Fri 29 Jul 2005 (Day 1), 10:15 a.m. - I set off from home on the short walk down to the Yung Shue Wan ferry pier on Lamma Island to catch the 10:30 a.m. ferry to Central. It rained heavily earlier in the morning, but now the sun is shining, and Hong Kong is in for another humid summer day in the low 30s °C.
And so begins another epic confluence hunt, scheduled to last 30 days--the maximum length of stay permitted by my mainland Chinese visa--and to take in up to 27 carefully planned confluences in Anhui and Hubei provinces.
Sitting on the ferry, I pull out the thick paperback I've brought along for the trip: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, a birthday present from my sister Sasha, a choice no doubt influenced by the upbringing of our father Nod, the physicist. An anonymous quotation in the book says: "A physicist is the atoms' way of thinking about atoms".
From Central I take another ferry, the famous Star Ferry, across the harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui, where I have time to drop into the Happy Garden Noodle & Congee Kitchen on Canton Road for a bowl of congee before continuing on to the China (HK) Ferry Terminal for my 12:45 p.m. ferry to the Shenzhen airport.
A sign on the warm-air hand-dryer in the ferry terminal restroom warns me to "keep off the water". I wonder if I should take the ferry or not.
4:10 p.m. - I find my way to my seat on Shenzhen Airlines flight ZH9989 to Hefei, capital of Anhui Province, and patiently await our scheduled 4:25 p.m. departure. Earlier, in the Shenzhen Airport terminal building, I was able to avail myself of the luxury of the VIP lounge thanks to my new Priority Pass card, a free gift simply for applying for a Platinum Visa card, itself also free. The VIP lounge was devilishly hard to find, so I was not surprised to find I was the sole VIP. A bevy of young girls in uniform catered to my every whim. This trip is starting out on a decidedly positive note.
Back in the plane, I casually look over the promotional leaflet in the seat pocket in front of me, and notice that Shenzhen Airlines has a new English slogan: "TRAVEL TO LEARN AHD LEARN TO TRAVEL". Pity they misspelled "AND". Not only that, to my way of thinking at least, they also got the meaning back-to-front.
5:25 p.m. - After sitting motionless for an hour and a quarter, I have fallen asleep, but am now awoken as we finally taxi out to take off.
Around mid flight, like it or not, we are treated to the spectacle of a tall, overweight foreigner with very unnaturally coloured golden hair, stripped to the waist and exposing acres of unsightly flab, literally forcing his way past two food trolleys, nearly overturning one of them in the process, as he makes his way from his back row seat all the way up into the first class compartment, paying no heed whatsoever to the poor diminutive hostesses who are trying to stop him. Apparently he is not entirely satisfied with the air conditioning. Eventually, after much pleading, the hostesses finally persuade him to put his shirt back on and to return to his seat. I feel so ashamed to be a foreigner right now, and simply can't believe that someone could behave in that manner.
7:30 p.m. - I check into the Liangyuan Business Hotel in Hefei, the room having been booked by Xu Changjiang (Xiao Xu). He, Jim and Nur show up within the hour, having just flown in from Guangxi, where Jim and Xiao Xu work together on an AusAID project. I think Xiao Xu's name, "Changjiang", is quite interesting, because it literally means "Yangtze River".
Before retiring for the night, the four of us go out for a stroll around the nearby streets. Among other things, we see watermelons--both red and yellow ones on the inside--being sold at a makeshift roadside stall. We round off the evening with a drink in a western café called New York New York.
Sat 30 Jul 2005 (Day 2), 6:30 a.m. - We enjoy our complimentary buffet breakfast in the Liangyuan Business Hotel's 20th floor revolving restaurant, which affords great views of the smog-shrouded city of Hefei, then check out and take a taxi to the long-distance bus station for the 7:40 a.m. bus to Liu'an, capital of Liu'an Prefecture.
The bus travels west down a long, straight, divided highway with rice paddies on either side. The video system breaks down before we even leave the outskirts of Hefei, making for a pleasantly peaceful journey.
9:05 a.m. - We arrive at the Liu'an East Bus Station, and take a taxi to the South Station. Xiao Xu engages our woman taxi driver in conversation, and soon has her singing Huangmei Opera for us!
At the South Station, Xiao Xu finds us a bus directly to Wulong Township in neighbouring Huoqiu County. Wulong is very close to our ultimate objective, however departure time is not until 10:30 a.m., leaving us over an hour's wait in the increasingly hot summer sun. We amuse ourselves by watching the roof of the bus being loaded with dozens and dozens of 20-packs of bottled water, all stacked very neatly and then secured with netting.
This is not the scene some distance into our journey however, when the driver suddenly pulls the bus to a halt after we hear the crash of 20 bottles of water hitting the road behind us. The once neatly stacked packs are now in complete chaos, and it takes some considerable time to resecure the ungainly pile in an effort to minimise further losses.
12:25 p.m. - We arrive in Wulong, with the confluence point 4.1 kilometres WSW. The entrepreneurial bus driver also has a minivan, and soon we are all in his minivan heading to the confluence. We follow a road west, then turn south at a corner patrolled by some brightly painted geese, and finally park at a small collection of farmhouses called Tongfu Village, with the confluence point just 300 metres ENE.
We make our way through the backyard of one of the farmhouses out into the rice paddies, and gradually zigzag our way towards the point. We are chagrined to discover that the confluence in fact lies just a few metres from a good vehicle track running directly from the road where we just parked. Had we noticed this vehicle track in the first place, it would have made the last 300 metres a heck of a lot easier!
Never mind. We cross the track and go down into the narrow rice paddy beside it, getting our shoes quite muddy in the process. Xiao Xu is first to the point, and quickly has all the zeroes. This is his first ever confluence visit, and he relishes the moment. I snap east and west photos, but fail to notice until later on that they are somewhat spoiled by a water droplet on the camera lens.
We return to the minivan the easy way, along the vehicle track. The driver drops us off at a main road, where we can catch a bus to Fuyang, en route to our next destination.
Story continues at 33°N 115°E.
Postscript: At the time we visited this confluence, we were unaware of Ray's visit a couple of weeks earlier, so were unable to benefit from the valuable intelligence in his report.