30-Aug-2006 -- Rainer Mautz is a long-time friend whom I met in Seoul, South Korea, in 1990 while we were both traveling by bicycle; he around the world, and me mostly in Asia (see Spoke Notes). We traveled together by bike for about four months in Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. We spent most of our time in China where it left a deep impression on both of us. We both ended up marrying Chinese women making China an integral part of our lives. Rainer was back in China on a holiday between jobs and he had a couple of weeks before his rendezvous with his wife in Urumqi in mid-September and decided to come to Chengdu to visit me and possibly do some cycling and confluencing, of which we are both passionate about.
My passion for cycling has spawned the creation of Bike China Adventures, Inc. which I started eight years ago when my wife and I returned to China to live. Unfortunately, Rainer's schedule happened during September, which is one of my busiest months for bike tours, so we could only manage a couple of days together.
Sichuan province has 42 confluences, of which 12 are in the Sichuan basin area and relatively easy to get to. The remaining 30 are in the Himalayan foothills and relatively difficult to access. When Rainer arrived, we spent several hours planning our time to provide the optimum use to get in some quality cycling and a reasonable chance at a successful confluence visit. Since I have been here, I have managed to visit all but one of the successful visits in Sichuan. While I was preoccupied with running Bike China and obsessed with reaching 31N 103E (with three attempts so far), another confluencer snagged 31N 102E. That was a wake-up call to action, and Rainer's visit provided the perfect excuse to go.
There were two confluences that appeared doable in a two-day time frame from Chengdu, which was all I could spare at the time, both of which I had attempted previously: 32N 107N, and 29N 103N. Rainer's rendezvous with his wife in Urumqi to the North (at about 44N 87E) and his intention to cycle as much of the way as possible made the 32N 107E confluence near Bazhong a logical choice. I had been to Bazhong three years earlier on a weekend confluence hunt, but ran out of time to make the visit successful. From my recollection, it appeared easily doable. We decided to leave the next day after Rainer had made a necessary visit to the bank and purchase of a bike.
The plan was to take a bus to Bazhong and then cycle to the confluence point the next day. Getting the bus was no problem and the bikes went in the cargo hold under the bus for about a third of the cost of our bus tickets. It was an fairly new and comfortable aircon bus, which meant the windows were sealed and theoretically there was no smoking on the bus. But in China, this is never the case. All the drivers smoke during the trip and they have little sympathy for those who find it offensive, or my case debilitating as I have a cigarette smoke allergy. I asked them several times not to smoke, but it had no effect.
From Chengdu to Bazhong it is about 400 km, but the state of the roads in northern Sichuan province results in a nine-hour journey, about half of which is on bad roads. Our bus was scheduled to leave at 4 PM but we didn't actually get out of the bus station until 5. Rainer and I spent the time catching up on each other's lives and how they have evolved over the years. Long bus trips are good for that, there is little else to do besides stare out the window or watch the mindless drivel on the onboard TV.
Arriving in Bazhong at 2 AM, we opted for a quick and easy hotel nearby the bus station, waking up the hapless attendant in the process. Rainer objected to my energetic attempts at getting the room cost down, saying the poor girl was barely awake. We ended up getting the room for about two thirds of the rack rate, which still seemed a bit too much to me.
As I recalled, the confluence was about 20 kilometers from downtown Bazhong. The next morning we checked again and found it was 28 km straight line distance. I thought we might be able to make the visit in a couple of hours and be back in time to take a shower before checking out at noon. I admit, I am a hopeless optimist, and Rainer, balancing the equation, is a confirmed pessimist. We checked out and left our bags with the receptionist and I asked her to charge my mobile phone battery while we were gone.
At 7:30 AM we had breakfast just outside the bus station: quick, cheap, and filling. It was a great feeling to get on the bike after a long bus ride. The air was cool, the sun was out and it was a glorious day for confluence hunt. The area was hilly, but the roads leaving the city were in good shape and we cruised along in good spirits.
After 21 km, we turned off the main at Qingjiang onto a dead-end road to Baimiao. The temperature was warming up considerably, and in Qingjiang we stopped at a fruit stand for a 4 kg watermelon. Rainer produced a spoon and told the fruit seller to cut the melon in half across the short section. I went to find a spoon to follow in kind and we sat there and finished the whole thing between the two of us. Jokingly, we put the emptied melon rhines on the scale and asked some money back for the 1.5 kg remaining. She wasn't amused.
Leaving Qingjiang we descended into a valley on a dirt road undergoing reconstruction. The Chinese method of road construction is generally to dump grapefruit sized rocks in the road bed and then let traffic beat it into place. In a vehicle, it makes for a rough ride, on a bike it's torture. There were short patches of semi-smooth riding on the footpaths along the edge, but for the most part it was bumping and grinding along.
