Miles on foot: 910
I stood at dawn eyballing the chillingly indifferent portrait of Chiarman Mao and pondering the paths ahead. The man himself lay (dead) a hundred yards south of me with an already long queue of fans waiting to pay homage to his preserved corpse. The People's Liberation Army soldiers had just finished their daily flag hoisting ceremony over Tiananmen Square.
Beijing dragged itself out of bed as the sun rose and I followed a road northwards, slowly crossing each of the six ringroads that had encompassed my life for almost five months. Overhead was a wide, unblemished blue sky: a fitting start for a journey to The Land of Blue Sky. In the distance, apparently low hills - wallowing in the haze of a hot day - grew at an irritatingly slow pace. The world was busy around me but already I had tuned out of city life and was thinking of hills and villages, trees and animals.
Waking up under a paling grey-blue sky, I felt like I'd been in a boxing match and had to stretch thoroughly before my legs would work almost normally. The first few steps on the tender soles of my feet were torturous. From then on, every morning, I had to accept and even embrace the pain in my feet until it slipped from my mind.
The next few days were spent following a winding road through rocky hills; brown after the recently-thawed winter freeze. Occasional sofa-sized slabs of ice still sat resiliently, sheltered from the sun in the crooks of streams. Little sections of crumbling Great Wall offshoots dotted the landscape and crenellated spines of the wall itself ran along ridges: the most impressive and enduring time, money and labour-wasting monument to paranoia ever built (and ultimately futile as Genghis Khan's Golden Horde waded casually around the wall's end where it plunges into the Pacific).
The roads were peaceful, wiggling through basic brick villages garnished with pretty spring blossoms to break the otherwise uniform brown of the land. I soon relaxed into the walking way of life and felt like I was taking my time despite walking between 8 and 10 hours each day. The slower pace was a refreshing change from the relative rush of cycling. When I passed things and people I had ample time to thoroughly observe them while maintaining what became a steady plod of about 3mph; whether uphill, downhill or flat. My body soon acclimatised to the labour but the first steps each day remained agonising. The uphills were comfortable but, quite unlike cycling, the downhills were an unpleasant assault on the knees and hips.
Each night I'd carefully consider where to sleep. Somewhere flat(ish), sheltered from wind, hidden from people, hopefully devoid of biting ants and preferably with low risk of starting a bush fire with my stove. To save space in my backpack, a twice-read National Geographic provided plenty of loo paper; each page repeatedly scrunched and unscrunched to achieve adequate fibrosity. Lying in the open, gazing at the speckled night sky, was a privileged way to drift off after a long day, and waking to a blood-read east was the first of several simple daily pleasures.
The villagers are simple, hard-working, friendly and photogenic; their dark, walnut faces cracking into broad smiles at the sight of a camera. Mostly without youth, the villages are seemingly the preserve of the elderly whose children and grandchildren have joined the mad dash to the swelling cities. What will happen when the current crop of agrarian grandparents have entered the soil themselves? They are possibly the last true Chinese peasants. Future farmers are likely to be grown city children with unfulfilled dreams.
More villages; short tunnels; drier hills; browner land; men ploughing with donkeys; delightfully unabashed childish waves from adults - a far cry from the stiffled and slight nods of the head I received in Europe. My diet was simple and unexciting. Lots of instant noodles (just 10p a pack) and plenty of fruit. The little village shops all sold the same scant range of goods. In one a dog vomited casually in the corner while two women argued, apparently about the price of an egg.
One evening, after joining a geriatric group for a restaurant dinner, ominous clouds gathered for the first time and thankfully I was invited to sleep in a hut with four workers who found my appearance endlessly amusing. A spectacular storm performed outside while I struggled to understand my companions' provincial accents. In Hubei the 'ch' and 's' sounds are switched around and so, confusingly, '4' becomes '10' and vice versa.
