High roads and byroads

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2012, 12:00am


Crossing to the western bank of Huang He (Yellow River) at Hukou was a major landmark for us on our 5,000 kilometre Walking Home From Mongolia expedition. Our final sight of the river - which was still almost entirely frozen - was of where it ran south through a narrow gap in the cliffs, spanned by a huge, half-built motorway bridge.

My expedition partner Leon McCarron and I climbed away from the river onto a smooth, asphalt road, and ahead of us we found a fork in the road which gave the option of joining another enormous new motorway heading in exactly the direction we were going. There was a big 'no walkers' (or animals, bicycles, or motorbikes) sign and a police car checkpoint, so we decided it would be prudent to continue on our small road for the time being.

Trudging onwards, we wound up and down through a series of gorges, while above us the giant motorway spanned every chasm on huge stilts and rocketed straight through the middle of hillsides with a perfectly built tunnel. We decided that it would be worth trying to sneak onto the motorway - it would be both a fun adventure and a really good way to speed up our progress.

A couple of kilometres later, we caught sight of a scree slope at the top of which there were some holes in the fence, presumably made by workmen or goat herders who needed to get on and off the big road. In a way, these holes summed up some of our experiences on the walk - there are lots of rules and fences in China, but the Chinese are experts at getting around them and ignoring them.

Walking on the motorway was faster, but also a lot safer, than on the small roads, for there were very few cars. Furthermore, we had a very wide hard shoulder all to ourselves. On the narrow legal road beneath us, we had to throw ourselves against the barrier when a speeding truck passed by. Occasionally, highway patrol police cars did appear, though fortunately they seemed to ignore us.

Three days later, we left the motorway, passed through several long valleys, and found ourselves descending the hills onto the broad expanse of plains which would lead us to the ancient capital of Xian.

We quickly noticed that it felt much milder. I was no longer getting cold hands when I took off my gloves, and I spotted a fly buzzing around in the grass - my first insect of the expedition. After our three hard months of frozen winter hiking through the Gobi Desert and northern Chinese mountains, it seemed that spring was arriving at last. The fields were full of the springtime buzz of agricultural activity - peasants were starting little bonfires of dross leaves, tractors were clattering back and forth up the road, and an array of crops was starting to grow.

Just before Xian we reached our first A-league tourist destination of the walk: the terracotta warriors. As we walked into the car park, it felt strange to be surrounded by touts who saw us more as mobile cash machines than people. We also felt disorientated to be among a lot of other Westerners; we had seen only four on our route since we started walking.

The terracotta army was, of course, amazing. And I think what made it especially significant for me was that all these soldiers had been built for the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who was buried in the still-unopened mausoleum a few kilometres away.

The history-changing achievement of Emperor Qin was now beginning to dawn on me, he was the man who first unified China. And so this huge, diverse country we were walking through had become, in concept at least, one kingdom, and has remained so ever since.

From the terracotta warriors, it was just one day's walk into the ancient capital of Xian. We were exhausted but relieved and satisfied to have reached the symbolic halfway point of our journey. We are taking four days off here and are grateful to the Shangri-La hotel for giving us free accommodation. Staying in an ultra-comfortable hotel while we recover is indeed a contrast from sleeping in a field or under a bridge.

After this short break, we will head for the Yangtze River, Guilin and then, ultimately, Hong Kong. I'm looking forward to the new adventures that await us in the second half of our expedition.

Rob Lilwall's previous expedition, Cycling Home From Siberia, became the subject of an acclaimed motivational talk, a book, and a National Geographic television 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.