24-Nov-2005 -- 25n 101E Sanjie, Yunnan
Since becoming a family man, my trips have had to be shortened to whatever I can fit in to one day; a sort of 24-hour adventure limit time has been imposed where I turn into a pumpkin at midnight.
I came to Kunming with my wife who was here on business so I had a day to myself and whenever this is the case in a place away from home, I look around for confluence points to hit. Ray Yip of the
Yip-Bannicq Group has picked off the two closest to Kunming, like he has with several other provincial capitals around China, so my sights had to broadened to second tier availability. I identified 25N 101E and 25N 104E as possibilities. The first day I figured I had the most time, so I would try for that one.
Kunming is located close to the 25N parallel and there is an expressway to Dali, a Disneyfied tourist destination, so I knew that transport along this corridor would be rapid. The town closest to 25N 101E is called Sanjie (Three Streets) which follows a pattern in the area of several other similarly named towns (Two Streets, Five Streets and Six Streets). Sanjie is 73 km southwest of the county seat town of Nanhua (South Flower), the distance a seemingly short hop under ordinary circumstances.
Rising early I alight from the comforts of a five-star hotel (fringe benefit of being with my wife) and take the bus to the south bus station near the train station. Surprisingly, there are no direct buses to Nanhua so I have to settle for Chuxiong (Clearly Brave), 50 km east of Nanhua.
The traffic in Kunming during rush hours is excruciating. When my wife and I arrived in Kunming at 5:30 PM the day before, it took more than an hour to go just 6 km. On the way to the bus station I spot a bevy of newspaper carriers hunched over stacks of newspaper sections assembling them before delivery. The Chinese newspapers put the burden on the carriers to assemble the papers.
Leaving the bus station at 8:40 AM was no different with it taking 30 minutes to go around the block to get on the expressway ramp. Once on, I thought we would be home free, but just a few kilometers later, we left the elevated structure and bumped and grinded along through the rubble of a yet another roadway construction project for another 30 minutes before returning to the expressway.
Shocks of raw China travel: One of the things that always strikes me like a slap in the face is going from the city to the countryside. Beside me on the bus was a farmer who smoked like there was no tomorrow (par for the course) and peeled his apple with a dirty thumbnail before eating it (I'm glad he didn't offer me a bite).
Along the way we passed within 2.3 km of 25N 102E, another confluence already visited by Ray and company. From the expressway it looked like it would be a cross-country hike over hill and dale to reach this one. There is no expressway exit for more than 10 kilometers in either direction.
Three hours later I arrived in Chuxiong and made a quick change to the Nanhua bus which has departures every eight minutes. However, short bus headways do not mean quick service. In annoying Chinese fashion, the drivers all creep along the road in order to have a better chance of having more passengers along the road waiting, until the bus behind is in sight, and then they take off like a shot.
Arriving in Nanhua at 12:45 PM I search for a bus to Sanjie (pronounced "San ga" in Yunnan dialect) but there are no buses to Sanjie. So then I ask about the closer Erjie (Two Streets) and I am told to go to another place in the south of town to catch that bus.
Arriving at 1 PM I am thrilled to find at bus waiting with the driver, but he informs me that his bus will not be leaving until 2:15 PM. Another long delay that I can't afford. I spot a minivan going to an intermediary town called Xuying (Slowly Seeking) and opt for that hoping I'll be able to catch another bus from that town to Erjie or even Sanjie, my destination. I am the last person to join and the minivan is full so we roar off until the edge of town when the cobblestones start. After 10 minutes I am dropped off in Xuying, a non-descript flyblown town with the locals looking at me as if I were an aberration.
The town appears as a circle with a dot inside indicating supposedly indicating something of substance but is in really a one street village barely 100 meters in length. Needless to say, there is no bus. So like the locals I sit on my haunches and wait. Finally one appears and I jump up, but it is to a destination that does not appear on my map. So the wait begins again. The next bus appears about 2:30 PM and surprisingly it is going to Sanjie. It originated in Chuxiong, so, had I known, I could have saved myself a lot of aggravation.
