Walk and Talk with Ash Dykes

Ash Dykes, 29, is the first person to walk 6,437km/4,000 miles along the length of China’s Yangtze River. He’s also walked across Madagascar’s mountainous interior and completed a solo crossing of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

By Susan Gray

A man dressed warmly in the snow

How did your childhood shape your taste for adventure?

I was sporty and competitive. I was brought up in North Wales in a small seaside town [Old Colwyn, Conwy] but I was always fascinated by the rest of the world. I was curious about wildlife. I’d watch David Attenborough documentaries and want to experience the same things. I did the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards and a national diploma in outdoor education. Then I worked as a waiter and a lifeguard, doing 240 hours a month to earn the money to kick-start my first adventure, heading off at the age of 19 to cycle through Cambodia and into Vietnam on a £10 bicycle. 

What motivated you to undertake the Yangtze trip?

I wanted to visit the China not many people see because it’s always bogged down by news of negativity, and the longest bridges, highest buildings and power plants. When I looked into what I could do, the Yangtze stood out as the longest river in the world that hadn’t been walked. It took 352 days and seven pairs of walking boots, but it wasn’t 352 days of non-stop trekking because I didn’t want it just to be about the walking. It was about interactivity and engagement with communities – I’d spend weeks in various cities along the way, to capture what China is all about.

How did you plan it?

Logistically, the Yangtze River expedition was tough to plan. It took two years of preparation to make sure we had the right permits from 40 different authorities, whose stamps and signatures were needed, and the right backing, especially from the government at Qinghai province, where the source of the Yangtze River is, on the border with Tibet. And we needed permission from the national parks and other organisations. I did altitude training in western China and basic language lessons while waiting for the permits.

Did you travel alone on this trip?

I was alone for about 70% of the time, mainly in the first few months. But I had a couple of guides and a horse called Castor Troy for the first section. Of the 16 media and photographers who joined me along the way [for the making of documentary Mission Yangtze about the walk], 10 had to be evacuated or abandon it, due to altitude sickness, fear of wildlife, or injury. So I had to shut it down because it was getting too dangerous. Everybody who was joining me was leaving after a day; it became a nightmare. So I had to push on solo.

Where did you stay along the way?

There was a lot of camping and staying with locals. But the government wanted me to check in at certain hostels and hotels along the way, so they knew where I was. In Qinghai province in the north-west of China, often it was just the locals’ girts – white felt tents or yurts, as we know them. They follow the seasons with their yak, moving around all the time searching for fresh grass. They always invited us to stay, especially when there was danger from bears and wolves. As I made my way north-west to south-west, the culture became more Tibetan, with big, heavy brick houses and huts, and beautiful prayer flags all over the place. The people were very warm and welcoming. Towards the east, the cities are very westernised, with people driving Mercedes and BMWs, and shopping streets with big global brands. Most people live in apartments in big skyscrapers.

A man posing in front of mountains

What kind of challenges did you encounter along the way?

The Yangtze has cut massive V-shaped valleys and has claimed more lives than any other river, due to landslides and flooding. Six hours into day one, we encountered the aftermath of a landslide. There were also wolves and bears for the early part of the journey – kudos to the guides Bima and Tudu, who came with me, as a lot of guides would say no to that area because it’s so sensitive and near the border with Tibet. We would often have to wake up at 2am or 3am to set off Chinese firecrackers to fend off the wild yak that were getting too close – they’re big enough to scare off bears. And we were followed by a pack of wolves. The Tibetan mastiffs were probably a bigger problem, though. They protect the nomads’ livestock from predators but a lot of the time they aren’t chained up. At times, I had to throw rocks to keep them at bay. I felt more vulnerable in western China, with two guides and a horse, than I did solo and unsupported in Mongolia, which is madness. But what stands out is we are so much more capable than we give ourselves credit for. Even with a decade of expedition experience, I still had to work out how I was going to handle being stalked by wolves, or close encounters with bears. I learned how to recognise my own vulnerabilities and take responsibility for people. You have to stay focused and keep going.

What was the response locally to your walk?

The second half of the trek was a lot less intense and a lot more interactive. That was when I could take time out in the cities and focus more on the documentary about the Yangtze and getting people to engage. There was a lot of interest from local television journalists from each province, and we had six big book signing events for the Mandarin translation of Mission: Possible [the book about his previous treks across Mongolia and Madagascar]. I was also invited on a photoshoot with movie star Jacky Heung for a co-branded sportswear range. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really resonating with the Chinese market.’

Where in the UK do you go when you want an adventure?

The access we have to the countryside is great. Paths and bridleways are essential for my enjoyment of the country. While I love cities, I like to get back to the countryside, and the more we can open it up – and have the freedom to explore off the paths – the better. That’s the thing I loved about Mongolia: it’s very open, there were no fences. Snowdonia is my training ground, where I prepare, and although I’ve trained there a lot, I always seem to discover somewhere new.  

What’s your favourite

Country walk?
A day trek in Snowdonia.

City walk?
Colwyn Bay Promenade, looking towards the mountains.

The Himalayas from the Tibetan Plateau.

Water-to-Go filter bottle.

Post-walk tipple?
A tropical fruit shake, for that pop of vitamins and minerals.

The Mission Yangtze documentary is coming soon. www.ashdykes.com