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This Kayaker Made the First Solo Descent of China’s ‘King of Terrors’

Over 234 days, Semit Lee paddled 3,411 miles through rapids and remote gorges to document the social and environmental conditions along the revered Yellow River.   Get to know all 10 honorees, then vote every day for the People's Choice until December 16, 2016. The winner will be announced in January 2017.

One false move in his kayak—a lurch in the wrong direction, a lost grip on the paddle—and Semit Lee knew it could mean instant death in the churning rapids.

It was April 2015, and the now 42-year-old Chinese explorer was nearly two months into the first source-to-sea solo expedition down the Yellow River, China’s legendary “Mother River.” Also known as the Huang, the river snakes 3,590 miles—and drops more than 14,500 vertical feet—from the Tibetan Plateau to the Bo Hai Sea. He had reached the deadliest section, in the mountains of Qinghai Province, where the river falls off the roof of the world and plunges through a long series of gorges.

Seven men died here on a 1987 rafting expedition, the only previous attempt to navigate the length of the Yellow. Nobody since had dared to descend the waterway now known, in the sporting community, as “the king of terrors.”

Until Lee, a low-key electrical engineer whose Chinese name is Huacan Li, decided to try it alone. After 56 days and 1,000 miles of gentle paddling, he could hear the roar of the gorges at Tangnaihe before he could see them. His intense anxiety before launching into the canyon vanished as soon as his kayak got sucked into the river’s vortex.

“It was like being thrown into a washing machine,” he says. “I had no spare time for feelings. It took everything I had just to keep the kayak from capsizing.” Any mishap there, he says, “and no one would be able to save me or find [my] body.”

Lee had not gotten into kayaking for such death-defying moments. Raised in China’s industrialized south, where he had worked for years with a multinational electronic company, he began paddling in 2007 at age 33. Inspired by the new craze for outdoor sports in China, Lee adopted a pseudonym, Semit, from the Semitic people who came out of Mesopotamia thousands of years ago to, as Lee put it, “explore the world and discover the unknown.”

Fit and stubborn, with a keen interest in his own physical limits, Lee gravitated to long-distance endurance tests. After two partners pulled out during a 525-mile circumnavigation of Hainan Island in 2012, he started embarking on solo expeditions—first 550 miles across the Gulf of Thailand in 2014, then 1,500 miles down the Pearl River in southern China.

Nothing, however, could fully prepare him for the Yellow River. More than double the length of the Pearl—at 3,590 miles, the Yellow is the sixth longest waterway in the world and the second longest in China after the Yangtze—the Yellow is to China what the Nile is to Egypt: It is thought of as the cradle of Chinese civilization, lifeline for an arid land, a force of nature both feared and revered.

Lee wasn’t interested in conquering the river; he wanted to understand its meaning for China and document the changes along its route since the failed expedition three decades ago. “So little has been written about the Yellow River,” he says, “that I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.”

Lee began his journey on the Tibetan plateau in May 2015, setting his nine-foot-by-three-foot rubber kayak into icy waters that, at an altitude of 14,547 feet, could barely be considered a stream. (His starting point was 75 miles from the river’s actual source, the first place where the water was deep enough to float his kayak.)

His wife, Zhang Haiyan, who had quit her job to join him on the expedition, drove a support vehicle with two backup kayaks, though the terrain was so rough in the upper reaches that few roads ran near the river. Equipped with GoPro video cameras (one on his helmet, one on the kayak) along with GPS, smartphones, and walkie-talkies, he and his wife were able to communicate—and send out frequent reports via social media.

For more than a thousand miles, the only people Lee met along the river were ethnic Tibetans, whose customs, food, and language seemed more alien to him—a member of China’s Han majority—than any of the foreigners he had met in his travels through Southeast Asia. “It was like being on another planet,” he says.

Schoolchildren in China are taught to revere the Yellow River as the “mother” of Han civilization. But as Lee continued his descent, he was surprised to find that about two-thirds of the river runs through lands inhabited mainly by ethnic or religious minorities: Tibetans, Hui Muslims, Mongols.

