LEON: For me the highlight was the Gobi Desert. I’d only had a little desert experience before this, and never on foot. It was quite intimidating setting off into the vast void in Winter, especially as it was right at the start of our journey when we were still fresh, and far from ‘battle-hardened.’ To cross the Mongolian Gobi took 13 days, during which we pulled a trailer (called Molly Brown) laden with all our food and water for the duration. It was tough, and it was cold, but it was also beautiful. The expanse of the desert was immense and humbling, and the sunsets were otherworldly. Arriving at the border town of Zamyn-Uud after nearly two weeks was a real highpoint, and one of my fondest memories of the whole trip.
ROB: For me, it was to be immersed in the experience of walking through, and seeing at ground-level, the incredible landscapes of China –deserts, mountains, valleys, forests – it is stunning. Alongside that, I loved getting to know more of the Chinese people, who showed such kindness towards us.
And what were the low points?
LEON: I found the seemingly endless winter became a real struggle. The thought of trying to hold a camera steady as fingers became increasingly painful and then numb was not a pleasant one.
ROB: Walking down a road (usually very slowly and painfully) which both Leon and I thought would be ideal for cycling!
Did you ever think you might die?
Neither of us ever felt that we were going to die during this adventure! The cold weather gave a few worrying nights when we slept fitfully and just couldn’t get warm – frostbite was always a slight fear.
The biggest danger though was always traffic– if anything was going to really cause us problems on this walk, it was likely to be Chinese driving.
LEON: I started off strongly, and was lucky that it was a good 3 months before I really started to feel the strain of the journey. After that I picked up a series of minor twinges and aches, but nothing that every turned out to be too serious. At one point my lower back looked like it might cause problems but it held out to the end. So overall I managed to come though pretty unscathed – just utterly, utterly exhausted.
ROB: I had a pretty bad foot injury about one month in, which I thought might stop me from completing the walk. But we took some time off (and so got badly behind schedule), and then I strapped it up with a foot support, and somewhat miraculously it got better over the next four months, until it was fully recovered by the end.
Was it hard keeping motivated?
At times it certainly was. Around the half way point the journey started to feel like a major slog and we’d have to work quite hard to keep spirits up. Often we would talk or think of the night inside or warm bed that we might have, or the next good meal we would get. More long term we could remind ourselves what was at stake if we failed – we’d let a lot of people down, most of all Viva, the charity we were raising money for. I think both of us are quite stubborn and determined, and knew it would take a lot to make us falter even when it got really miserable. Some of the more ridiculous methods we employed were making up new slang words based on our poor Chinese, and writing new movie scripts (mostly involving Jason Statham.) Desperation is a funny thing…
How did you get on with each other?
Overall, very well! We actually didn’t know each other hugely well before we left, so it was risk to start a 6 month journey like that. But I think we both put a lot of work into maintaining a good friendship and working relationship, which paid off. That said, spending 24 hours a day with someone for that period of time is tough, and we did annoy each other! Towards the end we were finding the experience very claustrophobic as we never really got time to ourselves. We split up for around 3 weeks to combat this, and trekked solo for that time. It bought about new challenges personally, but was a real benefit to us as a team.
What did you eat?
The food that we got in roadside restaurants or in people’s homes in China was generally fantastic. After 6 months I found the oil-heavy cooking was getting a bit much though, and so I’m not sorry to be back to a more varied diet! Our main problem was in our lack of vocabulary when ordering food – often, especially at the start, we found it hard to make ourselves understood and ended up just getting dumpling or fried rice, which although tasty, got quite dull after a while! The purple bread was a bit of a low point in our purchases, but not as bad as instant noodles. We ate them all through the desert, then again in sporadic bursts until one day we both simultaneously found we couldn’t stomach even the thought of them any more. If I ever have to eat instant noodles again it’ll be too soon.
How did you navigate?
Mainly through an iPhone! The Google Maps app was a revelation to both of us, and with the great phone signal in China we rarely went very long without being able to check our position. Before we left we’d tried in vain to get good topographic maps of China, and when we got there the paper maps in the country left a lot to be desired. Every so often we’d have to rely on compass bearing and more traditional methods, but generally we could cross reference our routes on the cached maps on the phone. We had an iPhone 3, which turned out to be rather fortunate, as we heard that Google maps has been largely blocked for detailed maps on the iPhone 4.
Can you speak Chinese?
To begin with, we definitely couldn’t. Rob knew a few words and Leon less than that. Over the 6 months we improved a lot and by the end I think were able to have a reasonable conversation. When we met people we would try to gain insights into their lives, but often it was frustrating as we just couldn’t fully understand their answers to our questions. I think if we could change one thing about this journey, we’d both want to be much more proficient in the language before we left.
I think both of us got quite attached to our Hilleberg bivanorak – essentially a combined bivvy bag and poncho. It was extremely lightweight and as the temperatures rose in the second half of our expedition, we dispensed with the tents and just used this to sleep in. On wet nights I’d sleep in mine, bone dry, and in the morning I’d just had to open the bottom draw strings, pull the sleeping bag out and I’d already be wearing my rain gear for the day! On miserably wet days this provided quite a great deal of satisfaction…
Would you do it again?
LEON: That’s a really tough question to answer. I’m so glad I did it, and I really believe this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. So on that front I think the lessons I learned and the experiences I had have made it more than worth it. A lot of it was enjoyable, but a lot of it was also extremely hard. The idea of going through that winter again does not fill me with joy! But if I was pushed to answer…I think yes, I would. And hopefully I’d know a bit more about what was coming my way.
ROB: Yes, it was a great experience, though a tough one. There are a few things I think we would change in how we carried it out – season, combining with bicycles, etc. Leon and I often remarked at what a wonderful thing hindsight was. Hopefully my “Yes I’m glad we did it” will be even more emphatic once the TV series and books are out.
Rest! We need time to recuperate, and then both of us are trying to write a book about the adventure. So for the coming months, we will be somewhat more restrained. However, I’m sure the itchy feet will return, as they always do, and we already have some ideas beginning to form. Keep an eye on www.leonmccarron.com and www.roblilwall.com for our updates.