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Adventure travel can be deadly
2013-07-15
By Qu Zhi

SHANGHAI adventure traveler Xu Guang was last seen one month ago in scenic Hemu village in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. There's been no sign of him since then.

On June 8, the IT engineer in his 30s left Shanghai for a solo hiking trip in Xinjiang in China's far northwest and planned to fly back 11 days later. He was an experienced hiker and backpacker, but hiking solo breaks a cardinal rule of adventure travel: don't go alone.

On the afternoon of June 10, Xu sent a text message to his father in Shanghai, saying he had arrived near Kanas area. He said that because of the remote location, there might be no signal as he traveled. He told his father not to worry. Nothing was heard from him since then.

His family finally called for help when he didn't return to Shanghai.

Search parties were dispatched, based on a planned travel route Xu released earlier in an online forum. They found no sign of Xu, no footprints.

On July 1, the Xinjiang Shanyou Mountain Rescue Team announced it was time to abandon the search, according to Sichuan media. The leader called it "a tough decision," but said the terrain was too hazardous, the team was all-volunteer and they had found no signs of Xu. His chances of survival in the harsh terrain and flood season were next to nothing.

The next day, another rescue team from the Kanas police and volunteers from the mountain rescue team set off for the rugged uninhabited area in the upper reaches of the Hemu River. So far no information has been heard.

In recent years, rugged, adventure trips (ye you ò°ó?) to undeveloped scenic places has become a trend. Over the last 10 years, there has been an increasing number of lost, trapped and injured travelers, as well as dozens of fatalities.

On July 7, a 50-year-old man in an adventure team of 38 members died by falling from the waterfall in Juxi Grand Canyon in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. Another trekker surnamed Wen has been missing in the same place for more than 15 days while still has no trace for the search. According to the Zhejiang media, the landscape is very complicated and difficult that both victims lack professional equipment to ensure safety.

No one registers

Last month, a corpse was found at the mountain peak of 3,500 meters above sea level on Ao Mountain in Shaanxi Province. The man got lost in the middle of the climbing. As Tian Guaixu, a local resident of Taibai County near the mountain, told the Shaanxi Media, he has encountered more than 20 dead bodies on high-altitude areas of Qinling Mountains (Ao Mountain is one of the main peaks of Qinling) in Shaanxi Province when he is there to pick herbs. Some has been there for years.

One of the most "famous" ye you, in January this year, 24 adventurers and three crew members were stranded aboard a fishing boat for five days at Xisha Island, South China Sea, due to strong winds and high waves on the sea. Most of the travelers had no idea about the condition of the ship before boarding. Luckily, Sanya city maritime salvage and rescue center saved them so that everyone made their way home.

"We do have rules," says Chen Xutong, a member of the Xi'an Search and Rescue Team with three years of experience. According to Chen, the Chinese Mountaineering Association stipulates that everyone who plans to climb 3,500 meters above sea level should register with the local government.

But when he checked with local officials, they told him no one had registered though hundreds of climbers had attempted in Taibai County where lie the most popular mountains loved by trekkers.

If someone doesn't register and leave their route and schedule, they cannot be rescued if they get into trouble, Chen says in a telephone interview with Shanghai Daily.

Though Shanghai native Xu Guang was an experienced trekker, the Hemu route through a dense forest in the sparsely populated zones in northwest China is still extremely risky. The path is rugged and wild animals including wolves and bears roam the area. The weather is unpredictable; heavy rains can mean flooding. Hikers have to detour through the forest.

Xu was heading into areas where even the local Kazakh nomads don't venture because it's dangerous.

Another route

Another popular and hazardous route is the tramp from Ao Mountain to Taibai Mountain, the main vein of Qinling Mountains. Climbers must pass many peaks higher than 3,400 meters. The weather is treacherous and can change from minute to minute; hikers can encounter dense fog, rain, snow and hail without warning.

It's an adrenalin rush that draws climbers back for more.

Hikers everywhere are asked to register with local forestry authorities, provide detailed itineraries and personal details as well as emergency contacts. Inspection of their equipment is often required. Sometimes guides are recommended.

"This is standard international practice," says Chen from the Xi'an rescue team.

Hikers should also leave detailed itineraries with their families, he emphasizes. "They are often the first to seek help," he says, but adds that families often have very little helpful information.

