Perseverance and the Great Wall

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The third month of our 5,000 km walking expedition from Mongolia to Hong Kong began with us leaving the roads in north-west Shanxi, heading up some farm tracks and into the hills. We were now in search of a section of the Great Wall, which we would follow until it reaches the clifftops above the Yellow River.

The hardy shepherds and hill farming communities in these parts do not live in conventional houses, but rather in cave houses dug into the side of the hills (seen in the background in the above picture), which offer excellent insulation against the cold in winter, and the heat in summer. On our second night walking up this valley, we stopped at one such village to fill up our thermos flasks, and were invited by one of the locals to stay the night.

Inside the cave house was a hallway where food, water, and everything else was stored. Next to this was the living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom all rolled into one. The room was dominated by a kang (a raised bed platform) under which was a little fire to keep the bed warm. There was also a wood stove for cooking and a television.

The next day, after saying goodbye to our new friends, we continued up the valley, climbed a ridge, and there before us on the horizon, was the Wall. It followed the ridges, but this was rolling country, and so the Wall was constantly going down into each valley in between, and then back up onto the ridge on the other side. It was made from crumbly brown earth and between one and four metres high. With every kilometre we passed there was a large earthen watchtower, from which the guards in ancient times would have been able to watch for marauding Mongolian horsemen who so often came down from the steppes to raid China.

We had set out walking along the Wall in a southerly direction, and it was a magical feeling to see it swerving and dancing through the landscape ahead of us; so confident and imperial a sight it was. However, because it so often dipped down into the gullies, our progress along the Wall was also slow, as we constantly had to clamber up and down these steep slopes. Our exhaustion began to increase, and when both my expedition partner Leon and I fell sick with a stomach bug, we had to dig deep within ourselves to keep going.

Whenever I feel like giving up in the middle of something – whether it be during an expedition, writing a book, or going through some other challenge in life, I always remind myself of how bad I will feel if I give up, compared to how good I will feel if I persevere and complete the task. And so we kept on going, though sometimes to keep on schedule, we descended into the valleys where we could follow the farm roads, while keeping an eye on the Wall on the ridges above us as it ran south-west towards our next big landmark – the mighty Yellow River. We will now follow this south towards the ancient city of Xi’an, where we would have arrived by the end of February, when spring would almost be in the air. And this would mark our (almost) halfway point on our long walk home.


Rob Lilwall



Originally from the UK, Lilwall now lives in Hong Kong with his wife. His previous Cycling Home From Siberia expedition became the subject of a TV series on the National Geographic channel and a book published by Hodder & Stoughton. He set off on his six-month-long Walking Home From Mongolia expedition in November 2011 to raise funds for the children’s charity Viva.


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