05-May-2003 -- Continued from 27°N 110°E.
Saturday 3 May 2003 (Day 12) - This was the day on which I resumed my interrupted three-week confluence hunt. The appropriate department of the Huaihua Police Station, from where I was supposed to collect my impounded GPS, was closed for the extended May Day holiday, and would not reopen until Tuesday, so I had a few days in which to knock off another confluence in the meantime. Tony kindly lent me his GPS for this purpose. It was also good to have it, just in case I didn't succeed in getting my own back.
I left home on Lamma Island early in the afternoon, took the ferry to Hong Kong Island, the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) to Kowloon, then the KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) to Luohu, where I crossed the border to Shenzhen. It was absolutely bucketing down with rain, which turned out to be somewhat of a portent of things to come. I bought a ticket on the 5:50 p.m. overnight train to Huaihua, then went and had something to eat ahead of the 18-hour journey.
The train was unusually empty. My hard sleeper compartment, which would normally accommodate six people, was occupied by just me and one other person, a pretty 27-year-old girl returning home to Huaihua. We engaged in much interesting conversation throughout the journey, and it all made for a very pleasant and comfortable trip--probably the most enjoyable long-distance train trip I've had in China.
Sunday 4 May 2003 (Day 13) - During the night, the staff had come through the train and got everyone to fill out health declaration forms. This was the first evidence I was to see of how, during my week's absence, the entire country had been mobilised in a concerted, all-out effort to control the spread of SARS. It would not be the last. When we arrived at Huaihua, there were medical staff on hand to take every passenger's temperature, using a scanning gun that just needed to be pointed at the subject's forehead for a second or two. Anyone unlucky enough to register more than 38°C was immediately isolated and taken off to hospital for further tests.
The sun made a brief appearance shortly before we arrived in Huaihua, finally putting an end to the rain that had continued pretty much non-stop all through the night. Unfortunately, the train arrived just a few minutes too late for me to make the tight connection with another train going north to Mayang. The next train to Mayang wasn't until late in the evening, so I instead took a commuter bus to the Huaihua West Bus Station, from where I was able to get a ticket on the 12:40 p.m. fast bus to Mayang. Midway through the journey, light rain started falling again. The river that ran next to the road was noticeably swollen and muddy brown due to the recent rains.
The normally hour-and-a-half-long bus journey took slightly longer, because we had to stop at a SARS checkpoint along the way for another temperature check. This time I had a device shoved in my left ear until it went "pip". (The device, not my ear.)
After arriving in Mayang, I took a motorised three-wheeler to the eastern outskirts of town, and boarded an incredibly overcrowded bus bound for Chenxi. I got off at about the halfway point, at the small town of Lüjiaping. I was now at the extreme north of Huaihua County, and was expecting to find transport available heading north into Xiangxi County. However, I have now learned that, when one is right at the edge of a county, inter-county transport can be surprisingly few and far between. And, due to recent flooding, I was informed that today it was non-existent!
I sat down and ate a bowl of noodles, while contemplating what to do next. I really didn't want to spend the night here, in a tiny town in Huaihua County--not after my previous unpleasant experience with the county authorities. When a police car cruised by at about 4:30 p.m., I made up my mind what I had to do. There were still two and a half hours of daylight remaining, and the first town on the road north into Xiangxi County was 11 kilometres away, so I had just ample time to walk it. I put on my hiking boots, donned my big backpack, and set off.
The relatively mud-free gravel road was fairly flat, meandering along beside a river most of the way (which made the journey considerably longer than travelling as the crow flies). There was plenty of evidence of the recent flooding, with all manner of rubbish caught up in the branches of trees, and the trees themselves still partially submerged in the swollen muddy waters of the river.
