02-Oct-2005 -- Longchi, Ebian, Sichuan
Every once in a while, a trip is necessary to restore one's perspective on life. That time had arrived for me. Nothing is more satisfying than a cycling and confluence hunting trip. And this being the China National Day holiday week, I decided to head south, away from the tourist destinations that most people would be going to. I set my sights on 29N 103E near Xihe in Ebian county, Leshan City, Sichuan province.
This trip was very spur of the moment, waking up a 11:30 am on Saturday, October 1, and telling my wife I wanted to go on a trip, starting today. With our daughter having just returned from the U.S., she was amenable to the idea. The trip was a longing that had been building for quite some time. My work is to organize bike trips for foreigners to explore China, but the last few years, I rarely get a chance to do much traveling myself, The responsibilities of work and family pretty much tie me down. It can be frustrating; my good friend
Targ Parsons went confluence hunting in eastern China the entire month of August snagging an unprecedented
24 confluences in a month, but I couldn't get away to travel with him for even a short time.
Throwing the bare essentials in my panniers and running a few errands before leaving, I went to the Xinnanmen bus station. It being the first day of the national day holiday, it was a madhouse, as I expected. The ticket lines were quite ling and many people were coming away without tickets as they had already been sold out. While waiting, a bus station manager came up to me and told me I couldn't have my bike in the station. I told him that my bike was part of my luggage and that as soon as I got my ticket, I was going to put it on the bus. I feared the worst was in store for me. I asked for a bus to Ebian, but there were no more tickets for today, so I asked for Emei Shan, and was surprised to get one. The ticket seller said the ticket had no time, just go to the gate and wait.
Inside the bus station, it was wall-to-wall people forming lines to various destinations. I prayed that I would not have to join any of those lines. I went to the ticket gate and was allowed into the bus area. Here again, was a sea of people waiting for a place on a bus yet to arrive. I was fortunate as there was a bus just starting to fill to Emei. The conductress said my bike wouldn't fit under the bus, but hen I showed her a magic trick with my bike: a detachable front wheel and collapsible seat post, and all was hunky dory.
When in China, it doesn't take long to escape the comforts of the city. A two-hour bus ride to Emei Shan town, and then two hours of cycling put me in the small town (by Chinese standards) of Longchi (Dragon Pool), population 50,000. So here I am after a 30 km of cycling, in the shadow of Emei Mountain, the 3,099 meter holy Buddhist mountain, staying in a luguan, listening to the dogs barking, motorcycles cruising by, and karoke blaring. I feel that I have gotten away from the routine of my life in Chengdu for a short while.
The luguan is spartan but clean. I had little choice as the light grew dim, and the rain filled clouds insured it was going to be a coal black night. A few kilometers outside of Longchi, with darkness closing in, I flagged down a bus to take me the rest of the way. The bike and I were such a novelty that the bus driver refused payment for the ride. The conductress, took pity on me and gave up her seat and offered me ripe persimmons. And when arrived in Longchi, she also showed me the way to the hotel.
Hotel is a very loose term. I stayed in what is called a traveler's hotel, and they can range from fairly nice to barely acceptable. The options in Longchi were more towards the latter category. I knew I would have slim pickings when the conductress told me the options ranges from 5 -10 RMB. But the first place she took me to had a 20 RMB room complete with a TV and mirror. And the bed sheets looked clean (this was really my only requirement).
Longchi is close to Ebian, which is a Yi Minority group area. My wife, Xiaorong, also said there is a large prison here, so she warned me not to pick up any hitchhikers while cycling through there. More than half the people on the bus appeared to be Yi. Their facial features are much more chiseled than the round-faced Han. The Yi have their own language and writing system very different from Chinese. Yi is one of the languages most at risk of dying out and very little has been done to document it.
After getting settled into the hotel, the manager took me to a place where I could get some dinner. This was a typical small town restaurant with no door or windows, just wide open front where the cooking is done. The waitress asked me what I want to eat and being vegetarian, I explained, but as always, there was a bit of disbelief. Most Chinese find being vegetarian as unfathomable as saying you don't breathe air.
Order aside, I found an empty table, and was immediately the center of attention by all the patrons. I was invited to join two different groups who had clearly drank more than they ate. I politely declined and sat at me own table. Then the staring began; one guy in particular just couldn't take his eyes off me. Staring back had no effect, since the people in these parts have no concept that staring is considered rude. After years of experience, I have managed to accept it as merely a child-like curiosity and pretend to ignore it. The place was so radical from what we have now in the city, that it was quite a shock, even for me.
My plan was to get an early start and cycle to Ebian, then get a bus to Xihezhen, the town closest to the confluence point. From one of my maps there appears to be a trail along a river leading in the direction of the confluence point (CP). This hunt promised to be rather challenging as the CP is about 8 km from the nearest road.
