23-Jul-2008 -- Story continues from 37°N 118°E.
Back on the main street of Tiánzhuāng, we catch a passing bus heading north. The driver and ticket seller assure us that, wherever it is going, we will be able to get a bus from there further north to Bīnzhōu City (滨州市), the capital of the neighbouring municipality. Our destination turns out to be Huántái County (桓台县), also known as Suǒzhèn (索镇), and we are indeed able to buy tickets to Bīnzhōu at the Huántái bus station, but only after waiting for Windows to boot up on the ticket seller's PC.
We need wait only a few minutes more before a Bīnzhōu bus arrives, and we're on our way again. We are doubly pleased when the bus enters the freeway, rather than trawling the secondary roads for passengers, and visiting every bus station along the route, as is so often the case. We arrive in Bīnzhōu before dark, and check into an okay hotel near the bus station.
The complimentary breakfast starts at 6:30 a.m., so we get up early the next morning, and by 7:40 a.m. are already on a bus NW to Wúdì County (无棣县). It's a dry morning, and we are hoping it will stay that way, because according to Ray Yip's previous visit report, this confluence doesn't look like it's going to be easy.
In Wúdì, we get the bad news that there is only one bus daily NE to Dōngfēnggǎng Village (东风港村), and worse still, it doesn't leave until the afternoon. Our only hope is to get on a bus to Gāotián (高田), which will at least take us a good deal of the way. We figure we might be able to rent a minivan there by the hour, visit the confluence, then get back to Gāotián in time to catch the last bus back to Wúdì, at 5 p.m.
Meanwhile, as I've been writing this, our bus has done a full circuit of Wúdì, trawling for passengers, and is now parked back at the bus station where we originally started! At 9:30 a.m., we leave for the second time, and once again commence the customary, infuriatingly slow, crawl. It's 10 a.m. before we are truly on our way.
At 11:20 a.m., we arrive in Gāotián, 11.7 km west of the confluence. The bus driver helps us hire a minivan. For a return trip, including waiting time, the driver quotes us a very reasonable 50 yuan (US$ 7.30), so we accept, and off we go. We travel east, down a very good, straight, sealed road, past several chicken batteries, many salt works, and a solitary oil well, until the confluence is 2 km due south of us. Another 750 m down the road, we come to a turnoff to the south, which we take.
We enter a maze of tracks running along the narrow mud embankments separating hundreds of large prawn farming ponds. These tracks would be totally impassable in the wet, but fortunately for us, the day has remained dry, and the ground is firm. We are also quite lucky to have a driver who is a good sport, not afraid to try a little off-road adventure.
It's necessary to do a bit of zigzagging in order to make progress towards our goal. Eventually we reach a point 325 m due north of the confluence, from where it's impossible to drive any closer, so we stop and get out of the minivan.
Blocking our way is a long canal, with steep, slippery, muddy banks, populated with thousands of crabs that disappear down their holes as soon as we approach. If there's an easy way across this canal, it must be very far away, because we can't see it. And now that we're so close to our goal, we don't fancy driving several kilometres back through the maze looking for it.
We debate the best plan of attack. I decide to shed all my clothes down to my underpants, and put the camera and GPS into a plastic bag for safety, in case I should slip and fall in the water. Then I tackle the hazardous canal crossing. The mud at the bottom of the V-shaped canal is extremely squishy, and I sink more deeply than I expect into the slippery mud, but I manage to make it across without getting my underpants wet. Ah Feng is not quite so lucky, but nevertheless, she gets across too.
Once on the other side, we easily reach the edge of the prawn pond in which the confluence is located. Although ever mindful of the fact that the Degree Confluence Project is not a competition, I simply can't resist the temptation to outdo Ray's 28 m distance from the point. So, after testing the waters first without the camera, I tentatively re-enter the pond holding the camera and GPS, doing everything in my power to avoid falling over, as my feet sink deeper and deeper into the soft, muddy bottom. It becomes harder and harder to pull them out again with each step I take.
At 23 m distance, I decide it's far enough, and after snapping the GPS, carefully turn around and make my way back to the bank, from where I take the photos looking north, south, east and west. I kick myself for not having the foresight to bring along a plastic washbasin, as Ray did when he visited 19°N 109°E. Then I could have put the camera and GPS safely in the floating washbasin, while I walked/swam out to the point to get all the zeroes. Oh well, this task now falls on the next visitor.
We safely negotiate the canal crossing once more, and return to the minivan, where our driver waits patiently as we wash the mud off our legs and feet at a nearby sluicegate. He then drives us back to Gāotián in time for us to catch the same bus back to Wúdì.
This is the 33rd and last confluence on our list comprising all the land-based confluences of Hénán (河南省) and Shāndōng (山东省), and we've managed to successfully visit every one of them in a total of just 26 days, considerably less time than we had anticipated. So we are now heading off to our country residence in the Guǎngxī (广西) countryside for some well-deserved R&R, before returning to work in Hong Kong in 12 days' time.