In the footsteps of giants

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am


After 12 days of walking south through the Gobi Desert, a week ago we arrived at the ramshackle Mongolian border town of Zamyn Uud. We looked and smelled like we had just walked across a desert.

We knew that we would not be allowed to cross the border on foot, so we joined some other passengers in a beaten-up Russian jeep, and were driven three kilometres through no man's land. All being well, that will be the only part of our 5,000 kilometre journey home to Hong Kong which we will not be walking. A short while later, we stepped out of the immigration building and into the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

An hour's walk took us into the middle of Erenhot city - a perfect grid of recently built rectangular buildings that make up so many of the mainland's new cities. As expected, the streets were bustling and the shops filled with everything a person could need.

In Mongolia it had been difficult to find even the simplest of things - even a piece of string. But in China my expedition companion and cameraman Leon McCarron and I were thrilled to tick off our entire shopping list - including camping, camera and repair equipment - in just a few hours.

So I really enjoyed visiting my first Chinese city of this expedition, although I guess the novelty will wear off as I walk through dozens more similarly laid-out cities in the coming months.

Before we set off walking again, Leon, a self-confessed dinosaur buff, was keen to visit Erenhot's famous dinosaur museum. As our taxi approached the museum park beyond the city outskirts, he beamed at the impressive silhouettes of dinosaur models striding epically across the snowy desert landscape. Leon explained that the Gobi Desert has been the site of many of the world's best dinosaur finds - footprints and fossilised bones.

Inside the museum there was a fun mixture of moving robotic models of dinosaurs, waxwork bone diggers and a room with a glass floor built on top of an actual dig site. There was a hole in the display case and, as there were no attendants around, we briefly picked up a fossilised dinosaur bone. I, too, was struck by the wonder of these strange and amazing creatures that had once ruled the world, their remains now just lying around in the Gobi waiting to be discovered.

Soon it was time to set off on the expedition again. We had given away our man-hauled trailer before we left Mongolia, so from now on we would have to carry everything on our backs.

We walked to the edge of town and under an archway of interlocked dinosaur models which straddled the main road. Before us, a perfect dual-lane highway stretched out endlessly into the Gobi. There was barely an undulation or a curve in it and, with the cold wind on our faces, we marched on, our metal poles clinking on the surface.

The desert on this side of the border felt different from what it had been like in Mongolia. It was still a sea of sand, shrubs and snow, but there were more regular signs of humanity - a good road, and an assortment of wind turbines and small farms. It felt like we were walking through a prairie rather than a desert.

Our sleeping places varied quite a lot on our first few nights back on the road. On the first night, the town we had thought we might stay in turned out to be some sort of military barracks, so we decided against knocking on their door to ask for a bed. Instead, we hiked another 10 kilometres into the dark and camped behind a verge in the deep snow.

Two nights later, after a long day's walk, we did spot a lone farmhouse a kilometre off the road. As we approached it, a fierce dog threatened to deter us, but then a young man appeared and invited us inside. He and his father were Mongolian Chinese, and although it was hard to make any proper conversation, we spent the evening watching kung fu movies and drinking soup together, and they let us share their triple-sized bed to stay warm. The next morning, they refused to take any money from us for their hospitality - it was a heart-warming moment of hospitality from kind strangers.

Last Thursday, on day 18 of the expedition and with the snow gently falling, we entered another large Chinese town.

The pain of walking with heavy packs is now starting to kick in, and yet we have only walked about 400 kilometres. But on the positive side, we can now see our progress on a world map. And we have to remind ourselves that, step by step, we are getting closer to home.

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 new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which is in support of the children's charity Viva.