Chinese police have rescued a farmer after he flew 50 km in a hydrogen balloon that he was using to harvest pine cones, according to official state agency Xinhua.

Yin Yanlei, 29-year-old farmer in the northeastern province of Jilin, had a brush with death last Monday as he was getting ready to pick pine cones from the balloon, which he bought online for about RMB 20,000 (HK$23,970).

Yin Yanlei’s family makes a living by gathering cones and selling the nuts inside them. According to Xinhua, using hydrogen balloons to pick pine cones had become popular among farmers in the northern region of China in recent years. Yin’s wife told the agency that climbing up the trees was dangerous, and that the spiked shoes used by farmers damage the trees.

chinese farmer balloon
Left: Farmers harvesting pine cones with a balloon. Right: A screenshot from the video made by Yin as he was flying in the balloon. Photos: Weibo.

Yin was in the basket of the hydrogen balloon with his brother last Monday, when a strong gust of wind lifted them up. Rather than tying the balloon to the trees, he had asked his mother and an assistant to hold onto the ropes, and the wind ripped the rope out of the assistant’s hand.

See also: In pictures: 13 examples of the boundless ingenuity of China’s farmers

His mother, still hanging on to the rope, was lifted off the ground along with the balloon, but she let go after it reached a certain height and broke her leg in the fall.

Yin and his brother jumped out as soon as they saw that the balloon was rising, but Yin was fastened to the basket with a safety rope, and thus was forced to climb back in and watch helplessly as the balloon continued to rise.

YouTube video

At that point, he was several hundred metres high. He tried to call for help with his mobile phone, but found that there was no signal.

‘Not in the mood to look’

“Despair, I was in despair,” Yin told Xinhua. “Beside me were clouds, below me were forests – the view was so beautiful, but I was not in the mood to look – who knew where the balloon was bringing me?”

Yin said he was thinking of his mother, his pregnant wife, and his daughter, and what they would do if he died. He decided to make a video, in which he said: “It’s over – I’ll face my life with optimism, I’m flying away.”

When his phone gained signal, the first call that he received was his wife, who told him to stay put and that she had called the police. In what he thought would be their last conversation, Yin said: “I love you, if I survive, I’ll spend the rest of my life with you. If anything happens to me, you must be strong and live…”

A photo taken by Yin in the balloon. Photo: Screenshot from The Beijing News video.

The police in the local county told Xinhua that they thought it was a joke when they first received the call from Yin’s wife. But after they understood the situation, they figured out the wind speed and direction, and used Yin’s mobile phone to determine his location.

The police said they sent 40 people and seven vehicles to head to the area and find Yin. They also called a balloon producer, then called Yin and told him how to let the air out. Yin subsequently ripped a piece of sheet metal off the basket and used it to make three holes in the balloon.

The balloon slowly descended after a while, and Yin jumped onto a tree when it got close enough. He had travelled about two hours and was about 50 kilometres from where he started. He was picked up by police officers and only suffered minor scratches.

Despite the near-tragedy, Yin told Xinhua that he had already ordered another hydrogen balloon, and had gone out on Sunday to pick pine cones in it.

“But this time I will learn from my experience, and take safety measures,” he said.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.