Walking Home From Mongolia is an account of author Rob Lilwall’s epic journey across China on foot. That’s no mean distance: he covers three thousand miles, starting in the Gobi desert and ending up travelling from Shenzhen across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. The thirty-five year-old is joined on his adventure by Leon, a cameraman a decade younger, and the two set out to make a television documentary about their trip.
There is something in the human psyche dating back to our nomadic ancestry that loves tales of marathon journeys. From epic stories like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to Odysseus’ decade-long voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, the romantic appeal of such stories is hard-wired into our brains.
Lilwall’s book is a modern version of the hero’s journey theme, meshing well with the ‘buddy movie’ genre that has sprung up (he and Leon are film enthusiasts – a recurrent theme) and which he emulates. Thus swigs of whisky, bantering, fallings-out and makings-up intersperse the book, creating a personal narrative to the backdrop of their travels. The book is beautifully illustrated and includes useful maps, which help the reader retain a sense of place in an expansive, and to many, mysterious land.
The parts of the book that grabbed our attention the most were the digressions about Chinese history and culture. Along the way, Lilwall recounts the China of the various imperial dynasties, as well as exploring other topics to have directly influenced the country’s development such as the Opium Wars, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the rise of communism and the recent economic boom.
Such sections bring to life the land through which Lilwall journeys, offering a traveller’s and foreigner’s perspective of China and her people. Standout episodes include a brush with death inside a carbon monoxide-rich tunnel, the friendliness and hospitality of a railway points operator, and the extraordinary lengths Lilwall and Leon go to in order to recreate footage after a fault with the camera. Lilwall also captures well the different terrains and ways of life across a vast country.
Otherwise, the book cycles around a limited number of themes which aren’t disinteresting, but which quickly become repetitive (Lilwall also periodically inserts religious beliefs that are neither expounded upon nor clearly part of the story – he’s not on a pilgrimage, but making a documentary – and consequently they feel a bit tacked on and intrusive). There are only so many times one may wish to read about scrapes with the police, sore feet, unscrupulous versus friendly natives, dietary limitations and bowel movements. It’s also a difficult task to describe an arduous and physically exhausting journey in a way that entertains one’s readership and prevents ennui from setting in. Lilwall is only partially successful in striking that balance.
Overall, Walking Home From Mongolia is a touch verbose and repetitive, but has enough insight and wit to warrant a look. Those interested in China and travel will likely find the book thoroughly absorbing.