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Notes from an author: Rob Lilwall

Hong Kong-based adventurer Rob Lilwall on falling for a land of coal mines, cave villages and an abandoned wall in Northern China

Notes from an author: Rob Lilwall
Rob Lilwall

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The main reason the Chinese province of Shanxi makes the world’s news is on account of the terrible coal mine accidents that happen here. But when I crossed it on foot, as part of longer walk down the length of China, I found a rugged and beautiful landscape, laced with ancient wonders and unexpected hospitality.

It was early January when we entered the Shanxi. My expedition partner, Leon, and I had just finished walking across the cold, rolling plains of the Gobi Desert, and the change in terrain was immediate. Suddenly, we were walking amid ruffled, brown hills, cut through with weaving valleys. Pine trees climbed their sides and frozen streams ran down their bases. Along the ridge lines above us, we could see a series of ancient, earthen beacon towers, dotted a mile apart, standing defiant against the blue sky. We knew that after a week’s walking, they’d lead us to the Great Wall, but before that, we’d have to walk through the infamous coal valleys.

After a few days, we entered our first one. A railway ran down its centre, connecting a series of modern settlements, each stacked with identical apartment blocks, and large mine complexes. Crowds of young men, who’d evidently just emerged from the depths of the earth, walked the streets like ghosts. A young engineer befriended us and practised his English, telling us the miners spent 14-hour shifts underground, digging coal to be distributed across the Middle Kingdom — fuel for the fires of its colossal industrial revolution. The dark side of China’s coal industry is the terrible pollution and, on average, three coal miners being killed in accidents every day.

But Shanxi Province had far more to see up close than just coal, and less than 100 miles of walking later, the industry disappeared behind us, and we followed a dusty track into a labyrinth of parched gullies. We climbed a hillside, and then there it stood before us: the Great Wall. It was a bulwark of brown earth, six to 12ft high. It rolled down the contours of the land and stretched to the horizon in both directions. Most people who visit the Wall do so at its most iconic, and hence most tourist-laden, areas, near Beijing. But it goes without saying there’s a lot more Wall than that, and out here in China’s backwaters we had it all to ourselves. We followed it as our guide for days — across the mountainous terrain, through brambles, over passes, down towards valleys.

Although the landscape was bleak, it was not entirely unpopulated. Sometimes, as we came over the brow of a hill, we looked down to see a chimney rising out of the ground — we were on somebody’s roof. In this part of China millions still live in cave houses — almost hobbit-like, built into the hillside. They were inhabited by peasant farmers and goat herders, and on some evenings, once everyone had overcome the shock of two bearded foreigners arriving in their village, we’d be invited to stay the night in their cheerful, smoky homes. Other nights, we enjoyed the tranquil beauty of camping beneath the Wall. It eventually led us to a giant canyon, along the base of which ran the mighty Yellow River. It was churning, brown mass, the lifeblood of ancient and modern China, now funnelled along a channel less than 100ft wide, and carrying giant shards of ice. We cheered and shouted when we first spotted it, and then stood silent, gazing at its power.

If I had to pick my favourite memory of Shanxi Province, it would be on the eve of Chinese New Year. We were entering the town of Hequ, and because Chinese New Year is the nation’s biggest annual celebration, thousands of fireworks were lighting up the sky.

We were feeling sorry for ourselves, walking onwards, all alone out in the cold night. Suddenly a car screeched to a halt beside us. A man shouted a few questions at us in Chinese, and upon realising we were walking all the way to Hong Kong, he said, “Come back to my family house for dinner — we’re having a huge feast — you can be our guests.”

Now that was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

Rob Lilwall is a British-born adventurer, writer, motivational speaker and author of two books: Cycling Home From Siberia (a 35,000-mile ride to London) and Walking Home From Mongolia (a 3,500-mile walk to Hong Kong). Rob is currently based in Hong Kong, where he works as the national director of children’s charity Viva. roblilwall.com

Published in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)