What's missing in action

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am


I have now been walking home from Mongolia for more than 90 days. In that time, Leon McCarron - my partner on this expedition - and I have been awed by the beauty and power of nature, humbled by the kindness of strangers, and thrilled by the fun of exploring ancient lands. At the same time, we've regularly been cold, hungry, afraid, angry, alone and, most of all, exhausted.

As we walked along an empty road beside the Yellow River and traipsed through yet more mountains in Shanxi province in the past week, I've found myself starting to really miss not only my wife, but also Hong Kong. I think I have reached a point on the expedition where I'm starting to remember the things that I normally take for granted. They now seem like amazing gifts that I'll be very thankful for when I get back. What are these things?

1. My wife, Christine. Now, more than ever, I understand her love. Her sacrifice and support in letting me go on this expedition is amazing. Wow, I'm crazy to have left her for so long.

2. My bed. For the past three months, on only a handful of occasions have I known where I would be sleeping that night. I have slept in my tent on all kinds of terrain, shared a large communal bed with shepherds in a cave house, and stayed in all manner of cheap local road houses. It'll be good to be home and have a bed to sleep in every night.

3. Money. We carry contingency money, but rely on automated teller machines that accept foreign bank cards where we can get 2,000 yuan (HK$2,460) at a time to keep us going a few more weeks.

A couple of weeks ago, we realised we were running out of money but knew we'd reach a decent-sized town a couple of days later and probably would be able to withdraw some. However, when we got there, it turned out to be a small town with very local banks.

On the map we saw another town 50 kilometres away, so we hiked hard for a day and a half, but when we arrived, the same thing happened.

We had somehow spent our contingency money and were now down to our final 26 yuan. We went to a shop and spent it on 10 packs of instant noodles and a small sausage, which, along with a few leftover biscuits, would be our food for the next three days.

We eventually reached the Hukou Waterfall, which, despite being a tourist destination, had no ATM. We now had no money and no food, and were very hungry. This left us with our only option (besides begging): paying someone to drive us to the nearest big town and back overnight - and so we were able to get money.

We've often heard the saying that if you have money in the bank or some spare change in your wallet, then you are richer than 92 per cent of people on the planet. I doubt I'll ever be able to fully understand how hard such lives must be, but this minor experience has taught me a big lesson about not taking for granted money and the ability to access it and earn it.

4. My passport. I hold a British passport, which has given me safe access to more than 50 countries by plane, bicycle, foot, boat and bus. I complain a bit when I have to pay for a visa, but I should not take for granted the freedom and ability to travel - and even the protection - which this passport gives me. More than half the people in the world do not even have a passport, and even if they did, they would face many travel restrictions.

5. My friends and family. I meet many people on the road - nearly all of them good people. While this is a privilege, I miss the depth of friendship which I can get by staying in one place.

6. My health. For much of the past two months, I have been walking in pain - mostly with a foot injury, and also blisters, knee pain, shoulder pain, and occasional illness. I suppose health is the thing we most take for granted. We realise what an incredible gift good health is only when we're in pain or ill.

In the past week, my foot injury feels almost fully recovered, and the rest of my body seems to be rising to the challenge of 35 to 45 kilometres a day. I'm reminding myself to take for granted neither my health, nor the privilege of being able to do a seven-month walking expedition through Mongolia and China - the most epic and incredible of lands.

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 month 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. www.walkinghomefrommongolia.com