21-Dec-2001 -- As my friend Sam and I toured across China from Sichuan to Shanghai along the Yangtse River, we thought of perhaps finding a few confluences along the way. The actual conditions for confluence hunting were, in reality, quite difficult. China in particular is quite sensitive towards foreigners walking across their country with detailed maps and GPS equipment. Since geographic data is considered to some degree low-level classified information in China, maps were the first obstacle. As best as I tried, I could not find any Topo Maps of China available within a scale suitable for orienteering or hiking. Finding GPS maps of China was actually impossible at the consumer level for the same reason.
The next obstacle was the fact that GPS units in China were technically illegal. I did not read the fine print on the Confluence site. In fact as my friend Mike told me in Shanghai, a bunch of foreigners were recently arrested in Beijing for using GPS on the Great Wall to survey its exact location.
Fortunately for us, Garmin had recently released in 2001 the eTrex Legend GPS receiver in Asia. The unit was small, rugged and resembled a mobile phone making it easier to lug around without too much attention. The next best feature was that unlike the Legend sold in the US, the ones sold in Asia had a built-in Asia base map to start with. The base map covered all of Asia and had a map of towns, cities, rivers, coastlines and roads good enough to use as a reference. The China portion was quite good with listings of even minor Chinese cities and towns. As far as I know this is the only GPS map of China available to consumers. On boats, busses and even on planes, the GPS was able to tell us the various towns we passed or came near with amazing accuracy.
After seeing how primitive the infrastructure was for Central China, we decided to try to focus instead on finding Shanghais one and only confluence instead. Chinas most modern and fastest growing city should be a cakewalk so we thought.
Although the confluence was technically in Shanghai, it was very close to the border of the next province. Even though Shanghai encompasses a dense and modern metropolitan area, the other parts are still farmland, canals, and industrial zones. Our confluence was in the heart of farmlands crisscrossed by wide and deep irrigation canals.
We began our journey from Shanghais bus terminal and took a tour bus to a lake close to confluence popular with Shanghai residents for the summer. This being December, there were few tourists visiting the lake at this chilly time of year. The comfortable and modern Korean bus was an expensive 10 yuan or USD 1.30 for an hour long drive. We took the bus until the town of Qingpu where we transferred to a localvery localbus for 2 yuan for another 30 minutes. The local bus was not only rusty and freezing, but the conductor was a grumpy chap who would yell at the other passengers if they werent clear where they wanted to get off. (Here in China, each conveyance has their own ticket collectorno need for fare machines when humans are still cheaper.) We disembarked in the town of Zhengdian just as the confluence site described the nearest village. The day was freezing and windy but we bundled for the worst expecting to be at the confluence a mere 2 miles away in a matter of minutes. The first .8 mile was a brisk jaunt through the small town and then the road stopped.
The rest of the way took us through frozen rice paddies and cold marshy land away from town. A big rain the night before made the fields one big muddy brown glob of freezing goop that stuck like cement to our clothing. As we trudged through the fields and sunk into the mud, we realized that few people were in the field or even walking around during cold weather like this. We skirted zig zag along paths on top of paddy dikes and across the rows of rice and cabbage. One slip would mean a fall into a muddy mass of cold freezing paddy water.
We would occasionally pass farmhouses along the route and have curious onlookers gaping at us. The homes in the farmlands were very primitive and very poor with pigs, geese and dogs roaming at will. Since our route took us into the fields of many of these farms I suggested that we ask permission before trudging through their fields. My pragmatic friend, the one who spoke Mandarin, got around the touchy subject of asking for permission by simply screaming out. "zai nail lu" or "where's the road". The baffled peasants would point towards the path and onwards we trudged through farm and property. At about the mile mark we came to a screeching halt as we encountered one of the many canals that we would face in this journey.
The first and widest was roughly 300 yards wide. Not a single bridge or ford was in sight. Right there and then I was ready to call it a day since this obstacle seemed insurmountable without approaching from a completely different direction. We also learned that there were other narrower but still uncrossable canals crisscrossed through the farmlands. I took pictures of the obstacle and was ready to call it a day as an attempted confluence when my friend had the idea to ask some of the passing farmers to ferry us across. The first person we asked refused so we asked a second person who ordered the first person to get the boat ready. We were ready to pay up to a 100 yuan just to get across. The farmer said he would do it and then take us back for 10 yuan or about USD 1.25. We jumped at the bargain and were quite excited until we saw the boat. Within the small sampan, water flooded the central part and there was a big hole in the bow. Since there was nowhere to sit due to the flooding, they brought a tiny bench for us to sit on perched precariously at the bow of the craft. It took about 15 minutes to actually get the engine started as they banged the ancient motor, stared at it and twisted some nuts tighter. One tip of the boat and down the canal we fall. Hypothermia and the loss of all our electronics seemed inevitable given the unsteady nature of the boat.
Since we were packing so much electronics and using the illegal GPS, I instructed my friend to tell anyone who asked that were on a school project, The cover seemed to work as a plausible explanation since what other fools would trudge around cold freezing muddy fields in December.
After reaching the other end of the canal we told the ferry guy to just drop us off and not wait for us to return. The walk at that point was so muddy and difficult that we couldnt imagine going the way we came so we just trudged ahead towards the confluence and hoped that this wasnt an island. (According to my GPS map the confluence was in the middle of the water but its been wrong before.). We had to cross a few more smaller canals that hand made bridges made of loose planks, ropes and some nails. With careful steps a desire to get this thing over with we trudged on. Of course I would later slip and fall into a muddy ditch but it was a dry canal. It did, however, smash the LCD of my mobile phone. We then encountered another large canal that was as wide as the first. Fortunately, there was a bridge half a kilometer away that crossed this canal so we headed for the only way out. Although I thought the bridge was a slight diversion, I was quite surprised to see that the road lined up perfectly with the confluence. We were able to complete the next few hundred meters on a nice path that tool us through a small village. As we cleared the village we realized that the confluence was somewhere in a nearby field but then saw another canal in the distance. This canal was too small for boats but too wide to jump across or find a handmade bridge for. However, based on the GPS, the confluence was just 30 feet before the canal to our relief.
We found the confluence in the field located along a walkway of a paddy. We snapped our picture, took our readings and walked the road based on our GPS map for another hour until we found a main road where busses ran. We were caked in mud, cold and hungry by then but it was great to know that we had found Shanghais one and only confluence. By my reckoning, this may be one of the easiest confluences to find but difficult to walk due to all the canals. I enjoyed finding this confluence but it took us a whole day and nearly 10 miles of walking around in mud to get there. China with its lack of Topo maps, legal restrictions on GPS and the language barrier is not a casual walk-through. Maybe next year well tackle Tibet.
I'd like to thank Targ and Tony who did the Guangdong confluence for
inspiration and advice.