27-Jan-2003 -- Prologue
This is the first of a series of six Confluence Points visited by Targ Parsons, Richard
Jones and Peter Snow Cao between January 26 and February 2 during Spring Festival 2003.
All three of us had time because of the Chinese New Year holiday and wished to make this
journey to document the confluences before the filling of the Three Gorges Dam Project,
due to begin in mid-2003.
The three of us made the journey from two different areas to meet in Yichang, Hubei
Province on the evening of January 25, 2003. There was Targ Parsons from Hong Kong, our
group leader, map commander, and veteran
confluencer with 38 or so confluence visits to his name. Also from Hong Kong and a new
initiate to the fine art of confluencing was Richard Jones and acting as confluence
comedian. Rounding out the group is myself, also a newby to confluencing, having visited
my first on Sichuan (31°N 104°E) just six days before. I volunteered to record this historic event in words. Targ commented that it was going to be a novel
experience being able to participate in the hunt without having to write it up as he
always had in the past and being able to read about his participation through someone
Impetus: Targ had read the book, River
Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, several months before and
decided he would see the area after while attempting to visit several confluences. This
book describes the life of an English teacher living in Fuling, Sichuan in the late
Dedication: In honor of my charming wife, Xiaorong, for her patience and
understanding, support and unending love, I have dedicated these stories to her.
January 25, 2003
I (Peter Cao) arrived in Yichang on January 25 in the afternoon having taken a 15-hour
overnight hard-sleeper train from my home in Chengdu, Sichuan China to Xiangfan, Hubei,
and then a 6-hour bus from Xiangfan to Yichang. I immediately noticed I had left the land
of plenty (Sichuan’s nick name is Tianfu, Land of Abundance) where there are plenty
of private cars for the Land of Dong Feng and Jie Fang – big blue
Chinese trucks (whose names translate to "East Wind" and "Liberation")
that plied the roads of Hubei Provence commanding attention with air horns that wake the
We agreed to meet at the Yichang Airport (officially called the Three Gorges Airport),
with Targ and Richard flying in from Shenzhen. Their flight was only delayed 20 minutes to
10:20 PM whereas the following flight from Shenzhen and hour a half later was postponed
because of fog until 5:30 AM the next day. Lady Luck was smiling on us. They emerged from
the arrival area carrying very compact backpacks and Targ immediately went outside to make
a waypoint on his GPS. Targ and Richard said that they had nothing to eat since the
"dried rope" the airline served on the flight. Targ said the airport security
made him take off his shoes, but missed his penknife inside his pack.
Our meeting in Yichang was begun by a simple question about confluencing I emailed to
Targ some ten days before. In the following correspondence he mentioned his plans to visit
five confluences in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River and invited me to join him
and Richard. The trip sounded like a terrific adventure, so with a bit of persuasion, I
got leave from my wife to join them. This was a big deal for her as, being away from the
family on Chinese New Year is a very serious matter for her.
Dedication: In honor of my charming wife Xiaorong for her patience and
understanding, support and unending love, I have dedicated these stories to her.
The night we met, we decided to try and get as close to the Three Gorges Dam Project as
possible so as to get an early start on Dam viewing and then head off in search of 31°N 111°E. Unfortunately, I selected
a very slow mianbao van (Chinese for "steamed bread" because that is what it looks like) and
what could have been an hour or so ride went on late into the night for two hours. In
Zhujiawan, we checked into a simple guesthouse (50 yuan for three beds plus 15 yuan for
three showers, total about US$8). We were 18 km from the confluence point at 31°N 111°E.
January 26, 2003
Targ attempted to take an invigorating hot shower first thing on that very chilly
morning before the crack of dawn, but returned bitterly disappointed saying he could only
get icy cold water out of the tap. I tried my hand at it and discovered there was water
and batteries, but no gas to the hot water heater. Following the gas line back to a hole
in the wall, I found the propane tank in the next room was still shut off. Walla, hot
After breakfast, we found the local bus to the Three Gorges Project that filled up with
chain-smoking hard hats on their way to work. View of the dam was restricted by the
perpetual hazy fog that coats most of China at this time of year. Nonetheless, the dam
itself was mind blowing in size. Looking over the railing at the water more than 100
meters below (the total dam height at its deepest is 185 meters - 606 feet) and stretching
in the haze. Mammoth dump trucks charged up and down the roads scattering people and
vehicles like leaves on a windy fall day.
