The love of labourers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2012, 12:00am


One of the real privileges of journeying through less travelled parts of the world is the extraordinary hospitality that one encounters. These are among my favourite memories: the Tibetan goat herder who invited me to stay in his 'Hobbit house' on a cold and icy Himalayan pass; the Bedouin nomad who killed and cooked a chicken for me in his portable home while I was walking across the Judean Desert; and the policemen who bought me breakfast in Iran.

On my current expedition - a 5,000-kilometre walk from Mongolia to Hong Kong - there has also been no shortage of incredible kindness. However, it's been pretty easy to find a ludian (cheap, Chinese roadside accommodation) in even the smallest towns, and I can camp in my bivvy bag, so I have not often had to rely on people to give me a place to sleep.

The other night, however, things were different. Leon McCarron, my partner, and I decided to split up for a couple of days, to take a break from each other and change our routine.

However, Leon had taken our smartphone, which gave us access to Google Maps, on which we had been becoming rather reliant for navigating. That forced me to use a good old-fashioned map (a couple of pages torn out of a road atlas).

I managed to get lost and, in the darkness, went past the town where I had been planning to stay. About an hour later, I realised my mistake and knew I would have to camp in a field. I was also running out of water, so when I saw two people doing laundry outside a large house, I went over to ask for some. A middle-aged lady took my bottle and went inside, and an old man offered me a small chair. A couple of other people came out of the house to see what was going on.

The lady came back with my water bottle filled and asked if I was hungry. The next thing I knew, I was fed a big bowl of rice and meat. It was dark, and I was so tired that the images in my mind are blurred, but I remember more people appearing. They told me it was a labourers' house with 40 people living in it.

As I ate, I decided to be bold and asked if I could sleep on their floor for the night, as I was too tired to walk to the next town and rain looked likely.

The crowd murmured something about me having to ask the boss, who duly appeared and gestured I could sleep on the porch outside the door. I pulled out my sleeping bag, and as I prepared to lie down, another old lady appeared, beckoned me inside, and said I could sleep on the floor in a room by the door. I fell asleep, exhausted, but with a full stomach and in a safe, dry environment.

Lights, sizzling sounds and the smell of cigarettes woke me at 5.30am. A large crowd filed through the adjacent kitchen, each getting a big bowl of noodles. They invited me to join them.

We stood outside, chatting and eating. I could not quite work out what they did, but it seemed to be associated with road building. Seeing my confusion, they invited me to work with them and see for myself.

Each person grabbed a shovel and sickle-type tool, and we set out down a muddy track. Around a corner was a forest, where they quickly got to work.

Trees were dug up and the roots bound in rope. They were certainly not chopping them down, but rather preparing them to be transported elsewhere. They said they were not selling them, but moving them. I could not figure out why. Was this some kind of environmental initiative before building a road? They worked hard in teams quite harmoniously, even cheerfully. It looked like hard work but was, all in all, quite a fun job.

After 20 minutes, I thought I was getting in the way, so I said my thanks and farewells, headed back to the house, grabbed my bag, and set off. It had not been the most comfortable sleep of my life, but it had been yet another heart-warming encounter of hospitality and a reminder of the privilege of passing through a country on foot.

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. He has been writing weekly in Health Post about the progress of his new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which supports the children's charity Viva.