British adventurer Rob Lilwall documents the epic trail on foot from Mongolia to his home in Hong Kong in his new book.
In 2004, Rob Lilwall quit his job to cycle across Asia. The then-27-year-old left England with a pair of Royal Mail trousers, a secondhand tent and a whistle designed to scare away dogs. His only modes of transportation were boats and a bike that he had bought in the 1990s.
Lilwall intended to spend a year on the road after leaving home an underwhelmed geography teacher. He ended up travelling for three. The journey ranged more than 30,000 miles and spanned the wastelands of Siberia and countries as far-flung as Iran, Papua New Guinea and Australia. It proved to be a life-changer. In 2009, Lilwall’s literary debut, Cycling Home From Siberia, was published to rave reviews (a television series created by the National Geographic channel using his hand-held footage came out the same year).
Now Lilwall has completed his second journey: this time trekking from the expansive Gobi Desert to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong on foot. Walking Home From Mongolia, his new book, describes the six month, 6,000km walk across China that ended in May last year. Accompanying him is young Northern Irish cameraman Leon McCarron. Together they carry 20kg packs on their backs and endure temperatures falling to -30°C. The resulting book is an honest and often heartwarming meditation on the physical and mental hardships of extreme endurance, and the rapidly changing landscapes of rural China.
One of the most astonishing places Lilwall comes across are the cave villages in Shanxi province, where shepherds still live in homes carved out of the mountainside – a sight he likens to the hobbit village in The Lord of the Rings: ‘Sometimes we could be walking over a hill and look down at our feet and see chimneys coming out of the ground, and think: Here comes a village,’ he recalls.
The walk may have taken far less time than the cycle ride but in many ways it was harder. ‘The challenge was very tough: walking day in day out, six days a week, about 20-to-30 miles a day. The speed with which you move was quite hard [compared to cycling], because it takes you so long to get anywhere,’ he says.
But it was the inner discoveries that mattered most, particularly to Lilwall. ‘I was always quite a shy person growing up, so doing these trips, sometimes when you are stuck in the middle of Siberia and you have to go and knock on some gold miner’s door [to ask for a place to stay], that is quite a test,’ he admits. ‘I found I had a lot more grim determination than I thought I might have had.
I had always been a fearful person, frightened of a lot of things. But I found I could get through them.’
There were moments of high drama, of course. The pair get caught in a storm in the Gobi desert, nearly blowing away their tent in temperatures that were -25°C. They come across a military zone and are caught by police.
‘The trip is like a mini version of life,’ he concludes. ‘We’re on this long journey, there are going to be ups and downs along the way. You face and sometimes fail the tests.’ Walking Home From Mongolia, Dhs50, is available at www.amazon.com.