Dream hike becomes nightmare as students trapped in Gobi Desert

By Li Lei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/10 20:08:40

Tourists hike up Mingsha mountain, Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province, in 2012. Photo: IC

On the night of August 1, police at the Aksay Kazak Autonomous county of Northwest China's Gansu Province received a report that a 1,200-member hiking group was lost in the local Gobi Desert. After a four-hour search, when the police eventually located the hikers, they found that the group of 1,200 college students was led by only seven organizers, according to a report by thepaper.cn.

The students came in for a wave of online criticism, some calling them "a group of idiots," and accusing them of "wasting public resources" despite it was found that some had received injuries through the activity.

Others questioned the organizers behind the activity, saying that getting 1,200 people lost was unforgiveable.

Thrilled to join

Luo Jia, a college student from South China's Guangdong Province, heard about the hike when she read an article recruiting members in a WeChat account in June, thepaper.cn reported. The organizer was Newth, an online culture community, which had never hosted treks into the Gobi before, according to Li Zicheng, one of its founders. Li said that they had wanted to hold a non-profit activity for the college students.

Drawn by the promise of camping in the desert under the stars, Luo registered and paid the 499 yuan ($72) of registration fee.

Luo's parents did not agree to her going on this trip until she showed them a document explaining that medical care, ambulances, licensed doctors and rescuers were all on standby for the activity. The document dispelled her parents' concerns. 

In the early morning of August 1, the 1,200-member group marched into the Gobi Desert. When the temperature got higher, some of them suffered heatstroke, and others got blisters on their feet. At noon, they were told that the guide vehicle had taken them in the wrong direction.

Anxiety and complaints began to spread among the group, who said that they were unable to contact the organizers. Some students recalled that after an hour of waiting, the hike resumed.

Growing fear

More heated conflicts broke out in the afternoon when some students found that they could not get the medical care they were promised to treat their injuries.

One of the hikers, Gao Qi, had sprained his ankle, and was told by the volunteers to hang on and complete the remaining five kilometers to test his willpower. 

After waiting for 40 minutes, the injured and ill students were sent to the camp, where they found no medicine, but only some tents and ice bags.

Li Zicheng told thepaper.cn that they had prepared 32 ambulances, but that they "also served other functions, which led to a shortage of ambulances," according to thepaper.cn.

Gao later found that there was only one licensed doctor for the 1,200-member group, and the rest of the medical team were volunteers who only had sports first aid knowledge, which Li Zicheng also confirmed.

At 3pm, they arrived at the camp site, where they were to spend the night. However, a number of the hikers wanted to pull out. At 6pm, about 200 students asked to talk to the person in charge about the problems on the trip, but another person in charge stopped them and said the problems could not be solved.

At 9pm, He Dong, the person in charge of the hike, promised to send the students who wanted to pull out back to the city at midnight.

A medical student claimed that there were wolves around the camp, as wolf footprints and hairs were found nearby. Gripped by fear, they decided to light fires.

When the vehicle failed to show up at the scheduled time, and nor did He Dong, Luo called the police. "We're trapped in the desert," she told the police.

Many other students also called the police that night. Just before 3am, police located them, according to the Beijing Youth Daily.

As police contacted seven organizers, they claimed that there were more members in the organization committee than appeared, including more than 60 volunteers and more than 40 staff handling logistics.

Lack of regulations

Trekking activities in unpopulated areas began in 2013, bringing a new wave of economic growth to Dunhuang, a city of less than 200,000 people, said the report by thepaper.cn.

Zhang Hongfeng, an organizer who had trekked through the Gobi Desert multiple times before, told thepaper.cn that the usual registration fee for a trek is around 12,800 yuan. It is very rare to see a team with more than 1,000 members trekking through the Gobi Desert, and organizers usually need years of trekking experience.

Yue Jun, deputy head of Dunhuang's outdoor sports association, said that trekking through the desert requires professional experience and an outdoor service team, but most organizers spend a large part of their budget on soliciting participants and neglect the service, said thepaper.cn.

An official from the Beijing Walking Association (BWA) surnamed Li told the Global Times that there are not yet governmental or civil standards and regulations on hiking in China, since hiking is seen more as a physical exercise rather than an athletic sport.

Li said that hosting a hike with 1,200 people is feasible, as the BWA has organized several activities with over 10,000 participants. "Full preparations must be made for the activity, such as making safe and reliable routes, providing adequate medical support, providing supplies and bathrooms along the route, and handling emergencies."

Li told the Global Times that currently, requirements for becoming a hiking organizer are low and it is difficult to ensure safety in activities organized by commercial and civil organizations.
Newspaper headline: Trek of terror


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