The bus driver stopped the bus to pick me up, but conferred with the locals on my destination before opening the door. The way that door opened was a precursor of the ride to Sanjie, agonizingly slowly. Thankfully the bus was only half full and a seat was available in back by the window saving me the frustration of dealing with the incessant smoking that goes on every bus regardless of the signs posted.
The bus lumbered along at a snail's pace and I am reduced to watching for kilometer marked and the time: consistently two markers every five minutes or 24 kmh or 15 mph. The GPS shows the confluence point (CP) at a straight-line distance of 28 km and I thinking this is never going to work. The terrain changes from gently rolling to mountainous as we crawl up and bump down ridge after ridge. The climbs and descents become longer and steeper. The landscape is wooded with evergreen pines and low brush and I wonder "what if" about how I would proceed if the CP was here, or there or way up there!
The town of Erjie is an agricultural center with farmers and farming supplies the entire length of the main street. The driver waits for me to get off, but I don't move and word that I am going to Sanjie is passed up the bus person to person, telephone style.
As we cross one last ridge, Sanjie comes into view at long last. It is about twice the size of its sister city Erjie set on the side of a fully terrace mountain at about 1,700 meters. The DCP says the cp is 5.1 Km west of Sanjie at 2,472 meters. On all the maps the road is shown as a straight line due west of Sanjie, but when I see the terrain I double-check the distance on the map. It shows a short line that in other places would be 4 km, but here it is 19 km. It must be several ridges to the west of Sanjie, and I am clearly not going to make it there today.
It is market day in Sanjie with buyers and traders cheek to jowl. We arrive at 4 PM and I regret having come this far only to be forced to turn back immediately. I scan the streets for buses, but the one I arrived in is the only one in town. I ask the driver when he is going to return to Chuxiong and the expected answer of tomorrow is furnished. Hunting for other options limits me to dump trucks packed with people standing in the back going home from the market day, and motorcycles of which there are about 10. Of those, only three are of the larger (by Chinese standards) 150 cc models needed to make a quicker return to Nanhua. The others are 125 cc used for short trips around town. One driver says to wait until tomorrow, it will only cost you 10 yuan. I promised my wife I would return, so I feel I must try all avenues and offer 100 yuan. This is likely more than he makes in three days, so I can see he is very tempted, but he so also ready to quit for the day, pulling up a huge smoking bong used by the men in Yunnan and a beer that he bites open with what is remaining of his teeth. I up the price to 120 yuan and I can tell he is battling with himself, but the beer is open and the smoke is wafting and he turns me down.
One down, two to go. I ask the next motorcycle driver and he just shakes his head no. That leaves me with one alternative left. A young man at the edge of town who previously told me no because he had some family business to attend to. I went back and offered him 120 yuan and his eyes light up. He asks me to repeat the figure and then turns to a young woman to discuss with her. He agrees! I am ecstatic! He removes the cargo he was bundling on the back of the motorcycle when I approached him and jumps on the bike. Then the woman gets on. Ah, there will be three of us. It is a tight fit, but we manage. It is about 5 PM and optimistically speaking we should be able to get to Nanhua by 7 PM.
Taking the motorcycle back is like a taking a breath of fresh air. I can clearly see the layout of the land, plus there is none of the smoking, spitting and staring that comes along with all bus rides. The cost is 10 times more than the bus, but at this point, I feel it is worth it.
Climbing up the hills is slow going as the 150 cc engine has to carry three of us. And the road is quite bad reducing our speed on the downhill stretches. We pass one dump truck after another chugging up the hills loaded with people standing in the back on their way home from the market day in Sanjie.
