Before beginning Silk Roads to Shanghai we naively felt we would have all the hard work completed by the time we reached Yichang. The remaining 1650km of flat river stretching between here and Shanghai would offer time for reflection. A chance to think about the adventure behind us with little in the way of effort lying ahead.
It was an underestimation we had made all those months ago as we cycled out from Istanbul. On both occasions we found ourselves exhausted, cold and in a race against time. On both occasions we needed help and on both occasions we received it.
Warm smiles and selfless gestures have followed us throughout our journey. We have rarely felt alone despite being so far from home. Time and time again we have been looked after and worried over. We have been treated as long lost sons, brothers and friends by households across Asia.
The names below are just a few of the people who made our adventure so special. There are many more we will never see or hear from again who we will never be able to properly thank. To all those strangers who became friends we would like to thank you for making our expedition possible and worthwhile.
- Eric and all the students. Showt, Iran
- Mahdi, Homa and the Milani family. Tabritz, Iran
- Kazim, Sephir + the UFC club. Tehran, Iran
- Paul and Louise Donnelly. Dubai , UAE
- Trish Crooks. Dubai , UAE
- Freeman Murray and everyone at Jaaga and Sandbox. Bangalore, India
- Jeremy Finbar Hayes and the Xu family, Wuhu China
- Brian Murry and Le Cheile. Shanghai, China
- Peter Clarke and Staff at The Kerry Hotel. Shanghai, China
- Austin Gormley and family. Shanghai, China
- King Zhang. Ningbo, China
We reached Shanghai on Wednesday 16th January,10 months after setting out from Istanbul. It has been quite an amazing adventure and finishing has not sunk in just yet. Thanks to everyone who has supported both ourselves and Self Help Africa.
We would like to thank Jeremy Finbar Hayes and the Xu family for the incredible kindness they have shown us over the last two days. Reaching Wuhu on 1st January required us to paddle for 29 of the last 30 days. We were tired to the point of exhaustion and badly in need of a rest, meal and warm bed. After a wonderfully relaxing break we are now restored to full fitness and ready to tackle the final 450km stint to Shanghai.
We hope to paddle the distance in 12 days but are very much at the mercy of a prevailing northernly wind. Only now, after 280 days on the roads and rivers of Asia have we begun to picture concluding the expedition. Wuhu!
Click here to listen to Matt Copper's interview with Maghnus and David on Today FM yesterday. (Skip to 41 mins in on part 2 of Wednesdays show.)
In the context of a lifetime the possibilities on this planet are infinite. However lofty such a statement may appear it is without any real profundity. It seems to me self-evident that regardless of the path on which we travel these possibilities are truly boundless and infinite in the sense that even the appreciation of the scantiest few is the work of a lifetime. The limit to what can be experienced is a constraint of our own creation, our own limited imagination. Perhaps it is the curse of adventure but once you have started down this path the vastness of potential experience, often desired experience, becomes obviated in a way that brings to mind that oft repeated truism; knowledge is often knowing less and less about more and more. So I sit nearing the end of this particular possibility knowing so much less about so much more. Rather than detracting a single possibility from the bottomless well we will have toiled merely to further excavate our appreciation, deepening only our own awareness of what we might know. What we might do.
The purpose of this amateur fumbling with philosophy is an attempt to articulate for myself the value and worth of what we have done. In finishing this expedition we will have conquered nothing, exhausted not a single possibility. The pounded tarmac of Turkey, Iran, India and Nepal will be met by many more bicycle tyres. The Tibetan Plateau is no more accessible now than before we ran across it, nor less. The waters of the Yangtze will keep on making their journey from Himalayan glaciers to the Pacific shore long after they have dried from our clothes. The expedition’s beginning and end were and are of our choosing, it’s start and finish lines exist only in our minds. The mountains, rivers, oceans, and deserts of this planet care not a jot for our conquests, descents, ascents and crossings. They are resolute and unmoved by our travails, changing at their own imperceptible pace and on their own terms as they have always done. The possibilities on this planet are indeed endless but as far as our host is concerned, inconsequential. What then of adventure? What then of our adventure?
