Every slog has its day
I wake to the sound of my alarm clock and push my face towards the pre-dawn light and an incredible display of giant karst mountains, forested hillsides and deep valleys in the north of Xinglong, in the municipality of Chongqing.
I shout to my expedition partner and cameraman, Leon McCarron, a few metres away, that it is time to get up. A groan in reply. Ten years younger, Leon is supposed to be the sprightly one, but he confesses that the past four months and 3,000 kilometres of tough walking have aged him at an unnatural speed.
After packing our rucksacks and downing our first instant coffee, we follow the farmers' track onto the road. We brace ourselves for another long day. Today we aim to cover 41 kilometres - out of the mountains and down to the next town, Baiyangping in Hubei province.
We walk across a bridge spanning a 100-metre deep gorge. From a hillside on our right we hear shouting, and peering through the undergrowth we see the townsfolk have gathered for their morning exercises (a blend of tai chi and aerobics). They invite us to join in - which we do, rather clumsily - before walking with them through the town.
We have left the town behind us, walked through a two-kilometre- long tunnel (saving us a two-hour climb) and emerged into the sunshine. It is time for our first break of the day, which we generally take every seven kilometres or so, or roughly every hour and a half. We lay down our packs and stretch our leg and back muscles (essential in helping prevent injuries).
We also eat as many cheap biscuits as possible, and check our smartphone map for our location.
An old lady comes over to say hello. She has a strong accent which we barely understand, but she is patient and smiles a lot. She picks up my walking poles and Leon shows her what they are for. She chuckles to herself walking up and down the road with them.
We have almost descended the mountain on a series of little paths which cut through steep farmers' fields and villages, and across dried-out streambeds. This saves us the long distances of walking on the road's switchbacks. Occasionally, a village dog starts yapping; but Chinese dogs haven't yet come close to biting us, and they back off if we wave a hiking pole at them.
We stop at a village shop to buy some water and biscuits. A crowd gathers and a teenage girl shyly practises her English, before the crowd joins in to explain the best shortcut down the mountain.
We enter the 'slog' part of the day, in which our bodies are tired and our feet are sore. But we still have a long way to go to reach the day's target, and so we press on. To help time pass, we talk about various things. Some are practical, such as route options; others are more trivial - like why Al Pacino so rarely makes a decent film these days. After a while we plug in our digital music players to listen to music and audiobooks. The road is winding around a series of spurs and up yet another spectacular valley.
The day has waned, the slow moon is climbing and it is now dark, but we still have about an hour of walking left. We are on autopilot - putting one (very sore) foot in front of the other. Really, all I am looking forward to is finding a place to sleep.
We have made it to the town. We find a ludian (family roadhouse with a couple of beds and a television) for 40 yuan (HK$50), put down our bags and venture downstairs, where the host's wife serves us a mild vegetable and pork hotpot. On the wall is a poster of Mao Zedong wandering around a paradise-like garden wearing a garish coat; the TV is on loudly in the background; our host and his friend ask us lots of the usual questions about what we are doing.
I put on the various camera batteries to charge, set the alarm clock and am ready to sleep. I aim for at least 8? hours each night at the moment, as the walking is exhausting.
Tonight, I am late to bed, but the day went well. We saw yet another beautiful segment of China and met some great people. Hopefully, tonight's sleep will give me the strength to do it all again tomorrow.
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 new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which is being filmed for another National Geographic series, and is in support of the children's charity Viva. walkinghomefrommongolia.com