SEOUL, South Korea – A professional tightrope walker from China zipped along a wire strung across the Han River in just under 11 minutes to win Seoul's second international high-wire championship.
Yakefujiang Maimitili, competing Friday on the second day of the three-day contest, beat 26 other competitors in traversing the three-quarter-mile-long wire to claim the $20,000 prize.
Maimitili, 20, said he has been a tightrope walker since the age of 7, following in his ethnic Uighur family's tradition in his native Xinjiang in northwestern China.
"I was really excited while I was walking on the rope," Maimitili said Saturday, when the competition ended.
Tightrope walking is also a Korean tradition going back centuries, with performers often leaping and turning somersaults in midair — and sometimes even cracking jokes — to entertain onlookers.
Colombia's Alan Martinez came in second place with a time of 11 minutes, 23 seconds. Last year's winner, Abudusataer Wujiabudula of China, finished in 11 minutes, 28 seconds, for third place.
A 2005 film, "The King and the Clown," which featured a troupe of entertainers who became court jesters, rejuvenated interest in the Korean tradition.
Organizer Kwon Won-tae, a professional tightrope walker who did the stunt work in the film, also competed this week. He credited the competition with keeping the tradition of tightrope walking alive, and said he hopes to eventually compete in communist North Korea.
"Sometime in the future, I want to hold this high-wire championship across the Taedong River in Pyongyang," North Korea's capital, he said Saturday.
Onlookers watched as competitors walked along the 1.2-inch-thick wire, supported by 69-foot-tall towers on the north and south banks of the Han River, which divides the South Korean capital.
No one needed the safety net slung under the wire. Colombia's Marcos Luis Martinez lost his balance at one point but caught himself and managed to run across.
"I am so proud of myself to finish my performance on the single-strand wire," he said.
Ayaixiguli Maimitili, who said she came from China to watch six fellow Uighurs compete in Seoul, including the winner, decided to try her hand at crossing the tightrope — with bowls on her head.
"Traditionally, Uighur women put bowls on their head to keep their balance," she said.
The competitors hailed from 14 countries, including Tino Wallenda and his daughter Aurelia of the "Flying Wallendas" high-wire act.
Onlookers later had the chance to try walking a shorter tightrope — not as high up — themselves.
"I felt nervous and cool at the same time," said tourist Kai Schneider, 22, from Germany.