Monday, February 22, 2016

Walking home from Mongolia

Former geography teacher Rob Lilwall recounts his 4,500-kilometre walk from the Gobi Desert to Hong Kong, the equivalent of hiking from Birmingham to Tehran

The winter wind picked up overnight, flinging itself down the valley like one of Genghis Khan’s thundering armies, which travelled this way eight centuries ago. I woke several times to the sound of the tent walls flapping in a rage.

When daylight came, I shouted to Leon, my companion and cameraman for the 4,500-kilometre journey on which we had embarked a week earlier. Leon yelled back that our tents had been swallowed by a whiteout.

I unzipped my tent and peeked outside. The open valley in which we had pitched camp the previous evening had been replaced by a prison of howling whiteness, carpeted in snow that was being whipped up and swirled across the scrubby desert floor.

We didn’t have time to hang around. After more bellowing to make ourselves heard above the din of the storm, and having got ourselves organised, we burst out of our tents. As Leon and I would be walking together for more than six months, filming footage for a television series as we went, we had elected to bring two small Hilleberg Akto tents rather than one large shelter. We figured that private sleeping quarters would provide a bit of physical and mental space to reduce the risk of falling out, a scenario that we couldn’t afford to become reality.

We set up the video camera to film our joust with the blizzard and then busied ourselves with dismantling the tents while preventing them from being blown away. That done, we loaded our gear into Molly Brown, our trailer. The temperature was –20°C but the wind made it feel much colder. We frantically covered the exposed skin on our faces. Nearly all of our water supplies had frozen solid, despite being stored in pairs of thermal tights.

By the time we were ready to depart, our hands and feet were numb. We resorted to our emergency procedure of running and dancing like madmen while singing James Brown songs in order to force warm blood into our digits.

Five minutes later, we clipped Molly Brown to the back of my rucksack. Using walking poles to help propel ourselves forward, we followed a compass bearing through 30 metres of whiteout until we joined a truckers’ track.

A LONG WALK HOME

It was late November. Our journey had begun six days earlier under a blue sky. Starting from the Mongolian town of Sainshand, we were attempting to walk from the Gobi Desert to my home in Hong Kong, a distance equivalent to hiking from Birmingham to Tehran.

For the first few days, the temperature hovered above zero. We took turns pulling Molly Brown, trundling along at a tad more than three kilometres per hour across vast gravel plains that occasionally rolled through banks of rocky hills.

On most days, we encountered camel herds and ger settlements. The temperature plummeted on day five, and from then on, we were always grateful to be invited into a ger by a bemused herder for a cup of tea and some goat meat.

Four days after the blizzard, we rolled into the ramshackle border town of Zamyn-Üüd. We took two days off and used the time to post home some gear that we felt we could live without, such as spare clothes, a second stove and the back-up video camera.

We also parted ways with Molly Brown. This was a difficult decision, but she was slowing us down and preventing us from travelling cross-country. Besides, in China, we would be passing through villages on a regular basis, which meant that we would need to carry less water and food.

We crossed into China carrying all of our remaining possessions in two rucksacks. They each weighed 25 kilograms, but there was nothing else we could shed from them. We needed our winter camping gear to survive in the harsh climate and we needed the heavy camera equipment to record our journey.

NEW TERRITORY

The Chinese side of the border, although still very much part of the Gobi, felt different to Mongolia. The broken, rutted track was replaced by a new, straight tarmac road that pointed south like an endless runway. We pulled our rucksack hip belts tight around our waists and set off at a brisk pace, our trekking poles clinking on the metalled surface. Giant wind farms watched over us, their propellers languidly beating the cold air.

With the help of the poles and the decent road, our pace now doubled to six kilometres per hour. We didn’t carry a GPS but we often received a data signal. This allowed us to access Google Maps on an iPhone, which we used to help plan our route, along with pages torn from a Chinese road atlas. We also used a sophisticated iPhone app to transmit photos and video clips to a digital map on the expedition website that displayed our current position.

Walking on the asphalt was good for covering distance but less interesting than the backcountry. Whenever possible, we followed goat and jeep tracks. Occasionally, we walked along railway lines. The desert landscape slipped past in a slow blur of icy horizons and snow-capped hillocks.

As we walked, we listened to Chinese lessons on our headphones to improve our Mandarin in readiness for our next conversation with a local. There were few other foreigners around. Away from the tourist and business hotspots of Xian, Guilin and Guangzhou, we saw only four Caucasians in 3,000 kilometres of walking.

We were now entering a more populated part of China and camped on fewer occasions thanks to a profusion of cheap roadhouses. The size of settlements grew steadily, until one day we reached the brow of a hill to see a purple sunset descending on the city of Jinan. A sinister silhouette of giant smokestacks and new high-rise buildings filled the skyline. It reminded me of JRR Tolkien’s Isengard.

As well as walking, our other big task each day was to film. Whenever anything interesting happened, I had to pull out the camera, which was stored in an easy-to-access pouch on the back of Leon’s rucksack. Leon would then unclip the tripod from the side of my rucksack and within a minute, we would be ready to shoot.

