It took rescuers 14 days to find two members of the six-man Russian canoeing expedition, which took a trip down the Yurungkax River in China’s Xinjiang province last month. Alexander Zverev from the city of Kazan and Andrei Pautov from Moscow are the only ones who survived the trip. Some of the details of the ill-fated trip were provided to Komsomolskaya Pravda by Alexander Zverev.
Ivan and Sergei Cherniks became the first two victims on August 24, the day when both the expedition’s canoes capsized, throwing the crew into the water. Sergei was unable get out of the water because his life jacket apparently got caught on the canoe. It is still unclear what happened to Ivan, though. One of the survivors caught a glimpse of Ivan, obviously shell-shocked, being drifted down the river. There was no way the survivors could reach the overturned canoes, which vanished in the distance too.
Dawn was breaking when the survivors decided to go on foot along the riverbank. Having covered five kilometers, the canoeists found their capsized rafts, their backpacks and paddles all washed up on the beach. The bodies of the brothers Chernik lay next to the gear. The canoeists had no intentions of sailing any more but they had to continue their trip by canoeing down the river because of the steep cliffs, which blocked the passage of the route on foot. So they launched their canoe again on August 27. They planned to travel by canoe only in the calm sections of the river and carry their raft by hand over the most dangerous parts of the river. However, their canoe capsized once again. Zverev survived only because the canoe threw him clear of the water and onto a bank. Pautov went out of sight once the canoe capsized.
Zverev told the newspaper that he first saw a helicopter on September 11. However, the rescuers failed to spot him. Six days later he saw another helicopter landing several hundred meters away from the cave in which he took shelter. Zverev thought the helicopter had landed in a safe place to pick him up. He had no idea that the helicopter landed in that location only to retrieve the body of his friend Vladimir Smetannikov. Zverev left his cave and started moving toward the helicopter. He had to cross a turbulent river while trudging to the location where he thought the rescuers were supposed to be. It is simply beyond one’s imagination how Zverev was able to cross that river after living without food in a cave for 22 days.
A dust storm began blowing across the location shortly after Zverev got there. The rescue operation was suspended for three days. Three days were gone. Then Zverev saw a helicopter coming back. Much to his disappointment, it landed in a different place. It was a miracle that the rescuers finally spotted him while heading in their helicopter back to the base. Sergei Bobyr, one of the Russian rescuers on board the helicopter, somehow managed to discern the shape of a man down on the ground. Zverev is currently taking treatment at a hospital in the city of Hotan, western China. The Chinese media reports that Zverev now weighs only 34 kilograms. His regular weight is 54 kilograms.
Andrei Pautov was the other canoeist of the expedition who managed to stay alive. Unlike Zverev, he did not take shelter in a cave. He started examining the helicopters’ flight paths in an attempt to figure out the location of a field camp used by the rescuers. It was a real irony that Pautov came across Zverev’s cave only to find it empty. As it turned out, Zverev left his shelter one day earlier.
Pautov kept on walking toward the direction of the rescuers’ camp. He was sure that the end of his ordeal was nigh when he saw a helicopter landing a mile away on September 21. Pautov crossed the river. He crawled out of the water, got up on hit feet and tried to run. Unfortunately, the helicopter took off before Pautov made it to a clearing.
He was not disheartened by the incident. He continued his walking toward the camp. He somehow managed to succeed against all odds. A Chinese rescuer found him in close proximity to the camp later that day.
We telephoned the survivors yesterday. Both of them had been admitted to the same hospital ward. Zverev’s voice sounded quite cheerful. He promptly informed us that IV drips were still attached to his arm. He also said that he had not gained any weight yet.
“We’re planning to arrive in Moscow on September 27. Hopefully, the rescuers will have found the body of Dmitry Tishchenko by that time. Lots of people are calling my number these days but I tend to ignore those calls. You know, incoming calls to the mobile phone cost a pretty penny here. People who come to visit me at the hospital are mostly journalists,” Zverev said.
Aside from hunger and despair, what was the most terrible experience you had to live through?
“My suicidal tendencies. They were taking shape pretty fast. Thank goodness I saw those choppers flying by; otherwise I could have taken my own life sooner or later. I’m a realist, I don’t believe in miracles. There was a very slim chance that the rescuers would find me. I really lucked out when they finally found me. Okay, now I’m going to pass the receiver to Andrei Pautov,” Zverev said.
Andrei, how are you feeling now?
“Thanks, I’m feeling fine. I think I’m going back to normal slowly but surely. The doctors are administering IV drips to me now.”
What is your biggest wish at the moment?
“I just can’t wait to get back home to Moscow and see my beloved wife.”
Alexander Zverev promised himself to get married if they found him. Did you happen to make any promises?
“I’d like to see a child being born into our family. I really want my wife to bear me a boy.”
What did you say when you saw Alexander Zverev again?
“To be honest, we never thought we’d meet again. ‘Hello, buddy, it’s so good to see you alive!’ was all I could say the very moment I saw him in hospital. It’s a miracle that we survived.”
Translated by Guerman Grachev