With pictures documenting the event, we begun what was to be objective of our visit to
this area, 31°N 111°E. This
meant getting transport to the small mountain village of Dengcun, about 40 km driving
distance north of the Three Gorges Dam. With Spring Festival rapidly approaching, all the
drivers seemed bent on trying to get us to be their winning lottery ticket quoting
outrageous prices. Not knowing how the transport system worked, we operated on the
principal of getting as close as possible to the destination using standard transport
options, the local buses. This caused a missed bus because it was already packed to the
gills and having to wait for the next one thirty minutes later. In the meantime, we found a small alcohol factory in full swing. Also, in what was to be a fruitless effort throughout this trip, I tried to connect to my ISP in Chengdu to send and
We ended up getting the 12:30 PM bus to Dengcun, an hour or so up in the
hills of Hubei. After suffering some fairly torturous roads to get this far we feared the
worst. However, the road turned up to be freshly paved with asphalt and smooth all the
way. As we climbed into the hills, the fog concealed and revealed in alternating fits of
fancy the fascinating terraced hills farmed mostly with tea bushes. A light rain turned to
a moderately heavy snow about halfway to Dengcun. The trees and tea bushes looked
magnificent with their brilliant white dusting. Richard and Targ, being warm-blooded from
living in Hong Kong for many years, were dreading the cold.
As we approached Dengcun, we were on the lookout for a promising looking turnoff in the
direction of the confluence. Arriving in Dengcun, we quickly checked into a simple inn (liuguan
meaning traveler’s hotel in Chinese). The price was 20 RMB per person (about
US$2.50). Stashing our bags in our room, we wasted no time in hitting the trail in search
of the confluence. We were about 3.5 km from the confluence point (CP). Most promising was
a trail that could be seen on an amazingly detailed NASA
satellite photograph of the Three Gorges area Targ found on the web just before the
As we walked through town, Targ spotted a driver training school and thought we might
be able to get a map or at least a glimpse of a map from them. The bosses were out and the
acting manager was obviously busy flirting with a girl when we walked in on them a little
after 2 PM. The young man walked us down to another office and then told us he has a map,
but he wanted to know why we wanted it. Targ showed him his photocopy of Hubei Province
and asked about a road leading to Guchengping a village beyond the CP, but in the right
direction. The young man said he has a map, but he can’t let us see it and besides,
it isn’t as detailed as the one we have.
So we left none the wiser, stopping to ask folks along the way for the trail to
Guchengping. We were directed to head not far up the road to a turn off. We found a likely
looking vehicle path where a footpath forked off. The three GPSs (we each had a different model
of the Garmin eTrek) all pointed to up the path. Upon questioning people walking the
other way, they confirmed that the path lead to Guchengdping. Encouraged by this, we
eagerly started climbing the trail, with the CP about 2.5 km away. As we continued, we
later joined a vehicle dirt road and soon after approached 31°N longitude line. At that point we made the decision to take the first promising trail in
This proved to be rather frustrating because we were still more than two kilometers
away and hiking on trails through an extremely hilly terraced tea farming area. The
situation was made very difficult by a persistent thick fog that reduced visibility to
about 30 meters making decisions as to what trail might be best mere guesses. It was not
much better than trying to find our way in a maze. No trail ever proceeded in a
predictable way and after several hundred meters we would have to switch to another
because we were heading away from the CP. This lead to many time consuming false starts
and backtracking. At 4 PM we were about 1.6 km away.
But by fits and starts we zigzagged our way closer to the CP surprising local residents
along the way with the sudden appearance of three foreigners in an area that rarely, if
ever, has any. By 4:30 PM we were within 900 meters of the CP. With sunset at 6 PM and a
the heavy fog we felt we had not much more time before we had to turn back to avoid
getting caught in the backwaters after dark. However, at this point the trails became more
promising and we began to advance rather quickly to the CP. At 4:45 PM we were within 500
meters. Talk then turned to experiences that both Richard and Targ had regarding getting
lost in hills of Hong Kong and what a bad experience it was. Still, we doggedly honed in on
the CP with the three of us glued to the GPS arrows searching for promising trails.
At 5:04 PM we were with 250 meters of the CP and the trail was barely a walking path
heading down precipitously into the unknown void of fog. Richard and Targ voted to stop
there and return tomorrow fresh and with time to finish the task unfettered by impending
darkness. Targ told of his experiences of being within 300 meters and the CP being down a
steep valley, then up over the next ridge with the final destination halfway down the
second ridge. With the CP so close, it was hard to turn back, but safety prevailed, and we
saved our route so returning the next day we could begin where we left off.
