The Journey Ends: Walking Home from Mongolia

By Michelle Tolson

I originally met explorers Rob Lilwall and Leon McCarron in November of 2011, just days before they embarked on their winter expedition “Walking Home from Mongolia,” which began mid-month. The two men were starting a six month, 5,000 km walk from Mongolia through China to Hong Kong. They were filming a documentary about their expedition – which will air on National Geographic – at various hot spots throughout Ulaanbaatar. A story about the journey appeared in November, 2011 in the UB Post.
The two are humanitarians, having raised funds for the charity Viva, which works in areas of education, health, children’s rights, and anti-trafficking. Rob Lilwell is from Britain originally—though his home base is now Hong Kong–and this was his second major expedition, having previously cycled home 48,000 kilometers from Siberia to London with stopovers in Tibet, Afghanistan, and Papua New Guinea. Leon McCarron is from Ireland and a Royal Geographic Society Fellow. He previously cycled 23,000 km from NYC to Hong Kong on the behalf of UNICEF.

Several months later, in late May, they arrived in Hong Kong and have been busy interviewing with international media about their several-month long project. McCarron took some time out of his busy schedule to reconnect with the UB Post.
Their website – http://walkinghomefrommongolia.com – details their expedition. Information about the NGO Viva can be found on their website, or at Viva{dot}org.
UB Post: I remember meeting you both about seven months ago at the Bayangol Happy Hour in Ulaanbaatar. It was mid-November and you were about to leave on your trek. You were filming advice and commentary from expats and Mongolians at the bar. One woman worried, saying that you were nuts to undertake walking on foot in the winter through Mongolia. I think she was afraid you might not make it. Having survived this trip, would you say that you agree on any level with her now? Did you experience some dangerous times where your health or lives were at risk? Did you underestimate the Gobi during the Mongolian winter?
McCarron: I think it was a pretty standard response from the woman at the bar – most people thought we were nuts! And in some ways – she’s right, on the surface it can seem like an odd thing to do. But both of us are driven by adventure, and we seek out new experiences, and the Gobi desert in winter was certainly that. It was intimidating, undoubtedly, but the pictures we’d seen and stories we heard convinced us that it would be beautiful and rewarding as well…and it was. I think we prepared pretty well, and the key was getting started by mid-November. That was already later than we wanted, but we set off on November 14th which meant by the time the serious winter came in, we were further south into China and out of the desert. I think we didn’t have lower than -30C, but if we’d been a couple of week later it could have been 10 degrees lower, which would have made a huge difference.
Aside from the cold, the traffic was probably our biggest threat throughout – mainly in China where the driving ranged from dubious to deadly!
UB Post: Another person you filmed mentioned the hospitality and warmth of the Mongolian people in the countryside–which you could rely on. Did you experience his advice to be true? What was your “warmest” reception traveling through the Gobi? What was the most awkward?
McCarron: We absolutely found this to be the case. Speaking no Mongolian, we weren’t sure what to expect, but without exception the Mongolian people looked after us. In the Gobi we stumbled across a few gers, and were welcomed in. I have an especially fond memory of one which appeared out of the snow as if a mirage, right before sunset. I really wasn’t looking forward to another freezing night in my tent, and couldn’t believe our luck! The herder and his wife made us a nice fatty mutton broth and let us sleep on their floor in the glorious heat of the ger.
We didn’t have any really awkward receptions – we were generally the oddest thing kicking around the desert, so there was always an initial period of confusion on the part of the poor Mongolian, but as soon as that passed we were all friends speaking through gestures and grunts.
UB Post: Your itinerary took you not only through the countryside of Outer Mongolia but also through Inner Mongolia. What differences did you notice in the two regions? Were Mongolian herders and people in the towns in Inner Mongolia very different from those in Outer Mongolia?
McCarron: At some stages the differences between the two seemed almost irreconcilable. The desert was still there in Inner Mongolia but the vastness seemed dulled somewhat by the huge highway running down the middle of it. By Chinese standards the population density was extremely thin, but having come from Outer Mongolia it seemed pretty busy to us! We would almost always be able to see a farmhouse or ger at some point on the horizon, and passed through normally one village or town a day – this compared to none on the 13 day trek from Sainshand to Zamyn-Uud.
That said, although the faces changed a little, the warmth and hospitality of the people didn’t. We were still looked after to an embarrassingly high degree, except now we could communicate with at least a couple of words of Mandarin!
I’ll be very interested to see what happens in the Outer Mongolian Gobi as Mongolia continues to develop. With the natural resources there, it seems to be heading the way of Inner Mongolia in terms of infrastructure. It’s not my place to comment on that as I know so little, but from a purely adventurous point of view it will be sad to see the Mongolian Gobi opened up a lot more with highways and industry – right now it’s a pretty special place, and the sense of isolation one finds in the Gobi at night, staring at the stars, would be a sad thing to lose.
UB Post: In your most recent article for South China Morning Post (June 5th) you mentioned how difficult your journey was. You even called yourself a nomad, which is definitely fitting. Has your experience given you more appreciation into the everyday lives of nomadic and semi-nomadic people in Asia, such as Mongolian herders and Tibetan herders? Has this experience changed how you see people’s lives in the countryside at all?
McCarron: I don’t think I can really claim to have any appreciation of the life of nomadic and semi-nomadic people in Asia, except that it just seems to be an exceedingly hard existence. Meeting Mongolian herders with skin like leather, faces crinkled from a life of harsh weather, was a real privilege but I can’t fathom the difficulties of surviving out there. All I can say is that I have the greatest respect for the lifestyle and the nomads.
UB Post: A big goal for your trip was raising funds for the NGO Viva. How much did you manage to raise?
McCarron: So far it’s just over 61k USD, and we’re hoping that donations will continue to come in. Viva does amazing work around the world through supporting and harnessing local communities and people to help children at risk, and helping to raise funds and awareness for that work was our biggest drive to keep going when things got tough.
UB Post: You filmed your trip and it will eventually air on National Geographic. Any idea of when some of the footage will air? I’m sure you have a lot of editing to do first.
McCarron: All being well, we hope the show should be ready before the end of the year. There’s a lot of editing to be done, but actually not by us! A production company in Hong Kong has got our footage, and they’re charged with the task of making it into an interesting and exciting show.
UB Post: Do either of you ever plan to return to Mongolia, or did our weather scare you off for good?
McCarron: I certainly do! Before this trip I had long wanted to visit Mongolia, and this journey only strengthened that desire to spend time there. I loved the Gobi, despite the hardships, and would happily return there, but I’d also like to see so much more. It’s a huge and wonderful country that I hope I’ll get a chance to return to and explore. It might take some convincing for me to come back in the deep winter though!
UB Post: One final question – What was the first thing you wanted to do when you both finally got back home?
McCarron: Sleep on a bed for as long as possible, and then wake up without having to walk the following day! There were lots of little things that we were missing, but walking is such a relentless and tiring endeavor than the knowledge of an extended break from it was top of our wish list! I think Rob’s wife and my girlfriend had an even higher priority task though – to get rid of our beards! So Rob and I are now clean shaven and relatively respectable again…until the next adventure!

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