I set my alarm for 6:30 AM anticipating an early start, but with all the noise going past my window, it was a fitful sleep. At 7:30 AM I rolled out of the luguan. Just down the street in Longchi was a shop doing a brisk business in youtiao, one of my favorite Chinese breakfast foods since the time I first came to China when
Rainer Mautz and I cycled from Macao to Lijiang in 1990. It is a two-piece fried bread stick that comes apart and is typically served with hot soybean milk sweetened with sugar. Uncharacteristically, I had only one.
Also before leaving town I stopped in the largest shop in town to buy some TP, a toothbrush and peanuts. The total was 6 RMB, but I only had a 100 RMB note (worth about US$12). This just about cleaned the shop out of change. I got the 94 RMB in change in two 10's 14 fives and 4 ones.
The road was quiet, which was nice. The weather was cool and overcast, but no rain. Low clouds covered the sky, and the mountains were especially clear in the early morning. There were still no buses since the road repair had closed the road to through traffic, but bicycles, as usual, were excepted.
The road was hilly with several five-kilometer climbs and descents, but the surface was in good shape most of the way. A wet road surface, from the previous night's rain resulted in a fine spray of mud over my feet and legs. I opted to continue to wear Teva sandals since they are much easier to clean than conventional shoes.
About 10 km before getting to Ebian the road was covered in a thin layer of mud as part of the road reconstruction project. This thickened the layer of mud on me and the bike several fold. Several km later, I came upon two Chinese guys on bikes, and one sporting a bright cycling jersey. On spotting me, they immediately stopped and we traded cycling info and took a few photos. They were about 50 or so and one was an unlikely looking cyclist, dressed more like he was going to attend a business meeting. Their shoes and pants were very clean as opposed to me, so it appeared like they had just started out. In fact they had! They had started from Ebian and said they intended to cycle to Chengdu .
Along the way, people I meet kept telling me that foreigners could not enter Jinkouhe. I had known that from several years ago when
Bike China Adventures had a tour through this area, and they were forced to take the train around Jinkouhe. Fortunately, I was not going that way.
Ebain was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Set on the Dadu Rive, one of the major tributaries of the Yangtze, Ebian is riddled with channels leading to the Dadu with streets crisscrossing the streams. I was looking for the bus station, which in the maze of streets, proved harder than usual. After resorting to asking the police, they lead me there on their motorcycle. The ticket agent said there were no buses south on account of the road reconstruction, but maybe tomorrow there would be one.
Fortunately I had my bike, or I would have never gotten started on this trip. The way out of town was a along a tributary to the Dadu and was very pleasant cycling. About every few kilometers there was a gate blocking traffic, but as an inconsequential cyclist, I was allowed to pass. At one road block the guards were reluctant to let me go on, saying that I should wait until noon and to take a rest in Ebian in the meantime. I pleaded for a while and they finally relented. The road reconstruction was in various stages of completion, but finally I reached the nexus where the bituminous paving machines were in operation having to walk the bike along the edge for a 100 meters.
Continuing on along the river for 60 km I came to Xihe, the town closest to the 29N 103E confluence point. In order to do some reconnaissance, I headed south of town where the map indicated there was a river and a trail heading toward the CP. Upon arriving at the bridge crossing the river leading to the CP, the GPS indicated the CP was 7.39 km to the west and appeared to be on the south side of the river. On the north side was a road that lead to Heizhugou (Black Bamboo Valley) 17 km away, while on the south side there was a locked gate to a hydro power station. I went up to the gate and asked to be allowed to pass. The guards were inquisitive and reluctant to let me pass. I told them I wanted to see the beautiful landscape up the valley. Two young Yi men adopted me and offered to accompany me. They told me a number of times that they were my friend and wouldn't hurt me. The youngest was very interested in knowing if I had a camera and asked to see it several times. I had my doubts about their honesty, but it seemed like they would not do me any harm.
The road was quite steep, and we had to push the bike much more than could ride it. After about an hour of walking, we arrived at he edge of their village. Up to this point the road had been mostly climbing switch backs rather than making progress toward the CP. I was pretty tired and the CP was still over five kilometers away, so I decided to head back to town to get a room and try again the next day, after a night's rest.
After a shower, I went out to get some dinner. There were several police there and the cook already knew everything I had done that day. In China, there are no secrets.
The next day, I got an early start, leaving my bags at the luguan so I wouldn't have to carry them up the hill. The guards at he power startion let me in without hesitation and I continued up to the village where I turned around last time. My companions from the day before were no where to be seen, which I was grateful for since I wanted to do this on my own. Passing through the village I found myself on a lovely trail cut into the mountain side heading directly towards the confluence. It would a stroke of luck if it continued to the CP, but given that it was still five kilometers away, I knew this was extremely unlikely. Mountain biking here reminded me how much I love cycling, and I really need to get out more often.
