The Yellow River, or Xiari Hu as it’s known in Mongolia, flows down from the mountains and descends a staggering 14,500 vertical feet before it meets the ocean. Mighty cascades pour through the steep crags of Bayan Har. Then the river levels deepen and slide like a huge snake across a basin spanning seven provinces. Finally, 3,395 miles later, the river spills out into the Bohai Sea and earns its place as the third longest waterway in Asia. For thousands of years, locals have believed that the great Yellow River carries the lifeblood of Chinese civilisation. Essentially, it is to China what the Nile is to Egypt – a historic force of nature and source of life, ideal for daring kayakers in need of an adventure.
Enter Chinese explorer and kayaker, Semit Lee, 2017 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, who kayaked the 3,500 miles down the Yellow River from the Tibetan Plateau to the Bo Hai Sea. Raised in the cloistered industrial districts of southern China, Semit lived in the city and worked as an electrical engineer for many years. In fact, he didn’t discover his love of kayaking until later in life, when he was aged 33. At that time outdoor sports were growing increasingly more and more popular in China. Determined to expand his physical limits, Semit joined the growing number of nature-loving enthusiasts, earned his chops as an endurance athlete and set out to fulfil his new goal in life: “explore the world and discover the unknown.”
Semit started out by planning a 525-mile circumnavigation of Hainan Island, in 2012. Unfortunately, his two partners pulled out, which encouraged Semit to plan his future expeditions as solo adventures. He then went on to paddle 550 miles across the Gulf of Thailand in 2014 and 1,500 miles down the Pearl River, in southern China. However, the Yellow River, sometimes referred to as the King of Terrors, is double the length of the Pearl, which meant it was going to be a different beast entirely. The world-first journey downriver would take 234 days, replete with unknowable forces and obstacles unlike any Semit had experienced before. While others had kayaked these turbulent waters in groups, Semit was about to face them alone. He would have to pitch his instincts against churned rapids, abrupt waterfalls and the narrow veins of rugged gorges.
In May 2015, Semit started his adventure on the Tibetan plateau at an altitude of 14,547 feet. Riding a nine-foot long rubber kayak, he launched himself onto the icy waters, 75 miles from the river’s source, where the water was deep enough for him to paddle. Later on, Semit was travelling through Qinghai Province, pressed right up against the roof of the world, when he encountered the treacherous gorge at Tangnaihe. Here the waters funnelled into tight, rocky channels, creating dangerous currents and sounding a resounding roar that carried up the mountains. Thirty years ago, in 1987, another rafting expedition had met a tragic end in this gorge. Several team members were killed. No one had attempted to navigate the Yellow River since they’d died. Before his adventure, Semit had even visited the gravesite where they were buried. In that moment, and in many more that followed, Semit was forced to confront the possibility of him becoming the eighth victim of the feared King of Terrors.
“Fear is more terrible than the current itself,” Lee insisted, “[Fear] destroys your instincts.”
Determined not to be overcome by the pressure, Lee drove his kayak hard through the gorge. Sharp rocks swept by and waves thrashed in every direction, threatening to capsize his kayak. Looking back, Semit described how close he came to death when suddenly he was launched into a canyon and half-swallowed by the water below. Suddenly the kayak overturned and Semit was hit by a chilling silence as he made four attempts at rolling back up to the surface. Just when his strength was starting to fail, the violent river spat him out into calmer waters and, on his fifth try, he managed to heave the kayak up through the surface.
“I had to try my best to leave here alive,” Semit said, “It was like being thrown into a washing machine.”
Semit didn’t have time to process emotion or to even register this urgent clinch with death. It took all his strength to roll the kayak that fifth time after he’d capsized. If he’d failed, no one would have been there to jump in and save him, and it’s likely no one would’ve found his body if he’d drowned. The choice was simple: either disappear entirely… or survive.
“I was really scared,” Semit admitted.
Looking back, Semit described the experience as like being in another world. For more than a thousand miles his only company were ethnic Tibetans whose customs and language were unfamiliar to him. Indeed, two-thirds of the river passes through lands that belong to ethnic or religious minorities, such as Tibetans, Hui Muslims and Mongols. Inspired by the draw of the unknown, Semit embraced these elements of unfamiliarity and even found time to take a break from kayaking to help a local Tibetan community suffering from a tapeworm epidemic. He found that Buddhist villagers were refusing treatment from government doctors. So, Semit and his wife encouraged the doctors to first treat the Buddhist monks, who are regarded as the local spiritual leaders. They thought that this might lead the population to follow the monks’ example. The response was immediate – over the subsequent month, local hospitals performed no less than 26 emergency surgeries and treated 426 cases.
