12-Sep-2003 -- Roughly 360 kilometres northeast, this is the closest unvisited land confluence to home, and I've waited until a long weekend before tackling it, so as to have the luxury of three full days to complete it. Little do I suspect that, in reality, it will end up taking considerably less than that, with the entire journey requiring well under 48 hours.
Thursday 11 September 2003
3:15 p.m. - Like many businesses in Hong Kong, my company has let everyone off work early to mark the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. This annual holiday always coincides with a full moon, and is celebrated by the consumption of "moon cakes" made from ground lotus and sesame seed paste, egg-yolk and other ingredients, and the lighting of traditional coloured Chinese paper lanterns in the shapes of various animals. In recent years however, these have begun to give way to less traditional plastic lanterns in the shapes of aeroplanes and spaceships.
It's a bright sunny afternoon with the temperature hovering around 30°C. I avail myself of the company shuttle bus, which drops me off at the KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) station. I take a KCR train to the border with Shenzhen where, despite dire warnings from my colleagues to the contrary, the queues are no worse than usual, and I clear customs on both sides of the border without any undue delay.
I make the two-minute walk from the border to the Shenzhen train station, where I purchase a hard-sleeper ticket on the 9:55 p.m. train to Meizhou, approximately 300 kilometres northeast. I also take the opportunity to pick up a copy of the latest train timetable, issued on 1 September 2003. This will come in handy when planning future Chinese confluence trips.
5:30 p.m. - With over four hours to kill until my train leaves, I'm now sitting in a plush sofa in the lobby of the Shangri-la Hotel, just across the street from the train station, reading through the owner's manual for my new Garmin eTrex Vista, which I purchased just yesterday. After two years' of trusty service from my entry-level eTrex, I finally decided it was time to upgrade.
7:40 p.m. - I can bear the over-efficient air-conditioning of the Shangri-la Hotel lobby not a minute longer, so head back across the street to one of the many restaurants that occupy the large building housing the train station. But when I arrive at the restaurant and take off my backpack, I notice that a small outside pocket is unzipped, and that my PDA is missing. I must have carelessly left the pocket open and allowed it to slip out. Or perhaps I'm the victim of a nimble-fingered pickpocket. But more likely it's the former explanation, and I'm angry with myself for not taking more care. I immediately retrace my steps to the hotel, but of course there's no trace of it.
Back in the restaurant, I unhappily order a bowl of dumpling soup, lamenting my loss. But by the time my order arrives, I've begun to look upon the episode more philosophically. My PDA was getting on in years, and for some time had suffered from dreaded Mad Digitiser Syndrome, so maybe it's time to upgrade to a new model anyway. Fortunately everything is backed up on my PC at home, so I've lost no data. The most inconvenient thing right now, really, is that I have no alarm clock with me on this trip.
8:20 p.m. - After finishing my dumpling soup, I walk back to the customs hall where I'd taken off my backpack to put it through the x-ray machine, in the forlorn hope that maybe my PDA might turn up here, but alas, no. I reconcile myself to the fact that it's definitely gone for good. I walk back to the train station, find a seat in the departure hall, and once more bury myself in the Vista owner's manual.
9:55 p.m. - The train leaves exactly on time. My hard-sleeper compartment, which can accommodate six people, on this occasion has only four of us--three Chinese guys and me--with the top two bunks empty. This is a new train, and the bunks are quite comfortable, almost to the standard I would expect to find in soft-sleeper class. Our modern compartment even sports a flat-panel video screen. I have just enough time to finish reading the Vista owner's manual before lights out.
Friday 12 September 2003
4:30 a.m. - The train arrives in Meizhou a few minutes ahead of schedule, and I disembark. Although it's still dark out, the full moon is quite bright. There's a nip in the air, and I slip on a pullover.
My first order of the day is to calibrate the Vista's electronic compass. I feel rather silly as I stand outside the Meizhou railway station following the instructions in the owner's manual, holding the GPS level, and then turning two complete circles, all the while being badgered by hopeful motorcycle, three-wheeler and taxi drivers. By the time I'm finished, all the other train passengers have departed, and I'm their last chance for a fare, so I'm able to negotiate a taxi to the long-distance bus station for just 75% of the normal fare.