About 10 km out of town, we stop to change motorcycles with one of the guys who previously turned me down. Back on the motorcycle, the temperature is dropping fast and I put on more clothes. We go another 10 km and the driver says he wants to take a detour to his village to get some warmer clothes. His village is quite a out of the way on a path that continues to narrow until it ended at his house. It is a farmhouse in the style of the four-sided courtyard houses that were formerly common in China. There are pigs, chicken, ducks, geese, dogs and cats scattered in various places around the manor. His relatives are working on various projects around the house including decorating a room with a new ceiling and wall paneling. He and the woman take their time in visiting a few people and introducing me to a few. They take there time in getting their clothes and I am left to wander around by myself.
After about 30 minutes they are ready to go and we go back to the main road. The scenery is hilly of farms and small villages, quiet and serene. I suspect that the man and woman are married. I ask and they confirm that they were just married this year.
At the main road, the man decides to check the gas tank for fuel and in the process breaks the head of the key in the lock. He is embarrassed and flustered for a minute, but then calls his friend whose motorcycle we borrowed and tells him to bring another key. The driver assures me he will be here shortly.
When the replacement key arrives, it is almost dark and my hopes of getting to Nanhua by 7 PM are dashed. We stop again for fuel and then are our way again.
Night falls quickly, and the stars appear in spades on this moonless and cloudless night. The Milky Way blankets the sky above and I pick out my favorite constellation, the Pleiades, peeking over the horizon. The motorcycle grinds slowly up and down the road and the woman gets drowsy sandwiched between me and the driver. I end up propping her up to keep her from falling off.
We finally arrive in Nanhua at 8:30 PM and I ask them to drop me off at the expressway toll booths. It is my hope to snag a ride here from a bus or truck heading to Kunming. There is a woman also waiting nearby sending text messages, but she has no luggage and doesn't seem to be looking for a ride.
Traffic is light so I walk down the ramp to the expressway and try my luck flagging down a bus there. It is pitch dark and the traffic is flying by with no one heeding in the slightest to me. I walk back to the toll booths and see a truck parked on the side of the road with laughing and giggling noises coming from inside. The woman I saw before is not around so I suspect she is at work in the truck.
It is now about 9:30 PM and I walk back into town and wait at a major intersection hoping to catch a sleeper bus heading to Kunming here. After about 45 minutes one appears and I hail it down, but the driver tells me he is not going to Kunming. I am wondering if my only choice left is to hire a taxi. I stop one and ask the price. He says 450 RMB, to which I just shut the door in answer. I don't have that much on me, and I wouldn't pay that much anyway. The driver is pretty gung-ho however, and tells me that he can take me to Chuxiong where I can catch a bus to Kunming. He says there are buses stopping there all the time. I ask how much, and he tells me 60 RMB. I tell him I'll give him 50. He is a bit taken aback, but finally agrees and we are off. Despite being in his 50's, he likes listening to rock 'n roll music at full volume and he drives like he is on speed. We cover the 60 km in no time and he drops me off breathless at the toll booth gates to the expressway.
He tells me to walk up the ramp 200 meters and wait. So I do. It is very dark and there is no traffic. I am left wondering if I have literally been taken for a ride and am no better off than I was back in Nanhua when two women walk by. I ask them if they are going to Kunming too, but they say no, they are just walking home. They continue on but then one turns around and tells me that if I want to go to Kunming, I should walk up to highway. It turns out there is bus inspection station there and all buses have to stop to have their steering and lights checked. At 11:30 PM a new sleeper bus from Chuanjian, a town where one of my
Bike China Adventures tours stops, arrives and the friendly driver says there is room for me. The ticket is 39 RMB, a deal. The new sleeper buses have only single beds three across and two high with tow narrow aisles down the length of the bus. I get one on the bottom by a window and quickly fall asleep. This is a dramatic improvement over the last time I took a sleeper bus with my wife seven years before from a small village in the hinterland of Yunnan. At that time the bus was full of farmers heading to the city. We will never forget the first ten minutes when 40 people simultaneously took of their shoes in a closed up bus; the smell it was enough to sear your nose hairs right off!
We arrived in Kunming at 2:45 AM and I jumped in a taxi back to the hotel, never being so glad to back.
While the confluence hunt was unsuccessful, I had a full day of experiences and once again satisfied my urge for adventure.