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Pedaling for a Cause
A Chinese adventurer cycles through Africa to raise money to power a village in Benin
By Li Jing | NO.16 APRIL 19, 2018
Yuan poses for a photo with a local resident who offers him a king crab in Morocco (COURTESY PHOTO)

Yuan Jianglei, 27, is one of a handful of people who can say they have cycled through Africa completely solo. Beginning his epic adventure in the West African country of Benin, Yuan finished 10,544 km and 333 days later in his hometown of Ningbo, east China's Zhejiang Province. The journey, which came to a celebratory end in September 2017, took him through 16 countries.

"This was an amazing experience," Yuan told Beijing Review. "Personally, I love outdoor sports. I can have greater freedom, look at the varied scenery and experience different cultures and lifestyles, especially in Africa, a continent which is very dear to my heart."

The ride was underpinned by a charity program initiated by Yuan, aimed at improving local people's access to drinking water and electricity in Benin, a country where Yuan had worked as a Chinese teacher for more than two years.

After graduating from Chongqing Jiaotong University in southwest China, he applied to the Confucius Institute Headquarters for a volunteer job and was sent to teach Chinese at the University of Abomey-Calavi in south Benin in 2014.

During his two-year stay, Yuan was able to travel widely and grew to love the country. On the one hand, he was awed by its natural beauty and unique culture. On the other, he was shocked by Benin's harsh natural conditions and stringent supplies of water and electricity.

"Though living in poor conditions, local people around me were optimistic," Yuan recalled. "That's why I wanted to do more to help them." Learning about Yuan's charity idea, local Chinese motorcycle company Apsonic agreed to contribute $1 for every kilometer he cycled. The firm is part of the Sincerity International Group Ltd., an investment and trade company headquartered in Hong Kong. The funds raised were used to build a well and solar power station in Nipouni, a village in north Benin visited by Yuan, which lacked both water and electricity.

"Actually, cycling back home was a dream come true for me, but I also wanted to do something for my friends in Benin," Yuan said. In addition, he wanted to help the people he had met on his trek through Africa who had helped him along the way.

Yuan Jianglei at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco (COURTESY PHOTO)

A journey of friendship

Yuan started his trip in September 2016 and rode through many countries including Togo, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Morocco and several Asian countries.

"The most unforgettable part of the journey was the friends I made throughout the trip," Yuan said. He received a lot of helping hands from locals and was moved by their kindness. "Even though we spoke different languages, a smile or a greeting spoken in the local language was enough to break down cultural barriers," he said.

The most difficult part of the journey was in Mauritania. The 440-km section from the capital of Nouakchott to Atar, which he had planned to finish in three days, took him eight days due to heavy sandstorms. Yuan said there was only one grocery store every 50 to 100 km where he could buy cookies. Police stationed at road blocks along the route offered him water so that he could quench his thirst and keep moving.

The experience that made the biggest impression on him also took place in Mauritania. Yuan recollected how one day when it was almost dark, he couldn't find a suitable spot for camping. Getting anxious, he caught sight of a small farm and tentatively called out "hello" in Arabic several times, until finally the owner of the farm came out. He not only let Yuan stay the night, but also gave him a local-style head scarf as a reminder of his stay.

"Thanks to the scarf, I was able to continue riding in spite of the scorching sun and the desert sandstorms," said Yuan.

In Morocco, Yuan was warmly welcomed by Tolba Saadbouh, a man from the Sahrawi ethnic group. He stayed overnight at Saadbouh's home where he was treated to a feast of king crab. After bidding farewell and never expecting to see Saadbouh again, Yuan had to contact him for help after his bike broke down 70 km outside the village. Saadbouh immediately drove his van to meet Yuan and took him to the next city to fix his bike.

"I was helpless. I didn't expect Saadbouh to travel so far to help me. I was really moved," said Yuan.

An adventure

Although Yuan had carefully planned the trip and received help from many African friends, he couldn't avoid several hiccups. Since the strong winds slowed him down in Mauritania, he wasn't going to be able to leave the country before his visa expired if he cycled all the way. He ended up having to catch a freight train in Choum, a town in north Mauritania. Yuan described how the train stopped only briefly in Choum and started pulling away before he was able to load his bike and belongings. Luckily, a shepherd who was already onboard managed to help him get on the train as it moved off.

It is these memories that remind Yuan of just what an amazing life-changing experience he had.

When he returned to Benin to fulfill his promise on March 6, six months after completing his ride home, he was greeted warmly by the people of Nipouni.

The charity project, along with his remarkable journey, was recorded by Yuan who is now busy producing a 28-episode documentary to share his epic adventure.

"I hope people can get to know a more authentic Africa, a completely different world from ours, through my camera lens," he said.

Copyedited by Francisco Little & Rebeca Toledo

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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