The trail ended much sooner than I hoped at a water diversion channel entrance. There was a guardhouse and caretaker there who said I couldn't cycle any farther. He offered to put my bike in his room while I was hiking. From this point I climbed several hundred meters higher into the woods, but the trails were scarce, underbrush thick and wet and the hills quite steep. The GPS indicated that I was 3.98 kilometers from the CP. This was not going to work; four kilometers straight-line distance cross-country through the mountains could take three or four hours. I would wait to do this with someone else or see if there is another way.
Returning to Xihe, I picked up my bags, bought some fried bread, bananas and mandarin oranges for lunch and started for Meigu. The map was very sketchy, but it did indicate that the road followed the river up to its source, and judging from the size of the river at Xihe, there would be many, many more kilometers of climbing to go before reaching the pass.
Along the way, I passed through another village and a couple of boys started to race after me. They were riding classic single speed Phoenix bikes and were really struggling to keep up with me. After a few kilometers, they spotted water spilling into the drainage ditch and sprinted ahead to stop for a drink. I decided it was a good place to clean up myself and the bike after both of us became covered with mud from our earlier off-road excursions. The boys spontaneously helped out, enjoying the chance to check out both me and my mountain bike up close.
Continuing up the road I reached Qinma and stopped for noodles. The locals told me that the road was closed for reconstruction and I couldn't continue to Meigu. I decided to see for myself. The guard at the barrier waved me on and I continued to climb past the road workers working the concrete pouring. Then I reach a section where the earthmovers were working and happened upon a police car coming the other way, stuck on the slippery slope. Then I spotted potatoes spread over a wide area on the slope and an overturned truck further down the slope. With my promise to my wife to return in two days, it seemed imprudent to assume the bus would be able to get back on time, so I decided to return to Ebian.
The way back was a real pleasure, with the pressure of time off my back and a favorable slope (nearly all downhill). Passing through the villages and seeing the Yi people outfitted in their colorful dress, I decided to try and get some photos. I stopped to ask a group of women walking if I could take their photo and they reluctantly agreed.
Returning to Xihe, I decided to cycle up to the Heizhugou on the other side of the river valley I had previously climbed hoping to find a closer way leading to the confluence. The road was in good condition with no traffic. It was about 5 PM when I started up this road, and it appeared that I would get there around dark. I stopped a car heading the opposite direction and asked if there was a place to stay. The people inside were at odds as to whether or not there was a place to stay. Arriving at the hydropower plant I find that indeed there is a guesthouse, a fairly new and this being the power company, electricity is not issue and the lights are bright, the electrically-heated rooms warm, the showers hot, and the electric blanket toasty. I sleep well.
A worker at here told me the road went four kilometers past the police barrier. The police said it went up just two kilometers. I cycled for 10 kilometers, all up hill without reaching the end. The cycling was exciting, challenging, and exhausting. The route wound up through what seemed like a rainforest. About three kilometers up, a rockslide blocked the passage of vehicles, not that there were any to speak of. All private vehicles were stopped at the police barricade and the road appeared hardly ever used.
A heavy fog, or rather more accurately a thick cloud, enveloped the landscape and created an eerie setting. The road was very slippery and I fell several times. Like many roads in China, the road climbed and climbed, seemingly endlessly. I was told this is a virgin forest (hard to believe that there is such a thing in China). Other than the road itself, there were no paths evident and the underbrush was too thick to venture into without a machete.
After an hour and half, I had gone 10 kilometers up to an elevation of 2,100 meters with no end in sight, and no closer to the confluence (still 4.9 kilometers away. With At that point, I decided to call it quits and turn around. While the confluence would be technically registered as an unsatisfying "incomplete" I prefer to consider it as reconnaissance for future confluence seekers.
Returning to the Hydropower guesthouse, I picked up the gear I left behind and headed back to the main highway with the intent of reaching Meigu that evening. Bicycling back to the main road was infinitely easier than coming in. After a four-kilometer climb, I reached the high point and coasted down the remaining 13 kilometers to Xihe, stopping to pick up brightly-colored discarded potato chip bags along the way. They seemed like such a blight to the otherwise pristine landscape, it seemed such a slap in the face to nature to leave them lying there.
On the way back I spotted a village on the other side of the valley that appeared to be about two kilometers away. From where I was, the CP was 5.9 kilometers in the direction of the village, and the mountainsides were being farmed further up, possibly providing paths toward to confluence. I decided not to pursue this at this time, but rather wait until I had someone to accompany me on another trip.
Coasting through one of the villages before the highway, were four children walking up the road that appeared to be under 10 years old. I was shocked to see the two older boys smoking and stopped to ask if I could take a picture of the four of them. They agreed and without any encouragement on my part, seemed to enjoy showing off their smoking prowess.
Arriving back in Ebian I decided that there really was no place like home, and went to the bus station to return to Chengdu. Four buses later, I arrived home, tired and dirty, but no worse for the wear. Despite not reaching the CP, it was a satisfying experience.