At Patoutzu (八斗子) fishing port, Keelung City, a wooden junk bops up and down besides rusting fishing vessels and looks out of place. The occasional curious passerby and coast guards on security patrol, give the vessel an air of importance beyond its diminutive size.
By the end of next month, the boat will embark on a 62,782km-trip, following in the footsteps of China's greatest sea adventurer Zheng He (鄭和). The journey will recreate Zheng's epic sea voyage which took a fleet of junks to the eastern coast of Africa some 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty.
The mastermind behind the unprecedented expedition to commemorate Zheng's historical achievement is Taiwan's veteran explorer Alan Hsu (徐海鵬), who founded the Society of Extreme Exploration, Taiwan (SEE Taiwan, 山河探險協會) in 1999.
Born and raised in Keelung, Hsu's life-long passion for adventure began during a college internship onboard a merchant ship that took the future explorer to more than 10 countries across the globe.
"Back then [1981 to 1982], it was hard for young men to get a passport, not to mention a trip around the world," said the 48-year-old explorer.
His experience on the ship helped Hsu beat other applicants for a round-the-globe expedition organized by the now-defunct Independence Evening Post (自立晚報). From 1985 to 1987, he trekked 5,000km through Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa without logistic support or high-tech gadgets.
"Lugging a 40kg backpack each, we camped most of the time and devised the routes on maps. While the rest [of the party] were asleep at night, I used a flashlight to record our journey on carbon paper and sent copies back to the newspaper every week … . I was quite amazed at the global postal services that successfully delivered each and every copy I sent," Hsu recalled.
After returning and working in print media for 10 years, Hsu, aged 40, prepared to pursue his next dream. Joined by other explorers of different backgrounds and professions, SEE Taiwan was established with a decade-long plan to organize two monumental expeditions in the Chinese-speaking world: "Trekking Without Genghis Khan, 800 Years Later" (尋找成吉思汗) and "Gazing at Zheng He's Era, 600 Years After" (鄭和八下西洋探險隊).
Six months after the establishment of SEE Taiwan, a team of six young Taiwanese bade their families and friends farewell and embarked on a 21-month long overland trek, revisiting Genghis Khan's expeditions through Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine. Three completed the journey.
"Right after we saw the team off, my friends and I immediately began the Zheng He project. The marine expedition posed a much greater challenge than the land trek did," Hsu said.
To stay as faithful to history as possible, Hsu and his partners consulted over a dozen academics and experts on ancient Chinese vessels. What emerged was a junk modeled on the eight-oared patrol boat used in Zheng's fleet of around 200 ships.
Designing the vessel was the easy part compared to its construction. From 2000 to 2005, Hsu and his partners visited over 40 shipbuilding companies across Taiwan and China and finally located eight elderly junk-building masters in Hainan Island.
"During the search, we found out that Guangxi [Zhuang Autonomous Region] and Hainan Island are the only two places where wooden boats are built, but even the boat builders there have not made sails for 40 years ... . In the beginning, the eight masters often had lengthy discussions or even arguments on how the sails should be made as they could hardly remember the handicraft," Hsu said.