As readers of this site will know, a couple of years ago I walked 3000 miles from Mongolia to Hong Kong with my friend Rob Lilwall. The intention was to see China at ground level; to watch how a country, people and landscape change at human speed. Moving so slowly undoubtedly offers a unique (if occasionally miserable) insight into a place. I have since become quite a fan of exploring on foot (see more thoughts on that here.)
The idea for the journey came from Rob - he and his wife Christine had just moved to Hong Kong, and part of his motivation for exploring China in such a way was to forge a deeper connection with their new home. Rob, clearly, was also just someone drawn to the wilds of the world, to adventures and travel and challenges and everything that lies therein. He had lived for three years on a bicycle, pedalling from Siberia to London, and had spent countless days and nights on dusty roads in foreign lands and in tiny tents tucked away in unknown landscapes. He had an enviable wealth of experience 'out there' in the world, but still wanted more.
Rob wasn't looking for passing, transitory incidents to form the basis of future anecdotes at dinner-parties - he wanted to really dig deep and learn what he could about China. The culture, the history, the language, the humour; every piece of knowledge gleaned would be a deepening of the relationship with his newly-adopted country.
I was certainly not completely fresh to this type of travel, having just cycled 14,000 miles from New York to Hong Kong, but relatively I was a newbie. I had no particular connection to China as Rob did, other than that when he asked me if I'd like to come with him and help film a TV series I thought "Brilliant - China looks great!' I had seen only enough of the world during my cycling journey to know that there was so much more to see; infinitely more than I could fit into one lifetime (so I better get started.) I'd learned a huge amount about the world on my bike and, of course, even more about myself. Adventure, in short, was (and is) good for my mind, body and soul, and I am a much happier and more fulfilled person when I continue to push myself in this way.
It was also appealing to me to spend a concerted period of time in one country - albeit whilst still travelling extensively within those borders - and to explore that place a little more profoundly. My favourite journey to that point, and perhaps still to date, was spending 5 months cycling across America. I felt that in the USA I got a little deeper under the surface. I spoke to people, heard their stories. I had time to wander down dead-end tracks, or climb a hill by the roadside, or sit and watch the grass grow. I saw a huge range of places and people that were wildly diverse, yet all captured under the banner of' 'The United States of America.' Ultimately I became much more attached to and invested in the country around me. To try and replicate that with China was an idea I could buy into.
One of the things that I find so interesting about travel and adventure is that two people cam go on the same journey yet because of their approach, aims and reactions to what happens, they can have vastly different stories to tell at the end. Rob and I walked every stretch of road, trail, highway and byway together, yet our lasting experiences are unique to each of us.
Rob's book, 'Walking Home From Mongolia' is a fascinating account of his walk. It was a similar walk across China to mine in some ways, but vastly different in others. It's wonderfully written, as we have come to expect of his work. I can vouch for the accuracy of the physical challenges portrayed, and for the sights, sounds and magnificent madness of China that Rob evokes so well. But for me the real success of the book is in how, in parallel to that, Rob shows great insight into the internal struggles of an ordinary person attempting to undertake something quite extraordinary. It is an honest account of a challenging wonderful (and wonderfully challenging) trek through one of the most fascinating countries in the world. I'm only slightly sorry to say that I don't come across quite as heroic or handsome or intelligent as I might have liked, but then that account too is undoubtedly accurate....
You can buy the book from Rob's website here. You can also buy the 4-part TV series that we made for National Geographic here. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how the two show different sides of the same adventure.
My conclusions from the trip, for the most part, are probably best understood by the fact that just a few months after getting back from China I set off into the Empty Quarter desert for another mind-broadening (and blister-inducing) 1000 miles trek. I'm off again too, pretty soon - I still crave adventure in a very physical sense. There's still so much that I want to see, yet I'm also now very attached to this idea of really exploring one place deeply. I hope that I showed that intention to a certain degree in our TV show about China (and in my film Into The Empty Quarter) and my next trip, to the Middle East, will attempt the same thing. I have (finally!) written a book about that journey across the USA that I enjoyed so much, and I'm delighted to say it will be published this year. More news on that to follow...