Wanders never cease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, 12:00am


The other evening at around 5pm I left home and set off from my village towards Sunset Peak.

I had loaded up my newly custom-moulded Osprey rucksack with five two-litre bottles of water and an old tent, bringing its weight to over 15kg. I carried my pink iPod in my left hand and a stick for the snakes in my right (I'm terrified of snakes).

Weaving through the village houses I reached the familiar path and began to climb. It was completely dark by the time I reached the top, so I used the light from the iPod to find my way down the other side. I finally got back to my village at around 9pm, where, drenched in sweat and looking like a swamp man, I stumbled through the door and into the arms of my incredibly patient wife. I'm trying to do this training hike at least three times a week.

He's training for the Trailwalker, I hear you say. Well, not quite. Rather, all this hiking is for a less intense, but considerably longer journey - a six-month 5,000-kilometre walk with a friend, from Mongolia to my home in Hong Kong via a very wintry China. We are calling the expedition Walking Home From Mongolia.

To understand Walking Home From Mongolia, however, I need to explain my last major expedition: Cycling Home From Siberia.

In 2004, I quit my job as a geography teacher in Britain and bought a one-way plane ticket to the farthest away and bleakest place I could think of - northeastern Russia. I wanted to explore the world first hand, and I thought it would be fun to start a very long way away and try to get back again. What's more, I would do this on a bicycle.

So I flew to Siberia with my bike in the hold and, when we landed, I set off to ride home. The subsequent journey of 56,000 kilometres took me three years, and along the way I passed through the wilds of Papua New Guinea, Tibet and Afghanistan - and also made a detour to Australia (to cross the sea I hitch-hiked on cargo ships and yachts).

There were tough times - I camped at minus 40 degrees Celsius, was robbed at gunpoint and caught malaria.

But there were lots of great times: the thrill of using pedal power to cross deserts, mountains and jungles; the countless kind people who looked after me, from Russian gold miners to Korean pastors, from Tibetan monks to Afghan NGO workers; and raising more than HK$300,000 for the children's charity Viva.

I also enjoyed having such a clear purpose to my life - to know that I needed to cycle 100 kilometres or so, day after day, until I got home. Best of all, a year into the trip I also met the Hong Kong girl who is now my wife.

It's been almost four years since I finished Cycling Home From Siberia. Since then - and especially after I wrote a book and a television series was made about the journey - many people have been asking what my next adventure would be. I never knew what to say, partly because I had not found an adventure that captured my imagination.

But after relocating to Hong Kong with my wife a year ago and revisiting the mainland a few times, I was drawn to exploring China, of which I have only seen a fraction.

I liked the idea of starting the expedition somewhere tough and bleak again, and having to overcome many obstacles to return home. And this time, rather than cycling, I thought I would walk, as this would bring a new challenge and give me a chance to experience the land and its people at an even slower pace.

The expedition will again have its fair share of landmarks and difficulties. In the first two months we will cross the Gobi as winter sets in, hike a deserted section of the Great Wall, and kayak down a stretch of the Yellow River (in portable kayaks we will carry in our backpack).

From there, back on dry land, we will walk through ancient Xian, before heading into a 1,900-kilometre stretch of snowy mountains and a long string of unknown towns and villages.

As spring arrives, around March, we will finally emerge from the mountains and reach Guilin, where we will unpack the kayaks again and paddle down the Pearl River, all the way to Guangzhou.

From there we will walk a mere hundred kilometres or so to Hong Kong. Home again, at last.

I am very excited about this new expedition, but also somewhat daunted. It will be a time to learn more about China, to push myself to the limit, to think hard about life and death again. To do something that makes me feel alive.

I will also again be raising money for Viva. But essentially, I will just be trying to get home.

Rob Lilwall is an adventurer, author and motivational speaker. In the coming months, he will write a weekly column about Walking Home From Mongolia (walkinghomefrommongolia.com) in Health Post. Meanwhile, join Rob this Friday at 7.30pm at his expedition send-off at the Vine Centre, Burrows Street, Wan Chai, where he'll share his past and future adventures, complete with stunning photos and video footage. Details at www.viva.org/hkevents.