05-Jun-2006 -- Story continues from 32°N 111°E.
We returned to the guesthouse in Sìpíng (寺坪镇) where we'd left the rest of our things, freshened up a bit, then left at 1:30 p.m. to have a bowl of noodles at a restaurant across the street. (Our motorcyclist had been waiting outside the guesthouse, and steered us towards this particular restaurant.) We allowed one bus heading west towards Fáng County (房县) to go past as we waited for our noodles, then caught the next one, which came along at 2 p.m.
We arrived in Fáng County at 3:25 p.m., however the bus stopped at a police station about one kilometre short of the bus station, where the driver apparently had to settle some outstanding speeding fines. We waited patiently along with all the other passengers, but after 20 minutes our patience ran out, and we elected to walk the rest of the way.
When we reached the bus station, we discovered that there were no more buses heading south that day, so we bought tickets on the 8:20 a.m. bus to Yíchāng (宜昌市) the next morning.
The next thing to do was find somewhere to stay. We checked out the hotel attached to the bus station, decided against it, then took a three-wheeler to the local government-run hotel. It was here that our problems started.
As we were preparing to check in, an agitated hotel manager appeared and said that foreigners couldn't stay here. We asked why, and he replied that he couldn't say! Eventually it became evident that the reason was because Fáng County was not open to foreigners. The police were summoned to deal with the situation.
We were detained for several hours, asked lots of questions, had our bags searched (they found the satellite photos of particular interest), and I was required to sign three records of interview, before we were eventually bundled onto a bus heading north - the opposite direction to what we wanted - to the prefecture capital of Shíyàn (十堰市). Nevertheless, I considered us lucky. Things could have turned out a lot worse, bearing in mind what happened the last time I accidentally ventured into a closed county, when visiting 27°N 110°E in 2003.
Our bus left Fáng County at 6:35 p.m., and arrived at the outskirts of Shíyàn three hours later. We took a taxi to the central long distance bus station. After ascertaining that the first bus to Yíchāng left at 8 a.m. the next morning, we checked into the nice Huázhōng Grand Hotel (华中大酒店) across the street from the station. We went out again to a nearby fast food joint for a late dinner before finally returning to our room where we slept soundly after the long day's hectic activities.
Score for the day: confluences 1; arrests 1.
Friday 2 June 2006 (Day 3)
I awoke to the alarm shortly before 6 a.m., and made a quick foray over to the bus station to purchase our tickets on the 8 a.m. bus to Yíchāng.
Our 14th floor hotel room window looked out over a panorama of building rooftops, each one crammed with solar hot water heaters.
At 7 a.m. we went downstairs for the hotel's complimentary buffet breakfast, which was extremely good.
The Yíchāng bus, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment: one of those notorious little Iveco buses, cramped and uncomfortable. At least our journey would be on the freeway most of the way.
We arrived in Yíchāng seven hours later, at 3 p.m., and immediately transferred onto an Ēnshī (恩施市) bus departing at 3:30 p.m. The Ēnshī bus headed into the mountains and offered spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. We often caught sight of awe-inspiring engineering works that were underway for a new freeway that was being built straight through the mountains: a series of long tunnels interspersed with incredibly high bridges.
Progress along the existing narrow winding road was extremely slow however, and it was almost 1 a.m., 17 hours after we'd departed Shíyàn, that we finally arrived in Ēnshī. We checked into the modest, but new and very clean, Liángshí Hotel (粮食宾馆).
It was raining lightly. The confluence was 60 kilometres SE.
Saturday 3 June 2006 (Day 4)
We didn't wake up until nearly 8 a.m. The rain was only just holding off. We decided to do some laundry here, and gave several items to the hotel to wash, doing the rest ourselves.
We set out from the hotel at 9 a.m., stopping for breakfast at a roadside restaurant on the way to the bus station. At the station, an attendant arranged a nice new car rather than a bus to take us to Zhōngyíng (中营乡) in neighbouring Hèfēng County (鹤峰县). It was more expensive, but more comfortable and quicker. We had to share it with another couple.
We set off shortly before 10 a.m. It had started raining lightly. According to our driver, the journey of about 100 kilometres was expected to take roughly three hours. We travelled through mountainous country, with fog obscuring the view much of the way.
At 1:45 p.m. (after almost four hours), we asked the driver to stop, and stepped out of the car into the rain with the confluence a little under 600 metres NNW. We walked back up the road to one of many 180-degree hairpin turns, from where a path led off across the steep mountainside in the right general direction.
After following this path for a short while, we came to a fork, marked by an old pair of shoes. The lower path was the more well travelled, and therefore the easier, so we continued along this for a while, until it started descending rapidly and seemingly going off in the wrong direction. Convinced we had taken the wrong turn, we retraced our steps back to the old shoes, and this time took the more difficult upper path.
The upper path was not well used at all, and we were soon soaked to the bone from fighting our way through the dense foliage overgrowing the path. Nevertheless, we made good progress until we eventually found ourselves around 170 metres from the confluence, which was down an impenetrably steep, heavily foliated slope to the NW. We made a valiant effort to fight our way down, but had to give up after making only about 10 metres' progress - it was simply too steep and difficult.
We'd tentatively organised with the car driver to come back and pick us up, and there now ensued an exchange of confusing phone calls between the driver, the station attendant back in Ēnshī, and Ah Feng. I decided to give the lower path another try while Ah Feng returned to the road to wait for the car.
When I got beyond the point where we'd earlier turned back, I found that the lower path did in fact end up turning and heading once again in roughly the right direction, although it continued to descend. I made quick time until the confluence was just 150 metres above me to the SW, but once again the vegetation on the steep slope seemed impenetrable. Furthermore, it was still raining, and Ah Feng was shivering to death in her wet clothes back at the main road, so I just took a few photos of the GPS and the surrounding area to submit as an incomplete visit, then headed back to the road, arriving at 4:20 p.m.