As it so often does the true question you are asking yourself suddenly seems blatant; why? It cannot be avoided. Deriding those who ask it as incapable of apprehension can quell your own uncertainty for a time, their incomprehension masking your own. But only for a time. Enjoyment and fulfillment in the act are not dependent on an answer and even motivation can be summoned without an understanding. The question, however, remains. It’s answer neither vital nor urgent, yet quietly persistent. And so, three years after first asking myself the question at a similar stage of an expedition I find myself again asking why? Then, as now, I cannot see past six simple words I heard somewhere on the roads, lanes and tracks of Africa, the Middle East and Europe; Not things, but men and women. The value and worth of this journey if any exist, exist only because of people. They exist in the help of friends and family who saw some themselves or valued us enough to back our judgement. They are substantiated by the truly worthwhile and priceless works of a charity who’s creed belies the term. They reside in mothers who encouraged us to continue when every shred of their being wanted us to stop. They can be seen in fathers who made a mockery of the term ‘unsupported’ expedition. Hopefully some can be seen in the eyes of children who saw us passing and maybe saw a few new possibilities themselves. More still lies in the deeds of countless strangers who paused to share a wave or a roof. Why do I do this? Because of the people.
It must have been tough. I found myself thinking of the Ethiopian lady and I only do that when it is. I remember back to cycling on a mountain pass out of Addis Ababa; I was out of shape, struggling and generally feeling sorry for myself. I desperately wanted to stop. In this state I passed a lady walking up the same hill carrying an impossibly large load. She seemed unfazed by the climb, laughing at my odd appearance and making a mockery of the struggle. It is an image that has stayed with me. Whenever I get to thinking times are tough I think of her and all the people like her who have shown us what hard work really is.
I was thinking of her this morning. I heard the alarm from somewhere deep in the recesses of my sleeping bag. I heard it and was immediately filled with dread. Once out of the sleeping bag the cold would envelope me. I was warm and didn't want to leave. I lay thinking about the day that lay ahead.
I imagined fumbling with my swollen hands as I pulled on my damp socks. I pictured holding my breath as I pulled on my filthy t-shirt. The initial forays with changing would be carried out to a chorus of heavy breathing and wincing. My mind would be off as I carried out tasks in auto pilot. Pack away the inside of the tent ,then pack away the tent before waking Maghnus. Next I would collect water, put on the stove, pack up the kayak , eat porridge and carry all my gear to the river.
I felt that if I could just not think about the day ahead until I was paddling I could get through it. I thought this but I lay still. I listened for the signs of wind, wondering if we would have to contend with head-on gusts and waves as we pushed on. Doing the maths I reasoned we had probably averaged 42km per day during the last 19 days of non-stop paddling. It was a reasonable total. If we could do this for the next 23 days we could have a day off. I thought this would cheer me up but it had the opposite effect. Why can’t we have two days off? Three days off and I could paddle to Shanghai. I hated the pressure. After 9 months on the road surely we deserved a little time to relax.
Ok- one day at a time thats all I can think here. Just get today started. Just get on the river and things won’t seem as bleak. My mood lifted. Maybe we would be rewarded by the selfless gestures we had received yesterday afternoon. We could be called aboard another fishing boat for lunch. We could be given Chinese tea, and some steaming hot rice. I pictured sitting in that little kitchen drinking tea. Yesterday hadn’t been all that bad. The locals really were coming to our aid now. It’s like they suddenly sensed we needed it. They were helping us along, helping us grit our teeth.
I thought of that Ethiopian lady. I pictured her smile and rediscovered mine. Unzipping the sleeping bag to begin another day on the Yangtze.
The final 1700 km of the Yangtze stretching from Yichang to Shanghai begins immediately downstream from the notorious Three Gorges Dam. After this point the river slows significantly as it meanders its way towards the East China Sea. With our visas expiring around the middle of January we worried this section would require an ambitious target of 40km a day.
We have pondered this dilemma for quite some time and were delighted when Winner kayaks approached us with an offer of using their sea kayaks for this section. Our Alpacka packrafts had been the perfect mode of transport for the upper Yangtze and our new sea kayaks have been superb so far on the lower river.
We are currently 11 days into this section and are approaching the 1000km to go mark. With the new kayaks we are now averaging 44km a day and could even buy ourselves a day off for Christmas.
Thanks to Winner kayaks for coming on board as sponsors and also to Jack Wolfskin who recently offered to sponsor the Gossamer tents we have used since leaving Istanbul 9 months ago.
