25-Aug-2002 -- The attempt on this confluence ended up being a suspense-filled race against time, both getting there and getting back, and made the two confluences I'd just visited, at 25°N 119°E and 25°N 118°E, seem like leisurely strolls in the park.
It required three bus journeys to travel north from Huqiu to the provincial capital of Fuzhou, with stopovers in Anxi and Quanzhou. En route from Quanzhou to Fuzhou, the bus hostess served us scalding hot tea in flimsy plastic cups. Fortunately the expressway afforded a very smooth ride, otherwise there could have been some nasty accidents.
Upon arrival at the Fuzhou North Bus Station, I immediately secured a ticket on the last sleeper bus returning to Hong Kong the following evening, departing at 7:10 p.m., which would arrive in Hong Kong just in time for me to get to work on Monday morning. I also enquired about where to get a bus to Pingnan, the nearest main town to my immediate objective. Buses to Pingnan, I was told, left from the Fuzhou West Bus Station, and I was given directions on how to get there: catch a no. 5 commuter bus.
This I did, and half an hour later arrived at the West Station. It was now nearly 8 p.m., and all activity at the West Station had ceased for the day. Nevertheless, I was able to ascertain that the first departure for Pingnan the next morning would be at 6:10 a.m.
I checked into the West Station Guesthouse, opting for the best room in the house, at 68 yuan (US$8) per night. Then it was across the street for a big bowl of noodles, the only sustenance I'd had all day, my previous meal having been the awful midnight buffet on the way up from Hong Kong the night before. My day was then consummated by a hair-wash and blow-dry, expertly administered by the guesthouse hairdresser. Her service naturally included the standard upper body massage, the whole session of pampering lasting the regulation 60 minutes, and all for only 10 yuan (US$1.20). I love China!
The next morning I awoke without the aid of my alarm, due to the incessant traffic noise that had once again deprived me of a good night's sleep. I showered, packed, checked out of the guesthouse, ate a bowl of rice porridge for breakfast, then boarded the 6:10 a.m. bus for Pingnan.
The bus followed a large river upstream towards the west, then turned north and immediately began ascending, snaking its way through the hills. Although Pingnan was located less than a hundred kilometres north of Fuzhou as the crow flies, it soon became apparent that I had grossly underestimated the time required for the bus journey. My original idea had been to shoot up north and do this confluence, then head back down and visit 26°N 119°E, very close to Fuzhou, and still have plenty of time left over to comfortably catch my 7:10 p.m. sleeper bus back to Hong Kong.
But now I was wondering if I'd even reach Pingnan before it was time to turn around and head back to Fuzhou again! I kept doing mental arithmetic, calculating how much time I had left before I absolutely had to turn back. And just to complicate matters, a few raindrops were now beginning to appear on the windows of the bus.
At 10:45 a.m., 4 hours and 35 minutes after leaving Fuzhou, we finally reached Pingnan. The confluence was still more than 10 kilometres further to the north though. All sorts of calculations were going through my mind: the bus back to Fuzhou would drop me at the West Station, but my sleeper bus would leave from the North Station, so I needed at least half an hour more on top of the 4 hours and 35 minutes in order to have sufficient time to get across town from the West to the North Station, so what time did I need to leave Pingnan? I wondered why no one had ever invented decimal time, like decimal currency, to make these sorts of calculations easier.
I asked at the ticket counter about buses from Pingnan back to Fuzhou, and found out that the last bus was scheduled to leave at 1:25 p.m. More frantic calculations. I finally deduced that that would provide a safety margin of 40 minutes on the trip back, and leave me 2 hours and 40 minutes to knock off the confluence. Okay! I bought the ticket.
It was now 10:50 a.m., and I was on a bus heading north once more. That's when the flashes of lightning started appearing, together with the telltale rumble of thunder. Hmm...
11:00 a.m. The heavens opened!
While Nature was doing her thing outside, inside the bus the driver was engaging me in conversation. Where was I going? I tried to explain that I was heading towards this blank area on the map, about a kilometre and a half off the main road, where the two thin blue lines cross. This left him somewhat bemused and lost for words, and he diverted his full attention back to trying to make out the road ahead through the torrential rain lashing against the windscreen.
Once the rain started to ease off a bit, he resumed his dialogue. He told me about a track that he reckoned should head off into the blank area on my map. He said he'd drop me off at the start of this track, just north of the village of Guixi. And sure enough, at 11:20 a.m., I found myself standing all alone in the rain at the start of a muddy track, with the GPS registering 1.35 kilometres to the confluence.
I dashed for the shelter of a nearby tree, dug my raincoat out from the bottom of my backpack, put it on, and all the while, pondered more time calculations in my head. Thirty minutes from Pingnan to here. My bus back to Fuzhou leaves Pingnan two hours and five minutes from now. What is my turnaround time? I figure it must be 12:05 p.m., leaving just 45 minutes to locate the confluence. It seems an impossible task, but the least I can do is try, if only to see how far I get.
But first, I'm confronted with a decision: a wide muddy track heading off at right angles to the confluence, or a narrow muddy path heading uphill directly towards it. I choose the narrow muddy path. After climbing for a short while, the narrow muddy path emerges back onto the wide muddy track. It turns out to be just a shortcut going straight up, while the track does a switchback. I mark a waypoint on my GPS so that I can find the shortcut again on my way back.
I continue along the wide muddy track now. A hundred metres or so further on, I come across a large roadside grave, and pause to take a photo.
Thankfully, the rain has all but stopped now, but this does not make the track any less muddy. I'm finding progress is slow. With every step, another layer of mud sticks to my thongs, making them progressively heavier and heavier. I take to walking through the puddles whenever I can, and this seems to do the trick, removing a little of the accumulated mud with each sloshy step.