The first solo descent of the Yellow River, Lee says, would not have been so meaningful if he and his wife hadn’t documented social and environmental conditions along the way. At one point in Qinghai Province, he took a break from kayaking for two weeks when he passed through a Tibetan area ravaged by a tapeworm epidemic. The incidence rate exceeded 13 percent—one of the highest rates in the world—but the Buddhist villagers refused treatment from government doctors. Lee and his wife reported on the crisis and suggested that doctors treat the Buddhist monks first in hopes that the rest of the population would follow the example of their spiritual leaders. The response was immediate. In the next month, Lee says, local hospitals treated 426 cases and performed 26 emergency surgeries.

Lee wrote about nature and the beauty of the mountains. But as he descended toward the plains, he encountered more man-made obstacles: pollution, water shortages, and hydroelectric power. The more than 60 dams on the river forced him into some daunting portages, including one nine-hour slog over mountainous terrain that required 5,500 feet in vertical ascent and descent.

Fear is more terrible than the current itself.
Semit Lee Adventurer of the Year

Near a phalanx of chemical plants in Ningxia Province, Lee paddled up to a fisherman who left at dusk, when the factories’ discharge of effluent turns the river black. “It only hurts the people downstream,” the fisherman shrugged. Near the river’s great northern bend through the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia, its banks turn gloriously green with irrigated crops—even as its water levels drop perilously low. The problem with the Yellow River, Lee wrote in a long article, is that everybody suffers from “downstreamism.”

Almost eight months after he started, Lee reached the final stretch of the Yellow River. Winter fog and smog cut visibility to 150 feet—the coal factories were working overtime—and the great waterway was reduced, again, to a small stream. Water levels became too low for the kayak, so Lee trudged through the mud at the center of the once mighty river, dragging his boat behind him. When his altimeter registered zero elevation, he was still four miles from the sea—but the river had petered out into an oozing floodplain.

After 234 days and about 3,500 miles, his journey was over, on December 20, 2015. (Lee and his wife have written a book about the journey, but its treatment of sensitive subjects—such as Tibet and ethnic minorities—has delayed publication because of China’s censors.)

The Yellow River expedition hardly marks the end of Lee’s ambitions. His overarching dream is to paddle over the course of a decade the entire length of Asia’s Pacific Coast, a 9,320-mile journey extending from Thailand to Alaska. (“Alaska is one of the birthplaces of the kayak,” Lee says, “so that would be a good place to end.”)

So far, politics have put a wrinkle in his plans. He abandoned a trip along the Vietnamese coast when tensions led to anti-Chinese protests there. Beijing also rejected his application for permission to paddle across the Taiwan Strait. And Sino-Japanese relations are so severely strained that he wonders when he might be able to paddle along Japan’s coast.

Still, Lee is not easily dissuaded. Shortly before he descended into the deadly gorges at Tangnaihe, a survivor of the 1987 expedition called and begged him to avoid this section where his buddies had died. Lee politely refused. “Fear is more terrible than the current itself,” he said later. “It disrupts your self-confidence and destroys your instincts.”

Soon after the call, Lee propelled his kayak forward into the breach, reaching speeds above 20 miles an hour. Towers of jagged rocks flew past. Waves engulfed the boat, propping it up, filling it with water, then pulling it down into a whirlpool. Lee remembers the sudden silence—until he popped back to the surface still upright on his kayak, and the terrible roar began again.

Two days later, in a lower canyon, Lee’s kayak did capsize. Upside down in the 46-degree water, the exhausted explorer failed four times to turn his kayak upright—a maneuver that takes him three seconds in practice. He was rapidly losing body heat and strength. But the river somehow propelled him to calmer waters. After 10 minutes while only gasping small breaths of air, on his fifth try, he finally turned the kayak upright.

It was just one small part of a 234-day journey, but Lee had conquered the fears that had stopped explorers for nearly three decades. “It was a combination of luck and experience,” he says. “I do think it is sort of life [survival] instinct. Besides my experience, my belief also supported me. It’s a belief that emerges from one’s true heart, from life.”

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