What a difference a couple of months make. This time two months ago I was raft-less, in need of new equipment and desperately trying to convince Chinese Immigration to give me a new visa on a temporary passport. I write now from Chongqing nearly 2000 km further down the river and at the end of the whitewater. In the meantime we have had some of the most difficult, exhilarating, terrifying and memorable moments we have ever experienced. Trying to capture those experiences in their totality is difficult and i fear may not accurately reflect how I felt on a daily basis. Thus I again look to my diary to better articulate my true feelings at the time;
The rapids keep coming. Every corner seems to bring something substantial and there appears to be no end in sight. Four long messy sections greeted us in the first two hours on the water. On the last of which I took a stupid swim entirely because I switched off. Our skill level, or lack thereof, dictates that we be “on it” constantly. The relentless spells of total focus numb the mind after a time and I got flipped before I even knew what was happening.
A couple of km later we arrived at a very large rapid. We scouted it and reckoned that although the swim would be unpleasant there was time enough to self rescue before the next bend. Unlike earlier we were both switched on. Despite this the waves proved two much for us and my raft was flipped back on itself and I was again swimming. The swell sucked me under a few times before I eventually righted the raft and clambered back in just before being swept around the next bend. Bloody horrible feeling being sucked under.
The current condition of the river is pushing us further and further toward what we cannot handle. It is also demanding more and more of us mentally just to get through the day. The river is often referred to as ‘The Dragon’s Back’ and at the moment we are barely clinging to the reigns. The day finished with three back to back rapids. Burnsy scouted ahead and reported that they were just about manageable and that the carrot at the end of a watery stick was a possible campsite beneath a waterfall.
The first of the rapids we both passed through with not a small amount of difficulty. The second, though, was one which I will not soon forget. Edging in on the lip trying to avoid a very messy left hand side I was hit from the right by three or four large waves pushing me directly into the worst of the mess on the left. Waves, bubbling aerated water and whirlpools of huge proportions seemed to crash and form all around me. I forgot all thoughts of lines and direction as I spun wildly, sticking my paddle into the swirling mass simply to stay upright. Just as i resigned myself to a nasty swim I was spat out the right way up. No time to reflect we hit the last of the three and with manic excitement we both squeezed through before eddying out at the base of the waterfall. In hundreds of nights camping we have never experienced a more special site. Water hazed from 100 metres above bouncing off glistening rock before plunging into a shallow pool as if rain.
It has truly been a testing stage, filled with adventure, genuine danger and at times great fun. The mental fatigue we both currently feel is testament to the size of the task it has been. Although we are both reticent to say it aloud we feel we are now within touching distance of completing what we set out to do so many months ago. It is far from over with over 2000 km of hard slog ahead but in making such a sustained push at a time when such a push was most difficult we have taken an important step. I believe, or rather hope, that when we look back at the river in its entirety those few weeks will be the ones that convinced the dragon to permit us passage.
Have you suffered, starved and triumphed,
groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
"Done things" just for the doing
The Call of the Wild - Robert Service
I wonder when all this is finished and we are looking back at those days on the great bend of the Yangtze river. Will we view them as the defining moments of this expedition ?
Never before have we lived with such a sense of fear. Never have we questioned the subtle line between courage and stupidly or had days so full of exhilaration. At the time we craved safety but were aware that these moments were special. These were the moments that got us into this way of life, these were moments to remember.
We have now entered the final section of our expedition. The white waters and adrenaline filled days of the upper river lie behind us. Our new challenge is a familiar one, a final test of endurance on a flat and heavily populated river.
There is still a possibility we won’t complete this expedition. That we won’t get a chance to stand in Shanghai and remember all the agony and ecstasy lining the roads and river banks across Asia. That some unforeseen event will stop us so close to the end. It would be horrible to fall at this final hurdle but it would no long ruin the expedition.
Don’t get me wrong, finishing is still hugely important and we will be throwing all we have left into this final test. We will approach it with the respect and determination required. Im sure it will be an amazing time and an opportunity for us to thank all the people who have made this possible.
