06-Oct-2003 -- Story continues from 27°N 117°E.
Sunday 5 October 2003, 4:05 p.m. - I wait for almost an hour before a bus comes along. It's heading east to the next major city, Taining, and I hop on board.
5:05 p.m. - I arrive in Taining, and want to continue east to Shunchang, but there are no more buses to Shunchang until tomorrow morning. There is, however, a bus northeast to Shaowu due to depart in 15 minutes, so I decide to take it instead. I join a number of other passengers pacing back and forth, waiting for the same bus. When it finally pulls into the station, there is a frenzied scramble as everyone tries to get on board and secure the best seats. I join the fray, but am too slow to get my favourite seat at the front.
7:25 p.m. - It's already dark when I arrive in Shaowu. I follow several other passengers on the five-minute walk from the bus station to the train station, where, without harbouring much hope, I enquire if there are any trains to Shunchang tonight. I'm pleasantly surprised to learn that there's one due at 7:48 p.m. that will pass through Shunchang en route to Xiamen, a large coastal city in the southeast of Fujian Province. I purchase my ticket, a "no seat" ticket, and quickly make my way through to the platform to wait for the train.
8:00 p.m. - The train arrives slightly behind schedule. I'm fortunate enough to find an empty seat for the two-hour journey.
10:00 p.m. - I arrive in Shunchang at long last. On my way out of the train station, I ask one of the station attendants what the best hotel in Shunchang is, and how to get there. Following her instructions, I take a two-yuan (US$0.25) yellow minivan-taxi ride to the hotel. After checking in, I leave my bag in the room, glad finally to be rid of the heavy burden which I've been carrying the entire day, and go out for a bowl of noodles in a small restaurant across the street. This is my dinner--late, but good.
Returning to the hotel, I quiz the receptionist about how to get to Gangxia, only to discover that I've misread one of the characters (a seemingly common theme of this confluence trip), and that it's really Lanxia. She assures me that there are plenty of buses going to Lanxia, and that they leave from the Hekou Bus Station.
Monday 6 October 2003, 6:00 a.m. - I wake early without the need for an alarm. I shower, pack, check out, then hop into a passing yellow minivan-taxi and ask the driver to take me to the Hekou Bus Station. Before we get to the bus station though, I see a Lanxia bus sitting on the opposite side of the road, and ask the driver to stop. He kindly does a u-turn, and drops me off right beside the bus.
6:55 a.m. - The Lanxia bus departs. It's a trawler bus, and we agonisingly inch our way along for 20 minutes, hunting for more passengers, before truly getting underway. Even when underway, the bus continues to stop frequently to pick up and let down passengers. At one stage, a man gets on with a pole of candied crab apples on bamboo skewers.
The tickets seller is friendly and talkative. She asks me where I'm going, and I tell her to the village of Xiadun. She says she's never heard of it, but one of the other passengers who's just got on board, an attractive lady sporting a genuine pearl necklace, says she's from Xiadun, and offers to help me get there.
8:40 a.m. - The bus arrives in Lanxia, 4.6 kilometres south of the confluence. The attractive lady from Xiadun leads me to one of several three-wheelers that have congregated in anticipation of the bus's arrival, and tells me to get on board. She then instructs the driver to wait while she goes off to buy some vegetables from the nearby open market. There are several other passengers already on board, and we all await her return, then set off for Xiadun.
One of the passengers has an inkling of geography, and soon understands my explanation of what a degree confluence is, and how I intend to find it using my GPS. Everyone takes an interest. I point out the confluence on the map, and a small village named Yangmeikeng marked nearby.
When we arrive in Xiadun, the attractive lady tells me to stay on board, while she goes round to talk to the driver. She then comes back and explains that she's asked the driver to take me a little further down the road, where I will find the path to Yangmeikeng. She also says to let her know when I get back from the confluence, and writes her name, Wei Jinying, and telephone number in my notebook. I thank her very much, and say goodbye.
