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October 20, 2015

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'Chinese Bear Grylls' masters art of survival in wild

ZHU Weiqiang, who hails from the Nanhui area of Shanghai, is often dubbed the “Chinese Bear Grylls.” And he has some serious advice for would-be wilderness adventurers eager to follow in Grylls’ footsteps: don’t go off half-cocked.

Zhu was the first Asian to graduate from the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, which was set up by the British adventurer, writer and presenter of popular wilderness survival programs on television.

Zhu, 28, was one of the 10 from the 10,000 worldwide applicants chosen in 2013 for a seven-day intensive training course at the academy. He went on to become one of the seven final graduates of the group. To earn his place, Zhu had to survive on a remote Scottish island for three days and then rescue himself.

Since then, he has traveled the course of dangerous places in China and worldwide. After leaving his job at the Malaysian Consulate in Shanghai, Zhu participated in several television documentaries about outdoor adventure and established his own training center here in the city. His skills include rappelling and mountain climbing, making fires under extreme conditions, hunting and trapping.

“To survive in tough conditions means you have to accept a diverse menu,” Zhu said. “Even drinking water squeezed from damp moss.”

He can still remember the first time he had to eat mealworms plucked from tree bark. “Nobody would want to eat that unless there was no other option,” he said. “However, if you are faced with starvation, a worm like that gives you extra survival time. That may be just the leeway needed until a rescue team finds you.”

Zhu told Shanghai Daily that his interest in outdoor adventure started while he was studying at Brunel University London in the UK. “Student societies had former Royal Marines as instructors, and they taught us many useful and basic skills” he said.

Like Zhu, many urbanites in China have a growing interest in outdoor adventure and marvel at the challenge of surviving in the wild under harsh conditions. Many of the wannabe Bear Grylls may be deterred, however, by the outpouring of media reports about amateur adventurers lost in mountains or even found dead in the wild.

“Many people are just not equipped with the proper skills to cope with dangerous situations,” Zhu said.

Physical prowess is one thing, but the mental capacity to think and act rationally when faced with extreme danger is even more important, he said. “Left alone in the wild for a day is different from staying at home alone,” he said. “You hear weird noises that can set your nerves on edge. That’s when people are most likely to make stupid mistakes.”

Valley of death

Last August, five trekkers were lost in Heizhugou Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, an area known as “China’s Bermuda Triangle.” Heizhugou literally means “valley of death” in the local ethnic Yi dialect. The remote area is known for its harsh natural conditions.

Zhu is familiar with the area. He just shot a television program there several months before the incident. “Only two of them made it out,” he said of the five lost adventurers. “The team shouldn’t have decided to split up in search of help. However, it’s easy to form different opinions when people panic.”

The growing popularity of outdoor adventures has also become a burden for local authorities who have to mount search and rescue teams when people get lost in the wild. In another recent incident, 17 adventurers trapped for more than 52 hours in a natural reserve of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region during the National Day holiday were finally rescued. They were each fined 1,000 yuan (US$157.4) for entering the reserve without permission.

The fines paled next to the cost of the rescue effort, which was estimated at 110,000 yuan. According to Guangxi local authorities, more than 80 vehicles and boats, 100 police officers, 200 villagers, 40 doctors and 300 logistics staff joined the rescue.

Gao Bo, captain of the Shanghai Search and Rescue Team, a social organization, has taken part in 13 rescue missions since the devastating 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan. Half of the rescues involved trying to find missing trekkers. As volunteers, their search missions aren’t usually underwritten by government funds.

“The cost is hard to estimate,” Gao said. “It includes transportation and equipment, let alone the effects on the day jobs of volunteers.”

While shooting various outdoor adventure television programs, Zhu helped build wilderness shelters, stocked with knives and food, to help people who become lost or trapped by the elements. He was shocked on return trips to find the shelters emptied or destroyed.

“Some were burned down, and others had all the supplies stolen,” Zhu said with a chagrin.

Zhu told Shanghai Daily that he wants to give people a more proper understanding about outdoor activities and help them develop the skills they need to avoid tragedies.


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