It will be memorable. But as we have always found, the great days aren’t the days spent posing for pictures. Finishing lines don’t bring some sudden uncontrollable excitement and they don’t make an expedition. The moments we end up remembering are the quiet ones on mountain passes or after great rapids. They arise after fierce struggles and are spent gazing back towards the setting sun. They are filled with an illusive feeling that if only for the briefest of moments, and if only for the sake of doing, I had done.
I woke up feeling more nervous than yesterday and for some reason felt jittery as we paddled off from a little jetty. I say ‘for some reason’ as yesterdays fall wasn’t particularly bad and during the resulting swim I felt composed and relaxed getting out of trouble long before any rapids. I concluded that the feeling was more to do with the general uneasiness I have regarding this stretch. I have always felt that once we reach Chongqing we will be safe and so it seems the closer we get the more I think of all the possibilities for disaster that could arise before this landmark. It seems akin to the feeling one can get in Rugby or Football when trying to hold onto a narrow lead. You become so obsessed with not making mistakes that you lose your rhythm , an extremely dangerous mindset to adopt on this river.
As we paddled off I wobbled on a series of tiny whirlpools. Then I began readjusting my bags and seat trying to correct a balance issue that only existed in my head. Maghnus humored my dilemma by pointing out that jitters were only natural and that my raft looked perfectly balanced. I then exclaimed for the first and last time that ‘I needed something big to get me back in the groove’ - I certainly got my wish. Throughout that day we negotiated rapids every few kilometers, rapids which made all our efforts on this section seem like some sort of extended warm up. One in particular stands out :
The river seemed to be forking into two channels divided by a shingle bank 30 meters from the left bank and flanked by the sheer cliffs which are beginning to characterise this section. The sun was in my eyes as I strained to make a call. Peering down both channels looking for an obvious horizon line or white water jumping up in the distance. At 1km away river left seemed like the preferable option and I could make out a period of calm afterwards which would be perfect for recovering should either of of get into trouble.
I slowly began to get in position not yet committed to running this river left but certain that we could read and run whatever was ahead. As I moved out towards the centre of the river I could see fully down the bend the water took going river left and knew something was up. The noise didn’t fit with the calm scene in front of me and the water had grown extremely calm. I strained my eyes trying to see where this noise originated and saw some puffs of white water just visible behind a calm horizon which spanned this side of the river. I couldn’t see the full extent of it yet but knew it must be big. I turned to indicate my mistake to Maghnus and started paddling hard across the flow heading for the right hand passage. Maghnus was 50 meters back and in a perfect position to get across. I still felt I could make it but as I paddled and the noise increased the struggle I was in for became apparent.
Getting closer to the right hand channel the speed of the river increased. Although the right hand side was wider 75% of the water seemed to curving round and going down river left. I got to within 5 meters of the calm righthand channel before I realised for certain I wouldn’t make it. I swung the raft round and prepared to get pounded. Maghnus has enough time to get right I thought, I dearly hoped he wouldn’t follow me into this. After this I started manicly shouting at the upcoming water, all nervousness was gone and I was ready for a tussle. My aim was simple get as far as possible before falling out I had no grand illusions off making this in one piece.
Water was coming diagonally off the shingle bed on the right and seemed to be hitting boulders as it rushed across to join the main flow which followed along the cliff on the far left. There was a slight lip of calm water leading into the huge waves on the left and I used this as a target. Before I knew it I was on the lip and sinking deeper and deeper into the trough of a wave with another rising high above me. My only strategy was to hit as many as I could head on, and for the first two I managed it. The raft rising vertically on each occasion but crashing down each time. I was roaring at the water, crashing through wave after wave with adrenaline pumping. I had no chance of picking a line or trying to get out , it was purely one wave at a time. On several occasions I was sucked into a whirlpool or blindsided my some monster wave but miraculously kept upright. I began to take in my surroundings and noticed the waves were decreasing. I managed a quick look back and saw that Maghnus had followed me in and was perched on the crest of a wave someway back. I felt I would make it now but still had to work hard and keep an eye on Maghnus. He appeared every few seconds on the crest of a wave before plunging out of sight. The next corner was 1km away and getting in position was essential. As soon as Maghnus was through the worst of it we were working hard to get back across river right. Reminiscing would have to wait until we camped.
We are heading back to the river today with about two weeks of paddling remaining until we leave the mountains for good. We will attempt to put up a few more diary entries before then.