The rocky hills gave way to yellow grasslands and I approached Inner Mongolia (the 3rd largest province in China). Horses hauled ploughs through sandy soil, preparing it for cultivation, and shepherds drifted slowly behind flocks of shaggy brown sheep. I turned onto farm tracks for a couple of days where wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares of astonishment took several seconds to break into brown-toothed smiles and respond to my greetings as I trudged by. A couple of marmots bounded among tough tussocks of grass. The days grew hotter but were still in the realm of 'pleasantly warm'.
Headwinds were a common companion beyond this point and I'd sometimes find myself leaning improbably far forward while it whistled in my ears. Sonid Youqi was the next town and I went in search of new shoes as the soles of mine were wearing worryingly thin. None in the town were big enough but I met a shopkeeper called Li Chen Hua (English name: Amanda) who spoke some English and took me to get a layer of rubber glued onto my shoes. Afterwards she invited me to dinner with her and her husband in a hot pot restaurant so I checked into a hotel , washed and joined them. The beer and baijo came thick and fast; each glass being clinked with another before being knocked back. Before long Amanda was stroking my thigh under the table. I tried to stop her but in my fuzzy state my protestations, although existent, became weaker than they might have been. In the end I sat awkwardly, making polite conversation with the unsuspecting husband. Suddenly I was whisked off to a booth in a KTV (karaoke) parlour and found myself crooning tunelessly, still sat between husband and persistent wife and with a couple of their friends.
The husband is singing a song when Amanda suddenly starts nuzzling my neck. He looks around at that moment and sees my confused/embarrassed face with his wife at work on my neck. There is a sudden scuffle and in seconds we are all outside. The husband shouts, the wife screams and is then seized by him. She goes limp and falls to the floor. I clumsily help her up. Her friend slaps me. Amanda slaps her husband. he slaps her back. I step between them and try, in vain, to be the voice of reason. His punch glances harmlessly off the side of my head before he sits down in the dust and starts crying. Things seem to have cooled down and I make my exit.
The following day the wind blew on but it rained a little so the sand stayed down. The rain soon turned to wet, heavy snow which stung my face for two hours while I walked briskly to keep warm. The temperature in this area drops to thirty below freezing in winter. It felt strangely liberating hurling myself into the elements and I laughed maniacally while screaming King Lear's "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!..." at the top of my voice with nobody to hear it. The sky cleared and I maintained my fast pace until dark to complete my longest day yet, hitting the target of 50km (31 miles).
After 15 minutes spent convincing the Chinese immigration official that I was the man in my passport photo, I left China and crossed into Mongolia and the 30th country on my journey. Irritatingly I was forced to take a jeep for the one mile across no-man's land, thereby cutting my unbroken trail of footsteps leading back to Tiananmen Square.
Zamyn-Uud is a dusty frontier town with an edgy feel to it. Here I met Ganshagai who spoke good English and offered to help me find a cheap hotel. A drunk, egg-shaped man said he had one and we drove there in Ganshagai's Toyota. The room was in a half-made building and had three chairs pushed together for a bed. I asked how much and he replied simply: "beer". I fetched some cans from a shop and the three of us sat down to drink. A weasely man arrived, evidently unwanted by my companions, and started talking from his perch on the floor. The eggman soon started savagely kicking the weasel in the face. This done, the weasel was given a beer and swigged contentedly, beer and blood trickling together from his swollen lips. Mongolia has a rough, macho culture in which men often prove their point with their fists. Men in towns often seem to eye me as if sizing me up for a potential fight. Wrestling is a national sport and most men are burly due to the diet of little other than meat, dairy products, bread and potatoes. Almost no produce is grown in Mongolia.
After a breakfast of more dumplings (warmed by being plonked in a bowl of salty milk tea), I thanked my host and drove about 10 miles out into the desert with Ganshagai in seach of a two-wheeled trailer. Rob Lilwall and Leon McCarron (who recently walked from Mongolia to Hong Kong) had hidden "Molly Brown" the trailer for me a few months earlier. The detailed directions were hilariously obscure and I found the spot but unfortunately someone else must have found Molly first as she was nowhere to be seen.
