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A truly remarkable cyclist rolled into Zhanjiang in Guangdong province on Feb 20.
Xue Mengqiang from Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region is embarking on his third lap of China relying purely on pedal power.
First setting out in 1996 on what many would perceive as an insane endeavor, Xue, at that time 36, had no idea of just how difficult cycling around the world's third largest country would actually be.
Xue says that the first trip was made to celebrate Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 as well as promoting the joy of riding and its accompanying health benefits to the rest of the country.
Xue's notebook and map of China are dotted with hundreds of post stamps from everywhere he has stopped so far on his mammoth trip. [Photo/zjphoto.yinsha.com]
The grueling two-year journey covered almost 50,000 kilometers, and saw Xue captain his cycle through rain, sleet, and snow, over craggy mountains and inhospitable passes, across wide expanses of grasslands, and of course, stuck in city center traffic jams.
By the time he had covered almost half of his journey and arriving in Xi'an, Xue realized he had made a slight miscalculation. His money had run out. With no other option, Xue took a job in a local car garage where he fixed vehicles and cooked meals for his fellow workers.
In time, and with enough cash saved up for his journey, Xue saddled up back on the road.
Upon his return from the first trip, Xue won fame particularly online among netizens who quickly dubbed him the "King of Cyclists".
Not content with having a story worthy of being told to any grandchild many times over, Xue's pedaling feet got itchy once again 10 years later. In 2006, and with the Beijing Summer Olympics firmly in his sights, Xue set off once again, this time promoting the games.
Xue Mengqiang (L) and Ye Hang, roll into Zhanjiang, Guangdong province on Feb 20. Xue, from Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region is embarking on his third cycling tour around China. [Photo/zjphoto.yinsha.com]
Upping his previous decade's mileage, covering 60,000 km and stopping off in Hong Kong and Macao, Xue's second trip took another two years to complete.
Surely that would be enough for any man, let alone one almost in his fifties? Nope, now Xue is off again, at the tender age of 57, on his third trip around the Middle Kingdom.
Arriving in Zhanjiang at 9 pm on Feb 20, Xue maneuvers his, what must be aching, behind off his saddle and straightens his back. Standing next to his bike, laden with 70 kilograms of bedding, camping equipment, kitchen utensils and cameras, the man's fitness is striking for someone his age. His skin is darkened from years of riding in the unrelenting sun, his lips dry and chapped from the constant wind biting at his face.
"I have traveled through the mountains and across the rivers of this great motherland," says Xue in a thick Urumqi accent. "It is such a privilege for me to be able to explore this country and experience local customs."
So far on trip number three, after setting off from Urumqi in May, Xue has travelled 4,842 km through Alxa League, Baotou, and Hohhot in Inner Mongolia before making his way down to Zhanjiang.
When asked by astonished local reporters as to why he persists in taking on these herculean feats, Xue replies, "I simply want to be healthy and happy, and promote my concept of healthy living and eco-friendly transport to Chinese people today."
Speaking of his greatest challenge on the road, Xue recalls a time while camping out in the wild one night, and his tent being surrounded by wolves. He obviously survived to tell the tale, but not before experiencing altitude sickness while riding through the Sun & Moon mountain ranges in Qinghai which rise to above 4,877 meters.
Xue (L) and Ye (R) stop off in Zhanjiang for supplies getting back on the road. [Photo/zjphoto.yinsha.com]
During such long and strenuous journeys, it is not beyond the contemplation of any traveller to question why he is actually doing what he is doing, and to think about giving up. Xue says that in times such as those he recalls the heroism of members of the Red Detachment of Women on Hainan Island, who fought for the country's liberation. "Meeting some of the surviving members on my travels often serves as inspiration to me and my enthusiasm and resolve then doubles," says Xue.
On his current trip, Xue has inspired a new follower, and was joined by retired school teacher Ye Hang, 54, as he was riding through Zhangjiajie, Hunan province in September last year.
A ritual when arriving at any new destination, which now dates back 30 years, is the finding of a post office so that Xue can stick a local stamp on his route map as evidence and memory of his visit.
Fast approaching his sixties, Xue is asked whether this will be his final mammoth ride around China. "I will cycle around the motherland every 10 years as long as my body allows," says Xue.
And judging by his level of fitness, it looks like Xue just might have a couple more trips in him yet.