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Q&A with Rob Lilwall: Walking Home from Mongolia

The ability of humans to overcome obstacles and achieve great goals is nothing short of marvelous. An innate nomadic drive and curiosity has taken men across continents, oceans and even to the moon and back.

Adventurer and motivational speaker Rob Lilwall has followed that spirit in an amazingly long bicycle ride and his latest trek, a 5,000 kilometer hike through China which became a book titled Walking Home from Mongolia. Lilwall tells VOA’s Jim Stevenson, in excerpts from their conversation, that his school classmates would likely never have guessed he would become such a long-distance traveler.

LILWALL: As I was growing up, I was never the toughest person at school, never part of the top sports teams, and I used to get frightened of things very easily. But I think if we – if there’s a good challenge that we want to do [and] maybe find a friend or two to do it -- if we start small and build it up, I think we can get really surprised at what we are able to pull off in the end.

STEVENSON: How did you figure out where you were going to walk from, and how did you decide to walk this long distance to begin with?

LILWALL: The origins of this expedition is kind of a, bit of a long story, but to cut it short, I had decided that I wanted to go and explore the world on my bicycle. Instead of setting off from England and cycling off to the rest of the world, I thought it would be more fun to go as far away from home as possible and then cycle back. I started thinking I wanted to do another expedition, this time I wanted to walk instead of cycle, and I thought ‘I like the idea of trying to get home.’ So this time I was going to fly to Mongolia and then go home [now Hong Kong] from there.

STEVENSON: You must have had some incredible scenery along the way that you could only have seen by hiking this.

LILWALL: I think China is just extraordinary in its variation. If you go from North to South, you’ve got the Gobi Desert in the North. We were walking across it in winter, so it’s just this kind of epic, bleak, white, flat emptiness. Then you continue down, it gets a bit more hilly. We crossed the Great Wall, and then we actually followed the Great Wall for about a week, just through the mountains of Shanxi province. Then we got down to the Yellow River, completely frozen over, and just an incredibly kind of massive canyon that you’re walking through. The summer started to arrive, and as we entered southern China, you’re suddenly in this much more tropical climate of bamboos and forests and much more limestone mountains. So we did encounter this incredible diversity of landscape. It’s amazing how in just a couple of days of walking, you encounter totally different types of China.

STEVENSON: You made the trip with filmmaker Leon McCarron, who was able to record this visually. Did you ever feel the two of you were in any sort of precarious situation along the way, or had some security fears as you’re just basically going alone through this?

LILWALL: We did face dangers along the way. About a week into the walk the winter had started to arrive, the temperature had dropped from minus ten to almost minus 30, and one night, we put up our tent in the middle of this empty valley in the Gobi Desert. Everything was quite calm when we went to sleep. The next morning we woke up, and this massive wind, a kind of storm [was] blowing through. All our water had frozen, and we were running out of food a bit, so we had to keep moving. We had to get up, take the tent down in the storm, and everything almost blew away, which is a major danger if you lose your tent or something like that in the desert, and it’s a real danger to get frost bite. There’s this funny video of us just dancing because that’s the only way we could warm up.

Other situations which are dangerous, things like sometimes the paths we ended up walking along were pretty precarious with huge hundred-foot drop-downs into gullies or rivers. The traffic, I think, is actually one of your number one dangers if you’re spending much time on a road. It only takes one driver to be not concentrating for a couple of seconds and that’s the end.

STEVENSON: You must have a thousand wonderful memories from this, but what are some of the things that really stand out the most in your mind from your journey?

LILWALL: There are different types of highlights. The Great Wall that we saw was not full of tourists; this was out in the middle of nowhere with literally nobody on it for hundreds of miles, so that was a great, great privilege and experience.

I think the other side of the highlights was the people we met. Whether it was coming across some nomads who would invite us to stay, or once we got into mainland China, I remember one night we were all walking down a railway through the desert, and we got to this little, kind of signal house. And these guys – we knocked on the door and walked in – they almost kind of fell over themselves because they couldn’t believe these two strange foreigners were appearing, and then they just became so hospitable and invited us, and fed us, and looked after us. You feel like you made these really good friends who you’ll never see again, but it was a really special experience I hope for them as much as for us.

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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.