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Walking through the heart of China

24 January 2014

Would you be up for an extreme adventure? Rob Lilwall was, when he trekked 3000 miles from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea

rob Lilwall and leon mccarron

China explored: Rob by the banks of the freezing Yellow River

China explored: Rob by the banks of the freezing Yellow River

"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 20s.

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 water).

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 think.

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 that instead.

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 it home.

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 (viva.org).


TRAVEL details
WHEN planning a trip to China, pick up a Lonely Planet and/or Rough Guide for tips on visas, flights, accommodation, and tour companies.

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.)

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