It was my job to jump in front of the lens and interact with or comment on what we had come across. Leon would operate the camera while trying to stop his hands turning into blocks of ice.

FACE TO FACE WITH HISTORY

After a cold month in the Gobi, we reached the first significant line of the Great Wall. The flat landscape buckled into hills and mountains. These would be our lot until we reached the south coast in five months’ time. It was also cave country – more than 30 million Chinese people live in cave houses carved out from hillsides.

The Great Wall led us to the Yellow River. It was January, and the river was either frozen upstream of its numerous dams, or filled with shards of jagged ice in the waters downstream of the barriers. We followed its waters southwards and then crossed to enter the ancient capital of Xian and the nearby site of the Terracotta Warriors.

Our journey through China was regularly interspersed with reminders of the country’s long history. Sometimes we came across iconic tourist sites such as the terracotta sculptures. At other times, we stumbled upon unexpected reminders of the nation’s epic past, such as a cave containing ancient shrines that were once visited by the imperial family.

After Xian, we encountered a different kind of mountain range. Having left behind the smooth yellow hills, we walked through an angular land of limestone peaks covered in thick temperate forest. Spring arrived and the hills filled with peach blossom. We sent our tents home and camped in innovative bivvy bags that converted into ponchos.

In the first half of the expedition, we fell behind schedule because of injuries, one of which forced me to take a week off. We now increased our daily distance to 35–50 kilometres. We made good progress and, in the fourth month of the expedition, we crossed the Yangtze River just upstream of the Three Gorges.

In temperatures of 30°C, we crossed into Hong Kong. On the night of 26 May 2012 – almost 200 days after we had departed from Sainshand – Leon and I arrived at the Kowloon waterfront. Hong Kong’s skyscrapers towered around us. It had been a long walk, but now I was home.

TEN OF THE BEST

Rob Lilwall’s walk from the Gobi Desert to his home in Hong Kong took him from sub-zero temperatures in the winter to searing heat in the summer. As a result, he needed a variety of kit that would perform in these extreme conditions. Here he highlights some of the most important gear that he and his partner took with them

1. Rucksack

Osprey Argon 85 litre £200/2.78_3.02 kilograms (depending on back size) With its suspension system and mouldable waist-strap, this rucksack is a comfortable and sturdy option for long-distance walkers. Stretch woven pockets are sewn into the front and sides of the rucksack

2. Duvet jacket

Berghaus Kendale down jacket £133/700 grams Lightweight, warm and windproof, the Kendale is filled with 600-fill-power duck down. The design features a sewn-on hood, handwarmer pockets and an internal pocket. Be careful not to wear it in the vicinity of thorns or abrasive rocks

3. Convertible bivvy bag

Hilleberg Bivanorak £90/590 grams Why carry a rain jacket and a bivvy bag when you can take a breathable Bivanorak? During the day, it works well as a poncho. The arms and legs are fitted with drawstrings that make it as waterproof as a dedicated bivvy bag at night. It easily _its a sleeping bag and mat

4. Trekking poles Black Diamond Syncline

£45/580 grams Walking poles increase your speed by up to 1.6 kilometres per hour, provide stability on uneven terrain and take up to 20 per cent of the strain off your legs to help reduce injury worries. The Syncline poles are adjustable so you can collapse and stash them in your rucksack

5. Laptop Apple MacBook Air 11 inch, from £849/1.08 kilograms

The Air is light and fast, and excellent for backing up your photos and video. With its internal solid-state drive, it doesn’t mind being jolted around in your pack

6. Video camera Canon XF_100 £2,300/1.1 kilograms

This high-definition camera produces broadcast-quality images, yet is sufficiently lightweight to hold in one hand. The batteries performed brilliantly right down to –25°C

7. Boots: Ecco Xpedition II £145/1.5 kilograms.

These boots are made of durable yak leather and are lined with Gore-Tex. The Xpedition II kept my feet warm even at –30°C, as long as I kept moving. The soles lasted for about 2,000 kilometres before they needed replacing

8. Boots: Elasticated Ankle support £7/100 grams

A reliable support is essential if you buckle over on one ankle and need to protect it for a few days. When I suffered a foot injury, I discovered that I could also invert this support so it was on my foot, which helped my metatarsal recover while I walked. This ankle support is very light: don’t leave home without one

9. Software Luxson Punkt, from £250/0 grams

This app allows you to take photos and video from your smartphone and upload them to a map on your website at the exact location where you took the picture or footage

10. Convertible trousers: Berghaus Navigator Zip Off £40/420 grams

I converted these trousers into shorts when the daytime temperature rose. When it was cool, or when there were mosquitoes around, I zipped the legs back on. These convertible pants saved me from having to pack shorts and trousers, which helped me to minimize the overall weight of my pack

Rob Lilwall’s book Walking Home from Mongolia can be ordered atwww.roblilwall.com

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