We passed a couple of villages along the way where we stopped to drink our fill of water. By mid-day it was over 35 degrees C and we were sweating profusely. The road climbed continuously which also made it more tiring. Rainer kept telling me that we would not make it while I was determined to do whatever it took to get to the CP.
At about 1:45 PM we rolled into Baimiao, a forsaken village on top of a 900-meter ridge that never sees foreigners, much less on bikes. Cruising up and down the one and only street, there were only three restaurants to choose from and only one had any vegetables. We ordered a quick meal and asked about how to get to the other side of the valley. The confluence was about 2.5 km due west of Baimiao which involved going down into a deep valley. Fortunately, the area was densely populated and heavily farmed, meaning there were tracks we could follow.
Cruising down the steep hill after having spent the last four hours climbing was an exhilarating experience. At the bottom of the valley was a small stream and there were half a dozen boys swimming who invited us to join them. It was very tempting given the heat, but we were now under a time constraint to reach the CP and get back to Bazhong that evening. I had promised my wife I would be back that night.
The road meandered back and forth across the valley with junctions popping up now and again when we would have to choose a direction. We arrived at the end of the road about 800 meters from the CP and decided to lock the bikes to a tree and walk the rest of the way. This distance in hilly terrain can still take a very long time to get there. We were leaving the cultivated areas and floundered through the woods and brush, sometimes finding trails to follow. The way was up a steep hill and I was having the hardest time with it. A combination of lack of sleep, overexertion on the bike, lack of water and dehydration from the heat, and the steepness of the hill forced my progress to a crawl. I seriously wondered if I would make it at all. My heart rate was high, breathing labored and I was feeling very light-headed. I had bonked, big time; hit the wall. Rainer kept asking me if I wanted to turn back, and reiterated that he was sure we wouldn't make it anyway.
I was determined to continue and after many short breaks we slowly inched our way up. The trails had disappeared and we were left fighting our way through the dense brush. At 180 meter away, we reached another ridge and followed it around to an area of pine trees. We reached the magic line of 100 meters and rejoiced with the knowledge that we had indeed made it. Continuing to follow the GPS arrow, we reached another ridge steep ridge with 13 meters to go. Rainer and I both agreed this was good enough for volunteer work and set about recording the visit.
I had brought firecrackers to celebrate the event, but Rainer strongly (and rightly) objected by asking me, "Are you out of your mind!?" The area was experiencing a drought and had not received any rain for two months during what is normally the rainy season. Rainer took his standard notes of the visit recording among other things the type of vegetation around. I chose to rest, which I desperately needed to do.
Formalities aside, we started back with a complacent feeling of accomplishment. As usual, we found a good trail on the way back and were back at our bikes in short order. Then there was the fast ride down one side of the valley and then a 500-meter climb to the ridge where Baimiao stood. The first order of business was to get desperately needed water, and then a ride back to Bazhong.
I went back to the restaurant where we had lunch and spotted a mini-van. Asking around if it was going to Bazhong, they said we could hire it if we wanted. While I was eager to go, it is always better to not appear that way, and we negotiated a price that seemed fair. Rainer was entertaining the rest of the village with buying water.
What took us six hours to cover by bike, we did the return trip in 2.5 hours arriving at the bus station at 8:30 PM. Rainer and I thought it would be good to have dinner together and then I could take a shower in his room before taking the bus back to Chengdu.
While Rainer was getting the bikes out of the van, I ran inside to ask about bus tickets to Chengdu and was shocked to hear they were all sold out for the day. The attendant told me to go to the buses directly and ask there. There were 10 buses lined up all going to Chengdu at the same time. I was passed down the line from driver to driver until one was found with a seat that some had bought, but hadn't shown up. Two minutes later, however, that person arrived and I was left again without a place. Further down the line was a sleeper bus with an empty bed at the back. I jumped at that and told the driver I would be right back. I went to get my bike and bags. I told Rainer we would have to skip dinner this time. I raced back to the bus and we had a bit of a showdown while they wondered what to do with the bike. I took off the front wheel and told them it will fit in the luggage compartment. Then I got on the bus and we started toward the terminal gate. At that time I realized I left my mobile phone battery and charger in the hotel and I ran back out to get it. I was happy to have retrieved this and knowing that I would be back in Chengdu in time to meet a client from Holland arriving in Chengdu the next day at noon.
Despite the difficulties and effort required to cycle there versus taking transport the entire way, I still have no regrets and believe it makes for a much better experience.
Rainer subsequently continued to cycle northeast toward Urumqi picking up a number of confluences along the way which we will be seeing soon.