It's a relief to get the weight off

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2011, 12:00am


Last week's section of our long walk from Mongolia to Hong Kong took us over the border from Inner Mongolia and into Shanxi province, where ridge-backed mountains roll across the landscape like huge breakers in an earthy sea.

My expedition partner Leon McCarron and I are relieved to finally end of the first of five legs of our 5,000-kilometre journey. My wife, Christine, joined us last Wednesday in Datong, where we are taking a week off over Christmas.

We were really looking forward to this rest. Our bodies and minds are tired from the strain of almost six weeks on the road. We've had to cope with extreme cold while walking an average of 30 kilometres a day, with all the gear we need to survive and thrive on our backs.

My previous major expeditions were on bicycles, which meant that all the weight was carried on wheels rather than my back, and I had gears to help me up steep hills. It was, therefore, no big deal to take lots of spare bits and pieces (like a 1kg copy of War and Peace I once carried for a whole year on the bike before getting round to reading it).

But on a walking expedition, you feel the weight of your pack with every step you take, pounding your feet and compressing your shoulders, hips and back. This weight greatly increases your chance of injury. So, it is imperative to try to cut gear down to the bare essentials.

However, because this is a winter expedition, and we're documenting the trip on decent cameras, it has so far proved very hard to travel trim. This is what I have in my rucksack:

For camping - a sleeping bag (good to minus 27 degrees Celsius), lightweight tent, petrol stove and two small pots, some food (1 1/2 days' worth) and a thermos of water. (Water freezes too fast to drink in normal bottles.)

For personal things - an e-reader, a diary, a Putonghua vocabulary list and first aid kit; a pile of camera things plus associated cables and backup facilities. I'm wearing all my clothes, apart from a spare pair of gloves and socks.

That's about it, and it still weighs 20kg. We have, therefore, been brainstorming ways to streamline our packs. Our more radical lines of thought involve getting rid of our tents and stoves, and instead using bivouac bags (a thin, wind- and waterproof fabric shell that slips over a sleeping bag, providing more insulation), and eating biscuits at night so we don't have to cook.

But with temperatures around minus 20 degrees at night for another month, this option will no doubt result in many miserable hours of cold. However, at least we are now out of the Gobi Desert and encountering villages and towns at least a few times a day rather than once a week, so our chances of sleeping indoors, shielded from the elements, are much higher. And with the huge weight saving, we'll be able to walk faster and farther every day, and also reduce our injury risk and pain from small injuries, which are starting to increase in frequency.

Mentally, the expedition has been exhausting, too: the multiple daily interactions with people on the road to whom we have to explain ourselves and try to make friends, and the stress of never knowing where we will spend the night.

We had planned to stay at a cheap hotel in Datong, but it was fully booked. Fortunately, we met a man outside the hotel who invited us to stay with his friend who lived nearby, so I write this sitting in a warm bed in his friend's hallway, with Leon asleep next to me.

This week off will allow our minds and bodies to recover before we hit the road again - along the Great Wall for 200 kilometres west to the banks of the Yellow River.

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.