Rob Lilwall’s second book, Walking Home From Mongolia, is a strange yet compelling beast.
It is, on the face of it, a linear account of an extremely long and admittedly monotonous walk across the full breadth of mainland China. Rob positions the story deliberately as a sequel to his Cycling Home From Siberia* book of some years ago. As with Siberia, the journey will begin somewhere dauntingly remote; rules few in number but clear in scope are set; and in declaring a final destination of Rob’s home in Hong Kong the foundations are laid for a simple, gruelling adventure.
But this will be no solitary penance: alongside Rob we find Leon McCarron, who, with a similar-looking resumé of extremely long bike rides and filmmaking projects behind him, has joined Rob for the walk. Like Rob, he has left a committed other half facing the prospect of many months alone while he carries out his trip. And so it is not one but two soon-to-be-bearded Westerners that we find bumbling about one November day in a wintry Ulan Bator, touting a trailer called Molly, a vast stockpile of instant noodles, an arrow pointing south on the screen of their shared iPhone, and no small amount of guilt over the lonely plight of the wives/girlfriends they’d left at home.
They are also carrying two rather expensive video cameras, and we learn that Leon is to play a significant role as expedition cameraman, with Rob as the presenter. For Rob has sought to entertain the whims of the broadcasting world during this walk, landing a rare commission with National Geographic who have contracted a production company to liaise with Rob and Leon for an eventual four-part television show. This arrangement, it turns out, will play a far more influential role in the journey than they have anticipated.
And so the journey begins. Rob writes in a straightforward way about the experiences of the first few days of walking, neither soaked in sentimentality nor dried out with facts and figures — though I can’t help thinking that a little more attention to the sensations involved in traversing the Gobi during midwinter might be more evocative than daily reports of thermometer readings. Nevertheless, the narrative continues at a balanced pace, and we watch and listen closely to the duo as they find their feet (pun not intended) and settle into a routine of pulling trailers, eating instant noodles, miming their immediate needs to locals, and referencing Jason Statham movies.
Now, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is not exactly riveting-sounding stuff. And one might well be right. But Rob is quick to acknowledge that the reality of a journey like this is not necessarily filled with daily spectacles and dramas and epiphanies. Rather, it is a slow trudge accompanied (at least to begin with) by a big intellectual comedown; daily concerns becoming no more complicated than those of nourishment, shelter and companionship — humanity’s primary concerns for the vast majority of history. There are deeper personal rewards to be had, but they are revealed only with time and reflection, and only to those with eyes to see them.
As Rob and Leon journey into northern China, it is the portrayal of expedition reality that I found to be the greatest strength of Rob’s book. Far from the tales spun by travelling scholars, historians, hippies and dreamers to be found inhabiting the same shelves in bookshops, Walking Home From Mongolia has no ambition to play to childish notions of the romance of travel. In fact, it is refreshingly unromantic (thankfully, for a book about two blokes living on the road together for half a year in what can only be described as a marriage-like relationship).
Rob’s actual wife, we learn (or perhaps we remember from Siberia), is a native of Hong Kong, and it was a growing fascination with her homeland that inspired Rob to undertake this journey. As a result, the narrative — sometimes as relentless as the walk itself — is occasionally and welcomely interrupted by an ongoing brief history of China, together with many of Rob’s own observations on the modern-day state of the nation. In travel literature this can run the risk of feeling trite and misplaced, but given that the author has become personally tied up in the fate of the place, it feels like a natural complement to the narrative and one which really does round out the world in which the story takes place. We feel that our own Chinese education proceeds alongside Rob’s as the walk progresses ever south, the remaining mileage count trickling slowly down towards zero as the chapters unfold.
Rob often struggles to keep the journey itself at the centre of his own focus and consequently of his narrative, and we begin see why: his decision to enter the employ of a TV company — though certainly one which would further his career as an adventurer — results in so many disappointments, compromises and sacrifices that you’d blame neither him nor Leon if they never went near a broadcast deal again. Yet there is the strong sense that the resulting stakes are partly to thank for their perseverance not only in seeing the journey through but in clawing back a number of ruinous misfortunes with the filmmaking project and bringing it to fruition against the odds. (The series premiered earlier this year and is now available on DVD.)
For me, it is these distinctly unglorious aspects of the journey that created such an insightful and enjoyable read — just as much as the anecdotes of derring-do involving hapless policeman and linguistic confusion and ill-advised forays into fifteen-mile-long road tunnels that make up the bread and butter of such an adventure.
I was left with memorable impression of a journey occasionally enlightening, often challenging and frequently miserable, but one ultimately meeting the author’s deeply personal ambitions and representing a unique and unrepeatable chapter in his own ongoing spiritual journey.
If you’re looking for a book in which to live out some Far Eastern travelling fantasy, this probably isn’t going to be for you. But if a warts ‘n’ all exposé of the challenges faced by a ‘professional’ expeditioner looking for a meaningful journey in a rapidly-changing modern world is a prospect that floats your boat, I can highly recommend Walking Home From Mongolia.
Walking Home From Mongolia, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is in UK bookstores tomorrow, Thursday the 21st of November. You can also order it now from Amazon.co.uk* for release-day delivery. (There’s a Kindle edition* too, of course.)