After a while I reached the first ovoo. An ovoo is a shamanistic cairm built in worship of Tengger and tradition dictates that one always passes on the left side and makes an offering of some sort for safe passage on the road ahead. This one had a post a few meters tall, was covered in blue rags and surrounded by rocks, vodka bottles and broken car parts. Two cars arrived and each passenger poured a splash of vodka on it before continuing. I threw three small pebbles on it, circled it three times in a clockwise direction and set off on a compass bearing, away from the tire tracks. I'm not superstitious but it seemed to please the truck driver watching with a quickly emptying bottle.
The next week was peaceful and hot. I swayed back and forth between happy solitude and mild, but though-evoking, loneliness. There were no vehicles and only an average of one ger each day where I would ask for water, was always welcomed in and usually fed. Benedict Allen observes: "In the end, no-one can cope alone. In Mongolia it's a group effort. You rely on each other. As long as everyone plays their part and offers hospitality, you are never at a loss, except in the Gobi."
Small herds of wild horses would flee upon seeing me; hoping to evade capture for the summer. Most horses are turned loose to fend for themselves throughout the brutal winter and then rounded up again in spring. One day, an old man on horseback appeared and rode quietly alongside me for half an hour before cantering into the distance. Two-humped bactrian camels sometimes wandered past me as I lay reading in the twilight; their tough mouths working on the sparse tufts of spiny grass. I sat by a well for an hour, watching as a shepherd tirelessly drew bucket after bucket up from the 10-yard depth and poured them into a wooden trough for his 200 eager goats and sheep. Each day I was again surprised by how wrecked I would feel at night and how fresh I felt when waking just 9 hours later.
Mobile settlements of road-builders were scattered along the way and the completed road (which was already in progress when I passed in 2009) had extended almost a full half mile further south in the last three years. It starts at the town of Choir where the desert ends fairly abruptly. It's a small, depressing town of Soviet apartment blocks. It's possibly the ugliest town I've ever seen (and I've spend many months travelling in China). I stopped only to buy food and quickly passed on into the grasslands. From here on northwards, the altitude gradually rises and the temperature drops accordingly as one climbs onto the steppe. One night was particularly cold and in the morning my 2-litre bottle of water was nearly completely frozen. Luckily I had a physics-defyingly warm Khunu yak wool sweater which kept me comfortable.
Two grandsons played with goat bones on the floor and, looking around me, I noticed there were no electric appliances (which are usually common in gers). There was little of anything. It was the poorest home I'd visited in Mongolia. The dark, pregnant sky began to deliver and the mother and father arrived on horseback in the fading light. Both were deep in their cups. The husband fell off while dismounting and crawled into the tent where he promptly squatted on his haunches and fell asleep. He hadn't even noticed the foreign stranger in his home. His wife wobbled in and nearly suffocated me with the stale, alcoholic potency of her heavy breath. She soon started trying to stroke my leg in the dim candle light. I moved away repeatedly, and increasingly less politely, incredulous that this was happening again. Evidently my two-weeks-unwashed allure was pungent.
Four surprised faces turned to me (the father slept on having keeled over during the fracas, retaining his squatting position before, like a claw unclenching, his limbs eased to the floor). They had stopped fighting and looked a little frightened. I sat down; the mood was tense and I didn't know what to do now. Luckily my clumsiness cut the tension. I leaned too far back and my hair strayed into the candle's flame. Weeks of accumulated oil and grease aided the short conflagration and it took two seconds of beating from granny with her cushion put it out before everyone laughed.
We all chose spots on the floor to sleep and I let the little boy curl up against me to act as a buffer against any further advances from his mother. I dozed for few short hours and was awake when cracks of dawn light became visible in the tent. I pulled on my shoes, picked up my rucksack and unpacked sleeping bag and crept silently out the door. When I stopped a few yards later to pack my sleeping bag I realised I'd left its case in the tent. I turned back at the same time as the door opened and the young boy appeared with a sheepish smile and holding the case. I thanked him and was on my way.
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I take this opportunity to mention that this journey is not just for thrills, head fires and the purpose of being punched by jealous husbands. I am also walking/cycling to raise money for two very worthwhile charities: Future Hope and the RNLI. If you would like to make a donation please click on the relevant link below.
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