04-Aug-2007 -- Tony and I found ourselves with a reason to visit Peter's "home town" of Chéngdū (成都) on business, so we orchestrated things in such a way that we finished early Friday afternoon (after the customary traditional Sìchuānese hotpot lunch laid on by our hosts), at which time Peter duly collected us from Chéngdū's Incubation Park (成都高新孵化园) in a hire car. We then headed south towards the confluence, a journey Peter assured us would take no more than four hours.
We started out quickly enough - too quickly for my liking - with Peter racing down the freeway at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of slower traffic, all the while answering phone calls, and reading and sending SMS messages. It seems that for poor Peter, work never stops.
The pace slowed somewhat after we left the freeway, and in fact came to a complete standstill when we joined the end of a long queue of traffic held up because of roadwork. We spent a good two hours going nowhere, which meant it was well after dark when we finally arrived at the guesthouse of the Dōngsēn Group Hēizhú Gully Power Station (东森集团黑竹沟水电公司), 5.6 km NE of the confluence.
The next morning we drove back down the river valley a few kilometres to a small dam, from where the approach to the confluence, now 6.3 km ENE on the opposite side of the river, looked most promising. After leaving the car in the custody of the dam workers, we headed off towards the river. We encountered our first obstacle just 50 metres later, when it was necessary to scale a brick wall. Peter and I made it over fine, then watched as Tony struggled to do the same. When it looked like he had made it, we turned away, only to hear an ominous thud and a yelp of pain. Tony had fluffed the descent, hit the deck in true Tony style, and as he was to discover later, did some damage to his tailbone.
Regrouping, we continued on down to the river, where there was a small pedestrian suspension bridge. At this point, Tony, who was still smarting from his fall, looked up at the steep climb that awaited us on the other side, and cried uncle!
And then there were two.
Peter and I climbed up and up, passing through the village of Gǔjǐng (古井村), where we were obliged to pose for photos with Jǐng'é Shāshā (井俄沙沙), the village chief, promising to send copies, but knowing we'd never get around to it. A young village mother and her child, dressed in traditional costume, made for a better photo opportunity. So did the traditional woven wicker backpacks.
The village chief had given us some valuable intelligence as to how to proceed once we reached the saddle at the crest of the hill, which was 4.4 km from the confluence. Contrary to what I had hoped, there was no path that ran along the crest directly up to the confluence. Instead, we were obliged to go a short distance down the other side of the saddle, then follow a long plateau for approximately two kilometres.
We passed through another village on the plateau, where the main livelihood seemed to be grazing cattle. Targ asked how we could climb the confluence mountain, and the villagers confirmed that we first needed to continue along the plateau, which we did, until we eventually reached another small collection of homes almost directly above the power station where we'd stayed the night before. Here we found a wide path heading up into the mountains. The confluence was still 4.2 km SW.
Following the path was relatively easy; the grade was not too steep. However, at 2.8 kilometres distance from the confluence, it was now my turn to cry uncle. I'd been a little ill the previous day, and my body now felt totally drained of energy - I simply couldn't take another step.
And then there was one.
(Change of writers.) This one was Peter, that being me. And I felt the weight of the mission on my shoulders. Targ graciously gave up one of his water bottles for the mission, and I took off up the mountain. The way was pretty easy going, since we were following the "road". This was actually just the grading of a path that could later become a road, should the powers decide to. The grade was about 5%, there were no major obstacles save for the odd tree that fell across, or the waist-high weeds. Just by following this up the mountain with an eye on the GPS just to be sure, I was able cruise at about 4-5 km/hour, if I pushed it. In gaining altitude, I climbed into the clouds and visibility dropped to a few hundred meters.
At one point there was a hidden fork in the road, and I guessed that the left fork was going where I wanted to go. Then about 1.5 km from the CP the road took a long swing around it without getting any closer. Finally it turned toward the CP and I was closing in fast.
Then the river swallowed the road.
At about 1.3 km from the CP, I was tiptoeing from rock to rock along a river bed. On both sides were thick brush and choosing the path of least resistance, I stuck to the river. My pace dropped to a crawl and with the time approaching 4 PM with barely enough time to make it back before dark and over 1 km to go, I decided to call it a day. Taking photos of the GPS and area, I made hasty retreat.
Going down was fast and easy; at least it was until I found myself at a dead end. Backtracking to the path I had just come from I was unsure which way to go. Both ways looked exactly the same! The area was relatively level and I couldn't figure out which was up or down.
Panic set in, and the heart rate rose to a crescendo.
Taking stock of the situation, I decided to try to figure a way out of this mess. Using the GPS trackback feature, I tried that. Not fully confident it would actually work, I continued on for some time in fear of going the wrong way. Finally, I recognized the area, with considerable relief.
The time was passing fast and I came to a hairpin turn with a precipitous drop that appeared to be used as a chute for transporting logs down the mountain. A shortcut! The slope was greater than 45 degrees, slipping and sliding down I went. Several times I went head-over-heels in a ball of dust and rocks. I wasn't sure this was the best idea after all. The GPS lost contact with the satellites, but I was fairly certain I would end up in the right place. After what seemed an endless descent, and many cuts and bruises later, I emerged in the bowl at the base of the mountain where we had started to climb.
It was good to be walking again, and I felt I should be able to catch up with Targ. He had sent a text message saying he was going down about an hour before. I made it to the last village before the trail up the mountain. The villagers were astonishingly destitute. I asked for some water, but they had none boiled, and just pointed to the stream. I had Giardia before, and I was not going to risk it again, so I passed. Thinking I had made it down before Targ, I waited about 20 minutes for him. Finally I called and discovered we had just missed each other! He said to follow him back the way we had come, but the villagers said the best way was to continue down the road.
I decided to go that way, despite Targ's objections, just so I could see where it went. I found a path to a small reservoir feeding the 1.5 meter diameter water pipe to the hydroelectric plant where we spent the night. A caretaker said to just follow the pipe down the mountain to the hotel. It was a bit of a scramble, but much easier and safer than the log chute, and I was back at the hotel in short order.
I called Targ and asked that he and Tony come pick me up right away. I was tired, and very thirsty. Walking along the road for what seemed like an eternity, I stopped and waited by the side of the road at a stream where I could wash myself. Darkness had fallen and it was a long, lonely wait before I saw the headlights coming my way.
Targ and Tony had an early morning flight the next day, so we headed straight back to Chengdu. Tony was in constant pain from his fall off the wall and shifted around in his seat non-stop the whole way back. Targ was a zombie in the back seat, stirring once in a while to ask if we were back yet.
The traffic situation on the way back was even worse. The road construction shut down half the road and on the other half it was a series of stops and starts for about 80 km after a two hour wait in the dark.
We arrived back in Chéngdū at 3:30 AM and I dropped Targ and Tony off at their hotel for a two-hour nap before they had to rise and shine for their flight at 7:30 AM.
Defeated this time, but with the knowledge that we gained we are confident we can make it the next.