Trekking across the Sea of Death--the Taklimakan Desert of western China--has become a way of life for Liu Yutian, a Chinese explorer and free spirit.
He made three solo hikes into the Taklimakan in 1987 and 1988, twice traversing it from south to north.
Now, goaded by the news that Japanese explorers intend to cross from east to west, an uncharted route three times as long, Liu has set himself the goal of beating them.
The Japanese will make the trip with 135 people, supply trucks and scores of camels at a cost of nearly $700,000. Liu hopes he can raise $38,500 to buy 20 pack camels and hire a helicopter to check his progress now and then.
His chances of winning the race appear slim, not because of the hazards of the desert, but because China's socialist, planned society does not support individual adventurers.
When Liu speaks of the individual pitting himself against nature and finding himself in the process, familiar concepts in the West, Chinese listeners are baffled.
"I think you must be a Tibetan, not Chinese," a woman said as Liu explained his plans to a small group of people. "Chinese don't like to explore."
Add to this the official Chinese suspicion of drifters, and it is small wonder he has been unable to raise money for his venture.
Liu, 48, is well known in China.
In 1986, he became the first person to walk the entire length of the Great Wall. Somewhere on that two-year, 3,400-mile trip, something changed in Liu. He never went back to his desk job at the railway bureau in the western city of Urumqi.
Instead, he hiked north from Urumqi into the Altai Mountains. Then he began his forays into the Taklimakan, nearly 125,000 square miles of sand dunes in the heart of northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Taklimakan, an Uighur word, means "go in but don't come out." The Chinese gave the desert its nickname, Sea of Death.
Liu let his hair grow halfway to his elbows and developed a tolerance for extremes of heat and cold. In Beijing recently, he walked the streets in a short-sleeve shirt in temperatures below freezing.
He earned stares for that, but Liu's freakish individualism--his lack of a danwei , or work unit, that is responsible for him--is what makes people most nervous.
Companies he asked to sponsor his Taklimakan expedition refused unless he found an official patron.
Liu asked the state-run workers' union and the office of the national legislature to be sponsors, but they also refused. Sponsorship would make them officially responsible for him.
Several Chinese journalists said they were fascinated by Liu's plans, but couldn't publish anything because he took part in the 1989 democracy movement, championing individualism in yet another way.
The huge Japanese "Silk Road Friendship Expedition" is scheduled to set out in mid-March from Ruoqiang on the Taklimakan's eastern edge and travel 930 miles west to Kashi (Kashgar).
It will include 90 Japanese, 45 Chinese escorts, 105 camels and 13 trucks of food and water. Expedition chief Minoru Nakai said the cost, about 90 million yen ($687,000), would be paid by Japanese participants and corporations.
While Nakai's finances are secure, Liu has yet to raise a penny, and his one-man defense of China's national honor seems in jeopardy.
"Why have foreigners explored China more than Chinese?" he asked during an interview. "Because Chinese people are not willing to leave their courtyards, to go beyond the Great Wall.
"They like certainties. . . . They don't go in for individual activities."
Westerners explored the Taklimakan in the late 19th Century, uncovering the remains of ancient trading cities that perished when their water dried up.
In recent years, exploring the Taklimakan has become very popular among Japanese. Several groups trekked through parts of the desert in 1990, and later this year, five Japanese students plan to canoe down a river that flows on its northern edge.
Each group has Chinese escorts, but the impetus and financing come from the Japanese.
Tao Baoxiang, in charge of joint expeditions for the Chinese Academy of Science's Comprehensive Exploration Committee, said he understood Liu's desire to make the historic east-west crossing first, "but maybe the best way is to cooperate. The success rate for solo exploration is not great."
Liu said he wants to encourage fellow Chinese, by his example, to leave the security of the group and take risks.
"The spirit of exploration should be the treasure of the human race," he said. "I want the Chinese race to develop that spirit."