Things go well until I get to within about 650 metres of the confluence, when the track suddenly makes a sharp right turn, and starts heading away from the confluence. While the distance to my objective begins to grow, what precious little time I have left continues to shrink. But I figure there's not much else I can do but continue to follow the track until I reach my ordained turnaround time.
After what seems like an eternity, the track rounds a hill and heads back more or less in the right direction once more. I eventually get to within about 350 metres, then again the track turns and heads away. I decide to take a photo of the GPS at the 350-metre point, because it looks like this is as close as I'll get.
With only a few minutes left, I continue up the track and, just as I'm about to give up and head back, lo and behold, the track turns for the good again. I tell myself, "If I can get to within 200 metres, I'll be content with that."
I do get to within 200 metres, but the track is still tantalisingly pointing in the correct direction. There's no time left! I do some more on-the-fly number crunching, and by sacrificing any margin of safety whatsoever, I decide I can carry on for a few more minutes.
"Get to within 100 metres," I tell myself. "That's all I have to do for a successful visit." But when I get to within 100 metres, the damn track is STILL heading straight as an arrow towards the confluence! Unable to control myself, I now throw all caution to the wind, and keep on going. I simply have to know how close to the confluence this track will ultimately take me!
Miraculously, I reach a point where the track is a mere five metres from the confluence. Had I had any time at all to spare, I would have scrambled up the bank and done the to-and-fro dance in search of a perfect reading, but that was totally out of the question under the current circumstances. I hurriedly snapped the north, south, east and west shots, as well as one of a sign on a nearby tree that read: "Burning of straw or any other use of fire within the forest area is strictly prohibited."
When I checked the time, I was horrified. It had been a miracle that I'd successfully reached this confluence, but now I was going to need another miracle to get back to Pingnan in time to catch the 1:25 p.m. bus to Fuzhou. I headed back down the track as fast as I could fly. But by now, the sun was beginning to dry out the track, which only served to make the mud stickier, and leave fewer puddles with which to wash it off. I needed to stop frequently to scrape the mud off my thongs, and this did nothing for my efforts to try and make up time.
It took an agonisingly long time to get back to the road, and when I finally made it, I had just 35 minutes left before my bus left Pingnan. I knew the journey from here to Pingnan required 30 minutes. I waited. And I waited. Five minutes went by, and no bus came. Nothing. Another five minutes elapsed, and still nothing. The road was a desolate, lonely place, and in the silence came the slow realisation that there was now absolutely no chance whatsoever of getting back to Hong Kong by the following morning.
Resigned to my fate, I started to wonder what I should do next. Then, just at that moment, I heard the sound of a motorbike approaching from the north. I waved frantically, and he stopped. I explained how I needed to catch the 1:25 p.m. bus from Pingnan to Fuzhou (the last bus of the day), and could he possibly give me a lift to Pingnan, a very very fast one? He said "Yes"! "How much?" I asked, and incredibly he replied, "No charge."
Seated on the back of the motorbike, I could now do nothing but helplessly watch the time tick away on my GPS. I had neglected to mark a waypoint at Pingnan, so I had no idea whether the progress we were making was leaving me in with a chance or not. My predicament brought to mind Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) in the movie Clockwise, confessing to his hapless travelling partner: "It's not the despair, Laura, I can stand the despair. It's the HOPE!"
As we motored down the road towards Pingnan, I learned that my hapless travelling partner was a policeman, which explained why he had not taken advantage of my plight by seeking to extort vast sums of money in return for a lift.
The minutes continued to slip by, and things really didn't look good. Then, with the final countdown imminent, I recognised the outskirts of Pingnan coming into view ahead of us. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was still a chance...
Time marched inexorably onwards, and the city landscape seemed to move by far too slowly. Then, right on the death-knell, we turned into the familiar compound of the bus station, and pulled up right next to the open door of the bus, just as the last of the passengers was stepping aboard. I dismounted, thanked my saviour profusely, then hopped on board myself. The door closed behind me, and we were off!
I must have looked a real sight to the other passengers, a dishevelled, long-haired, mud-encrusted foreigner, suddenly appearing out of nowhere. But that was the least of my worries. A whole new set of time calculations now preoccupied me. I still had to reach the Fuzhou West Bus Station with sufficient time remaining to allow me to make it across town to the North Station and catch the last sleeper bus back to Hong Kong at 7:10 p.m.
As it was, we arrived at the West Station at 6:25 p.m., the journey having taken a full five hours this time, 25 minutes longer than I had bargained for. And of course, right on cue, it started raining again. I tried to hail a taxi, but because of the rain, any that became available were being immediately snapped up again before I could even get a look in. After wasting five minutes on this fruitless exercise, I decided to go for the no. 5 commuter bus instead. But just as I reached the bus stop, the bus pulled away, and the next one wasn't going to leave for another 10 minutes.
Here I was again, in yet another seemingly hopeless race against time!
I pleaded with the bus driver to drive as fast as he could, but what was I thinking? This was a commuter bus. We had to stop at every stop along the way, picking up and dropping off passengers, then crawl along through the rain-affected traffic to the next stop to do it all again.
By half way, it was plainly evident that I wasn't going to make it. That's when I decided upon a radical course of action, and abandoned the slow progress of the bus in favour of the remote possibility of finding a vacant taxi. The strategy paid off, and I was once more back in with a chance. I explained my goal to the taxi driver, and the challenge seemed to spur him on. We started covering the distance at a good clip, and in the end, arrived at the North Station with a full five minutes to spare.
The rest of the journey home was an anticlimax, the only highlight being the midnight meal stop. The food was much better than on the way up, perhaps because we stopped at a different diner, or perhaps because I was starving. I realised that all I'd had time to eat during the entire day was the small bowl of rice porridge I'd had for breakfast, and now I was absolutely famished!