Walk Home from Mongolia Interview

Erliah China: The border crossing between Mongolia and China.
Leon McCarron and Rob Lilwall arrive in China
Way back in November last year, two men embarked on an amazing adventure that would involve hiking 3,100 miles from Ulaan Baator to Hong Kong. “After 195 days, 10 million steps and far too many instant noodles” Leon McCarron and Rob Lilwall have completed their epic Walk Home From Mongolia!

The journey took Leon and Rob from the capital city of Mongolia, straight out into the wilderness of the Gobi desert. In the middle of winter they crossed through the border into Northern China. Heading south, the Great Wall led them down to frozen Yellow River. After visiting the ancient city of Xi An they crossed the mountains of central China and Guilin, before passing through GuangZhou and finally arriving in Hong Kong.

During the planning stages of the expedition Leon and Rob were going to take inflatable kayaks and paddle along stretches of the Yellow and Pearl rivers. Due to a late start and severe winter weather it was predicted that the rivers would not be navigable, so the pair decided not to bring the kayaks with them.

We have now reached the river, and we were interested to see whether this decision was right. In places the river has been completely frozen – so definitely no kayaking option there. In other places, the river has been flowing strongly, with huge shards of ice in it, and with ice covering about 90% of the banks. So these sections we could indeed have kayaked (and if I am honest, I feel slightly remorseful that we now cannot), but at the same time, I think the risk of popped kayaks followed by drowning was quite significant, so it is probably a good thing that we have not had the kayaks with us in order to try it! Rob Lilwall.

Leon walks across a frozen river
No option for kayaking on frozen rivers!

Before starting the Walk Home from Mongolia, Leon McCarron told us about his preparations and expectations for the expedition. Among other things he told us that two pairs of hiking boots should be enough and that he was most looking forward to crossing the Gobi desert. Now that the adventure is complete we asked Leon to tell us all about the experience…

CheapTents: What was the highlight of the expedition?

Leon McCarron: For me the highlight was the Gobi Desert. I’d only had a little desert experience before this, and never on foot. It was quite intimidating setting off into the vast void in Winter, especially as it was right at the start of our journey when we were still fresh, and far from ‘battle-hardened.’ To cross the Mongolian Gobi took 13 days, during which we pulled a trailer (called Molly Brown) laden with all our food and water for the duration. It was tough, and it was cold, but it was also beautiful. The expanse of the desert was immense and humbling, and the sunsets were otherworldly. Arriving at the border town of Zamyn-Uud after nearly two weeks was a real highpoint, and one of my fondest memories of the whole trip.

CheapTents: Did you have any scary moments?

Leon McCarron: A couple of quite scary moments, but I have to say that neither of us ever felt that we were going to die during this adventure! The cold weather gave a few worrying nights when we slept fitfully and just couldn’t get warm – frostbite was always a slight fear.
I also particularly remember one time in the Qin Lin mountains when we tried to cross a mountain range by going straight down a river valley, which became increasingly wild and untouched until we found ourselves balanced on steep jungle slopes with a rocky waterfall below. We eventually had to accept it was too dangerous to continue as we knew nothing of what lay ahead and had covered very little distance, and so we had to negotiate the half-day trek back down the valley to the safety of the road.

CheapTents: How did you keep yourselves motivated?

Leon McCarron: A variety of ways, ranging from the sensible to the ridiculous. Often we would talk or think of the night inside or warm bed that we might have, or the next good meal we would get. More long term we could remind ourselves what was at stake if we failed – we’d let a lot of people down, most of all Viva, the charity we were raising money for. I think both of us are quite stubborn and determined, and knew it would take a lot to make us falter even when it got really miserable. Some of the more ridiculous methods we employed were making up new slang words based on our poor Chinese, and writing new movie scripts (mostly involving Jason Statham.) Desperation is a funny thing…

CheapTents: Where did you find the most spectacular scenery?

Leon McCarron: I really enjoyed the Gobi desert as I’ve mentioned, but I also found the Yellow River to be an amazing place to walk though. When we arrived in January, it was almost completely frozen over. The fresh snowfall lay pure white on the icy water, in stark contrast to the crumbly Yellow of the Loess Mountains and steep banks on either side. It was tough walking, and extremely cold, but beautiful to look at.

Gobi desert crossing - sand as far as the eye see!
The Mongolian desert took 13 days to cross on foot.

CheapTents: Did you enjoy the food, including the purple bread?

