06-Aug-2003 -- Continued from 27°N 115°E.
Tuesday 5 August 2003 – Despite the late night, I woke a few minutes before my alarm was due to go off at 5:30 a.m. Upon checking out, I was given yet another hotel discount coupon. I'd received one of these coupons for every night I'd spent in the Nanchang Hotel, but they were redeemable only for a discount against a super-deluxe, super-expensive room. I mentioned to the girl at reception that I really didn't need it, because I wasn't planning on returning any time soon. But she said I could also use it for a free taxi ride. Now that was useful, and I wished I'd known about it before.
The bus station was only a block and a half away, but I thought I may as well use at least one of my accumulated coupons, so I walked over and presented it to the concierge, and told him I wanted a free taxi ride to the bus station. He gave the necessary instructions to a waiting taxi driver, and I was off. But when I got out of the taxi at the bus station a couple of minutes later, the driver asked me for the fare! Great, I thought. I told him to go back and sort it out with the hotel. This didn't seem to satisfy him, but I just grabbed my bag and disappeared into the bowels of the bus station, leaving him not much choice.
I bought a ticket on the 7:45 a.m. bus for Le'an. I still had an hour to wait, so I bought some steamed pork buns for breakfast, then sat down in the bus station waiting room to eat them. It was obviously going to be another sizzling hot day, because even at this early hour the sun was unbearable.
The time for my bus departure eventually arrived, and I found I was the only passenger. The bus driver said we had to go to another bus station and wait there for another 45 minutes for more passengers. On the way we got to chatting, and I told him my plans, which involved getting another bus south from Le'an to the north of the next county, Ruijin County, where the confluence was located. But he told me that that was simply out of the question, because there weren't any buses south from Le'an to Ruijin County. The road connecting the two counties wasn't even navigable, he said.
In telling me this, he actually ended up doing himself a disservice, but I was quite pleased to receive adequate forewarning before stumbling into another edge-of-the-county gotcha, like the one I found myself facing when trying to get to 29°N 115°E. I rechecked my maps, and decided I'd better find a bus to Ningdu, attacking the confluence from the south instead of the north. I wandered around the second bus station until I found a sleeper bus due to depart for Ningdu at 12:30 p.m.
Mass confusion erupted as I attempted to return my Le'an ticket, purchased at another bus station, and already sporting a pen stroke indicating that it had been used. Soon everyone in the vicinity knew about my predicament, which turned out to be a good thing, because an even better bus option then materialised. A lady told me that her Ruijin-bound bus would be arriving at this station at 9 a.m., and because it would pass through Ningdu on the way to Ruijin, I should take it instead of the 12:30 p.m. bus. Some quite fierce competition then ensued between the lady from the Ruijin bus and the lady from the Ningdu bus, as they fought over my custom, but in the end I opted for the earlier, 9 a.m. option.
Meanwhile, the staff in the bus station were dealing with the issue of the return of my Le'an bus ticket. At the very last moment, another passenger arrived to purchase a ticket to Le'an, so they sold him my ticket, then gave me my refund. The ever-helpful Jiangxi people had come through yet again. Because what they'd done was not exactly kosher, they asked me to write down the circumstances in their incident book, presumably to cover their arses. I made sure I thanked them profusely, and even mentioned one particularly helpful staff member by name. (I'm sure that's what she wanted, because she pointed to her name badge as she sat beside me while I wrote my report.)
The Ruijin bus arrived early, and we were actually underway at 8:50 a.m. I was not at all displeased with my decision, because this was a brand new, big, air-conditioned bus with comfortable reclining seats and pleasant music played at an appropriate volume. I was even able to catch up on some of the sleep I'd missed the night before. By contrast, the Le'an bus had been a much smaller, dirty, noisy, non-air-conditioned bus with incredibly uncomfortable seats. And luck must have been with me, because I appeared to have got the last available seat on the Ruijin bus.
Of course, that didn't prevent them from picking up more passengers en route. Tiny plastic stools magically appeared, and the aisle was eventually chock-a-block with extra passengers. But then we came upon a police roadblock, and the bus driver and ticket seller had to pay a fine for overloading. No one seemed terribly worried, the money changed hands, and we continued on regardless.
We stopped for lunch at 12 noon. Although I wasn't hungry, the ticket seller (the same woman who'd coaxed me onto her bus back in Nanchang) got me an enormous bowl of tea to drink. "On the house", she said. Then a pretty girl passenger insisted I help her finish off a giant watermelon she'd bought, so I also enjoyed a very refreshing and sweet slice of watermelon.
After lunch, we all piled back on the bus, passengers sitting on plastic stools in the aisle boarding last, of course. Off we went, but at 1:45 p.m. we hit another police roadblock, and this time things did not seem to go so smoothly. There was a lot of discussion, but it was obvious that the police were not about to let them off as lightly as before. Eventually the police asked the driver and ticket seller to accompany them back to their patrol car, where more protracted negotiations ensued. The passengers started getting restless, and many got off to smoke or go to the toilet. Almost all of us were milling about outside the bus by the time the pair finally emerged from the clutches of the police, sporting none-too-convincing smiles that were supposed to convey to us that everything was all right. Face is very important in China. The most amazing thing of all was that we were permitted to continue on in our overloaded state!
