26-Jul-2004 -- I'll never forget this confluence. It was my most rewarding; it was the most physically demanding; it was the most logistically complex, yet this confluence, once the attempt was underway, was one of quickest I've had. Also, it is my only confluence where I wasn't able to physically reach the point where my GPS read all zeros, although we reached the 100 meter limit as required by the Degree Confluence Project. (It's also my longest narrative!)
Prior to my successful attempt for this confluence, several unsuccessful attempts were made, which can be read here to provide some background.
As you can read on the incomplete attempts, I'd been as near as 1.66km from the confluence while in a raft on the Yangtze River, but was still unsure whether it was on land or water. Corrado and I had theorized that our best chance was to attempt the confluence by way of water, but our unsuccessful attempts left us with only one option. We had to go for it by land.
It was mid-afternoon on a very hot July day, and Corrado needed convincing that we'd have time to cover the 25+ km to the confluence and back before nightfall. We were in a foreign land (Jamie is from the US, Corrado is from Switzerland) with a combined Chinese vocabulary that numbers in the single digits.
We first had to cross the Yangtze to get to the same side of the river as the confluence. Because our team boat was docked very near a ferry, this was a relatively simple task, but we had not formulated our plan for when we reached the other side.
We hoped to take a taxi to the city of Jingjiang where we could (hopefully) find a bus to Taixing to the northwest. We would have to get off the bus halfway between the two cities, and somehow find our way roughly 12km from the highway to the confluence (according to the rudimentary map on my GPS). Our plan didn't work out like that.
Instead, a few minutes into the ferry ride, we decided to try to hitch a ride with one of the vehicles on the vessel. Corrado is an experienced world traveler, so he did the "talking." The first driver we talked to wanted $40. We laughed and declined immediately. Corrado walked away to find someone new.
I gathered our things together and followed him a few minutes later. I found him beside a luxury automobile, dramatically waving and pointing with his arms, in his right hand a map. Corrado would point at the map, look at the driver, make like his hands were on a steering wheel and then ask, "ok?" The bewildered Chinese man inside stared at him, the driver's door window rolled down only about five centimeters. Corrado kept repeating, "ok?" and pointing at the map. I thought it was both hilarious and futile.
Then the driver gave a hesitated nod and a muttered ok. He unlocked the doors with a button press. Corrado opened the rear door behind the driver and looked at me and said, "Get in!" I was stunned, but I walked around the car and slid into the leather passenger seat next to the driver.
Feeling a bit uneasy about our pushy entrance into this man's car, I offered him a bottle of water and we told him our names. We told him where we were from, or rather we simply blurted the names of our respective countries, and showed him the sponsor logos on the clothes we wore to demonstrate that we weren't hooligans. The man was surprisingly at ease and showed us on our map where he was going. If we understood correctly, he was driving from Shanghai to Beijing.
The ride to Jingjiang lasted about 15 minutes. The driver raced up the highway, easily passing most other traffic, often in the face of oncoming vehicles, all the while blasting the horn. Corrado and I stared at each other, well aware that this is normal Chinese driving behavior. He chauffeured us straight to the bus station in the city, but refused a small offer of payment, and even got out of the car for a photo with Corrado. He was first-class in all senses of the word. We heartily shook his hand and crossed the street into the maelstrom of the bus station.
Using our map to help communicate, we quickly found the correct bus to Taixing. Although that had been our plan, it now didn't look like a good idea. If we took the bus, we'd have to figure out where to get off along the main highway and then somehow traverse the unknown geography to the confluence. An aggressive group of taxi drivers nearby was calling us.
Corrado, using Academy Award-worthy antics, conveyed to them that we wanted to visit a particular spot on the map, which we'd marked with an X, take some photographs, then come back. He soon had a crowd of both taxi drivers and random passers-by watching as he acted out driving, walking, taking pictures, then reversing the scene. The drivers requested a lot of money, and when they realized we wanted round-trip, the fee doubled. The bus was looking like a good option. We were undecided and the mass of taxi drivers trying to bargain and get our attention all at once made things very confusing. A helpful young Chinese man who spoke very little English attempted to help us, but when mobbed by the taxi drivers to translate for them, he became overwhelmed and left.
Then from behind us came a short, balding Chinese taxi driver who, without saying a word, wrote a price in our notebook, circled it, and waited for our response. The fee was still high by Chinese standards (70 yuan, about $8.50), but it was clear that this man didn't want to argue about our destination nor bicker about a fee. He wanted to go. Corrado and I looked at each other in agreement, then gave the man a nod and followed him to his taxi.
We got in, Corrado in the back, I sat in the front seat next to the driver. It was eerie. The driver seemed to know exactly where we wanted to go. When we approached an intersection, he'd give me a questioning glance and point in the right direction. I only had to nod. I became so confident in his abilities that I simply put the GPS on the dashboard and showed him the arrow, indicating that's where we wanted to go.
The 25km drive took about 45 minutes. With barely any instruction, the driver brought us straight to the point closest to the confluence.
The GPS told me the confluence was 600 meters away, but I wasn't sure there was 600 meters of land between us and the river. We stood so close, but on the verge of realizing we wouldn't be able to reach the point. Only one way to find out. I indicated to the driver that we'd be back in about one hour. We gathered our things and started walking along the top of a levee toward the river.