Leon McCarron: The food that we got in roadside restaurants or in people’s homes in China was generally fantastic. After 6 months I found the oil-heavy cooking was getting a bit much though, and so I’m not sorry to be back to a more varied diet! Our main problem was in our lack of vocabulary when ordering food – often, especially at the start, we found it hard to make ourselves understood and ended up just getting dumpling or fried rice, which although tasty, got quite dull after a while! The purple bread was a bit of a low point in our purchases, but not as bad as instant noodles. We ate them all through the desert, then again in sporadic bursts until one day we both simultaneously found we couldn’t stomach even the thought of them any more. If I ever have to eat instant noodles again it’ll be too soon.

CheapTents: Did you have issues with mapping and navigation?

Leon McCarron: Nothing too serious. Crossing the Mongolian desert was one of our biggest challenges, but we used a combination of paper maps bought in Ulaanbaatar and cached Google Maps. It was just tracks in the sand, so there was a lot of potential for wayward wandering but we stuck to our compass bearings and were fine. In China we mainly relied on Google Maps on our iPhone, which was a real revelation for us. Both Rob and I have always used regular maps on previous expeditions, but we found that in China there was such good mobile phone coverage that we could almost always get some sort of cached maps to follow. The main issue we had overall was that we could find no good topographic maps of China because as far as I know, none exist for the general public.

One of the unique and liberating aspects of an expedition like this is having no idea what the day ahead will bring. It’s a surefire recipe for adventure of one sort of another, and although there is the occasional headache or bit of misery, usually things work out pretty well in the end. In fact, almost always! Leon McCarron.

CheapTents: Were you able to communicate with people along your route?

Leon McCarron: In Mongolia we struggled as we spoke not a single word of the language. We were able to express ourselves through signing and body language, but we didn’t feel like we could really engage with people through that medium! In China it was easier, as we had both started to learn Mandarin. Rob’s was better than mine, although it must be said we were both pretty poor! We were able to do the basics and as the months rolled by, we did get better. Eventually we could have reasonable conversations and although it wasn’t the level we’d have liked to have reached, we did manage to get some insights into the lives of the people we met. I think if we could change one thing about this journey though, we’d have tried to get good at the language before we left – it would have made a huge difference.

CheapTents: What was your experience of using social media, did it enhance your experience of the expedition?

Leon McCarron: I’m quite a big fan of social media for sharing an adventure with the world. This time, however, it was a little harder as Facebook and Twitter (amongst other things) are banned in China. We did update via these sites, but only through Rob’s wife back in Hong Kong on our behalf. So, this time round, I can’t say social media enhanced our expedition, but it was certainly useful in the pre-China preparation for troubleshooting and advice.

Above is superb photo montage covering the entire journey, well worth watching!

CheapTents: Were two pairs of walking shoes each enough, or did you have to buy some more along the way?

Leon McCarron: Rob went through three pairs and I used two, although the second pair were completely worn out when I got to Hong Kong. We used ECCO Xpedition II boots which were totally fantastic for us. This journey could have been a disaster with the wrong boots so it was key we used quality, and the ECCO boots proved to be perfect for us. On average, each pair of boots did 1000-1500 miles across varied terrain and conditions, and we were able to get new pairs sent out to us at various points in the journey.

CheapTents: Did any pieces of your kit outperform your expectations or make you think “I’m so glad I brought that!”?

Leon McCarron: Luckily for us, almost all of our kit performed brilliantly. This was especially key in winter when poor kit would have been dangerous as well as annoying, but throughout the six months we were generally very happy with our gear. In terms of a favourite though, I think both of us got quite attached to our Hilleberg bivanorak – essentially a combined bivvy bag and poncho. It was extremely lightweight and as the temperatures rose in the second half of our expedition, we dispensed with the tents and just used this to sleep in. On wet nights I’d sleep in mine, bone dry, and in the morning I’d just had to open the bottom draw strings, pull the sleeping bag out and I’d already be wearing my rain gear for the day! On miserably wet days this provided quite a great deal of satisfaction…

CheapTents: Have you given any thought to future expeditions?

Leon McCarron: Actually…we have! But not in any real detail yet, still just little ideas, and I think that for the time being both of us are enjoying being back in our respective homes enjoying a bit of comfort and relaxation! I’m sure that in due course though the itchy feel will be back, so keep an eye on www.leonmccarron.com and www.roblilwall.com for the latest news

CheapTents: Anything else you’d like to say?

Leon McCarron: We filmed this adventure, which is being produced by National Geographic for broadcast, and so all being well, the show will be out in the coming months. We’ll keep everyone updated with progress via the expedition website at www.walkinghomefrommongolia.com

CheapTents: Thank you, Leon, for sharing these details of your amazing expedition with us.

Has this interview whetted your appetite for adventure? Why not read an interview or two with some other adventurers?


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