Taking the long way: Solo adventurer completes decade-long odyssey traveling China on foot

By Yin Yeping Source:Global Times Published: 2012-2-9 21:38:37

Lei Diansheng walking in Lop Nur desert, which marked the emotional and physical end of his decade-long walk around China in 2008. Photo: Courtesy of Lei Diansheng
Lei Diansheng walking in Lop Nur desert, which marked the emotional and physical end of his decade-long walk around China in 2008. Photo: Courtesy of Lei Diansheng

When 49-year-old adventurer Lei Diansheng embarked on his 10-year journey traveling around China on foot, he was unaware of what lay ahead in his 81,000-kilometer adventure. It was a journey few would ever dare make, involving the danger and uncertainty that comes from not knowing where one's next meal or place of shelter will come. Lei modestly refers to himself as an introverted person with a positive outlook on life, however beneath that lies a wistful sense of adventure that knows no boundaries.

Early independence

Born in a small village in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province in 1963, Lei had a difficult upbringing. At 7 years old, he was forced to care for his ill mother and couldn't afford to indulge in the fun-filled childhood many of his friends enjoyed. Three years into elementary school, his parents both died of illness. Although he had brothers and sisters, Lei felt alone in life.

"The person who taught me about life was my mother, and her premature death forced me to be more mature and independent," Lei said. After he completed his 10-year journey around China on foot, he kneeled towards the direction where his parents died and wept amid Lop Nur, a desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It was November, 2008, and it marked the emotional end to his decade-long travels.

This early independence also gave him the courage and peace of mind needed to deal with difficulties in life. Originally inspired and motivated by geographer and adventurer Xu Xiake (1587-1641), Lei admired his courage for exploring uncharted frontiers. Yet instead of starting his journey on a whim, he took 10 years to get ready. Throughout this period, he studied Chinese geography and survival tactics in the wild. Meanwhile, he improved his physical endurance to withstand exposure to extreme temperatures. He trained by walking with free weights, often turning heads while jogging down the street lugging gas canisters or anything else heavy enough to simulate his heavy backpack. His unorthodox training even resulted in him being arrested by police, who suspected he was a thief making a getaway.

Hitting the road

In 1998, Lei gathered more than 200,000 yuan ($31,760) by selling his house and possessions, including his beloved collection of stamps. He also quit his highly paid job at a foreign company in Beijing, and sacrificed love by splitting up with his girlfriend ahead of the journey. "I even went to the doctor to have my appendix removed, in case I had an emergency on my travels," he said. "Without my preparations carried out over 10 years, I could never have accomplished this journey."

Setting out from Heilongjiang, Lei first conquered north China before heading south and west to Sichuan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Once he started, there was no turning back.  Lei covered on average of around 40 kilometers daily, the rough equivalent of a marathon, lugging his heavy baggage that contained travel necessities such as his tent, maps and food.

Lei experienced numerous close shaves with death, having to fend off wolves and snakes at least 40 times. His encounters include being chased by wild boars up a tree, surrounded by wolves in his tent and almost finding himself in a tight bind with a python in a forest.

"Once I was having a short rest at Luoxiao mountain, Hunan Province," Lei recalled. "Then I heard something moving through the undergrowth. It turned out to be a python sliding towards me." Lei's response was to set off firecrackers to scare the reptile away which, though unusual, proved effective.

However the greatest threat to Lei didn't come from wild animals, rather it came from his fellow man. He had to be constantly on his guard for thieves, opting to carry as little cash as possible. Dozens of times he ran into thugs who threatened him with knives and other weapons.

One day while walking alone on a desolate mountain road, Lei encountered a group of youths on motorbikes who stopped him before trying to rob him. When he told them his story however, they were impressed and sympathetic, even offering him food and water to continue on his way.

Tough in mind, tough in spirit

To save money, Lei lived off the bare essentials by eating instant noodles and biscuits. When he was short of money, he turned to nature and ate ants, scorpions and lizards. Once, while dehydrated and desperate, he emulated British adventurer Bear Grylls by drinking his own urine. Throughout it all though, he documented his journey with a pen, notebook and camera.

"I went through 52 pairs of shoes and lost seven cameras," Lei recalled. "During my journey, I also lost 19 toenails that fell off from the constant walking." Despite the trials and tribulations, he managed to snap 40,000 photographs and pen a diary filled with nearly a million characters summing up his experience.

Lei endured extremes of China's diverse climate that included sweltering in 70-degree heat in Lop Nur in Xinjiang to shivering in minus 50-degree cold in Mohe in his native Heilongjiang. Although his body built up a resistance to spoilt food and tainted water, he wasn't immune to suffering high fevers from exposure to the elements and lack of medical care. He met people from all walks of life and many of China's 56 ethnic minorities, some who considered him a crazy man pursuing an even more delusional dream, while others who respected him and wished him well on his endeavors.

"I consider my experience similar to the adventures depicted in [classic Chinese novel] Journey to the West, only I lacked any companions to share my journey with," Lei said, adding that his mantra in life is "where there's a will, there's a way."

Since completing his journey, Lei has relocated to Beijing where he has settled down, married and started a family of his own. These days, he enjoys taking hot showers and sleeps in a warm bed under a roof. However his sense of adventure and love for travel remains insatiable. He has even set up a club for travel enthusiasts who share his passion for exploring the unknown. Now that his journey on foot has been completed, he's embarking on another epic mission: transcribing his journal to write a book and share his journey with readers.



Posted in: Metro Beijing

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