the proprietor immediately whisked me off to the police station on the back of his motorbike. This time there was someone in attendance, an affable young officer, who was obviously quite thrilled to be registering his first foreigner. Thankfully, the three main no-roaming protagonists, led by the bus driver, were nowhere to be seen, and the guesthouse proprietor seemed rather disinclined to promote their cause in their absence.
Registration took an extraordinarily long time, because the police officer really enjoyed chatting. Soon, a huge crowd of curious children had gathered to witness proceedings. They kept grabbing my passport and ID card off the desk, only to be told by the young officer, in as stern a voice as he could muster, to kindly put them back please.
Some of the children spoke a few words of English, and even managed to string some basic sentences together. But what really impressed me--and intrigued me--was their flawless pronunciation. It wasn't long before I understood the reason why. Their very cute English teacher arrived on the scene, and she spoke absolutely fluent English.
The young police officer, rather than being annoyed at having his office taken over by a swarm of children and other assorted onlookers, was, on the contrary, ecstatic to be hosting such a spectacle. He couldn't stop smiling, especially when the cute schoolteacher and I started chatting away in English.
At one stage the police officer asked me about my job, and when I said that I worked with computers, he then proceeded to lead the entire congregation into the next room, where he proudly displayed the police computer, connected to the Internet via a dial-up modem. I was compelled to sit down in front of it and give a demonstration of surfing the 'net. At the same time, I took the opportunity to check my personal e-mail, which I'd been unable to do for a number of days, on account of all the Internet bars being closed for SARS.
It was becoming evident that this interlude at the police station would go on forever if I didn't take the initiative to wrap things up. So I tactfully announced that I was kind of hungry, and hadn't yet had dinner (which was true), whereupon I was reluctantly, but respectfully, allowed to bid my farewells. There had been no mention of venomous snakes, hill-roaming, nor any forbidden activities, so everything seemed to be okay.
Sunday 11 May 2003 (Day 20) - I knew that two of my chief antagonists, the bus driver and ticket seller, were scheduled to depart at 6:10 a.m., taking their bus back to Changde. Although I woke shortly before 6 a.m., I remained safely in my room until I was sure they were well and truly gone, the sound of the bus engine and tooting of the horn having faded far into the distance. Only then did I venture downstairs.
The next trick was to make my escape from any designs the guesthouse proprietor might have had on curtailing my activities. I encountered his wife downstairs, cooking up breakfast, and I asked if she had any steamed buns. When she answered no, I told her I was just popping out to get some from a shop nearby. That was the last she or anyone else saw of me until much much later in the day.
The weather was being kind for a change, with no rain, and thankfully none looked likely. I walked the four kilometres from Niuchehe southeast down the road to the turn-off I'd identified the day before, then followed a path south along the west bank of the Dafuxi river, until I reached a river confluence, where the Dafuxi flows into the Niuchehe. I was now 2.25 kilometres due north of the degree confluence, but I was stuck, with no way across either river to continue my journey southwards.
It was necessary to retrace my steps some distance back to a bridge across the Dafuxi, then proceed along the east bank instead. I reached the river confluence again, and this time was able to continue south, now following the east bank of the Niuchehe.
Progress was easy until I reached a small village. After this, the path had long since become disused, and there were only traces of it left. For the most part, it had either been completely overgrown, or totally washed away. Nevertheless, it was the direction I needed to go, so I forced my way along. One fairly long stretch, where the riverbank was quite steep, was particularly difficult--made even more so by recent flooding. It took me about an hour to advance no more than a kilometre.
Eventually I emerged at another small village, where I passed a peasant planting rice the old-fashioned, backbreaking way, by bending down and firmly placing each young seedling into the mud by hand. In many parts of China, this method of planting rice has now been superseded by the new "point and shoot" method, where one stands upright and fires the seedlings into the mud one-by-one, just like throwing darts.
Continuing south along the river got me to one kilometre west of the confluence, whereupon I found a likely-looking path heading inland. The terrain was fairly hilly, but there was no shortage of paths to follow. After taking a few wrong turns, I eventually found my way down a path into a heavily wooded valley, where I came upon a tiny village beautifully nestled amongst the trees. Making my way through the village and up a small cultivated valley, I got to approximately 40 metres northwest of the confluence. The confluence itself was on a precipitous, well-vegetated slope, which was impossible to climb.
I went back to the village, then found a trail up into the hillside. By following this trail, then an even smaller one, and eventually by scrambling amongst the damp, decaying undergrowth of the steep, slippery slope, I was able to get a GPS reading that was somewhat closer to the confluence. But in the end, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that getting an exact reading for this one was simply out of the question.
I tried taking photos from the point of my closest reading, but these were spectacularly unimpressive, on account of being completely surrounded by trees. So instead I've chosen to include the north-south-east-west photos taken from the point in the valley that I'd reached earlier, some 40 metres northwest of the confluence. The photo facing south clearly illustrates the dense vegetation on the hillside.
Returning to the village a third time, I stopped to talk to one of the inhabitants, and to take a few photos. I've made four of these into a montage, all showing different views of the same farmhouse. There were many different species of birds around, some very beautiful indeed, although I unfortunately did not succeed in getting any photos of them.
The rain stayed away the entire day, and was shining brightly when finally I got back to the town of Niuchehe at about 3 p.m., having covered close to 30 kilometres on foot. There were no more buses out of Niuchehe that day, so I went back to the guesthouse to shower, change, eat, and relax.
Story continues at 29°N 110°E.