Marathon odyssey across land and water

Thu, Jan 17, 2013, 00:00

Two Irish adventurers emerged yesterday, bearded, bedraggled but elated, on to Shanghai’s historic Bund waterfront after their Sand2Snow 14,000km odyssey by bike, foot, raft and kayak, from Istanbul to China’s largest city.

Maghnus Collins (28) from Limerick and David Burns (28) from Coleraine set out on their journey in early March. It included 25 marathons in 27 days across the Tibetan plateau, as well as white-water rafting the length of the Yangtze river.

“A lot of this trek was endurance-focused, but when we were in Tibet and Qinghai in September, we got to see the beauty of the region,” Burns says.

“It was like in a movie. A few times there was a real feeling that this was something special.

“We saw birds of prey swooping down beside us, bears sitting on islands as we paddled past, and wolves along one vast stretch of wilderness in Tibet.”

They cut an incongruous picture, against the art deco architecture of the Peace Hotel behind them, in their drysuits carrying their pack-rafts.

For Collins, distance became the measure by which they judged success or failure.

“By the end,” he says, “it worked out that a good day was 55 kilometres, a bad day was 45 kilometres. There were no nuances.”

Their expedition saw them cycle 8,000km from Istanbul to Kathmandu, across the Lut desert, in temperatures which ranged from minus 20 to plus 50 degrees.

Appalling blisters

Then they ran across the Himalayas. Their journey took them to altitudes of 5,000 metres and above. During the run, they covered 40km a day, dealing with appalling blisters.

After that, they rafted 4,100km along the mighty Yangtze, at the end of which they were met in Shanghai by consul Austin Gormley and a group of Irish schoolchildren studying in the city at Dulwich College, keen to hear of their Asian adventure.

Along the route, they dealt with massive bureaucracy, including visa problems and lost passports, but were still able to make the expedition through some of the most hostile environments in Asia.

They paid for the costs of the trip out of their own pockets, but also held various sponsorship events and fundraisers, which have enabled them to raise more than €30,000 to support the work of Self Help Africa.

The journey took them to dizzying heights in the Qinghai Plateau which borders the Tibetan Himalayas, and to rarely traversed whitewater rapids along the Yangtze.

“We went 17 days without seeing another person, which is fantastic when you think this is a country with 1.3 billion people,” Burns says. “Then we saw a guy bringing his yak in for winter after days of seeing no one.”

Collins reckons the people on the Qinghai plateau are the toughest he has ever seen.

A particularly challenging section of the journey was 1,700km of river along the Yangtze, stretching from Yichang to Shanghai, downstream from the treacherous Tiger Leaping Gorge.

At this point the expedition took on a fresh impetus, because their visas were due to expire about the middle of January. They knew they would have to do 40km a day to make sure they were not stuck illegally in China.

Dangerous swim

Visa issues were a headache, but for Collins, the most worrying moment was when he lost his raft.

He had to follow it for three days to get it back while climbing cliff faces and, eventually, he had to take a dangerous swim.

“I jumped in, it was terrifying, I knew I had 100 metres before the river turned, swimming sideways, with Burnsey carrying a rope,” Collins says.

It was in vain. The raft with all his belongings was lost. Collins had to get a new passport and other documents to continue the trip.

Another scary moment came when he found himself passing blood after a lengthy run, which transpired to be a relatively innocuous ailment but which obviously it was a worrying development.

“I was close to tears most days at that point,” he says. “I can’t even remember now, but it was agony, almost catatonic. And we still had about 10 marathons to go.

“It was make or break, but I found that if I speeded up, it was better.”

Collins has lost 12kg while Burns has lost 10kg during the trip.

Asked how they did not go mad and fight continuously during the trip, they say openness was a big help.

“It’s a cliché but we managed to do it by being completely honest with each other,” Burns says.

His colleague agrees.

“We haven’t had a single argument or a falling out, although we had serious arguments about religion and sport,” Collins recalls.

“We have poor memories. I must have heard stories of his about four or five times at this stage and I’m sure I’ve told him stories about 15 times.”

10 years younger

On arrival, the two travellers went for a makeover in the Kerry Centre Hotel in Shanghai’s Pudong district, which left them looking 10 years younger than in their bearded state.

“Whatever this thing cost, we’d live on it in Dublin for a year,” Collins says. “We lived on €2.50 a day, which you can’t do in Dublin!”