At the bus station, I ask about buses to Wuping, 85 kilometres due north in neighbouring Fujian Province, half expecting that either there won't be any, or I'll be faced with a long wait for one. But incredibly, no! There's a bus to Wuping leaving at 5 a.m., and I'm on it. It's a small sleeper bus, however I elect to take the seat at the front opposite the driver in preference to a bunk, so that I can enjoy the scenery along the way.
Our driver inches out of the bus station, and then crawls along at a snail's pace for the next half an hour, trawling for passengers. I'm surprised by the amount of human activity about, despite the early hour. We stop near a market that's already in full swing, and manage to pick up a few more passengers here.
5:30 a.m. - We've finally reached the outskirts of Meizhou, and our driver at last picks up the pace as we travel down a very well-maintained four-lane highway. Dawn is starting to break, revealing an extremely hazy day.
6:15 a.m. - We stop in a large town called Jiaocheng. I take the opportunity to buy some steamed pork buns for breakfast. As I sit on the bus eating them, I watch the antics of our ticket seller. He's the type who can't get by without having a toothpick perpetually hanging out the corner of his mouth. He can even smoke a cigarette with it still in there. Both he and our driver are investing an inordinate amount of time and energy into trying to convince a group of half a dozen peasants to take our bus. Eventually though, only one of them is persuaded, and only after the ticket seller picks up her bags and puts them on the bus for her. More coercion than persuasion.
6:45 a.m. - There are many schoolchildren either walking or cycling along the highway to school. We stop to refuel. I look around anxiously at the passengers who continue smoking while we're in the petrol station.
7:15 a.m. - The bus crosses the border from Guangdong Province into Fujian Province. It looks like it's going to be another glorious sunny day, although still quite hazy. It's now warm enough that I no longer need my pullover.
8:10 a.m. - We arrive in Wuping. I enquire at the bus station about buses to the small town of Zhongshan, nine kilometres southwest, and am instructed to go out of the station, turn right, walk to the end of the street, cross over the river on a small pedestrian bridge, then wait for a bus on the other side. It all sounds very complicated, but in fact takes only a couple of minutes, and just as I step down off the bridge on the other side there's a Zhongshan bus approaching, so I don't even have to wait.
8:50 a.m. - I arrive in Zhongshan. My GPS tells me the confluence is a further 5.2 kilometres southwest. I start walking down Zhongshan's main street in the direction of the confluence, but stop ten minutes later in order to take my hat out of my backpack, on account of the strong sun. I really want to change out of my jeans into a pair of shorts, but there's nowhere private to do so.
According to my map, the village of Xiazhengjiaping should be halfway between Zhongshan and the confluence. I ask a local the way, and he tells me to turn left down a side street. I do so, only to come upon a dead end 100 metres later, at the entrance to the Zhongshan police station. Not very helpful.
I retrace my steps to the main road, and then continue following it until I come to what I'm sure must be the correct turnoff. It's a dirt road that meanders through a valley of rice paddies, twisting this way and that to circumnavigate the odd hill here and there, and to pass through occasional small collections of farmhouses. The rice plants are mature and almost ready for harvest.
9:30 a.m. - I come across a small mud-brick building next to the road, containing stores of firewood, coal briquettes and roof tiles, and decide to nip inside and change into some cooler clothes.
10:20 a.m. - Power lines have accompanied the dirt road I've been following ever since Zhongshan, but now I've come to the very last power pole. The confluence is exactly one kilometre west-southwest. The road continues on, but now in a rather more dilapidated state.
10:50 a.m. - Unbelievably, having walked along the same dirt road from Zhongshan for a distance of 6.8 kilometres, I now find myself less than 50 metres from the confluence! This has happened to me so often now that I have to wonder if these roads aren't put in specifically for the benefit of confluence hunters.
The confluence is located in thick foliage on a hillside just beyond some disused rice paddies, and I take a photo from the roadside to document the general area. The paddy fields prove to be pretty much of a swamp, with no way across that doesn't involve sinking knee-deep into the mud, so I decide to walk back along the road to where it passes by the hill, east of the confluence, and make my way in from there.
This stretch of road is totally devoid of human habitation. The disused rice paddies indicate that the area was once farmed, but now it's all been abandoned, and I'm quite alone. I don't need the privacy of a storage shed to change into my long pants and boots, which seems the sensible thing to do before venturing into the scrub.