When we reached the limit of dry land, the GPS read 400 meters to our goal. It was now clear that the confluence was too far. A group of small grassy and muddy "islands" poked out of the water off the shoreline. I was both ecstatic at how close we were, but disheartened at how far away it seemed. I stood on the steep bank, peering out over the river, brainstorming. I knew we only needed to reach 100 meters from the confluence.
Corrado asked, "What do you think?"
I took a deep breath to make sure I wanted to say what I was going to say, "I think we swim for it."
"You want to swim?" Corrado asked, then a long pause. He took a few steps toward me, then grabbed his shirt and pulled it over his head. "Ok."
We both stripped down to our underwear in preparation for the journey. We intended to swim to a small island about 50m offshore, then to a bigger island about 50m past that. From there, we could see scattered dots of land which went perhaps another 100m out. If the confluence was much further, it would be unreachable in the Yangzte River. Our margin of opportunity was tiny, and at that point, I wasn't optimistic.
Because we're in China on a river expedition, I carry my camera in a SealLine Seal Pak. It keeps rain and splashes off my electronic equipment. Now I had to trust the bag to hold my expensive camera and GPS while completely submerged during my segmented swim for the confluence. I rolled the top as tightly as I could, then snapped the waistband high around my ribcage with the bag on my back. I hoped it remained water tight.
Still wearing my sandals, I eased into the bathtub-warm water. The bottom was slick, thick mud, and I stood waist-deep in the brown river. Corrado watched from the top of the levee and asked me how it was. "It's crap," I told him--or words to that effect. Corrado made two long steps down the steep bank and dove full-body into the water.
When we reached the first tiny island, we were both a little tired. The sticky mud and a fisherman's crab net made climbing onto shore a difficult task. Then we had to repeat the process for the second water crossing. Finally, we both stood on land again, although "land" is a stretch of the definition of the word. We were perched on grassy heaps of mud which were far from dry or firm, on the very edge of the Yangtze River. When the tide comes in, this area is probably completely submerged.
Thousands upon thousands of crabs scattered about, surprised at our presence. I opened my drybag to check the camera and GPS. Thankfully, all was dry. Unfortunately, our swim had been at an angle to the confluence, so we were not much closer. We looked back and saw our taxi driver standing on shore near where we'd left our clothes. The man must have thought we were crazy, and he wouldn't have been too far off.
With the GPS grasped in my muddy fingers, I led the way toward the confluence. Walking required pushing through meter-high grass, our sandals squishing in the muck, and crabs fleeing from our path. Occasionally, we'd have to splash through a short section of water. Corrado devised a technique of sliding down the slopes into the water, then using his momentum to scramble up out the other side. We made agonizingly slow progress and as I surveyed the terrain in front of us and compared it to our remaining distance, I became increasingly discouraged that we would not reach our goal.
We were 150 meters from the confluence, but very close to the Yangtze River proper. A seemingly unending line of riverboats trudged slowly upstream just off shore to our right. We walked roughly parallel to the ambiguous line which separated the river from the shallows on which we walked and encountered a channel about ten meters wide where we'd have to swim once more. I returned the GPS to the drybag and held the bag over my head while I tried to walk across. The water came up to my neck, and here a current was trying to push me, but I made it safely and gave Corrado a report of the conditions.
From here we faced thick reeds of more than two meters height. We were sloshing through water, and I had no idea what was ahead. Soon the reeds gave way to merely tall grass, and we could see the river and the boats right in front of us. I pulled the GPS out of the drybag and checked the distance. It read just a few more than 100 meters. I made a couple of bounding steps to decrease the number then shouted to Corrado, "We made it!" Rarely in my life have I been so elated.
We walked a bit further out into the soggy grass where we snapped the directional photos, a self-portrait, and a muddy GPS shot at the confluence. Where we stood was about 90 meters from the actual point, which I estimate to be in or near the shipping lane. It would be difficult, not to mention dangerous, to physically visit the exact spot. We were standing in about 15 centimeters of water about as far out as I was willing to venture.
Wondering if our driver still waited for us, we hurriedly made our way back. Again we had to climb through the tall reeds, then swim across the channel, clamber through the mud and puddles amongst the crabs before finally making the two long swims to plant us back on the levee. We could see the taxi and our driver still waiting. We waved to him.
We didn't dress until we got back to the car. The driver's mood had turned a bit sour and he encouraged us to hurry, but not before we got him to pose with us for a victory photo.
On the return drive, Corrado and I shared a package cookies in celebration. I offered our driver some, but he declined. Using Spanish in case the driver knew some English words, Corrado and I agreed to give the driver 100 yuan instead of the 70 he quoted us. He'd made our task much easier with his confluence clairvoyance.
I had the driver take us to the ferry rather than back to the city of Jingjiang. When he stopped the car, he pointed at his meter, which read 143 yuan. Corrado opened our notebook to where the driver had written (and circled) 70. The driver furiously shook his head and pointed at the meter. This went back and forth several times. I took a 100 yuan note from my wallet and offered it to the man. Initially he refused and angrily pointed at the meter. I pointed at the bill in my hand and held it to him. He snatched it from my hand and shook his head. Done deal as far as I'm concerned. Corrado and I got out of the cab and jogged up onto the ferry just as it pulled away from shore. When we got to the other side, the sun had not yet set.