Gateway to Gobi

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am


On November 14, my cameraman friend Leon McCarron and I finally set off from the Mongolian outpost town of Sainshand on our 5,000-kilometre walk home to Hong Kong. Our first challenge was to traverse the Gobi Desert from north to south. The Gobi is a place I remember learning about at school. On maps it was typically shown in shades of blue to identify it as a cold desert.

You could argue that walking into it in late November was asking for trouble, not just because of the fast-encroaching winter, but also the large amount of food, water and cooking fuel we would need to haul to reach the next town 250 kilometres away. These supplies weighed more than 80kg - far more than we could carry on our backs - and so we were grateful that British desert explorer Ripley Davenport offered to give us his old human-drawn trailer named 'Molly Brown'.

Molly just happened to be rusting away in a shed in Sainshand, and having retrieved her, we were delighted to discover that she was a sturdy iron beauty of a beast. So having loaded her up with supplies and clipped her to our rucksacks, we dragged her out on a southerly compass bearing, in search of a desert track we had spotted on Google maps.

I always find the first few steps of an expedition tremendously exciting, as my thoughts wander between thinking that I am crazy to be attempting such a thing, but also grateful for having a chance to at least try. We crested the final hill out of town, and before us rolled an endless yellow-brown sea of empty, ruffled sand. In the distance was a bank of epic wind-carved hills: the Gobi was waiting for us, daring us to enter.

We strode onwards into the emptiness, but within a few hours, our pace slowed to a trudge as we took shifts dragging Molly. During daylight on that first day the temperature was mild, but as the sun dropped below the horizon and we set up camp, the mercury plummeted to minus 10 degrees Celsius. We were shivering as we prepared food on a petrol stove, but before long we were in our sleeping bags. I drifted off to sleep, reassuring myself that it always takes the first week or so of an expedition to get camp drills down pat.

We continued south for the next two days, before reaching our first target - the pilgrimage site of Khamarin Khiid, where Danzan Ravjaa, a Mongolian Lama Buddhist saint from the 19th century, is laid to rest.

I was not there as a religious pilgrim (I'm Christian rather than Buddhist), but I did admire the beauty of the monastery, set in the middle of this lonely expanse.

Arriving at a place of pilgrimage so early in the expedition also gave me pause to reflect on my own journey to try to walk home in the next six months. I like the concept of journeying as a pilgrimage. It is an ancient practice in which we are required to dig deep and endure tests of both body and character in order to reach our destination. In my case, that's home and my wife, Christine.

Having left the pilgrimage site, we continued through the desert, and over the following days, the weather took a turn for the worse. Instead of the benign, expansive sea of yellow-brown sand, the Gobi turned white with snow and became brutally cold. I began to feel that now, having enticed us in, it was ready to consume us. But we pressed onwards and were relieved that every couple of days we came across a ger (the traditional white felt nomad tent) where goat herders usually invited us in to share a cup of hot milky tea and, if it was near sundown, to stay the night. But apart from our ger stays, we had to endure increasingly freezing nights in the tents, with temperatures approaching minus 30 degrees. One morning, a terrible blizzard almost blew our tents away. (You'll have to wait for the TV series next year to see what happened.)

And then finally, the empty horizon of desert was broken by a line of dark, rectangular shapes: the border town of Zamyn Uud.

We entered at dusk and discovered that this desert outpost was now a hive of industrial growth (as Mongolian-Chinese trade increases), with spewing chimneys, choking traffic and drab motel-lined streets holding forth in every direction. But after 13 days without a shower (a personal record), we were relieved to have made it across the Mongolian side of the Gobi.

Next we cross into China, where 400 more kilometres of sand await us before we reach the more populated heartlands of Shanxi province. Although I am pleased that our bodies are holding up pretty well after the first 250 kilometres of walking, I am also sobered by the thought that we have completed only 5 per cent of our total distance ... and the whole of China now awaits us.

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. Every week in Health Post, he will write about the progress of his latest expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which is in support of the children's charity Viva. You can track him at