The road all the way from Nanchang to Ningdu was a four-lane undivided highway in excellent condition, providing an exceptionally smooth ride in this big bus. I disembarked in Ningdu at 2:30 p.m., and ten minutes later was on another bus making my way north to Dongshao. The road was brand new, in perfect condition. I arrived in Dongshao at about 4 p.m., and checked into a wonderful little guesthouse for the princely sum of five yuan (US$0.60) a night. My room had an enormous wooden balcony that afforded a great view of the main street of Dongshao. The confluence was a further 6.9 kilometres north.
I went for a walk around town, snapping a few photos, like a tray of chillies left out to dry on someone's roof, and a large, peaceful, secluded pond that I discovered after poking my head round a tall gate. It was only a small town, but I managed to get lost, and had to ask directions back to the main street. I bought some fruit and biscuits, then went up to eat some of them on my balcony while surveying the scene, and waiting for my dinner, which was being prepared by the guesthouse owner's wife.
Wednesday 6 August 2003 – I set off north up the road towards Beitou at 6:10 a.m. After walking for one kilometre, I was able to get a lift the rest of the way on the back of a motorbike. Beitou was still 2.2 kilometres short of the confluence however, so I continued on foot once more, passing on my way a mushroom farm. The method of cultivation differed markedly from what I'd seen the year before at 24°N 114°E.
The road started to climb and veer off to the right, but I was still slowly reducing the distance to the confluence, now off to the left in a northwesterly direction. When the confluence was due west, it was only about 300 metres from the road, up a steep hill. Unable to find any sort of path, I employed the skills I'd recently acquired at 28°N 118°E, and simply took to the scrub and started hauling myself up the steep slope to the best of my ability. This strategy was time-consuming, but eventually got me, soaked in sweat, to the top of the hill, where I found myself in a small clearing used by loggers to clean the bark off logs before sending them hurtling down a steep slope to the road below. The clearing was just 84 metres from the confluence.
Not content with this, I continued to scramble through the vegetation on the steep hillside until, at 8:50 a.m., I finally found the spot where I could get a perfect reading. The elevation was 566 metres, and the GPS was providing an accuracy of 17 metres. I took photos in each direction, north, south, east and west, although only the photo to the south was of any real interest, showing the valley I'd walked up, and the road cutting through the hills back to Dongshao.
I returned to the clearing at the top of the hill, sure I could find a decent path back to the road from there. But after trying every possibility, I found that all the paths either just petered out after a short distance, or went even further into the hills, away from the road. It seemed the only way out was down. Clinging onto trees and bushes at the edge of the logroll for dear life, I slowly inched my way down its entire length to the road below. I was being ultra careful, because if I'd let go at the wrong moment, there would have been no stopping me, such was the angle of the slope. It was 10:10 a.m. before I reached the bottom, thankfully still in one piece.
I walked back to Beitou, then got a motorbike back to Dongshao. I collected my stuff from the guesthouse, and proceeded to wait for the next bus back to Ningdu. After waiting for about 25 minutes, a guy suggested I take a motorbike the short distance down the road to the next town, because I'd be able to get a bus sooner from there. So that's what I did. Sure enough, there was a Ningdu-bound bus at the next town, and I got on board and waited for its departure, at the same time finishing off the remaining biscuits that I had left over from the morning's confluence hunt.
The bus left for Ningdu at 12:30 p.m. In Ningdu I had a 40-minute wait before the 2:30 p.m. bus to Ruijin, during which time I ate the last of the fruit I'd bought in Dongshao. By 4 p.m. I'd already arrived in Ruijin, checked into the very nice Ruijin Hotel, and had a much-needed shower. I was told that Jiang Zemin, when still Chinese president, had once stayed at this hotel.
I used the Internet facility in the hotel's business centre, which was slightly more expensive than an Internet bar, but convenient. I was also going to use the hairdressing salon located in the hotel grounds, but the first thing the boss lady said to me was that she feared they wouldn't do a very good job washing my hair! I then realised that it was nothing more than a front for a mob of prostitutes, so I gave that a miss and instead asked the girls at the hotel reception to recommend a decent place in town, which I went to later in the evening, after having dinner in the hotel restaurant.
When I first checked into the hotel, my trousers were still damp with sweat from the morning's exertion, so I'd hung them up in my open hotel room window to dry. But unfortunately, I'd brought the rain with me yet again, and when I got back in the evening I found them saturated. Luckily it was a good hotel, with a hair dryer in the bathroom, so I was able to put that to good use to dry them out before going to bed.
Story continues at 26°N 116°E.