9:05 a.m. - The three-wheeler driver drops me off 1.29 kilometres west of the confluence, and indicates I should climb a set of stone steps leading up the embankment on the right side of the road. I go to pay him, only to be told that my fare has already been paid by Wei Jinying.
I climb the steps and emerge onto a dirt road, which I follow for 10 minutes. With the confluence now 1.04 kilometres northeast, and the road seemingly heading at right angles to it, I turn left onto a smaller path leading up a valley of cultivated hillsides interspersed with pine forests. There are also orchards of green mandarin trees, and groves of bamboo.
9:40 a.m. - As I approach the end of the valley, I pass three motorbikes parked on the path, and shortly thereafter hear voices coming from up ahead. The path wends its way up through a plantation of mandarin trees, and I come across two men and a woman sitting at the far extremity of the orchard. They encourage me to sit and rest. The woman picks lots of ripe green mandarins for me to eat, and then goes off and picks yet more, which I'm obliged to stuff into my small day pack until it's overflowing and can hold no more.
The confluence is 350 metres east-northeast from where we're sitting. Behind us is a hilltop covered in bamboo, and it's obvious that the confluence is located on the other side. The lady tells me that, had I stayed on the dirt road instead of turning left up this valley, the road would have eventually brought me around to the other side of the hill.
But climbing up through the bamboo is not difficult. The hillside is crisscrossed with numerous small paths and steps, and I soon reach the summit, the confluence now only 180 metres further east, down the other side. For no apparent reason, there are swarms of mosquitoes up here, and I'm being eaten alive.
10:20 a.m. - I locate the confluence in a somewhat neglected section of the bamboo grove, with much accumulated undergrowth harbouring not only thorn bushes but also an abundance of spiders. I don't waste too much time taking the regulation north-south-east-west shots.
10:35 a.m. - The mandarin lady was quite correct when she told me that the road came around to this side of the hill, because I emerge onto it after just a few minutes of scrambling down the bamboo-covered hillside from the confluence. What she didn't tell me, however, was how far out of my way I'd have to go to follow it around the hill. I walk on and on, my GPS all the time telling me I'm getting further and further away from Xiadun.
In the course of this detour, I startle a large, dark-coloured snake sunning itself on the road. The snake rapidly slithers off into the bush and disappears before I have any hope of photographing it.
The road continues to take me in the direction opposite to which I should be heading. Eventually I abandon it, and take to the hillside, following small overgrown trails. In the end though, I simply re-emerge onto the same dirt road, having expended a lot of energy and sweat for no good purpose.
11:40 a.m. - In due course, the road does indeed lead me back to Xiadun. I pass by several houses with trays of cotton that have been put out in the sun to dry. In the centre of Xiadun, a village with a population of just over 200, I find a small shop with a public telephone, and ring Wei Jinying. She tells me to stay put, and a couple of minutes later arrives on foot to take me back to her place, where she and her husband, Fan Guangmei, run another small shop.
I wait in their shop and chat with several locals, while out the back Wei Jinying and Fan Guangmei are cooking up a storm. I tell them I can't stay long, and not to make anything special, but I know it's going to be a fancy meal fit for visiting royalty. This is the Chinese way.
I say I've brought them a bagful of mandarins, but Wei Jinying just laughs and says that, in this village, they have mandarins coming out of their ears, and that I should keep them for myself. I don't have much success offering them around to the locals sitting in the shop with me either.
One by one, the locals drift away, until there's only me left, at which point I'm called through to the back for lunch. The meal is scrumptious, and includes two types of bamboo shoots (one of which is a specialty of the area), shellfish, duck, green vegetables, soup, etc.
I ask them if they have any children, and they tell me they have a young daughter who is at school. They also have two very friendly ginger cats, a mother and her kitten, that beg for scraps beside the table the whole time we eat.
1:00 p.m. - I bid my farewells, thanking them profusely for their kind hospitality and generosity. Fan Guangmei accompanies me back to the centre of Xiadun, where he kindly arranges for a motorcyclist to take me back to Lanxia.