Rugged, uninhabited areas are risky, even for professionals. Last year, Chen and five volunteers set off to find a man lost in Shitouhe, Shaanxi Province.

"We climbed many cliffs that are 70 degrees, even more, or even vertical," he says. "The local guide was too afraid to help us. During the search some team members were too scared to look down. Remains of dead animals were everywhere," Chen recalls.

Finally, they found the hikers' clothes, shoes and backpack in the river.

"No one would end up in that place if they were not lost," Chen says. When travelers get lost, the worst thing they can do is blindly trying to find their way back, he says. "If they cannot find their way back, they should stay in place, waiting for a rescue team."

Being brave can be fatal.

In February three people froze to death on Ao Mountain. Despite a snowstorm the night before, they decided to keep climbing but because of the altitude and lack of oxygen, they lost consciousness.

Every year, the rescue team handles around 20 cases of adventure travelers in trouble in Shaanxi Province.

In 2010, 16 people died in the province. Last year, five people died because rescue came too late.

"Uninhabited places have majestic views and I am not saying that no one should travel there," Chen says. "As long as they are fully prepared and trained for survival and medical treatment, they can come back safe and sound.

"Going solo is a very bad idea," he is quick to add.

Riven Chen, a 27-year-old journalist, recalls he got hooked on adventure travel and backpacking when he was a university student. He has been backpacking for five years.

At first he wanted to broaden his horizon, but now he says he sometimes gets "perplexed" by the meaning of adventure travel.

"After experiencing such astonishing views, I would just feel empty when I come back. I am not in mood for anything. It's like holiday syndrome but takes much longer to recover," Chen says.

Leader oughts to know all

Every year, Chen and his friends take three or four trekking and climbing trips to remote areas. Chen refuses to find travel partners on backpacking BBS or websites.

"They are like blind date websites. Many people exaggerate their experience and when you actually travel together, a lot of problems can occur," he says.

People may turn out to be incompatible when they are roughing it, Chen says. "Knowing team members' personalities and physical abilities is important for a leader and the number should be small. It's better to go with people you know so everyone can help each other," he says.

In December 2010, 18 Shanghai tourists, most of them Fudan University students, got lost in a storm on Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province. A young policeman lost his life during the rescue.

The case made headlines because the group was inexperienced and unprepared.

"The organizer of that trip was just too inexperienced," Chen says. "If the weather or situation is bad, the group should find the nearest place to camp. Instead he chose to go forward at night," he says.

Professionals say there should be one leader for every 10 team members, otherwise a group can be too difficult to guide and control.

Altitude sickness can be a problem, and hikers and team leaders should be familiar with the signs and immediately move to a lower elevation.

Chen recalls that on one trek in a valley at 5,000 meters above sea level, a team member was suffering altitude sickness. "In such low air pressure, it's almost impossible to fall asleep. It's like you take four deep breaths and feel nothing. So you have to take enough medicine for altitude sickness."

Despite disappointment, it's better to retreat and climb down, he says.

"Travel is for relaxing, but safety is the foundation," says He Yiwei, vice manager of Shanghai Datong Travel Agency. "Going to some exciting undeveloped place is like drinking, you may get hurt and affect others."

Travel agencies are getting better prepared for adventure travel, planning safe routes carefully, and educating travelers before they set out.

Popular destinations among adventurers

Dasi

Located in the south of Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi Province, Dasi is an obscure village 1,700 meters above sea level. Nestled within the Qinling Mountains, this village forms a retreat from the modern world for many travelers. During the route, tourists will experience a long journey at an altitude of 2,600 to 2,800 meters.

Yading

Renowned for the three holy peaks, Yading was the "Shangri-La" first discovered by Joseph Rock, an American missionary in 1982. This Tibetan holy land in Daocheng County, southwestern Sichuan Province, is a paradise for trekkers. Altitude sickness may affect some hikers as the trip takes place at altitudes from 2,500 to 4,800 meters.

Sichuan-Tibet Highway

The most beautiful highway in China starts in Ya'an, Sichuan Province, and ends in Lhasa, Tibet. Nevertheless, this highway is also called the "Road of Death" as it crosses 14 mountains towering more than 5,000 meters above sea level and deep valleys carved out of the mountains by rivers.

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