03-Jul-2004 -- Story continues from 24°N 107°E.
Fri 02-Jul-2004, 6:45 a.m. - A day given over entirely to travelling. At the Tianyang bus station, I buy a ticket on the 7:30 a.m. bus to Bama, allowing me sufficient time for some breakfast before departure--after yesterday's gruelling ordeal, I absolutely must eat!
7:00 a.m. - One of the nice ladies who work at the bus station finds me just as I finish my breakfast, and informs me that there's a bus leaving for Bama straight away. She shepherds me over to the bus just as it's pulling out of the station. I get on board and make my way to the one remaining empty seat at the very back.
The bus travels north from Tianyang along route 323, the same dusty, bumpy road under reconstruction that I'm now traversing for the third time in two days.
Along the way, we encounter an accident between another bus and a truck. In fact, it is a very minor affair, the only evidence of a coming together being a barely perceptible scratch on the side of the bus. But in China, the rule is, if you are involved in an accident, you must stop immediately and await the police.
This is exactly what the bus and truck have done, and in so doing, have effectively blocked the road to all traffic. So I, together with all my fellow passengers, pile out and wait, and wait... It would be a very simple matter for either the bus or the truck to move just a few feet from its current position to allow other traffic through, but this is simply not an option, and everyone seems resigned to this peculiar Chinese fact of life.
Eventually a third bus, comparable in size to our own, arrives on the accident scene from the opposite direction. To everyone's amazement, it manages, by executing a number of careful manoeuvres, to neatly thread its way through the narrow gap between the stricken bus and truck, with only millimetres to spare on either side. This galvanises our driver into action, and soon we are through in the same fashion, and thankfully on our way once more.
11:30 a.m. - At long last we arrive in Bama, where I transfer to a bus departing immediately for Donglan, further to the north along the same route 323, still under reconstruction the entire way, making for very slow going indeed. At least this time I have a more comfortable seat at the front of the bus.
2:30 p.m. - Arriving at the Donglan bus station, I'm informed that the last bus for the day to my next objective, Tian'e, has already departed. But the helpful ticket seller suggests an alternative: go via boat. I exit the bus station and find a minivan to take me the few kilometres up the road to Anlou, from where boats north to Wu'ai depart.
Two guys sharing the minivan with me are also travelling to Tian'e. The minivan driver drops us off at one end of a bridge, and the three of us make our way down beneath the bridge to the pier, where we are immediately besieged by two separate boat owners, both vociferously vying for our custom. I drop back to photograph the shenanigans, while the other two potential passengers are physically dragged first one way and then the other by the competing boat owners, who themselves come close to blows over the matter. After a while it becomes evident that one boat already has a small contingent of waiting passengers, whereas the other has none, so the choice is made, and the three of us board the populated boat, which departs immediately.
After all the dusty, bumpy hours spent in cramped buses earlier in the day, the smooth passage of the boat, gliding serenely between majestic peaks as it winds its way up the Hongshui ("red water") River, is a welcome change. There are relatively few passengers, so there's plenty of room to spread out and move around.
6:20 p.m. - The boat pulls into Wu'ai. The two fellows from the minivan, a father and his daughter, and I, all walk through the town and up to the main highway, where a Tian'e-bound bus is passing by just as we arrive. The five of us get on board for a comfortable and quick journey northwest along an excellent road--in stark contrast to the dreaded route 323.
7:15 p.m. - I check into the very nice, very reasonably priced Linduo Hotel, conveniently located just 50 metres down the road from the Tian'e bus station. The confluence is 18 kilometres due west of Tian'e.
Sat 03-Jul-2004 (my birthday), 6:00 a.m. - I catch a bus bound for Luodian in Guizhou Province, which will go via Xiangyang to the west. I intend getting off shortly before it reaches Xiangyang, at the Banai ferry crossing.
