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Feature: An icy journey to the west

Date:2018-08-15 From:xinhua Read times: font size:[ L M S ]

ABOARD TIAN EN, Aug. 15 (Xinhua) -- Chen Xiangwu is a frequent global traveler. Europe is his favorite destination, and he visited the continent several times. But now he's seeking something different, a challenge, and he has the Arctic in sight.

Captain of Tian En, an ice-class cargo ship of China's COSCO Shipping Specialized Carriers Corporation, Chen started preparing for the journey months ago when he was on another business trip in Europe.

"I've been sailing for 23 years. Still, I'm a newcomer to the Arctic," the 47-year-old man said.

Adept as Chen may be in other waterways, he has plenty to learn when it comes to crossing the Arctic's Northeast Passage. On that end, the company provided him with a 300-page manual.

The Chinese vessel's debut voyage across the Arctic was in 2013, when Yong Sheng, also a COSCO's cargo ship, hit the headlines.

"We were bidding for a transportation order for the China-Russia liquid natural gas project in Yamal, which is located in the Arctic region," Han Guomin, former general manager of COSCO, told Xinhua.

"We believe that if we have experience in the Arctic, we may get an upper hand against our competitors," he added. "And we made it."

From 2013 to 2017, COSCO sent 10 vessels to the route for 14 missions.

"It is the shortest route linking Northeast Asia and northern Europe," said Zhang Li, deputy general manager of the company, referring to the Arctic's Northeast Passage.

The voyage could be cut by 40 percent via the Northeast Passage compared with the traditional route through the Suez Canal between northern Europe and Northeast Asia, Zhang said, adding that the fuel consumption could be 20 percent less.

"More importantly, the crew don't have to worry about pirates in the Arctic," Zhang said.

Captain Chen can't agree more as he himself was once besieged by pirates in West Africa. "It was really, really horrible," he said.

Yan Xiangling, Commissar of Tian En, has similar experiences. He usually sleeps for only two or three hours a day in pirate-prone sea areas.

"We have to be highly vigilant. The sooner we notice pirates approaching, the safer," Yan said.

The waterway across the Arctic, however, has its own challenges, among which are icebergs.

"You can't imagine how excited we were when we saw an iceberg for the first time," said Zhang Jin, Chief Officer of Tian En, recalling his last trip across the Arctic in 2016 on another cargo vessel Tian Xi.

"When we woke up early next morning, icebergs were all around us," he said. "It was just beautiful. The sea was like a mirror, and the sky was on it, glimmering."

It had been not long before they realized that sailing in the Arctic was no easy job.

"We hired a Russian icebreaker and inched just some 100 nautical miles in three days," he noted.

The electronic marine map in Tian En shows that the ship might need Russian icebreakers in seven zones. COSCO keeps in regular contact with the Russian side to negotiate whether or when an icebreaker is necessary.

In a white paper declaring its Arctic policy early this year, China has pledged to further cooperate with other countries to jointly build the "Polar Silk Road," part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

"The Polar Silk Road is turning into a golden route," Zhang Li said, adding that the company paid substantial attention to avoid pollution along the waterway.

"We ask our crew to strictly adhere to related international conventions," she said. "The wastes on the ship are deliberately sorted and handled, so that we can help build a green Polar Silk Road."

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