The car ride had somehow fallen through, but we were able to catch a passing minivan towards the county capital. Although we were heading away from Ēnshī, where we needed to go, we now realised that this road was in fact not the main road link between Ēnshī and Hèfēng, even though it looked that way on the map.
When we arrived in Hèfēng, Ah Feng bought a complete outfit of new, and most importantly, dry, clothes. We then managed to get a car, together with another two occupants, back to Ēnshī. The first thing we did when we got back to our hotel was to take hot showers, then we went out for dinner and a hair-wash.
Sunday 4 June 2006 (Day 5)
Exhausted, we didn't get up until around 10 a.m.
Having slept on it, I felt I would always regret it if I didn't make another effort to successfully visit this confluence. I had another good long look at the satellite photo, and noticed that the confluence was located along what appeared to be a small stream that flowed north into a nearby river, and that by continuing along the lower path, we should come upon this river fairly near to where the stream entered it. I was now sure that, given sufficient time and favourable weather conditions, the confluence was doable. Ah Feng took some convincing, but in the end came around.
We decided to have a relaxing day, then make an all-out assault on the confluence tomorrow. After arranging for a late check-out, we went out for a late breakfast followed by a relaxed stroll around the streets of Ēnshī. The sky was still overcast, but it had stopped raining. Hopefully tomorrow would show even more improvement in the weather.
We came upon a roadside shoe repairwoman, and I got her to make some repairs to my small day pack, then we bought some fruit and medicine to help stave off any hint of a cold arising from yesterday's abortive confluence attempt in the rain. Ah Feng went back to the hotel to sleep some more, while I found an Internet bar where I posted our first two "visited but not yet submitted" plans to the DCP, and caught up on email.
We checked out of the hotel shortly before 2 p.m., then took a taxi to the Qīngjiāng Hotel (清江宾馆), which we now knew was the place from where all the Hefeng buses and cars departed. A seat in a cramped Iveco bus would have been 40 yuan (US$5.05), so we elected to take the 60 yuan (US$7.60) option again, and do the trip in a luxury sedan with two other passengers.
During the trip SE to Hèfēng, the sun actually made a brief appearance, which lifted our spirits and held out promise for the next day. The scenery between Ēnshī and Hèfēng was quite reminiscent of the pointy karst mountains around Guìlín (桂林市) and Yángshuò (阳朔县) in Guǎngxī (广西).
In Hèfēng, we checked into the comfortable Jīnyè Hotel (金叶宾馆) across from the bus station, then gathered intelligence on the bus situation for tomorrow morning: first bus to Zhōngyíng scheduled to depart at 7 a.m. After that, we found a nice restaurant for dinner.
The only low point of this relaxing day came at the very end, when we learned the weather forecast for tomorrow: more rain!
Monday 5 June 2006 (Day 6)
We got up a bit before 6 a.m. It was not raining. Ah Feng nevertheless took some coaxing to get moving. We checked out at 6:30 a.m., leaving our bags with reception, then crossed the street to the bus station and found our bus just in time to secure two seats together. One of the bus passengers was a large dog! We still had 20 minutes before our 7 a.m. departure, so Ah Feng went off to get some breakfast.
At 8:15 a.m. we disembarked at the 180-degree bend from where the path started. Ah Feng recognised it easily because of the lone tall tree. The confluence was 540 metres NW of this corner. The sun had come out, and unlike two days before, we could see clearly the surrounding mountains and the river winding through the valley below. There was a tea plantation on the hillside just below the point where the path started.
In just under an hour, at 9:10 a.m., we had walked the length of the path and reached the river. Just as we were approaching the river, we encountered an old gentleman coming in the opposite direction. He said he was Mongolian, although something was probably lost in the translation: he was speaking in heavy dialect. He was quite well dressed, sporting a long-sleeved white shirt with collar, over which he wore a smart-looking brown vest. But most interesting - and incongruous - were his shoes: made entirely of string!
We had no trouble finding the stream suggested by the satellite photo; the final dozen metres or so of the path down to the river were in fact along the boulder-strewn stream. The confluence was some 160 metres south. We left the path and began climbing up the rocky stream bed.
Satellite reception was proving a major problem. We could lock onto three satellites, but could not get a reading because they were in a straight line. At one point Ah Feng briefly got a reading indicating we were still 93 metres short our objective. We kept on climbing, up and up, hoping to get another reading when we neared the point. Progress was somewhat erratic; occasionally we came upon particularly steep sections that really slowed us down, requiring circumnavigation through dense foliage and slippery mud.
After an awfully long time, we finally managed to get another reading, only to discover that the confluence was now 190 metres back in the other direction! We had already passed it.
Although we had no GPS photo to prove it, we were confident that we had made a successful visit. We started back down the stream bed, again with no GPS readings, stopping roughly where we estimated the confluence point to be - certainly within 100 metres of it - and from there took north-south-east-west photos.
A little further on from this point, we came across a rather large, brightly coloured moth resting on a rock that was sticking up out of the stream.
We got back to the river at about 12:30 p.m., and proceeded to wash off some of the dirt and mud we'd accumulated scrambling up and down the stream bed. Our clothes were filthy!
When we got back to the main road, we didn't have to wait long before a three-wheeler came along, which we took the short distance down to the turn-off to Běijiā (北佳镇), and from there we got a minivan back to Hèfēng.
After reuniting us with our bags, the hotel receptionist kindly allowed us to use her room behind the counter to change into some clean clothes. We then had a late lunch, before catching another small saloon back to Ēnshī just after 3 p.m.
Story continues at 30°N 109°E.