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    ‘No Man’s Land’ Travel Heats Up in China, But Safety Concerns Abound

    Many Chinese are traveling to uninhabited parts of western China to quench their thirst for adventure, but some are not as prepared as they should be.
    Jan 05, 2024#tourism

    Under a shelter made of rocks, and hiding from wolves and yaks, Tan Dian, 43, wrapped herself in her sleeping bag. With no water left, she had tried chewing on ice from a nearby river, but it only made her thirstier. All she could think about was Sprite: she pledged to drink as much of it as possible if she made it out alive.

    Tan’s long-awaited trip down the Keriya Ancient Road in the Kunlun Mountains, an ancient trade route in western China connecting the Taklamakan Desert with the Tibetan Plateau at an elevation of approximately 5,450 meters, had turned into a disaster: she was dealing with temperatures of below minus 20 degrees Celsius, and her dog and longtime travel companion Andrew had died after being attacked by a wolf.

    As domestic tourism has exploded in the past year, Tan and many like her have opted for the beautiful and uninhabited landscapes of China’s western provinces for adventure. According to Ocean Engine, a data platform for Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, searches for “no-man’s land” on average doubled in 2023 compared to 2022, while videos showcasing these areas have attracted millions of views on video platform Bilibili.

    But this increasing popularity has also attracted more inexperienced travelers to travel to these uninhabited areas of the country, increasing the likelihood of accidents and casualties, experienced thrillseekers say.

    No man’s land

    Tan was not exactly inexperienced when she set off on the 1,127-kilometer trip with her dog in late 2022. For the previous decade, she had been riding her motorcycle around the country, and had already made trips to the nearby Altun Shan and Lop Nur national nature reserves.

    But extreme cold weather and icy roads had unexpectedly prolonged her journey. After arriving close to the highest point of the route, at an altitude of around 5,000 meters above sea level, her motorcycle rolled over, leaking the fuel inside. Unable to continue her journey, she was left with no choice but to bunker down in the exposed terrain.

    The difficulties of traversing the region have increased in recent years, as long periods of inactivity during the pandemic and an intense rainy season in summer of 2022 had washed away many of the area’s roads or piled them with rocks.

    Three days after calling for help, Tan was found by a civilian rescue team shivering in her makeshift shelter. A video of her rescue was shared by the rescue team online, quickly going viral. Though many celebrated her rescue, some also criticized her for wasting resources and trespassing on a national nature reserve.

    China prohibits any type of activities in “core zones” without approval of national nature reserves. The outer areas are designated as “experimental zones” where tourism is allowed but must be approved. Violators face fines of up to 5,000 yuan ($703).

    However, in practice, the boundaries of different zones in these vast areas of land are often unclear, while enforcement is also lax. In the Altun Shan reserve, which covers 45,000 square kilometers, the core area is almost three-quarters of the total area.

    Local officials warn tourists not to trespass in the reserve, including pronouncements that any deaths or injuries will be their own responsibility — but to no avail. In July, four people were found dead in the reserve after their vehicle had broken down, while three others were found in near-death conditions after over 20 hours of search in November.

    Many of these stranded tourists rely on civilian rescue groups due to the limited resources of official rescue operations. Often, these groups are made up of experienced travelers and local residents familiar with the terrain such as Zhao Xiaolong, who started carrying out rescues in 2015.

    Based in Korla, Xinjiang’s second largest city, Zhao receives two or three requests for rescue a month, usually from stranded travelers in the Taklamakan Desert. The car conversion factory owner enjoys rescues not only to help people in need but also as a sightseeing trip in itself, charging 1,000-1,500 yuan per day of rescue to cover supply and fuel costs. 

    The shades of gray involved in extreme tourism in China is not unfamiliar to Wang Yanlong, the co-founder of an unofficial extreme travel club. The former human resources manager helps organize trips to uninhabited parts of the region, the most popular route being “N35”: a 2,000-kilometer journey across the three nature reserves of Altun Shan, Chang Tang, and Kekexili.

    Customers pay around 55,000 yuan each for the trip, during which they are accompanied by a guide and medical staff.

    Trespassing is a crucial part of the experience, with cars often needing to cross frozen rivers rather than official roads to make the journey. His groups have been caught by local enforcement agencies several times, but not enough to deter him from continuing to take customers on the route.

    In recent years, Wang has made use of a permit, secured through a local connection, for conducting scientific research in the area, allowing his groups to enter the reserves legally. “We must move towards legalization, which we are indeed gradually doing,” Wang told Sixth Tone, using a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of the matter.

    For Tan, criticism of her solo trip following her ordeal has been difficult to take as she knows that groups like Wang’s are organizing regular visits to many prohibited parts of the region. “Those with money and connections can enter (the nature reserves), but it’s illegal for people with no money? It’s so unfair,” she said.

    Car mechanic Cao Donglin, 38, hopes that more visitors to the area will come prepared with basic survival skills and knowledge about their vehicles. The veteran traveler, who has visited most of the region’s uninhabited areas, blames social media for putting inexperienced travelers in danger by misleading them about the difficulty of these trips.

    Ultimately, he hopes that people’s safety awareness increases so that trips like these can continue: “If you can understand the area and prepare well for traveling through ‘no-man's land,’ the probability of success is very high … but I’m afraid some novices see the misleading information on the Internet and come completely unprepared.”

    Editor: Vincent Chow.

    (Header image: Cao Donglin’s converted vehicle. Courtesy of Cao)