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On Two Wheels
After a 35,000-km epic bike ride a Chinese explorer now photographs portraits of the Nile
By Li Xiaoyu | VOL. 8 November 2016 ·2016-10-27
Du Fengyan rides a bicycle he himself modified in Uganda coutersy photo

How long does it take from Nanning of China to Cape Town of South Africa? Over 10 hours by flight or a few weeks by sea. But for Du Fengyan, it took 26 months - by bike.

In August 2011, the young Chinese man, then aged 25, got on his bicycle and set off from south China's Nanning City on a journey of a lifetime. After riding nearly 35,000 km, he arrived in South Africa in October 2013, leaving his footprints in 22 countries along the way, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

After some well-deserved rest, the young man is now back on the trail, this time to share his passion for the African continent through a documentary photography project entitled Portraits of the Nile.

Dangers and loneliness

Cycling around the world was always Du's childhood dream. The young man used to work as a programmer in Beijing, but soon realized this was not what he was looking for. In 2011, he decided to quit his job and set out in search of adventure.

During his 26 months on the road, Du met all the problems that a rider might possibly encounter on this journey - getting lost, suffering from thirst, falling ill, or receiving some unexpected "visitors," for example, the elephants that could have smashed his tent on their migration path at night, or the two green-eyed hyenas that came to "say goodnight" - all terrifying experiences for the young man.

There was also a genuine danger of being robbed on the road, but that was not a big deal for Du. Born in Heze, a city renowned as the cradle of Chinese martial arts, Du learned kungfu since he was a child.

"All I had to do is make a kungfu pose and look intensely into their eyes. This would scare the thieves away," Du said with a laugh.

Du Fengyan on the beach in Malawi

But the real fear came from the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, the edge of the Sahara and northeast Ethiopia, all desolated and uninhabited areas which gave Du the feeling he was riding in the middle of nowhere. In the third month of his journey, his initial excitement was replaced by fear and loneliness.

But Du didn't give up. He decided to pause for a break to experience local life and recharge his batteries, and it worked. One month later, Du set off again with renewed confidence.

"Loneliness strengthens the mind," Du said. "I calmed down when I learned how to appreciate loneliness, communicate with nature and enjoy being alone on the journey," he told ChinAfrica.

Despite all the difficulties and hardships, Du never had any second thoughts about embarking on this adventure. On the road, the local residents with whom he ate, stayed, talked and learned language kept him company. Africa's stunningly varied landscape, from Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya to the impressive red desert in Namibia and the blossoming fields in South Africa's West Coast National Park, was always there to cheer him up.

A helping hand

Throughout his journey, the deepest, and still lasting, impression on Du were made by the people he encountered along the way.

Du still fondly remembers a Chinese man he met in Djibouti, who sponsored him with $500 and treated him to a dinner. The man told Du he had gone through a similar adventure in Europe when he was around his age. At the time, he had no money and no income, but he managed to keep going thanks to the many kind people who helped him. Now, he wanted to pass on the kindness and love.

Du Fengyan proudly stands on the Cape of Good Hope, his journey’s destination

Du was deeply moved and decided to do the same. "The society is now plagued by negative emotions. I want to try my best to change that," Du said.

While riding in Djibouti's desert, Du met an Ethiopian man and his son who were walking barefoot to their home in Ethiopia. They held their shoes in their hands to avoid wearing them out in this 1,000-km journey. That night, Du shared his tiny tent with them and offered them breakfast the next day.

Back on the trail

After the journey ended in October 2013, Du came back to China, but another dream had taken shape in the young man's mind.

"I was focusing on riding, so I didn't take as many photos during the trip as I wanted to. After I came home, the people I met and the interesting things I saw in Africa always lingered in my mind," he told ChinAfrica.

Du remembered Qi Lin, a Chinese friend he made while in Africa. Qi had worked in Kenya for four years before he quit his job to become a freelance photographer. Like Du, Qi was also thinking about setting off on another photographing trip to Africa.

After discussion, the two of them decided to join forces and create a photography project entitled Portraits of the Nile. Their objective was to record the lives of people living along the Nile, Africa's longest river.

"In the regions along the Nile, even if you stay for only a short time, you can see a lot of things happening, developing and ending," said Du. "[This project] will help people get a glimpse of life in the region and on the whole continent. The Nile represents Africa."

In January 2016, Du and Qi met at Cairo International Airport, and set off on a walking and hitchhiking journey that would take them after nearly a month to Khartoum, capital of Sudan. This time around, their cameras were focused on a limestone quarry in Egypt and a gold mine in Sudan. Why?

Du Fengyan proudly stands on the Cape of Good Hope, his journey’s destination

"Because resources are still the cornerstone of today's society and are the source of so many of today's conflicts, whether it be environment, culture, urbanization or globalization. We hope our photos can capture the reality as it is, sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, and serve as a warning," he said.

What was supposed to be a short trip has now turned into a long-term project, the two young men even planning a documentary film about their journey. Du's risk-taking has paid off, and he encourages other young people to do the same and chase their dreams.

"When you decide to do something, just do it and go all in on it. People may laugh at you at first. But after you reached a certain level, they will have nothing but admiration for what you have done," Du said. "So, just do what you want, hold firm to your dream and never lose hope."

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