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Hong Kong adventurer on China desert trek fights loneliness

Life in the desert is hard. For my first week I was walking with a rucksack through the southeast edges. A mixture of scorching gravel plains, pioneer Han Chinese settler farms and the beginnings of the desert’s famously huge sand dunes.

After a week I reached the Qarqan River, which I knew I needed to cross to enter the desert’s heart. But when I reached its banks, it was flowing considerably faster and fuller than I had hoped. It was mud brown and about 200 metres wide, with a large mud island in the middle. It felt strange to see a river in a desert, but it had been there for millennia and I was the one who was out of place. I half-filled my rucksack with empty plastic bottles for buoyancy and then, with a mixture of swimming and wading, crossed it back and forth 12 times to get all of my gear across.

Hong Kong adventurer takes on China’s ‘desert of death’

Before starting the expedition I had driven along the southern Silk Road and the network of oil roads that criss-cross the desert, dropping off big caches of food and water supplies, between 30km and 250km apart. I had also dropped off my specially designed desert cart at the first major cache. After 10 days I finally reached this cache and set off into the deep desert proper.

Sand was everywhere, getting in everything: clothes, hair, electronics, food, sleeping bag. The dunes were everywhere too, twisting, rolling and somersaulting to the four horizons. Sometimes there were giant, gnarly thick clumps of tree, 90 per cent dead wood, 10 per cent green shoots. I saw lizards and in my solitude said hello to them. At the edge of the desert, two slender deer popped up, stared at me for a full minute then danced away at lightning speed. It was silent but for the odd fly, and the ebb and flow of the wind. I felt alone, isolated, vulnerable. But being constantly in a race to get to the next cache before my water ran out, my mind was focused on moving forwards.

Day by day, as I went deeper into the dunes, they grew from a height of 5 or 10 metres to more than 50 metres, as one stacked atop the next. And even as my load of 70kg got lighter as I ate and drank it, my progress still slowed.

The dunes were contorted in such severe forms of steep walls, angular ridges and deep pits, that as I heaved and weaved my cart through them, sometimes I would be lucky to make half a kilometre per hour, or 8km a day.

I realised I would not reach my next cache before I ran out of water, and so I started rationing. But in the sweltering heat, I now gasped with thirst, my head spinning. The dunes grew increasingly menacing and became a wall around me, imprisoning me. I had joked before I set off that Taklamakan is often translated as “he who goes in does not come out”. As I collapsed into sleep that night on top of a high dune, I felt suddenly terrified that this might indeed become true of me.

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The next morning, I noticed on the map that just 10km to the south the dunes were smaller, and so I switched direction. My speed doubled with the better terrain. Eventually I stumbled out onto the road running north.

I came across a camp of workers – the first people I had seen for six days. They were surprised to see me and quickly invited me into their tent and gave me a huge bowl of rice, apples and big ripe tomatoes. My first fresh food since a farmer had given me some grapes seven days ago! I had been surviving on instant noodles, tinned meat, olive oil, and nutritious protein powder.

Having reached the cache, the dunes on my originally planned route still proved too big to pass at a viable speed with my load, so I continued further north on the oil road until I reached what seemed like a series of dune valleys, running for 90km to my next cache. That is where I am now, about to attempt in nine days to cover the distance.

Only a third of the way through this trip, I am physically and mentally exhausted. To be honest, I kind of want to give up right now, but I hope I won’t.

A few things kept me going so far: the first is that I have broken down my big, hairy audacious goal into a series of smaller goals. These are more manageable, and so by focusing on them and taking one step at a time, I gradually make progress and have the motivation to continue.

Another key practice is self-care. This means taking the time, even when I am exhausted or feel like just flopping on the sand, to disinfect blisters, stretch every morning, and take sufficient days off when I reach a water supply to allow my body, mind and emotions to recover.

I have a satellite texting device, and staying in touch with a caring and supportive community of friends (especially my wife) is vital to my mental and emotional state.

And I must remember that this will not go on forever. Seventy days in the desert feels like a long time, but before I know it, it will be over. A bit like life I guess.

Rob Lilwall is British-born Hong Kong-based adventurer and motivational speaker (roblilwall.com). He is writing monthly updates about his expedition exclusively for the SCMP.