The road from Tian'e to the confluence of the Hongshui and Buliu Rivers is in very good condition, and the bus makes good time. In preparation for this trip, I have read and reread Peter's account of his visit to the confluence earlier this year, as well as discussed it with him in person, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer scale of the dam project underway here. It is truly MASSIVE!
6:45 a.m. - The road rapidly deteriorates to nothing more than a muddy track after the dam project. I disembark when the bus stops to wait for the vehicular ferry across the Buliu River. The confluence is 3.37 kilometres southwest, and a considerable way up. My present elevation is 247 metres.
As I make my way up the road towards Linlie, I pass by another construction project: a new bridge being built high above the Buliu River, an infrastructure development necessitated by the dam project downstream.
I'm feeling full of confidence for this visit. I am so confident in fact, that I have not even bothered to check out of my hotel room in Tian'e, certain that I will be back well before the 1 p.m. deadline. Peter has sent me his GPS track, which I've plotted onto a NASA satellite image that I've brought with me, and Peter and I have had numerous discussions about the best approach, which we concluded should be via a village called Linyou.
7:15 a.m. - I reach the turnoff to Linyou. This is where my approach begins to deviate from Peter's; he continued straight on up the road to Linlie, whereas I am turning right and heading towards Linyou. The confluence is 2.29 kilometres southwest, and my present elevation is 364 metres.
7:45 a.m. - The early morning mist reveals the small village of Linyou, at an elevation of 354 metres, with the confluence 1.35 kilometres south-southwest. Now I am looking for a way up to the ridge behind the village. I start to follow a likely-looking trail, but it soon peters out, and I end up resorting to scrambling up the hillside, working up a tremendous sweat despite the overcast conditions.
8:05 a.m. - I reach the ridge at an elevation of 453 metres, with the confluence now 1.16 kilometres south. Just as Peter predicted, there is a path along the ridge, which I now follow in the direction of the confluence. Unfortunately, the path soon starts to wrap around the west side of the hill, rather than continuing along the ridge, and then it comes to an abrupt halt.
So starts another energy-sapping scramble up the slope to the ridge, where I once more find the path. I can't figure out how I managed to lose it in the first place, and chastise myself for expending unnecessary effort to get back to it. Little do I realise that this will not be the last time I will curse my own stupidity on the way to this confluence.
I follow the ridge-top path towards the confluence, encouraged by the distance to the confluence dropping below the magic one-kilometre mark. I can't help feeling a sense of excitement and anticipation whenever I see the distance change from being expressed in kilometres to being expressed in metres.
8:50 a.m. - Alas, I find myself getting no closer to the confluence, and in fact, I'm actually starting to veer away from it. The fog is clearing, and now I have a clear view in the direction of the confluence: it is high up on the next mountain range! Despite all my careful planning, I have wound up in much the same predicament as Peter, at the right altitude, but with a bloody great valley between me and the confluence.
So, having climbed to an elevation of 578 metres, I now turn around and start heading back down the way I came. I follow the ridge-top trail all the way down, beyond Linyou, until I reach a stream.
9:35 a.m. - I take off my boots to wade across the stream. I have descended back down to an elevation of 287 metres, and the confluence is now a full 1.4 kilometres south. The past two hours have been a total waste of time and effort. But now that I'm at the foot of the adjacent mountain range, I set off with renewed enthusiasm.
At first the going is fairly easy, as I make my way through cultivated fields and rice paddies, simultaneously working my way slowly southwards towards the confluence, and ever upwards towards the mountain ridge. But the trails peter out once more, and getting to the ridge requires yet another concerted scramble up a steep slope. The sun is now out in force, and the sweat is pouring off me.
11:30 a.m. - It has taken two hours since crossing the stream at the base of the valley, but I have finally made it to the top. I am back up at an elevation of 497 metres, and the confluence is a mere 750 metres southeast. But what I see before me horrifies me. The confluence is at the top of yet another mountain range, and there is no way of getting there without crossing another stream that I can hear in the valley far far below.
