Pad­dler plans to kayak to Arc­tic Ocean In­trepid ad­ven­turer dreams of com­plet­ing epic jour­ney through China, Kaza­khstan and Rus­sia

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - China -

The Ir­tysh River flows from Hou Zhili’s home­town and leads to the Arc­tic Ocean — a jour­ney Huo plans to make alone in a kayak.

From where he lives in Fuyun county, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, the 41-year-old has com­pleted what many see as epic feats — kayak­ing un­pow­ered for 2,020 kilo­me­ters on the China and Kaza­khstan sec­tions of the Ir­tysh in 2014 and 2016.

The pad­dler is pre­par­ing for the fi­nal and most chal­leng­ing stage of the 2,200-km Rus­sia sec­tion, plus the last 1,160-km of the Ob River, which the Ir­tysh flows into be­fore its wa­ters reach the north­ern sea.

From its source in the Al­tay Moun­tains in Fuyun, the 4,248-km Ir­tysh River flows north­west through Kaza­khstan be­fore merg­ing with the Ob River in Rus­sia. It is the only river in China that leads to the Arc­tic Ocean.

Huo’s love for kayak­ing be­gan when he was a teenager. In the 1980s, sev­eral white-wa­ter ad­ven­tur­ers on China’s two largest rivers, the Yangtze and the Yel­low River, had be­come fa­mous and started a craze among bold Chi­nese who took to raft­ing on streams across the coun­try.

Some young­sters from Hou’s home­town even drifted for hun­dreds of kilo­me­ters along the Ir­tysh on rafts made of old tires.

In 2012, he de­cided to close his graphic de­sign com­pany and turned his hobby into a full-time oc­cu­pa­tion.

Af­ter ar­du­ous train­ing, on Aug 28, 2014, Hou set out alone in his yel­low and or­ange boat from Kok­tokay, a town near the source of the Ir­tysh.

He pad­dled for 50 km a day, and took 23 days to ar­rive at Kaba county, where the 520km China sec­tion of the river ends.

The river be­gins to freeze in Novem­ber and does not thaw un­til April, so Huo planned to com­plete the Kaza­khstan sec­tion the fol­low­ing year. When the time came, how­ever, he was re­fused a visa.

His chance fi­nally ar­rived as tourism co­op­er­a­tion be­tween China and Kaza­khstan im­proved with the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive.

Kaza­khstan re­laxed its visa pro­ce­dures for Chi­nese tourists last year.

In Au­gust 2016, with the help of travel agen­cies from both sides of the bor­der, Hou set out from Jem­i­nay, a Chi­nese county bor­der­ing Kaza­khstan. It took him 33 days to pad­dle the 1,500-km sec­tion.

The jour­ney was longer and tougher than he ex­pected.

The river width and cur­rent var­ied con­stantly. He fought hard to meet his tar­get of 50 km a day. Camp­ing on the river­bank when dusk fell was risky.

“I was lucky to re­turn from the dan­ger­ous jour­ney un­harmed,” he said.

Along the way, Hou was deeply moved by the friendly Kazakh peo­ple who gave him fresh pro­duce and in­vited him to stay at their homes.

It has not been cheap. The chal­lenge has cost a good por­tion of his sav­ings.

To fin­ish the task, he has to kayak fur­ther than the to­tal of his two pre­vi­ous trips.

He also has to cross the vast and frigid Siberian land­scape. The ad­ven­ture in Rus­sia will be much more de­mand­ing — phys­i­cally and fi­nan­cially.

Hou went to Rus­sia in Septem­ber to as­sess his travel route and to co­or­di­nate with lo­cal tourism au­thor­i­ties.

He said the prepa­ra­tion is go­ing well. The prospect of nav­i­gat­ing a wa­ter­course that is frozen solid for much of the year has not damp­ened his am­bi­tion.

Hou plans to start from the Rus­sian city of Omsk next sum­mer and to pad­dle all the way to Labyt­nangi, the last town on the Ir­tysh. From there he will ap­proach the great north­ern ocean.

“I want to be a true hero in the eyes of my daugh­ter,” said Huo, who has a 12-year-old girl. Hou’s wife, who at first did not un­der­stand his drive to com­plete such a dan­ger­ous jour­ney now ac­cepts his am­bi­tion and backs him.

“That sup­port in­spires me to hold on to my dream, no mat­ter how many chal­lenges I en­counter,” he said.


The Ir­tysh River in the north­ern Xi­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion is the only river in China that leads to the Arc­tic Ocean.

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