Going with the flow

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am


My cameraman, Leon McCarron, and I are now nearing the final stages of our long walk from Mongolia to my home in Hong Kong. Today, we have at last reached the outer edges of Guangzhou, and from here it is just a few days' hike to Lo Wu, so the end is really in sight. One of the highlights of this expedition has been to see the incredibly changing landscapes of China, which can be roughly divided into the drainage basins of the three great rivers of the mainland.

The first was the Yellow River, known as both the Mother of China (for in its flood plains, Chinese civilisation was first recorded as growing) and the Sorrow of China (because of its terrible floods). We met the river in early January after a week of walking along the Great Wall through the curvy, yellowish, loess mountains of Shanxi province.

Here the wall is almost never visited by tourists, yet it is a place where it still marches onwards, relentlessly to the west, up and down and over thousands of hills. Millions of people in this region still live in yaodong, or cave houses, built into the sides of the hills, and in the cold weather we were grateful that they would refill our almost frozen water bottles with warm water and sometimes even invite us to stay the night. As we walked south beside the Yellow River, we were often stunned to see it entirely frozen over, and in other places it carried giant, car-sized blocks of ice rapidly downstream.

Two months later, just south of the plains of Xian, we walked through China's longest tunnel in the Qinling Mountains, which turned out to be quite an ordeal because of the carbon monoxide fumes we inhaled. It was here that we crossed our next watershed and entered the Yangtze River basin. The landscapes of the Yangtze were so very different from those of the Yellow. Gone were the smooth yellow hills; now we were walking through an angular land of limestone peaks covered with thick temperate forests.

Spring had arrived, so we sent our tents home and, when in the countryside, camped out in lightweight bivvy bags. The hills started to fill with blossoms, and we wound round the spurs of huge valleys where farming communities grew crops on terraced hillsides that were the steepest I had ever seen. The farmers were mostly elderly men and women who worked nimbly on the precipitous terraces; I would have wanted to wear a safety harness just to venture onto them. We eventually descended to the Yangtze River, crossing it just upstream of the famous Three Gorges, in Chongqing municipality.

South of the Yangtze, after yet more giant limestone mountains and just before Guangxi, we crossed into our final drainage basin - that of the Pearl. While the Yellow and the Yangtze are the most famous of China's rivers, the Pearl River is the third of the giants that run through the country. The landscapes of these Pearl tributaries included the famous limestone karsts.

We walked from Guilin to Yangshuo beside the Li River, and I was amazed to see the changes in Yangshuo since I was last there as a backpacker seven years ago. Back then it was full of Western travellers wielding Lonely Planet guides. Now the town had expanded hugely and the number of Westerners was dwarfed by Chinese tour groups flocking through the streets.

That same week I read an article in China Daily about young Chinese starting to go backpacking as well as the more standard form of taking tours. And then this week, on the road here in Guangdong, we met three Chinese cyclists in their early 20s riding from their home on the coast all the way to Lhasa, Tibet. It is amazing and encouraging to see China getting into adventurous travel mode.

It has also started raining a lot recently, and the weather increasingly resembles that of Hong Kong. The Sui River, which we have been following, is close to bursting its banks with muddy water. Last week, we took a quick swim to cool down from the blazing sunshine. We were about 50 kilometres upstream of where it meets the Pearl River proper, but I'll count it as a Pearl River swim because I don't think I will be taking a dip in Guangzhou where it's more polluted by industry.

In February when we swam in the Yellow River, it was filled with slabs of ice. In March we took a dip in the Yangtze which was calm and cool and beautiful. Our Pearl swim, while not exactly beautiful in the brown water, certainly cooled us off.

Soon we will be home in Hong Kong. Come along to our welcome home party and celebration in Wan Chai next week on Wednesday. Find out more at our website.

Rob Lilwall's previous expedition, Cycling Home From Siberia, became the subject of an acclaimed motivational talk, a book, and a National Geographic TV series. He has been writing in Health Post about the progress of his new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which is in support of the children's charity Viva. walkinghomefrommongolia.com