In Lanxia, I meet up with the same bus crew who were on the bus in the morning. The bus is not due to depart until 1:35 p.m., so we sit around with several other people chatting.
As is often the case in China, the topic of conversation inevitably comes round to money. Someone teases the ticket seller, asking her what she'd do if I tried to pay my fare with American dollars. I point out that I'm not American, and don't have American dollars; I live in Hong Kong, and use Hong Kong dollars. They are keen to see what Hong Kong currency looks like, and I find a couple of the new, plastic, blue and purple HK$10 notes in my wallet. These brightly coloured banknotes have only recently been brought into circulation in Hong Kong. The locals think they're wonderful, and ask if they may buy them from me, to which I reply that I'm happy to exchange them at par for Chinese yuan. As soon as the words leave my mouth, a good-natured brawl erupts, as they fight over the rights to the two banknotes. The losers ask if I have any more, but now all I can offer are two, not so attractive, paper HK$20 notes. These also get snapped up, although not quite as voraciously. There are no takers for my HK$100 notes.
On the bus journey back to Shunchang, the bubbly ticket seller talks non-stop, and proudly shows off her HK$20 note to every new passenger who gets on board. One such passenger asks me if I have any more, and when I tell him all I have left are HK$100 notes, he says he'd still like one, so I swap it for 105 yuan, more or less the official exchange rate.
2:50 p.m. - We arrive in Shunchang, and the ticket seller coerces the driver into taking a photo of her and me in front of the bus, then writes down her address for me so that I can send her a copy. As I say goodbye, she reminds me to bring more new HK$10 notes with me the next time I visit Shunchang.
I take a yellow minivan-taxi back to the hotel to collect my backpack, then another to the train station, where I buy a ticket on the 5:05 p.m. train to Laizhou (which I've been incorrectly calling Laidan--another case of a misread character). With an hour and a half before departure, I go and sit in the waiting corral and read my New Scientist magazine to pass the time.
5:05 p.m. - The train to Laizhou departs on time. My "no seat" ticket is just that; the train is very crowded, and all I can find is a small spot between two carriages where I remain standing for the hour-long journey.
6:10 p.m. - Upon arrival in Laizhou, I try to buy a ticket on the 12:32 a.m. train to Shenzhen, but there are no hard sleeper tickets available, no soft sleepers, not even any hard seats. I end up with another "no seat" ticket, and a suggestion from the ticket seller that I try my luck at upgrading on the train.
This disrupts my plans somewhat, because I was hoping to spend the next six hours before my train is due relaxing in the opulence of the soft sleeper waiting room. I decide to try to gatecrash it anyway, taking advantage of the fact that foreigners can often get away with such things in China.
As I look around for the soft sleeper waiting room, a policeman with a friendly face comes up and asks if he can be of any assistance. I explain that I'm looking for the soft sleeper waiting room, and he says that the Laizhou Railway Station unfortunately doesn't yet have one, but that I'm welcome to wait upstairs in the police station across the road, where there's a television and hot tea. This is one of the more common encounters I've had with the Chinese police, who usually turn out to be extremely helpful and friendly.
I ask if it's okay to leave my backpack while I go out for dinner, and the policeman asks what I fancy eating. I tell him a simple bowl of noodles in soup, and he says not to worry, he'll order it for me. A little while later he reappears and leads me into an upstairs room in the restaurant next door, where the attentive staff place before me an enormous bowl of noodles in soup, containing mushrooms, beef, squid, shellfish, green vegetables, and topped off with a fried egg--delicious! Afterwards, I discover that the policeman has already paid for it. I try to give him the money, but he won't hear of it.
Monday 6 October 2003, 12:32 a.m. - The Shenzhen train leaves on schedule, and I'm able to secure an upgrade to a hard sleeper without any problems, making for a relaxing journey home, marking the culmination of another successful Chinese confluence trip.