During this solo 5,464km descent of the Yellow River, Semit Lee championed a more sustainable and conscientious style of adventuring. His kayaking journey was about more than just navigating the treacherous rapids and gorges – it was his intention to conduct a cultural and environmental survey of life along the riverbanks. As he made his way to the sea, from the headwaters of the Bayan Har Mountains, Semit carefully observed and participated in the world around him. His exploration couldn’t have occurred at a more critical time.
Following the criteria set by the UN Environmental Program, the Yellow River Conservancy Committee has recently revealed that 33.8% of sampled river water is unfit for drinking, industrial use and agriculture. Meanwhile, water quality in the Yellow River is rapidly deteriorating and levels continue to drop as water is being diverted to quench the needs of sprawling cities. Recent scientific data also posits that as much as a third of the Yellow River, which supplies water to millions across northern China, is polluted by industrial waste and considered to be unsafe.
Eight months after he’d first set out, Semit arced onto the final stretch of the Yellow River. As if to punctuate the immensity of his feat, he was met by the last wave of industrial oppression as smog enveloped his kayak and cut visibility to a mere 150 feet. Factories and chemical plants soon emerged and the once great waterway was reduced to a shallow stream, oozing into a soggy, mud-choked floodplain. Trudging on through the mud, Semit used his altimeter and registered zero elevation, despite the fact he was still four miles from the sea.
During his time on the Yellow River, Semit had noticed an ugly transformation brought on by the industries of our destructive species. At times he found himself lugging his bruised kayak across wind-beaten deserts, arid plains and squelching mudflats. He witnessed first-hand the desertification of farmland when he paddled through an arid area larger than Kubuqi Desert.
Indeed, the spectre of death seemed to be ever-present as Semit travelled downriver. Signs of pollution and water shortages were commonplace. The countrywide hunt for hydroelectric power meant that there were 60 dams for Semit to contend with, as well as increasingly difficult portages, one of which involved a nine-hour hike over mountainous terrain. Semit also happened upon large chemical plants in the Ningxia Province, where water levels dropped dangerously low and toxic discharge of effluent turned the river black each night.
Fortunately, it wasn’t all manmade gloom and devastation – there were plenty of encounters with wildlife and moments of natural abundance. Sometimes the banks were dressed in the verdant green of irrigated crop fields and forests. At Gangna Gema Lake, Semit was treated to appearances from elegant black swans and wild red-billed ducks that roamed the surrounding wetland. He was also joined at different times by his wife, Zhang Haiyan, who quit her job to join him on the expedition. They camped together as they travelled the river and Zhang drove the support vehicle, carrying two backup kayaks, GPS, smartphones and walkie-talkies. At Horse Head Barrier they pitched their tents in a beautiful aspen forest under a sprawling canopy of autumnal colours.
Finally, on December 20th, 2015, after 234 days and 3,500 miles, the journey ended at the mouth of the Yellow River. Lee and his wife returned home and began work on a book about their adventure. Sadly, due to the inclusion of sensitive subjects like Tibetans and other ethnic minorities, the text is still with China’s censors and publication has been delayed. Still, it’s not like Semit would let a little thing like bureaucracy get him down. Instead, he’s started preparing for an expedition that will eclipse everything he’s achieved so far. Over the course of a decade, Semit wants to paddle the length of Asia’s Pacific Coast – that’s a mind-bending 9,320-mile journey, from Thailand to Alaska.
“Alaska is one of the birthplaces of the kayak,” Lee said, “so that would be a good place to end.”
We had the privilege of speaking to Semit Lee about everything from his tousle with the King of Terrors to his future plans to paddle the length of Asia’s Pacific Coast:
Could you describe your experience kayaking through the gorges at Tangnaihe?
I felt very nervous before starting and went to urinate twice out of tension. But this feeling disappeared the moment I started drifting. I had no attention to spare because I was immediately dragged into the ravine by the riptide. It felt like I’d thrown myself into a washing machine. A single kayak is easy to capsize, sometimes the kayak would be pushed upright by huge waves. One should have a strong ability to control the direction and make the head of the kayak hit the heading wave at a 90-degree angle. I think I should ascribe this success to good luck and past experience.
How happy or relieved were you when you made it through the toughest part?
I was not happy but felt exhausted at that time. And I could imagine how kayakers had died there, although no one had told me details of the tragedies.
What concerned you most about the state of the environment on the Yellow River?
In my opinion, everybody lives downriver. I want to raise people’s attention on the consequences of pollution using pictures and records of my adventures. I want to tell everyone that people who live beside the Yellow River are actually part of a much larger whole. What happened in one people’s life may also happen in yours. Most importantly, some fragile places might never be repaired once damaged. So, we should face both bright side and dark side. What we do and what we say now will decide what happens tomorrow.
Can you tell us a little more about your plans to paddle the length of Asia’s Pacific Coast?
I’m planning to launch a kayaking trip of 15,000 km across western Pacific using a man-powered kayak. The exploration route covers Cambodia, Thai, Vietnam, China, Japan, Russia and the US.