02 January 2014
Rob Lilwall, the adventurer
For someone who's walked 3,000 miles across unforgiving terrain in China – some of it while towing 100kg worth of kit – Rob Lilwall seems somewhat surprisingly down to earth, perhaps even shy.
The 36-year-old former geography teacher – now a motivational speaker, author and adventurer – first started to get known when cycling home to London from Siberia in 2007.
On that trip, which took him three years, he rode through 28 countries, was robbed at gunpoint, chased by machete-wielding thugs and braved temperatures of -40 degrees.
Upon completion of the adventure, deals with publishers and television companies followed.
But that particular trip was not enough to satisfy his thirst for adventure and in October 2011 Rob chose to fly to Mongolia with then 25-year-old cameraman Leon McCarron and start walking: a journey he said "was supposed to take three to four months but took six."
Their adventure would see them trek through the Gobi Desert, stretches of China's Great Wall and numerous other memorable places before arriving in Hong Kong.
Rob, who lives in Hong Kong with his wife Christine, was also able to get a four-part series commissioned for the National Geographic Channel. His second book, Walking Home From Mongolia, details the adventure and has just been published.
"I just like giving myself tests," he said."I quite like the image of a pilgrimage and they are good for faith and character if you get through them."When I thought about walking across China, I was thinking being an adventurer was kind of my job but also wanting to see more of China."
For a man who confesses to have had little confidence in his abilities in his mid-20s, he certainly seems to have no problem with things edging on the dangerous and crazy.
"I think it's getting out of your comfort zone that can make you feel really alive" he said. "Whether that be knocking on someone's door in the middle of nowhere to see if you can stay there or scrambling along next to the Yellow River.
"As a Christian we can sometimes have a carefree attitude to life because we believe there is meaning to life and that God is cheering us on to live an adventure for Him. I try to treat my whole life as an adventure."
This brings us neatly to Rob's Christian faith. Does he feel comfortable talking about his faith in his books?
"I try to be a bit honest about the fact I am a Christian… in my first book (Cycling Home from Siberia) I talk about my faith more. In that book I encountered lots of different things so I had whole chapters where I would just tell stories and that was more Christian.
"The first book was a rite of passage, a chance to grow up and learn about myself and the world. It was a chance to test myself – to do things I never thought I would have the guts to do.
"With Walking Home From Mongolia there are little hints of how my faith helped me through.
"The book is more about struggling through the things I experienced, getting on with my cameraman, struggling through the physical ordeal, missing my wife Christine."
Why not start from his home rather than picking seemingly insignificant places on the map and flying to them?
"I like starting an expedition somewhere where it's bleak and wild and a desperate place to get out of," he says.
"If you start from home you're really aiming for some spot on the map you hope is romantic but when you get there it can be disappointing. Going from north to south you really get a cross-section of China and for me that's really appealing.
"You begin with desert region before entering mountainous areas and there are still 30 million people living in caves.
"You're walking along and you see a chimney coming out of the ground… it's like some kind of hobbit village. Filming was very hard because there was a lot of pressure professionally. In terms of the hours it took out of the day it just meant we finished very late because you don't have hours to get it done."
Spending three months on the road also brought other challenges including getting on with his cameraman Leon.
"We called it 'headgames' where we would get into negative frames of mind about each other and we just had to be very intentional to deal with those thoughts. I think Christians have a big advantage in the sense we can look at ourselves and think 'maybe I am not right even if I think I am right'."
Rob – who along with his wife helped to set up a Hong Kong office for Oxford-based international development charity Viva – said he remains open as to whether he will undergo such an adventure again.
After 10 million steps, -30 degree blizzards, interrogations by Chinese police, meals with nomads and using just three pairs of shoes, Rob is back in Hong Kong.
Will there be more adventures?
"People keep asking me that. Going on adventures is something I'll do for however ong it lasts – whether that be 10 years or whatever. I've been able to write two books and film television shows so it might be I move into something else. I work part-time for Viva and can see myself getting more involved with that."
Walking Home From Mongolia is published by Hodder and Stoughton.