Have chicken, will travel

Iris Chen
British adventurer Ash Dykes is about to set out on his toughest world record attempt yet – walking the length of China's Yangtze River.
Iris Chen

Two-time world record holder Ash Dykes is not your typical extreme athlete. As he trekked through the brush and bamboo-ridden jungles of Madagascar, a chicken rested comfortably in his hiking bag, its white head poking out through a gap in the top.

“Its name is Gertrude, even though it’s a girl’s name and he’s a boy,” Dykes, hailing from North Wales, the United Kingdom, explains, laughing. “I just thought it was a funny name.”

The 27-year-old came upon Gertrude during the 1,600-mile (2,575 kilometers) trans-Madagascar expedition that earned him international recognition in the years to come. During the trek, he encountered local communities that taught him about their cultural traditions, one of which required a hiker to carry a white male cockerel when climbing the highest mountain in Madagascar in order to keep the bad spirits of the rainforest away. Gertrude the chicken soon became a temporary addition to Dykes’ trekking group, turning quickly into a pet.

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Ash Dykes in the 2,500-kilometer trans-Madagascar expedition in 2016

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Gertrude the chicken rests comfortably in his hiking bag when Dykes treks through the jungles.

Unlike many other adventurers who have military or adventuring backgrounds, Dykes had little experience other than his love for adventure and daring personality when he first started out.

He had to earn money for his own travels, and despite other people telling him that it couldn’t be done, he persisted. Now, eight years after embarking on his first journey, he holds two world records — one for being the first to complete a solo and unsupported trek across Mongolia, the other for being the first to complete a mountainous trek in Madagascar.

His curiosity and athletic drive now bring him to China, where he will undertake his third world-record feat — walking the length of the Yangtze River.

“China always fascinates me. I really want to come out here. I know it’s so diverse, and there’s a lot of different beauty here,” Dykes says.

He came to China when he was 19, but left after only a month due to a shortage of money. “When I left, I thought ‘one day I will have to come back’ because I just touched the surface. It’s such a huge country.”

Dykes says this upcoming trip will be the longest and most difficult he has ever undertaken. In contrast to his previous trips which spanned at most 155 days, this one will take over a year to complete, and so far, there have been no attempts made to walk the same route. If Dykes completes the journey, he will set his third world record as the first person to successfully walk the length of the Yangtze River.

He admits that initially “it was difficult” to resource the trip. “In the UK, and I’m sure in America as well, when you say the Yangtze River, most people don’t know what it is, which is crazy because everyone knows the Amazon and the Nile. The Yangtze is definitely a major river of the world. It crosses loads of diversity. It has the highest source of any of the rivers, and unlike the Amazon, where it’s just hot terrain and the jungle, here in China I’ll be facing mountains and forest. I’ll be facing hot and cold. I want to really get that out there, and make people aware of the Yangtze.”

At 6,397 kilometers long, the Yangtze River is the longest river in the world to run through a single country and has played a large role in the history, economy and culture of China. Known as the “cradle of Chinese culture,” the river has supplemented various Chinese communities and kingdoms throughout history and continues to do so to this day.


Dykes will trek the 6,397-kilometer-long Yangtze River, which runs through the Tibetan Autonomous Region, provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu, as well as Chongqing and Shanghai.

Dykes’ route will take him up to the Tibet Plateau in Qinghai Province, starting from the scientifically accurate source of the Yangtze, which is at a longer distance than the traditional source, and then will wind his way for 800 kilometers along mountain ridges at high altitudes and in cold weather. Over the year, he will pass through valleys, forests, gorges and plains, and will encounter more villages and cities as his expedition progresses.

Compared with his previous expeditions, public interaction will play a bigger role in this expedition. A China Central Television crew will be meeting Dykes at certain checkpoints along his route to update the world on his progress and at some stops provide him with challenges, such as eating the hottest Chinese chili pepper.

“It was people’s keenness and interest that inspired me to share my adventures, even though a lot of the time I’m suffering. People like to see me suffer sometimes,” he says, laughing.

Dykes will also be taking photos and filming short videos that will be periodically posted on his website. Several large news outlets and companies will be following his journey as well.

As Dykes has taken on more expeditions over the years, his influence and ability to raise awareness on certain issues has increased. On his previous trips, he has promoted the culture and landscape of local country, advocated for malaria prevention and eradication and worked with local conservationist organizations to advance lemur conservation.

On this trip, he aims to further his understanding of the culture and diversity of China, as well as to promote an eco-friendly, anti-plastic global mindset by using his water-to-go bottle, which can filter contaminated water into drinking water. To spread its impact, various local communities and villages in China have been given water-to-go bottles as well to minimize their use of plastic.

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As an extreme athlete, Dykes trains hard, like this in his hometown, North Wales.

“I can continue doing what I love but actually share more and potentially allow people to join and help good causes along the way,” he says.

The resulting promotions and advocating Dykes has been able to do after each trip have created “two different adventures” for him.

“I think if I was constantly extreme, no one could relate. But the fact that I’m just a normal guy coming from a normal background and can relate to the everyday person and that I do have fears and worries and don’t pretend to be an action man helps people relate to me more,” he says. “I enjoy my luxuries, but I also enjoy the extreme side.”

Dykes’ business life has provided him with more opportunities to partner with organizations and influential figures to promote and advocate for issues like malaria eradication and have helped to spread the word about his accomplishments.

“I always say it takes two weeks to break into your wild side, and we all have a wild side,” Dykes says, as he contemplates his upcoming expedition. “It’s where you start to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, where you get used to being hungry and thirsty, the pain, and it actually becomes normal.”

Looking around at his current luxurious metropolitan surroundings, Dykes laughs and shakes his head. “I think it’s going to hit me hard.”

Ash Dykes will begin his journey on July 21. You can follow his adventure on his website (www.ashdykes.com).

Dykes is overwhelmed by the majestic Himalayas during his 2011 trip.

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