As we headed back on a small dirt road, a mianbao van stopped and we got a lift
back to town filthy and wet from hours of slogging through the tea terraces. Dinner was
around a miniature pot bellied stove and as we ate our pants and shoes began steaming as
they dried out. The next day promised to be a quick return to where we left off and then
on to the next CP 31°N 110°E
not far from the Yangtze River and upstream from the Three Gorges Dam. Just how we were
going to get across the Yangtze remained a mystery.
January 27, 2003 - Confluence Point Visit
We woke up to a glorious day, sunny, clear and cold. Ice had formed on the road, but
the fog was gone, and we could finally see our surroundings. It was an amazing sight of
steep terraced hills with tea bushes nearby and tall mountains further away. A shower with
a temperamental hot water machine was marginal for two of us. Richard opted to be a bit
"crusty" and warm today rather than be clean and cold. The drunk English teacher
who annoyed us yesterday was probably sleeping off his hangover and as we left our liuguan
we bid our good mornings to the local policemen hanging outside their office at 8 AM. Targ
did a bit of transport reconnaissance as we had our morning breakfast and said there was a
bus leaving in a few minutes. We hopped aboard for a short lift up to the vehicle turnoff
to Guchengping. Today we had a clear objective and knew within 300 meters of where we
wanted to go.
Talk along the way focused primarily on how we arrived at where we did without noticing
the road that we were walking on that was taking us to within 300 meters of the CP. As we
crunched along the frozen road, we tried to retrace our footsteps from the fog of the
previous day. Between the breadcrumbs on the GPS and our hazy recollection of the events
that passed we were able to piece together the patchwork of route decisions made with only
a GPS reading and what we could see 30 meters in front of us. Richard said, "We
weren’t lost, we just didn’t know where we were." How true it was. Now with
the lay of the land visible before us, it was fairly easy to see what was the best route.
We were walking blind; knowing where we had to go, but not how to get there. By contrast,
having a 24-degree quad map and a GPS would be a cakewalk.
At the two-km mark there was a fork in the road. Targ started walking confidently in
the direction of our previous day’s waypoints while Richard and I stood our ground
and told him to follow us. Targ was dumbfounded for quite some time not believing we had
to turn left rather than right. About an hour later, we arrived at where we had gotten to
the previous day. Targ looked at the road and a cut in the hill and suggested that we
follow the road a bit further along as it appeared the road would turn back toward the CP.
Sure enough, it did, and we had the pleasure of walking along the road to within 20 meters
of the CP.
The CP was located in the middle of a terraced field fortunately yet unplanted. A local
farmhouse stood about 50 meters away. Our arrival brought out all of the members to watch
this peculiar sight of three foreigners traipsing around their field in circles holding
what looked to be cell phones and taking a copious number of photos. The final statistics
were arrival at 10:20 AM local time, at an elevation of 893, 896 and 899 meters depending
on whose GPS you looked at.
Along the way to the CP we had a running disagreement between the GPSs as to which one
was more accurate, what the current distance to the CP, etc. In the end we were able to
place all three Garmin GPSs side-by-side all reading a 31°00’00.0"N, 111°00’00.0"E. The GPS had an
accuracy of 5-10 meters again, depending on whose you looked at.
This was Targ’s 39th CP, Peter’s second and Richard’s first.
Given the difficulty we had walking in the fog the previous day, it seemed like a CP
well-earned. Afterwards, Richard said, "Let’s face it, we were in the f...ing
After the obligatory photos, Targ abruptly said, "OK, now its 97.6 km to 31°N 110°E. Let's get moving." A true confluence addict.
This confluence hunt was treat to be a part of. The comradery of the three of us on a
common mission, using only our GPSs and walking into the unknown without being able to see
what lay ahead was mentally challenging and gratifying to finally make it.
After the hunt was successfully concluded, talk turned to the future of GPS and the
internet. Richard commented that not too far off we were going to have GPS in our left AND
right boots. Also we discussed travel in China in general. All three of us have been
traveling here since the late 80’s or early 90’s. Richard said it used to be
that if you got a good night’s sleep, could take a comfortable crap, and a good cup
of coffee, that travel in China didn’t get any better. We would have ten days to put
this to the test.
I christened this the Elusive Confluence Point.
31°N 110°E here we come.