PETALING JAYA, Oct 16 — Walking along the entire length of the Yangtze River taught Welsh explorer Ash Dykes more than just survival skills.
It also introduced him to the diversity and beauty of Chinese culture as he spent 352 days traversing the shifting and often perilous terrain of Asia’s longest river.
Dykes, 29, began his journey in August 2018 at the river’s source in the melt-waters of the Jianggendiru Glacier high up on the Tibetan Plateau and arrived at its delta where it meets the East China Sea in Shanghai in just under a year.
He’s officially a Guinness World Record holder for being the first person to complete the 6,437-kilometre trek along the river, and Dykes said it’s safe to say that China is now his “second home” after the record-setting journey.
“Following the course of the Yangtze River not only took me through the wilderness of China but it also brought me to provinces that shared different traditions, cultures, and dialects as I slowly moved into the more urban areas with historic cities.
“I look at China as my second home now. It took two years to plan this journey and a whole year to execute, so that’s the best part of three years of my life invested in China.
“I was doing my best to learn the Chinese language and the changing dialects as I travelled down the Yangtze as well,” Dykes said in a Zoom call with regional media.
The extreme athlete is set to share his journey with the world in a two-part documentary on National Geographic called Walking the Yangtze with Ash Dykes, which will be shown on October 20 and October 27.
Viewers will witness Dykes battling severe weather, having close calls with dangerous wildlife, and his meetings with travelling nomads as he covers approximately eight million steps along the Yangtze with a 36-kilogramme rucksack on his shoulders.
He also hopes to raise awareness about environmental conservation and the effects of climate change on the nomadic lifestyle through the documentary.
During his previous adventures in Mongolia, Dykes observed how nomadic livestock would perish due to the harsh weather and their owners were then forced to move to overcrowded urban areas to find work.
The extreme cold would also force nomads to burn anything they could get their hands on to stay warm, including plastic waste and coal.
“I’ve noticed how climate change has affected the locals’ way of life and it’s been getting worse.
“I thought instead of just taking on these adventures for the love of it, I want to tie them in with a key responsibility that’s close to my heart and raise awareness about issues that many people might not know about.”
Training for an epic journey
A hardcore journey along the Yangtze meant that Dykes had to plan an equally hardcore workout in preparation for the trials he would face.
The adventurer endured the sweltering heat of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in 2014 and survived the deadliest strain of malaria while in Madagascar in 2015, but he knew the Yangtze would throw new and unexpected curveballs his way.
Dykes spent two hours each day honing his agility, balance, speed, flexibility and coordination a few months before embarking on the trip to ensure he could survive the high-altitude conditions of his journey.
“I knew that I would be carrying a really heavy rucksack on the Yangtze journey so I incorporated certain things into my training routine that would simulate what I would be facing.
“I trained with a weighted vest to bring extra weight to my body and I wore an altitude training mask that restricted my breathing so I could build lung capacity.”
But Dykes added that there’s little point in beefing up if your mindset isn’t in the right place.
He believes in the Law of Attraction and said that a positive outlook and visualising his goals fuelled him to push on through some of the toughest moments on his expedition.
“I would say the challenge is 30 per cent physical and 70 per cent mental.
“You need to be in shape to be doing these adventures but there’s also something about the mindset, that ‘can do’ attitude.
“You need to be stubborn and you need to be dogged. You just have to keep going no matter what comes your way.”
Over 16 people joined Dykes at different times during the first four months of his walk along the Yangtze River but 10 of them dropped out due to injury, fear of wildlife or altitude sickness.
While Dykes admits that being a solo adventurer can make things easier, some of his best moments along the Yangtze River involved sharing his experience with the locals and fellow explorers.
“There are pros and cons to sharing the journey with other people. I love communicating, talking and just bantering in general.
“When people are sharing the experience with me, it’s a massive high. But with that, there’s a danger because it’s not just my life that’s at risk anymore, it’s their life and their life is my responsibility because they’re on my journey.
“But despite that, I truly believe that happiness is only real when shared.”
Malaysian viewers can tune into episode one and two of Walking the Yangtze with Ash Dykes on National Geographic (Astro CH 571 SD / CH 551 HD or Unifi TV CH 508 HD) at 9pm on October 20 and October 27 respectively.