Having crossed the Mongolian Gobi and followed the Great Wall through remote Shanxi province, my expedition partner Rob Lilwall and I then found ourselves trekking along the banks of the frozen Yellow River. The second longest in China, the Yellow is a mighty waterway with a unique place in the heart and history of China. Known both as China’s mother, and its sorrow, it is said to be the birthplace of the Chinese civilization. The ‘sorrow’ comes from the devastating floods, which it has caused over the centuries, killing millions. Flooding for us wasn’t a problem with the deep freeze; in fact we’d initially wanted to kayak downstream using inflatable packrafts, but due to our late departure we missed the window. Instead, we picked a narrow and sometimes treacherous path between the icy waters and the ever-growing cliffs. Often, evil gullies would cut off our advance, and sheer rock faces loomed high above. To progress we’d climb back inland as best we could, teetering over vertiginous drops and using hiking poles as makeshift ice axes to hold us steady.
What helped make this trip very different from anything I’d done before was the focus that Rob and I had on capturing our adventures on camera. I’d filmed on expedition before, but never to this extent – on our walk through China, I wanted to record all of the notable aspects of our journey as best as possible, to create an accurate portrayal of the Chinese cultural cross-section we were living and breathing. It’s true that it can take away from the purity of the experience to suddenly begin wielding a camera, and viewing a country through a lens can be frustrating, but there is a happy balance to be trodden. Throughout our journey we tried to walk this line – to film enough of China to do it justice and tell the story of our experience there, but not so much that we became adversely affected by thinking and acting cinematically (or being so tired from setting up camera shots that we didn’t do anything exciting.) I think, in the end, we succeeded, but creating consistently good quality content, given the conditions and exhausting nature of our trek, was perhaps one of the biggest challenges of all.
The spring brought an almighty sense of relief all round, and instantly the landscape became to change. The muted browns and greys of the long winter faded all at once and green infiltrated everything, as if seeping up from the ground. Flowers blossomed, birds sang and Rob and I took off our gloves for the first time in four months.
Farmers with oxen and wooden ploughs toiled in the fields, churning the viscous muddy earth in preparation for planting rice seedlings. Above them, the mountains grew ever more rugged, dominating the skyline with sharp, jagged peaks and dense forest filling the valleys. Trekking cross-country here is a joy, but following roads on foot is not the most exciting of activities (even with the beautiful backdrop,) especially for two people like Rob and I with a background in cycling – whenever we found ourselves treading the tarmac we’d inevitably fall into a depression at the lack of speed, and yearn heart-feltly for our trusty two-wheeled steeds. To avoid this scenario, we would often plunge into the wild un-populated swathes of mountains, hoping to pick a path through a friendly valley or two. Our hit rate was around 50/50 with success’ cheered vociferously and defeat taken very much to heart. We would sweat and labour for seven or eight hours up savage waterfalls, entrusting our lives to young shoots of bamboo as we swung along steep banks hoping that the ground (and our grip) would hold. Inevitably there would then come a point where, with progress and our maps showing a great deal more inhospitable terrain, we would have to make the decision – onwards, or retreat. I learned early on that pride could not take victory over pragmatism here. Risk taking on expeditions comes with the territory, but it much always be calculated. Anyone who loves adventure travel knows that you set your parameters of safety based on experience and situation, and then you launch yourself into it with everything you’ve got. On the occasions where onward progress looked exceedingly unlikely, we’d turn tail and get back to the foothills before the rains came and made the rivers swell. Dangers come in all forms on long journeys, but most are very manageable with a bit of common sense.
Along with the trials that the natural world provided, China also came up with more than it’s fair share of human obstacles. Traffic could never be trusted to be on the right side of the road, or to stay on it at all. Often, cheery drivers would screech to a halt in the middle of the road when they saw us. Smiling broadly out their windows, they would be blissfully unaware of other vehicles behind swerving wildly to avoid smashing into the back of them. From time to time, however, it would not just be a regular car that would stop along side us – occasionally we would attract the attention of the local authorities. We would be stopped and questioned by police at least a couple of times a week, usually in a very friendly (if somewhat confused manner) but our closest call came when we were arrested for accidentally walking into a military zone in central China. A severe looking policeman stopped us on a remote road and handed us an equally unwelcoming letter, reading, “Attention, Alien! You have entered the zone that is restricted, and must go with these officers for retribution.”
We were loaded into a squad car, and driven for to the local station – a distance of eleven kilometres, and the first in thousands that we hadn’t walked. There, the questioning began with a firm emphasis on what it was exactly we were doing in this part of China. The implication, it seemed, was that we might be spying. Hearty protestations on our part, coupled with a pleasant disposition went a long way to helping our cause, and eventually we were saved when the local English teacher was brought along. We were much better equipped to talk our way out of this one in our native tongue. Eventually we were released, and told to not do it again. I wasn’t quite sure what we’d done in the first place as the closed zone wasn’t marked, but I promised to try my best anyway.
Six months after setting off from the Mongolian Gobi, Rob and I stumbled into Hong Kong territory and made our way to the Kowloon harbour, where the great landmass we had been walking on finally runs it course and melts into the ocean. We’d trekked over three thousand miles, crossing almost every landscape imaginable and dodging all potential journey-ending threats –we stayed lucky till the end. We learnt passible Mandarin and were privileged to speak, laugh and learn with thousands of Chinese who lived on our route. It was tough, much more so than I would have guessed. There were miserable times, and points at which I wished for nothing more than to go home. But each of those served to help me appreciate even more when things did go smoothly, and greatest of all, to enjoy the experience of immersion in a foreign culture. The relentless physical and mental strains brought me to my knees at points, but also gave me some of my greatest memories in life so far. Life is too short to be comfortable all the time. I was glad to be home and enjoy creature comforts again, but if you asked me would I do it again, the answer, without a doubt would be…hell yes!
Leon McCarron is a Northern Irish adventurer and cameraman. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and specialises in long distance, human-powered expeditions. The four part TV series, Walking Home From Mongolia, is now available on DVD from http://www.leonmccarron.com