Hong Kong adventurer takes on China’s ‘desert of death’
Alone in a wasteland of extreme temperatures in Xinjiang, in China’s wild west, Hong Kong-based Briton Rob Lilwall sets off on his toughest challenge yet
Ahead of me lies a tough challenge. Perhaps it will be the toughest thing I will ever do, or attempt to do. My plan is to walk east to west across the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang province, China’s wild west.
The Taklamakan is sometimes translated as “he who goes in, never comes out”, and sometimes just called “the desert of death”. The reason for this reputation is that it is a 1,000-kilometre wasteland of sand dunes and not a lot else. Temperatures range from 45 degrees Celsius in the summer to minus 25 degrees Celsius in the winter. It is prone to sandstorms which can bury you – they are known as “black hurricanes”. As far as I am aware, no one has ever crossed it solo before.
I do know of one joint British-Chinese team which, together with 30 camels, crossed the sands in the mid-1990s. They were led by the stalwart soldier-adventurer Charles Blackmore and they were the first group in history to succeed. Earlier this year I read Blackmore’s excellent book about the journey, and managed to meet him in London and pick his brains. And so gradually my own crazy plan was hatched.
Instead of taking camels (which have a tendency to run off, bite, spit at and generally disdain you), I decided I would try to cross it dragging my (quite considerable) food and water requirements on a cart with special wheels that don’t get stuck in sand. I am helped by the fact that there are now several oil roads running north-south through the desert, so I will use these roads to stash some supplies which I can pick up as I cross them.
For the first five days I will skirt the arid southern edge of the desert just north of the southern Silk Road, before reaching my cart (which I have hidden on top of a big dune) and heading deeper and deeper from there.
I started in mid-August, and at the time of writing I am very nervous about the tests that lie ahead. First, there is the weather to contend with. I am starting the trip in midsummer, when it is very hot, and finishing in October, when it is getting cold.
Furthermore, sand dunes are not an easy landscape to traverse – especially when you are dragging a cart weighing more than 100kg. Apart from the physical exhaustion of dragging it up and down dunes which can be over 100 metres high, there is also the issue of being unable to go in a straight line. You must weave through their troughs and crests, and like a maze you can rarely see far enough ahead to know if there will be a way forward – often the dune leads into a slope which might be too steep to get up or down.
But the physical difficulties are only part of the challenge. I am concerned about the mental, emotional and spiritual test of being completely on my own for more than two months. I do have a satellite texting device, so will not be entirely out of touch, but I still wonder how I will cope with the solitude and loneliness.
In addition there are two rivers which run through the desert, which I hope are going to be tame enough for me to swim across with all my things. A smaller difficulty is that I am going to be sustained by a diet of instant noodles, nuts, Chinese tinned meat and olive oil.
Usually, on expeditions, I have somewhat of a “making it up as I go along” approach, but this time, I have been far more meticulous in my preparations. The stakes are higher: if something goes wrong, I will be out there on my own.
So over the past four months, with my wife’s help, I have put a huge amount of preparation into the expedition. An initial task was building the cart. My wife’s cousin’s boyfriend, Gary, is the best guy I know to solve a problem in Hong Kong, so we called him up and he helped us find a welder in Tai Kok Tsui – Mr Lok – who custom-built the cart and made numerous modifications to it after I had tested it out on Mui Wo beach.
Then there has been lots of more hi-tech stuff to buy – solar panels, GPS devices and satellite texting devices – and then, once bought, I had to figure out how to use them (as my executive/business coach Trevor Smith always tells me, “Rob, don’t practise in the final”). I have also spent countless hours poring over online and offline satellite maps to plan my route.
In terms of physical preparations, instead of my usual expedition approach of “I’ll get fit once I start”, I have had to be very serious about my training. The team at Joint Dynamics in Central has taught me how to become injury-proof through deep-tissue rolling, dynamic stretching and doing the right gym work, and for the first time in my life I’ve also paid a lot more attention to what I eat and have even been taking some high-quality protein supplements and electrolytes.
The Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang
I joined the twice-weekly “Lantau Beach Warriors” (I call it “hell on the beach”) fitness sessions led by a brilliant, “no-wimpishness allowed” former rugby coach, James Ramsey. I’ve also attracted plenty of strange looks dragging a training sled up and down the beach on Saturday mornings.
I have even been on a reconnaissance trip to the desert to test everything out and get a feel for the place (it was intimidating and unforgiving, as expected). So I feel like I am reasonably well prepared, or as well prepared as I can be, or at least better prepared than for my past expeditions.
I hope my past experience of embracing challenges, despite being fearful of them, will stand me in good stead. I have been terrified of, but somehow survived, working as a door-to-door salesman in California, as a high school geography teacher in England and as a TV presenter for National Geographic. I have been on lots of other crazy expeditions all over the world.
And yet, whatever past challenges I have survived, the new challenges I have to face still seem scary. This time I am heading into uncharted territory, trying to cross a desert that has rarely been crossed, using a method that has never been tried.
I honestly have no idea about my chances of pulling this thing off. I might realise in the first, or second, or third week that the whole thing is just an implausibly silly idea. The cart might break – or the solitude, the weather or the dunes might break me. Then I will have to come home in failure.
Despite all this, I think it is good to embrace challenges in life. There is a little motto taken from Theodore Roosevelt which I have been pondering as I have taken one tentative step after the next in my preparations: “It is better to fail while daring greatly.”
What are you afraid to try doing because you think you might fail?
■ Rob Lilwall is British-born, Hong Kong-based adventurer and motivational speaker (roblilwall.com). He will be writing monthly updates about the expedition’s progress exclusively for SCMP.com