Sometimes it simply takes reading a book for one's life to change irrevocably.
As a teenager, Kunming resident Jin Feibao (金飞豹) read Jules Verne's novel Around the world in 80 days and became enamored with the idea of a life of global exploration. Now 47, Jin is arguably modern China's greatest adventurer.
After starting out exploring his native Yunnan and other parts of western China, he has conquered some of the world's most extreme destinations, including summiting the highest peaks of every continent, trekking to the north and south poles plus crossing Greenland, Xinjiang's Taklamakan Desert and the Sahara.
So far this year, Jin has been busy promoting a photo exhibition of his 25-day walk from Kunming to Hanoi along the railway connecting the two cities that was built under the direction of French general consul Auguste François 100 years ago. Next month he plans on traveling the length of the Amazon, followed by a journey up the Dulong River into southeastern Tibet in the autumn and a bicycle ride from Kunming to Singapore at the end of the year.
We stopped by Jin's office to find out more about what he's learned during his travels. Here's what he had to say:
GoKunming: You've already seen and done more than many people dream of doing in one lifetime. What are some of the most difficult challenges you've experienced in your expeditions?
Jin Feibao: When climbing Mount Everest, I almost got stuck. I was unable to move. There are many different ways to die there. I was coming down from summiting the peak and had to sit down. My Tibetan guide grabbed me and said if I sit I will die, pointing out a frozen corpse sitting stiffly nearby. If he hadn't helped me, I'd still be sitting there.
Another time when mountain climbing in Tibet, I slipped and used an ice pick to stop what would have been a fatal slide off the mountain. That time I was able to use my years of climbing experience to save myself.
When I was climbing Mount Elbrus [in Russia, Europe's highest mountain], I experienced an avalanche for the first time. You can't run from an avalanche. We were instantly buried and carried away. Under the snow, my thinking was still lucid, but I was frightened.
After the avalanche stopped, I was the first in our group to dig my way out. With just my head popping out of the snow, I grabbed my camera and took a photo of myself sticking out of the avalanche – most people who get caught by avalanches don't have the chance to take such a photo. Nobody in my group was hurt, but some decided to turn back. Six of us decided to continue upward and eventually summited the mountain.
Jin: When I was in the Sahara I'd call Xinhua News by satellite phone every day. As some people there kidnap travelers, we had to prepare for the worst-case scenario, which meant preparing ransom money. I told Xinhua that if they didn't hear from me for more than three days I'd most likely been kidnapped. We had six camels carrying all of our stuff, and the camel with the satphone took off on its own path and disappeared. Xinhua said that we had been kidnapped or attacked by terrorists, which became big news in China. We eventually found the camel and called Xinhua immediately.
In Algeria, the police are terrorists. There are basically no tourists or foreigners in Algeria. When we were applying for our Egypt visa at the Egyptian embassy in Algiers, we took a photo at the gate of the embassy. We were arrested and accused of being spies. We were taken to court and told to pay US$10,000. We called the Chinese embassy and they sent help immediately.
They were just shaking us down for cash, it's a terrifying country. We spent two days locked up. Afterward we needed to go back to Beijing, get an Egyptian visa and fly back to complete our trip.
I've been to some of the world's highest peaks and trekked to both poles, I've been to some of the world's hottest and coldest places and have succeeded in overcoming natural challenges, but cities and countries like Algeria are where the real challenge is.
People in places like Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso are very poor but very friendly. The police are nice too. Now I'm unwilling to go to some African and Middle Eastern countries – the people there are good but the police and governments are too corrupt.
GK: Many of your travels have an environmental focus, how important are environmental concerns to you?
Jin: Environmental issues are very important to me. We went to the Sahara to learn about desertification, which is a big problem in China. If we don't take care of our water resources we'll become a Sahara too.
Take Dianchi Lake – it used to be beautiful. You could swim in it and drink the water... now it is a cesspool. This is the fault of every Kunminger. But the government didn't care about protecting the lake, and corruption and graft made things even worse. This crime is worse than murder because Dianchi was important to so many people.
In 1996 I organized the first expedition to pick up garbage on Mount Everest. Many local media criticized me - they said I was just chasing fame - but others supported me. Some people said: "If he really wants to clean things up why not start with Dianchi?" But if I held a cleanup activity at Dianchi, only people in Kunming would know, but Everest is a global platform for environmental protection. We collected several tons of garbage, it was a great success. Now people don't leave garbage there.
GK: What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Jin: This May I will go to the Amazon. Around September I will trek along the Dulong River into southeast Tibet. Very few people have been there – there are no roads. There are four very small ethnic groups there, the Dulong, Luobu, Menba and Dengren. These people number only in the thousands and they live lives the way they did 100 years ago. They've never seen a car or a train, they've never watched TV. I've been to a few places like this – the people I've met don't understand how we live in cities.
I'm going to take five or six people on a 30-day trek distributing traditional medicines to 200 households and learning more about these people. When I return I will write a book and organize a photo exhibition. I hope the government will be able to give these people assistance. Now I have some influence: I can influence the perceptions of media, urban residents and the government. I should use this influence to help people.
In November of this year I'll take a group of five or six people on a bicycle trip through seven countries, finishing in Singapore. The ride works out to be a little more than 3,000 kilometers. The purpose of the ride will be to promote grassroots understanding between Kunming residents and Southeast Asians – I'll be a friendship ambassador.
Now I'm training for this year's Athens marathon that will commemorate the original marathon run, which took place 2,500 years ago. I'm the only Yunnanese participant registered, there are about 30 Chinese participating. I plan on running marathons on every continent, including Antarctica. Right now I'm running at least 10 kilometers every day after work.
GK: You're quite active compared to the average Chinese fortysomething, how would you describe the physical fitness of the average Chinese person your age?
Jin: Most Chinese adults don't do much outside of work other than play poker or mahjong, they don't care about physical fitness.
GK: I understand that you are the first Chinese private citizen to have booked a flight into outer space. How do you think space travel will be different from your terrestrial experiences?
Jin: Going to outer space isn't all that impressive, it's just an experience. It takes no effort on my part. If you have money, you can go... but if you have money you aren't necessarily able to summit a mountain peak.
Lots of Chinese have money. I don't, but I can find people who do, and they support me and my projects.
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