Paul Hayes knows an adventure when he sees one.
How else can you explain the decision Hayes made in his early 20s?
With a steady, safe job as a high school P.E. and French teacher in Kelowna, Hayes, a now-28-year-old Earl Marriott Secondary graduate, decided to spend his summers fighting fires in Northern B.C.
Then, after a few years alternating between francais and fire hoses, even that was not enough to quench his thirst for excitement, and he made the decision to pack up his life and move to China, where he teaches at an English-language high school.
In two years overseas, he’s travelled to Tibet, cycled through Vietnam – from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City – and run the Great Wall Marathon twice.
“I guess I kind of have an adventurous personality – I’m very curious,” said Hayes, over the phone from Shanghai, where he’s putting the final touches on plans for his latest big adventure.
On June 30, Hayes and one of his students, a 17-year-old Ho Young Yoo, will embark on a 4,200-mile cycling trek from Shanghai to Kashgar – one of China’s westernmost cities. He expects to trip to take until mid-August.
Along the way, they’ll pass out sports equipment to children in impoverished villages as part of We Haul 2 Play – a non-profit organization Hayes recently started.
“It’s going to be pretty insane,” Hayes said of the trip.
“I’m going to get to see China in so many different lights. It’s such a large country, with so much history and culture, so to run through – like I did during the marathon – or to (cycle) through it, it’s pretty exciting.”
Hayes got the idea to hand out sports gear to Chinese youngsters while on a trip to Tibet last October.
“The kids there really had nothing to play with. They were outside playing with sticks and rocks,” he explained.
“As a kid in South Surrey, my fondest memories are of playing cul-de-sac hockey with my friends, or kicking a soccer ball around, so I just thought there must be something I can do for the young kids here.”
Hayes and Yoo won’t carry all the sports gear themselves. They’ll take what they can at the start of the trip, and Hayes has a deal with a local company – “kind of a Chinese Sport Mart,” he said – in which the company will meet them with equipment in towns along their journey.
“We won’t be riding around with a giant bag of stuff this way – it’s not a Santa Claus thing,” he chuckled.
Hayes, though excited for his trip, admits his plan has been met with mostly bewilderment from his colleagues and friends in China, where outdoor activity is not a normal part of the culture.
It was the same reaction he got when he designed an outdoor/adventure program for the students at the high school at which he teaches.
“Here, they’re very foreign to the outdoors, to the idea of camping, mountain biking or hiking. I tell people what I’m doing and they say, ‘What are you, crazy?’” Hayes laughed.
“But I’m starting to see a shift in the culture at our school, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to go.”
To be fair to the doubters, the upcoming journey is no easy trip, no carefree summer vacation. Outside of the major cities, much of China’s landscape, Hayes explains, is decidedly rural, with extreme poverty just a few miles away from the country’s major urban centres.
“There’s stuff to look out for, for sure. There can be bandits, things like that. You just have to be careful, smart and stay safe.”
And while Hayes’ adventurous spirit may his own, his desire to give back through We Haul 2 Play is inspired, he says, by his father, Jim, who passed away from cancer two years ago.
“My dad was a really simple guy from the Yukon – he didn’t need much. And he was so unselfish, so generous, and that definitely rubbed off on me. You take the best qualities from the people that you love,” Hayes said.
“He took a lot of pride in seeing other people happy, so I’m just trying to give back, and help out the best way I know how.”