A year in China: What does it take?
Two-time world record setter Ash Dykes is about to embark on his toughest adventure yet — walking the length of the Yangtze River, from its source on the Tibetan Plateau to the end at the East China Sea. Length: 3,915 miles. Landscape: varied. Number of people who’ve done it before: zero.
Ash first visited China in 2010 and was blown away by the different cultures, terrain and weather. A few days before he heads out, Serena Strang catches up with him to find out what it takes to embark on such a gruelling challenge.
- Find your goal
“You need to have a goal,” Ash says, “a start and a finish”. Ash knew he wanted to go back to China, but he had to decide where his adventure would take him — he considered the Great Wall and the Yellow River, but in the end, there was no contest. As the longest river in Asia, with no record of having been walked from start to finish before, the Yangtze River offered him a challenge worth taking. The Yangtze passes through nine different provinces, with huge variation in terrain, weather, landscape and wildlife. Ash will pass through snowy glaciers and humid forests; he’ll encounter intense population density and utter isolation. “For a year-long expedition, you need that diversity to keep you motivated.”
- Get training
A year is a long time to be on the road and 3,915 miles is a long way to go. It is essential to be prepared for the physical challenge ahead. Ash finesses his training schedule at a minute level, his routines including battle ropes, calisthenics, body weight training, altitude masks, weighted hill sprints and flipping tractor tyres. If he hadn’t been so fit, Ash says, he’d never have had the physical or mental strength to walk far enough to find help when he was struck down with a deadly strain of malaria in Madagascar in 2016. “Without fitness, I’d be dead.”
- Mental preparation
Ash has been mentally preparing for a year of travelling virtually solo. He’s done it before, in Mongolia in 2014, when he became the first recorded person to complete a solo, unsupported walk across Mongolia. The journey took him 78 days — this one is likely to take five times longer. Ash prepares for the worst. He considers every aspect of his journey with meticulous attention, then imagines his planning turned upside down. He thinks about being caught in snow storms, being washed into a raging Yangtze, about injury, illness, disaster and the authorities. That way there’s no surprises. It’s not about building fear, Ash says; it’s about building awareness.
- Start packing
Ash’s journey will begin at the highest source of any major river system, leading him through the Tibetan Plateau’s glacial territory in sub-zero temperatures, to the thick, humid forests and bustling mega-cities of China. With such extreme climatic changes, it’s important to make sure you’ve got the right gear. Ash is arranging for different pieces of kit and clothing to be dropped at various locations along his route: with so many climates to plan for, there’s no way he could carry all his gear for a year. Even after planning for gear exchanges, Ash still needs to make sure what he’s bringing is lightweight, quick-drying and comfortable — the Yangtze has over 700 tributaries of varying sizes, some of which he may have to swim across. The most important piece of kit? “Good footwear,” he says.
- Food and water
He’s hoping he’ll find communities who can offer him food, but he’ll be taking FIREPOT meals with him to ensure he’s got the empty territory covered. He’ll be bringing a water purification system. Being by a river means he’ll have an easier time filling up than in Madagascar, where he was limited to muddy puddles, and the Gobi Desert where there wasn’t any at all.
- Pay your way
What Ash is doing can seem completely out of reach to most people. But it’s more about a mindset. Ash doesn’t come from a wealthy background and doesn’t have limitless resources. What he does have though is ambition, confidence and a can-do attitude. By securing sponsorship deals — his latest is with China’s largest outdoor clothing and equipment company — developing his image to appeal to a mass audience and taking considered risks that have ultimately paid off, Ash has developed a business model that enables his life’s dreams. His missions are hard-won, with a whole system of checks and balances in addition to the relentless mental and physical training — meetings, social media presence, constant reinforcement and justification of his aims.
- Learn the culture
Ash has been learning Chinese Mandarin, and has just flown back to China for another three weeks of intensive lessons before he starts his journey. Respect for local customs and the fragile ecosystem that he will be in is another essential study for Ash. Ultimately, Ash aspires to live like a local — he wants to fit in, get involved and absorb everything he can about the culture and environment he’s travelling.
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