How extreme athlete Ash Dykes battled the odds to walk the 6,437-km Yangtze River for a year and end up with a Guinness record | Inquirer Entertainment

How extreme athlete Ash Dykes battled the odds to walk the 6,437-km Yangtze River for a year and end up with a Guinness record

By: - Entertainment Editor
/ 12:40 AM October 15, 2020

Ash Dykes overlooking a bend of the longest river in the world to run through a single country

The first step is always the hardest to take. The same is true for explorer Ash Dykes, who, in 2014, walked the 1,500-mile, 78-day journey over the Altai Mountains and across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. The following year, he completed a 1,600-mile trek across Madagascar’s eight highest peaks at age 24.

You’d think those two unofficial “world’s first” adventures are astounding enough to last any extreme athlete a lifetime.


In 2018, however, Ash’s fantastic feats and flights of derring-do had pushed the Welsh adventurer, described by FHM as “one of the world’s most fearless outdoor men,” to the limit, following his decision to embark on a Guinness Book of Records-breaching challenge.

His mission: To become the first person ever to walk the entire length of the Yangtze River in China, all 6,437 kilometers (4,000 miles) of it—in 352 days! That’s an estimated 8 million steps, all in all.


In the riveting two-part travel-adventure documentary “Walking the Yangtze with Ash Dykes,” which will be shown on Oct. 20 and Oct. 27 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic (channel 41/195 on SkyCable; channel 141/240 on Cignal), Ash is seen facing treacherous terrain and seemingly insurmountable odds at high altitude while enduring extremes in weather—from as low as -20 degrees Celsuis to the scorching 45-degree heat.

Add to that the very real danger of crossing paths with wolves, bears, snakes and Asian hornets.

“It took me over two years to plan this,” Ash told Inquirer Entertainment during our fun and breezy one-on-one video chat recently. “The hardest part was establishing the right teams, and getting the official documents to allow me to do this. Everything had to be ‘official,’ so we needed the authorities to agree to it—we needed the permits, the access to national parks…

“Convincing all those levels to give me their stamp of approval, then figure out how we could make it all possible by bringing with us an able logistics team to help me plan the torturous route along the way, was extremely difficult. That’s why it took over two years of planning.”

Along with the fund-generating endeavors for his trips, Ash also had to work early on as a lifeguard to save enough money needed to finance his extreme adventures—and save 13 lives along the way.

But even careful and deliberate planning, not to mention years’ worth of Mandarin lessons taken in merely three weeks, is no guarantee for success and safety. That’s one of the hard lessons he learned from his previous adventures.

In Madagascar, for instance, Ash almost lost his life after contracting the deadliest strain of malaria, caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum that results in a flu-like illness (responsible for 600,000 deaths around the world annually).


Asked where his extreme wanderlust was coming from, Ash chuckled as he explained, “It’s just like any career you know. You start at the bottom of the ladder, then you work your way up to the top of your desired career. I did start off with short, reckless and low-budget adventures, then the magnitude continued to grow and grow and grow—until I just found myself walking on the Yangtze!”

Scenes from “Walking the Yangtze with Ash Dykes,” which premieres on Oct. 20 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic

Our Q&A with Ash:

What was the lure of the Yangtze River for you? Why not the Nile River (in northeastern Africa) or the Amazon River (in South America), which are a wee bit longer than Yangtze?

The Amazon and the Nile always make the headline news—everyone knows about them. But the Yangtze, a mighty, beautiful, wild and 4,000-mile (6,437 km) river that goes from the far west of China, rising in the Tanggula Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, and flowing all the way to the East China Sea in Shanghai, is only slightly shorter than both the Amazon and the Nile. [It is the longest in Asia, and the third longest in the world.]

It crosses through so much diversity, yet it remains in the same country—so it’s the longest river in the world to run through a single country.

And for me, it was the mass of diversity that the Yangtze could comb through, not just in terms of the history, but also in the culture. You get to know the people and see the provinces as Yangtze cuts through the wildlife, the terrain and the diverse weather systems. There are bears, wolves, snakes and spiders. All of those attracted me to the Yangtze—there’s just so much about it that feels so unfamiliar, and I was super curious.

We felt bad when you had to sell your 20-year-old horse Castor Troy, which, for the early part of your trek, carried some 30-35-kilogram equipment needed to record this adventure. What kept you going with that much weight on your back?

It was realizing that there will always be great difficulties. I had to put up or shut up—and I had to continue, no matter what. I planned for two years, so the visualization aspect of getting toward success at the end of that expedition just outweighed all of the negatives. And that’s what kept me going.

During this yearlong trip, you were seen gathering dung, blowing pig’s liver, taking a dip in the Yangtze and even getting singer Jiang Min to teach you how to perform at the Huangmei Opera in Anjing City. Any personal favorite? And what do you remember hating the most from that whole experience?

(Laughs) Oh, I wouldn’t put down anything as hate, because even the dark times were still highlights, and even if that meant me avoiding wolves and bears that are coming off the mountains looking for food before they go into hibernation.

You mentioned some of the highlights, which included swimming across the Yangtze, or making it to its source, which proved very difficult. I enjoyed pretty much all of the human interactions, where I got to mix and mingle with the locals and learn their way of life. Those were my biggest highlights, for sure.

But it took you almost a year to complete your mission. Weren’t there parts of that journey where you said, “Oh, my God. I’m just about ready to give up”?

There was never a time when I thought of giving up. But there was a time where I questioned what I was doing—and that was when I was taken by the police 40 miles (64 km) back [from my planned itinerary because of the flooding].

I was already two and a half months delayed, and the bears were coming off the mountains—and the weather was minus 20 degrees! It was just difficult and frustrating. And there was the time when I was only six or seven days into the expedition, and I was feeling broken, and I still had almost a whole year to go. So, I thought, “What am I doing?”

You contracted malaria in Madagascar. Was there anything life-threatening on your Yangtze trip?

It was the altitude. We had 16 people, like the film crew, who joined us at various stops of the trip. Seeing that 10 of them had to be evacuated due to injury and altitude sickness and fear of wildlife [was tough]. That was the most sensitive and difficult part. Some of the photos and videos that the locals had shown me were terrifying. And my tent didn’t offer me much protection.

What’s next for you?

I’m just getting started. I’m working on big things. I’m 29, so I’m still young, with lots of ambitious and extreme plans to hurdle. For readers to keep up-to-date with my activities, stay tuned and follow my Instagram handle @ash_dykes. That’s where I share a lot of my adventure stories.

What message do you wish to impart to people who follow you?

My message would be to enjoy this world we live in, but also to protect it—because we only have one planet. There are a lot of environmental angles to my Yangtze journey, like the need to rescue the finless porpoise, which is now endangered. It’s vital that we all work together to protect it.

Moreover, whatever your dream is and wherever your passion takes you, protect it, nurture it and stay focused on your vision. Keep going after it. You’re far more capable than you think.

There are no foolproof guarantees of succeeding, given the complex adventures you pursue. Were you ready to fail?

I wasn’t ready to fail, no. I was always only ready to succeed.

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