I spend an awful lot of time scrambling through thick vegetation on a steep slope in order to get a perfect reading. I'm happy that my new Vista lets me configure the trip computer page in such a way as to allow all the required data to be captured in one photo: distance, location, elevation and time of day. Looking north from the confluence point, it's possible to just make out the dirt road through the leaves. Views to the south, east and west are typically nondescript scenes of vegetation and nothing else.
I sit and rest for a while at the confluence point, marvelling at how quickly I was able to knock this one off. Lady Luck was certainly shining on me this time, providing wonderfully synchronised transportation as far as Zhongshan, and then a road from Zhongshan all the way here to the confluence. After a little while, I make my way back out through the scrub to the road, where once again I change my clothes, then start the 6.8-kilometre trek back to Zhongshan.
1:45 p.m. - I'm back in Zhongshan, sitting on a bus bound for Wuping, awaiting its departure. The driver and ticket seller, together with the crews of several other buses, are busy playing cards, apparently on their lunch break. Fifteen minutes later we're underway, and 20 minutes after that I'm back at the Wuping long-distance bus station.
2:55 p.m. - The inter-provincial bus from Wuping to Meizhou departs. I've once again secured my favourite seat opposite the driver at the front of the bus, but on this occasion it turns out to be not such a wise choice. With the bus heading south for the entire journey, I am subjected to the full force of the afternoon sun for almost three hours. This, combined with a lack of adequate sleep the night before, ends up making me feel rather seedy.
Back in Meizhou, I jump into a taxi and head for the train station. The taxi's air-conditioning is way too cold, and only serves to exacerbate my queasiness.
At the train station ticket office, I tell the girl behind the ticket window that I want to purchase a hard-sleeper ticket on the overnight train to Shenzhen, which departs at two minutes past midnight, but she says there are no more hard-sleeper tickets available. Instead she sells me a soft-sleeper ticket for the price of a soft-seat--slightly more expensive than a hard-sleeper, but not such a bad deal.
With approximately six hours before my train is due to depart, I desperately need somewhere to crash. I walk next door to the railway station guesthouse, where one of the girls on reception surprises me by saying she remembers me from the time I stayed here once before, more than a year and a half ago, on Chinese New Year's Eve, which was also on the eve of my visit to 24°N 116°E.
It feels nice to be remembered. She and the other staff consider me a long lost friend and an honoured guest, and I'm accorded royal treatment. They give a room at a much-reduced rate--because I won't be staying overnight--and they promise to wake me in time to catch my train (I still have no alarm clock).
My room is immaculately clean and comfortable, just as I remember it was when I stayed here the last time. I shower and hit the sack. A couple of times I'm woken by train whistles, but not too often--Meizhou doesn't see a lot of train traffic--so I still manage to catch up on a lot of lost sleep.
11:30 p.m. - I'm half awake, trying to watch a delayed telecast of the Friday practice session for the Italian Grand Prix, but can't manage to keep my eyes open for a full lap. Then I get my reminder call, which spurs me into full wakefulness. I get up, get dressed and pack up my things ready to go. The staff insist that I leave via the back door, which leads straight onto the station platform. I feel very privileged as I make my way along the platform and see all the other passengers locked up in their waiting corral inside the station building.
The train arrives right on time. My soft-sleeper compartment has a full complement of four: a mother and father saying a tearful farewell to their adolescent son who has come to see them off, a girl who, like me, is also on her way home to Hong Kong, and me. Just like yesterday's train, this one is also very new, very clean and very comfortable. I have trouble getting back to sleep though, because the bright overhead fluorescent light in our compartment for some unknown reason remains on all night.
Saturday 13 September 2003
7:10 a.m. - I feel a whole lot better this morning as the train pulls into Shenzhen. Before hitting the border, I stop to have a pot of tea and a bowl of congee for breakfast in the same restaurant in the railway station building where I had dinner on Thursday night.
There are no queues at all on either side of the border, and I'm through in no time. On the Hong Kong side of the border, I'm picked at random for a baggage inspection. As the customs officer takes a cursory look inside my backpack--I'm sure it's the pungent aroma of dirty laundry that dissuades him from delving deeper--he asks me if I have anything to declare. Wine? No. Cigarettes? No. Grass? No. We both smile and he lets me go.