"NIHAO!" ("Hello!") we shout through a couple of
doorways. There doesn't seem to be anyone around. My travelling
companion, Leon McCarron, and I are weak from a bout of mild
food-poisoning, and what little water we have is frozen. It is
midwinter in northern China, and the temperature is in the minus
Many houses in this cave village in Shanxi province are dug into
the brown hillsides, but are fronted with bricks, and each has a
door and two windows. The place reminds me of a hobbit village.
An old man appears, and we introduce ourselves in faltering
Mandarin. "Where are you from?" he asks in Chinese. "We are
Yingguoren" (English people), we say. "Please can we have
some hot water?" With hot water, we will be able to prepare our
staple meal of instant noodles.
More villagers are starting to appear. Most are wrapped in
jumbled clothing, and have weatherbeaten faces. They have spent a
lifetime working in this ancient frontier region. There are a
handful of children, but few young adults: most likely they have
moved to factory jobs in the cities that have powered the Middle
Kingdom's meteoric economic growth over the past three decades.
"Why are you walking?" the crowd asks. We explain that we want
to see the heart of China, and meet its people. Some laugh,
thinking we are mad. But then an old man and his son invite us back
to their cave house.
Soon, we are sitting in their small
kitchen-cum-living-room-cum-dining-room-cum-bedroom. Dinner is
cooked on a little wood stove, and we are fed a huge bowlof fried
noodles, goat's meat, and potato. We cannot help but grin: a warm
home and good food is a big morale boost.
Even better, the old man and his son invite us to stay the
night. A few hours later, Leon and I gratefully squeeze in beside
them on their wide platform bed.
THE next morning, we set off for the most famous of Chinese
landmarks: the Great Wall. "Just follow that track," everyone says.
"You can't miss it." An hour later, the three-metre-high rampart
blazes across the land. We shout out a cry of relief - another
landmark reached on the long road home.
Leon and I are walking the 3000 miles to my home in Hong Kong,
filming our six-month journey for National Geographic. But
walking is not easy: our daily target of 20-30 miles is made
considerably harder by the loads we have to carry (winter tents,
sleeping bags and stove, filming equipment, and food and
For those interested in hiking independently, without huge
backpacks, there is little to stop you arriving in China on a
tourist visa, and just setting off. Most towns offer cheap hotels
(£10 per night), and restaurants, and there is plenty of bus
transport through rural China (or you can hitch-hike on trucks).
Maps in China rarely show walking trails, however; so
non-tourist-region hiking is for experienced walkers only. When you
are off the beaten track in China, a basic knowledge of Mandarin
helps enormously, and is not as hard to learn as you might
For those not wanting to go it completely alone, there are tours
- group, or private - with bespoke itineraries. Search on Google
for "Walking tours in China", and China is your oyster.
FOR Leon and me, despite the slow pace and steady dose of pain in
our feet, backs, and knees, the heartland of the country provided
regular highlights. The landscape is varied and epic, and ancient
wonders abound: the Wall along the northern frontier; the Buddhist
Grottoes in Yungang, Shanxi province; the 2000-year-old Terracotta
Army that guarded the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi
Huang, near Xi'an.
Contemporary China also bursts forth all around us:
industrialtowns crowd beside main roads like forests, and factory
workers swarm down their streets like bees.
Walking beside the Wall there is no worry about navigation; it
leads us up and down, through hills, gullies, and goat pastures all
the way to the Yellow River, whereupon we turn left, and follow
The Yellow River, the sixth longest in the world, is frozen over
by the time we arrive, but not enough to walk on. Camping next to
it at night is spectacular, but freezing, and a swig from a whisky
hip-flask is needed to keep warm.
Fireworks explode across the sky as we arrive in the city of
Hequ: itis Chinese New Year's Eve, and through the windows of
people's homes we can see familes gathering for a feast. We are
cold - and lonely. But then a car pulls up, and a man called Mr Li
invites us to join his family for an incredible banquet of fish,
chicken, noodles, rice, vegetables, and Canadian Ice Wine.
TO AVOID walking over the top of the Qinling Mountains, we walk
the longest road-tunnel in China: the 11-mile Zhongnanshan, in
Shaanxi province. In Chongqing and Hunan provinces, we follow
farmers' paths into the mountains, up and up until we are pushing
our way through thick bamboo forests.
Travelling a long way on foot feels like a pilgrimage, a living
metaphor for the Christian's journey through life. There are good
days, but also days when I feel like giving up. And I feel tiny,
moving so slowly across this vast, history-laden land.
Each morning, I get up, give thanks, and pray for daily bread
and daily strength to walk through the tests, be it injury, or
detention by the police (who find us strange, but always let us go
after cups of tea and an hour or two of questioning).
Then we are back on the road again, with more unexpected
adventures tomorrow, and the next day. Until, eventually, we make
Rob Lilwall is an adventurer and writer. His latest
book, Walking Home From Mongolia, is published by Hodder
& Stoughton. On his trip, Rob raised more than £60,000 for
Viva, a Christian charity supporting children at risk
WHEN planning a trip to China, pick up a Lonely Planet
and/or Rough Guide for tips on visas, flights, accommodation, and
Intrepid (intrepidtravel.com) runs adventurous group-tours with
varying levels of freedom and comfort. The 22-day "Xi'an to Kashgar
Overview" explores the remote western region, including five nights
in bush camps and two in yurts, from £1295, plus a suggested kitty
of £397, excluding international flights.
Travel Local (travellocal.com) offers a 13-night "China for
Walkers" tour. It includes Beijing, the Great Wall, Xi'an, Guilin,
Yangshou, and Hong Kong, and costs from £2195pp, based on two
travelling together, excluding international flights.(It is also
possible to get a quote for your own itinerary.)