I arrived in Shiliuping just before 7 p.m., and found a place to stay. Then I had dinner in a small restaurant, attracting a huge crowd of curious locals eager to watch the foreigner eat. Then some officials from the local hospital arrived at the restaurant, and I was compelled to fill out a form and have my temperature taken. This mob wasn't equipped with high-tech infra-red guns or devices that went "pip" like the previous SARS checkpoints. Instead, I was handed a conventional medical thermometer. I opened my mouth and was on the verge of putting it under my tongue, in the manner to which I've always been accustomed, when the doctor suddenly stopped me, and instructed me to stick it in my armpit instead. After reading my temperature, they gave the thermometer back to me, and told me I could keep it!
Monday 5 May 2003 (Day 14) - At 7 a.m. I caught a bus heading north, and got out half an hour later, just 700 metres from the confluence. There was no rain this morning, but it was ominously overcast. I followed a trail leading off the road to the right, in the general direction of the confluence. Various paths and shortcuts across cultivated hillsides eventually got me to a point 210 metres northwest of the confluence. The confluence looked to be close to a farmhouse on the opposite side of a valley.
I made my way down and across the valley, then up the other side to the confluence, arriving at 8:15 a.m., just as it started spitting with rain. The confluence turned out to be right on the front doorstep of the farmhouse, where I met Mr Chen and his son. The son was just preparing to leave for school. Mr Chen told me that their main source of income was derived from raising ducks, but that they also grew crops.
I took photos looking north, south, east and west. The photos facing north and east were taken from the exact point of the confluence, the front doorstep, however I went to the side of the house to get a more interesting shot facing south, and across to the other side of the duck pond in front of the house for a nice photo facing west.
There was a much easier way back to the road than the way I'd come; I simply followed a path west along the river that Mr Chen had told me about. There were a couple of peasant women at the road when I arrived. I waited for a short while in the hopes that a bus might come by heading south back to Shiliuping, but eventually gave up and started walking. Shortly thereafter, the rain really started coming down in earnest, and in order to keep both my daypack and myself reasonably dry, I had to switch from my small lightweight umbrella to my raincoat.
An hour and a half later, I was back in Shiliuping, from where I collected the rest of my belongings, then started the long hike back to Lüjiaping. I passed a number of amateur fishermen along the way, out enjoying the last day of the May Day holiday. (The rain had stopped by now.) I chatted with one of them briefly, and later on he passed me on his motorbike, and offered me a lift the final three kilometres into Lüjiaping, where I arrived at 1 p.m. He hadn't caught any fish.
I had another bowl of the delicious Lüjiaping noodles, in the same small restaurant as the day before. Then, as I was killing time waiting for a passing bus back to Mayang, I came across a lady hand-making those strands of firecrackers that are so popular in China.
Two uneventful bus rides saw me back in Mayang, then Huaihua, where I checked into the Huaihua Great Hotel, just near the train station. A wonderful dinner in the hotel restaurant, a visit to an Internet bar, and a hair-wash at the nearby Wella hairdressing salon (a huge establishment), rounded out the evening nicely. At about 11:30 p.m. a heated argument erupted between a couple in the hallway outside my hotel room, which eventually developed into a fight as it continued into the room opposite. I don't know what it was all about, but there was an awful lot of cursing and screaming, punctuated by ominous thuds.
Tuesday 6 May 2003 (Day 15) - This was the day of my appointment with the Huaihua police, to collect my confiscated GPS. I arrived at the now familiar police station at opening time, 8 a.m. All members of the public entering the police station were required to fill out a form and have their temperature taken. I was getting very used to this procedure now, having already lost track of how many times I'd undergone it since re-entering China. It was tedious, but in a way, quite reassuring.
My GPS was returned to me as promised, and I considered this an important outcome. I could have easily purchased a new GPS, and simply written off the old one, but I was curious to find out how such devices were truly viewed by the Chinese authorities. The fact that it was returned to me would appear to dispel once and for all the rumour that GPSs are illegal in China. Just don't go using one in a sensitive military area without permission! (Especially if it has "MADE IN TAIWAN" emblazoned across the back, like mine.)
Story continues at 28°N 111°E.