It is a very steep climb down, and there is no path to follow. This proves the hardest challenge of the day. After some trial and error, I discover the "easiest" way down is to follow a tiny creek bed, but even this is extremely difficult. The slope is at 45°, and my way forward is impeded by a never ending wall of incredibly strong vines that wrap themselves around my legs, my arms, my neck, my whole body. Every step forward requires painstakingly extricating myself from a tangled web of vines, not to mention the occasional thorn bushes growing amongst them that tear at my skin and open up nasty gashes that bleed profusely.
Slowly but surely, the sound of the stream becomes louder, and I anticipate that my deliverance from vine hell will come soon. But before this happens, I suddenly find myself looking down a sheer rocky drop. This is definitely not good. I now have to abandon the creek and head off laterally through very dense vegetation in an attempt to find a less precipitous route down. All my perseverance ultimately pays off though, when I unexpectedly emerge onto a good walking trail.
I have long since lost satellite reception, deep in this narrow valley with much tree cover, so I just take a guess as to which way to go, and choose to turn left, following the trail as it runs alongside the stream, until I eventually reach a relatively open area, and the GPS can once again lock onto a signal. Almost inevitably, I discover that I have been heading in completely the wrong direction.
So I follow the trail back the other way, past the point where I emerged onto it after my arduous decent, until I come to a tiny waterfall where another small creek crosses the path. My water reserves are running dangerously low, so, on the pretext that fast running mountain water must be pretty okay, I drink copious amounts, as well as refill my water bottles for the climb ahead.
1:40 p.m. - The confluence is still 310 metres east as I cross the stream at the bottom of the valley. My elevation is now back down to 349 metres. I have been at it for seven hours already. After two false starts, I'm now certain that the next mountain I'm about to climb is indeed the right one. Unfortunately, there is no path in evidence, so it turns into another hard uphill scramble.
2:10 p.m. - I reach the bottom of a cornfield, with the confluence now only 230 metres east (and up). Making my way up through the cornfield proves a little easier than scrambling through wild vegetation, although I'm ashamed to say I'm damaging a few corn plants along the way, as I use them to steady myself on the steep slope. It is now a cloudless sky, and the sun is unrelenting. I am making extremely slow progress.
The cornfield allows me to gain another 50 metres on the confluence, then it's back to scrambling through wild vegetation again, until I come upon another cornfield 100 metres from the confluence. Now "in the zone", I begin to taste victory, and push myself ever on and up, albeit slowly. The slope is too steep to climb directly towards the confluence, so I head off at a diagonal, and am much relieved when I suddenly come across a path. I am ecstatic when I find that the path leads directly to the confluence.
3:18 p.m. - I collapse exhausted in one of the relatively few shady spots along the path, just as the GPS brings up all the zeroes. The confluence is at an elevation of 560 metres, and it's time to document the spot by taking the standard north-south-east-west photos.
That done, I rest for a short spell, then start following the path downwards in the general direction of Linyou. I have to stop and remove my boots for one final stream crossing, at the confluence of the two streams I crossed earlier in the day. Once across, I pause to sit on a boulder, with my bare, aching feet immersed in the cool running water, and marvel at the beauty of the scene around me. A butterfly comes and sits on my hand, remaining there for a long time, perhaps attracted by my salty sweat. I am very happy. Today is my birthday, and I have just completed my 100th confluence visit.
4:50 p.m. - I follow the path all the way from the confluence back to Linyou--it is so ridiculously easy compared to the time and effort expended in getting to the confluence in the first place. The villagers give me some water to drink, but have no transportation to offer me, so I must walk back down to the ferry crossing. Once there, I don't have to wait long for a minivan back to Tian'e.
I expected to be back in Tian'e this morning, leaving me enough time to contemplate a third confluence visit on this trip, but when I arrive it's already dusk, and I have no option but to stay one more night in the comfortable Linduo Hotel--not a bad thing. In the morning, I will take the 8:40 a.m. bus back to Nanning, arriving just in time for my afternoon flight to Shenzhen, then cross over the border to Hong Kong and home.