Profile: A Chinese kayaker's pilgrimage to the Arctic

Source: Xinhua| 2018-11-25 14:55:58|Editor: mmm
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URUMQI, Nov. 25 (Xinhua) -- After 54 days of kayaking, Hou Zhili, 42, finally arrived at the Russian town of Khanty-Mansiysk, where the Irtysh and Ob rivers conjoin, in late September, before heading to his final destination -- the Arctic.

Four years and three adventures later, Hou, a graphic designer from northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, has finally fulfilled his dream of kayaking the whole length of the Irtysh River by himself -- over 4,000 km through China, Kazakhstan and Russia. But he still has another 1,200 km to go before reaching the end of his long, arduous journey.

Hou was born and raised in Xinjiang's Fuyun County, the origin of the Irtysh River. He used to sail with his friends on primitive rafts when he was a little boy, but he was left dreaming about what the end of the river looked like.

In August 2014, he began chasing that dream. From Fuyun's town of Koktokay, located near the river's source, he drifted 520 km before reaching Habahe County on the China-Kazakhstan border.

Inspired by his first successful journey, he went through the procedures of acquiring the permission to kayak through a foreign country with great passion. In August 2016, he exited China via Jeminay Port at the border with Kazakhstan and rowed another 1,500 km into the neighboring country. In just 33 days, he finished the Kazakh section of the river.

Hou spent another year raising funds and doing preliminary field research, before he set off again at the Russia-Kazakhstan border on Aug. 1 this year. Through the vast Western Siberian Plain, he completed an arduous journey of over 2,000 km.

In an interview with Xinhua a month after the journey, Hou said his heart still fluttered with fear.

"The Russian section is very long and difficult, especially the extremely cold Siberian region," he said. "Though I had prepared myself mentally, I almost gave up at some points."

Everything started off quite well, he said. However, the weather turned cloudy and rainy after he entered Tyumen Oblast in western Siberia in early September. Rainstorms came almost every day with strong north winds. "I had to paddle very hard in order not to be blown back."

Due to more than twice the supplies onboard compared with the Kazakh trip, his 5-meter-long kayak was also much heavier. He said one day his kayak almost capsized due to a huge wave and water soon began to pour in. He tried to paddle to shore but failed many times. All he could do was tighten his grip and paddle along until he spotted a possible pull-in spot.

The terrible weather also damaged his solar panel. None of his electric appliances could be recharged as a result. He also had to bear the humidity in his tent at night and clothes that would not dry.

But the warmth from local residents along the river kept him going. His most important communication tool was a card sealed in plastic, with his personal information and destination written in Russian.

From a hot shower to free food and drinks, he lost count of the amount of people who reached out to him. More encouragingly, most Russians he met opened their arms to him, took photos with him, and sent their best wishes.

When he arrived at Khanty-Mansiysk, local media and even the deputy mayor were there to greet him.

Hou later thought up an idea of establishing a museum about the Irtysh River in his hometown, an idea that has even been backed by the local government.

"I left my kayak there because I want to continue my journey next year, to finish the last section from the confluence point to the Arctic. The last 1,200 km await," he said.