In 2004 Rob Lilwall quit his job to cycle
across Asia. The then-27-year-old
left England with a 10GBP pair of
Royal Mail trousers, a secondhand
tent, and a whistle designed to
scare away dogs. His only modes of
transportation were boats, and a bike
that he had bought in the 1990s.
Lilwall intended to spend a year
on the road. He ended up travelling
for three. The journey ranged over
more than 30,000 miles and
spanned the wastelands of Siberia
and countries as far-flung as Iran,
Papua New Guinea and Australia. It
proved to be a life-changer. In 2009,
Lilwall’s literary debut, Cycling Home
from Siberia, was published to rave
reviews (a television series created
by the National Geographic channel
using his handheld footage came out
the same year). Lilwall had left home
an underwhelmed geography teacher
and returned an adventurer.
Now Lilwall has completed his
second journey: this time trekking
from the expansive Gobi Desert to
the skyscrapers of Hong Kong on
foot. Walking Home from Mongolia,
his new book, describes the six month,
3,000-mile walk across
China that ended in May last year.
Accompanying him is young Northern
Irish cameraman Leon McCarron.
Together they carry 20kg packs on
their backs and endure temperatures
falling to -30°C. The resulting book is an honest, and often heartwarming, meditation on the physical and mental hardships of extreme endurance, and the rapidly changing landscapes of rural China.
One of the most astonishing places Lilwall comes across are the cave villages (pictured) in Shanxi province, where shepherds still live in homes carved out of the mountainside – a sight he likens to the hobbit village in The Lord of the Rings: ‘Sometimes we could be walking over a hill and look down at our feet and see chimneys coming out of the ground, and think: Here comes a village,’ he recalls. ‘By walking you just stumble into random snapshots of what is going on in the middle of China.’
The walk may have taken far less time than the cycle ride but in many ways it was harder. ‘The physical challenge was very tough: walking day in day out, six days a week, about 20-to-30 miles a day. The speed with which you move was quite hard [compared to cycling], because it takes you so long to get anywhere,’ he says.
But it was the inner discoveries that mattered most, particularly to
Lilwall, a practising Christian who writes with refreshing candour about his faith. ‘I was always quite a shy person growing up, so doing these trips, sometimes when you are stuck in the middle of Siberia and you have to go and knock on some gold miner’s door [to ask for a place to stay], that is quite a test,’ he admits. ‘I found I had a lot more grim determination than I thought I might have had, a lot more courage. I had always been a fearful person, frightened of a lot of things. But I found I could approach those fears and get through them.’
All this talk of facing fears and overcoming obstacles sounds like marketing patter for Lilwall’s current career as a motivational speaker. But with Lilwall, it’s hard not to believe it. The English author has a modest, soft tone and constantly intersperses his speech with apologetic laughs. One Guardian reviewer of Cycling Home from Siberia wrote admiringly that Lilwall possessed ‘the simultaneous qualities of astonishing naiveté and grim determination that are invaluable in a traveller’. Now Lilwall is 36. Is that still a fair assessment?
He laughs good-naturedly.
‘My naiveté, I think, has gradually
diminished as I have got more and more years under my belt. But you need the grim determination to keep going when things go wrong. You have to put in so many hours on the road in these trips. When you read the book or watch the TV series it’s easy to think it’s very exciting. But a lot of it is just slogging along for days.’
Another challenge was filming. This time National Geographic had pre-commissioned a series, which took away some of the spontaneity and added to the workload. ‘The first trip I was just messing around with the camera,’ says Lilwall. ‘It was very pure in that sense. The second one, we knew what it was going to be. But after a while we were both so exhausted we stopped caring once the camera was rolling.’
There were, of course, moments of high drama. The pair get caught in a storm in the Gobi desert, nearly blowing away their tent and dragging down temperatures that were already at -25°C. They accidently come across a military zone and are caught by the police. And at one point they attempt to walk through China’s longest road tunnel – a 12-mile passage that circumvents a three day trek around the mountain. With just two miles to go on the road the police pick them up and deposit them
back to where they started.
For Lilwall it was not the end but the journey that mattered most. ‘The trip is like a mini version of life,’ he concludes. ‘We’re on this long journey, there are going to be all sorts of ups and downs and challenges. You face, and sometimes fail, the tests along the way.’ And for Lilwall success and failure are irrelevant. The point, of course, is to try.