20-Jun-2006 -- Story continues from 27°N 106°E.
At 7:15 p.m. we caught a passing minivan back to the county capital of Qiánxī (黔西县), where we were dropped on the outskirts of town. We then took a taxi back to the vicinity of the bus station. The first bus WNW to the prefecture capital of Bìjié (毕节市) did not depart until the following morning, so we went to a nearby hotel that had been recommended, however were not too impressed with it, and ended up walking a few blocks until we found the very satisfactory Shuǐxī Hotel (水西宾馆), which was good value at 120 yuan (US$ 15) per night, including breakfast.
We were pretty exhausted after our first two-confluence day of the trip so far, so we elected not to venture out again, eating dinner in the hotel dining room instead, which was also extremely good value.
Tuesday 20 June 2006 (Day 21)
The alarm went off at 6 a.m., and we checked out shortly before 7 a.m. The complimentary breakfast was not supposed to start until 7:30 a.m., however the restaurant staff from the night before had kindly offered to start half an hour early this morning, just for us. It was certainly worth it.
After breakfast, we took a taxi to the bus station. It was a beautiful sunny morning with blue skies and just the odd wisp of cloud. We got front row seats in a large minivan to Bìjié, but had to wait until it filled up before it finally left at 8:15 a.m.
The single-lane freeway to Bìjié went through beautiful farming country amid rolling hills, interspersed by the occasional spectacular gorge. We arrived in Bìjié shortly before 10 a.m. At the bus station we noticed a sign for Gùkāi (故开乡), and upon enquiry learned that there was a Gùkāi bus in the adjoining parking area, just up the road from the main bus station. This was quite a stroke of luck, because we really hadn't expected to find a direct bus to this small town to the SW, in neighbouring Nàyōng County (纳雍县).
We walked up to the adjoining parking area, located the bus, and secured our seats: me in the front next to the driver, and Ah Feng in the first row immediately behind the driver. The bus was not due to leave until 12 noon, and the journey, we were told, would take approximately two and a half hours. We left our belongings on the bus under the care and supervision of the driver and ticket seller, then went off for a stroll and an early lunch.
We found a small restaurant on a quiet street a couple of blocks from the station. The restaurant owner whispered in Ah Feng's ear, asking her what nationality I was. Australian. This answer satisfied him, and he then explained that if I had been American, he wouldn't have served us. He said he hated Americans, but didn't give any specific reason - just "because of everything", he said.
On the way back to the bus station, we had time to do the tourist thing, and buy a few brightly coloured minority nationality baby slings, destined to adorn the wall at home, or become presents for unsuspecting friends and relatives.
When we got back to the bus at 11:50 a.m., it was already full, and as soon as we got on board, it departed. It was fiercely hot in the sun, and of course there was no air conditioning. We proceeded at a sedate pace along a good road, making a pleasant change from the recent flat-out freeway journeys with their white-knuckle overtaking manoeuvres. The road often climbed quite high, offering spectacular views for miles around. We arrived in Gùkāi at 2:30 p.m., with the confluence 9.3 kilometres west.
Getting ourselves a room at the local guesthouse proved interesting. Due to local custom - Gùkāi is inhabited by Miáo (苗族) and Yí (彝族) minority nationalities - they wouldn't let us share a room, even though we were married. In fact, they wouldn't even let us stay on the same floor! So Ah Feng ended up in one room on the second floor, and I was in another on the third.
After putting on our long pants and hiking boots, we ventured out of the guesthouse, and then entered into long protracted negotiations with a motorcyclist to take us to the village of Dǎohuílóng (倒回龙). The initial asking price was 120 yuan (US$ 15), but in the end we agreed on 80 yuan (US$ 10) for a round trip, including his waiting time.
We set off at 3:30 p.m., travelled four kilometres north along the main road towards Yángchǎng (羊场乡), then turned east on the road towards Xǔjiādì (许家地). At some distance along this road, we turned off to the left again, towards Dǎohuílóng. We continued on about a kilometre past Dǎohuílóng to where the confluence was exactly one kilometre north, and it looked as though there might be a way into it between the steep hills.
Our motorcyclist hid his bike a short distance off the road, then at 4:20 p.m., the three of us set off on foot. There was indeed a very good path to follow through the rocky terrain. Twenty minutes later, when we were about 200 metres short of the confluence, we left the path and made our way through some corn fields until we found another path heading in the right direction.
Just as we found the confluence point, which was situated on a cultivated slope just above a small village of several houses, we started hearing the ominous sounds of thunder growing steadily louder. We quickly documented the spot, taking the photos facing north, south, east and west, then went down to the village, named Hépíng (和平村), to ask if there was a more direct path out.
Just at that moment, the heavens opened up, and we all raced to the nearest farmhouse to take shelter. While we waited for the rain to stop, we chatted with our hosts. They remembered Rainer's visit, and said that he had taken a photo with one of the young girls of the village, who just happened to also be sheltering there in the farmhouse with us. It therefore seemed appropriate that another photo now be taken of her with the newly arrived foreigner. I also gave them the copy of Rainer's visit report that I'd brought with me.
The rain, thunder and lightning showed no signs of stopping anytime soon, so in the end we decided to leave anyway, turning down the locals' kind offer to put us all up for the night. We got back to the bike at 6:30 p.m., with the rain still coming down, then endured a wet and miserable ride back to Gùkāi.
Safely inside our warm, dry guesthouse, we changed into dry clothes, then had dinner in the restaurant next door, followed by an early night.
At 10 p.m., when Ah Feng was fast asleep, three policemen came into the guesthouse and woke her up, demanding to see both our travel documents. Ah Feng came upstairs and woke me up to get the necessary documents, which were in my room, then went back downstairs and handed them over to the inquisitive policemen. She could understand just enough of the local dialect to hear them discussing amongst themselves the fact that none of them had any idea how to read my passport.
The policemen looked at some of the photos Ah Feng had taken, asked a few more stupid questions (like: why was there an age difference between us, to which Ah Feng replied, "Is that a problem?"), then they left. Apparently they thought I couldn't speak Chinese, which is why I was spared the interrogation this time.
Story continues at 27°N 104°E.