Cycling out of mediocrity

A recent interview with the Sunday Times in Singapore.

By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer

Growing up, Rob Lilwall was a pretty average fellow.

He was mediocre in his studies, not particularly good in sports, listened to middle-of-the-road music and led quite a humdrum existence. But when he was in his first year at the University of Edinburgh, something happened which changed his life.

Bored by a droning lecture on quantitative biology one day, he flipped open an atlas. His eyes fell on a page on South Asia and a little red line running through the mountains from Pakistan to China. The little red line – which had him fixated for months – was the Karakoram Highway, a 1,200km road which follows an ancient network of trade routes connecting South Asia with West and Central Asia.

He tore a piece of paper from his note pad, wrote “Do you want to come and cycle across the Karakoram Highway this summer?” and passed it to an old school friend, Al Humphreys, seated in front of him. The latter did not know where it was, so Mr Lilwall scribbled a reply. A scratch of the head and a pause later, his friend scrawled something on the note and passed it back to him. “Ok,” the note said. That trip was the first of several epic journeys Mr Lilwall was to undertake, turning him from a run-of-the-mill Englishman to an adventurer and explorer quite extraordinary.

In 2004, he embarked on a 50,000km cycling trip from Siberia back home to England, a 3 1/2 year expedition which took him through the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the war-torn passes of Afghanistan and the desolate sub-zero landscapes of Siberia. In 2011, he set out on an arduous six-month 5,000km trek through China, from the Gobi desert to the South China Sea. His adventures have spawned two books and two television series by National Geographic.

Now based in Hong Kong, the 37-year-old is also a popular corporate and motivational speaker. He especially enjoys it when his audience is schoolchildren and teenagers. “I always tell them: ‘You may not be the cleverest or the sportiest or the most popular, but you shouldn’t let that contain you in what you aim for in life.’” Fit and ruddy-cheeked, the congenial adventurer was born in London and is the younger of two children of a chartered surveyor and a part-time secretary. He was, he says with a laugh, an unexceptional kid.

“I was not particularly good at sports although I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the outdoors although I was not a super proficient survival kind of guy,” says Mr Lilwall who was in town recently to speak at the SIM Interest Group Convention. The event, organised by the Singapore Institute of Management, featured talks on industry trends, best practices and inspiring experiences by an array of speakers. His mediocrity was compounded by a crippling shyness.

“I was always not the kid to put up his hand in class. In fact, I was very conscious of my self-consciousness. I didn’t like it and was always trying to overcome it.” To become less socially awkward, he took a gap year and flew to Zimbabwe to become a volunteer teacher with a charity when he turned 19.

“I’d never been outside Europe and it was a magical year. I taught classes of 50 or 60 students in villages. At that time, Zimbabwe was still beautiful and peaceful, just before it went downhill,” he says, referring to the landlocked country in Southern Africa now grappling with a litany of troubles from political strife to an economy in deep crisis. The eight-month sojourn, he says, awakened an interest in adventure, one which he had been nursing after reading the books of adventurers such as Ranulph Fiennes and Benedict Allen.

Fiennes was the first person to reach the North and South Poles and the first to cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean; Allen has gone on solo expeditions through the Amazon jungle, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. It culminated in his decision to traverse the Karakoram Highway in 1997. For that trip, Mr Lilwall and Mr Humphreys forked out £400 each for good bikes, and did a training trip cycling around Scotland. They then flew to Islamabad before getting on their bikes to cycle to Kashgar, in the westernmost corner of China. The trip, he says, was relatively event-free.

“It was 1997, and there were no strong anti-Western sentiments then like now. There were valleys with more fundamentalist sects but we would not stay the night at these places; we would just cycle through.” Danger, if any, came in the form of massive landslides. “You just had to pick your bike up and run through rivers,” he says. In fact, the duo completed their expedition a couple of weeks earlier than planned. Because they had time, they decided to fly to Istanbul and from there bike home to London. Mr Humphreys, however, developed problems with one of his legs in Rome so Mr Lilwall ended up biking his way through Europe home to London on his own. Big adventure over, Mr Lilwall thought he would buckle down to the business of finding himself and charting a direction for his future. He spent his next two university vacations as a volunteer worker for charitable projects; he worked on a rehabilitation project for street children in Mexico City and in a poor area in Glasgow.

In his final year, he took off for Nashville to undergo training to become a door-to-door salesman with a company selling educational books. “I thought my shyness still really needed getting rid off,” he says. He returned to London after making US$10,000 in a couple of months. The same success eluded him when he went back to London, and he found a job selling exhibition space for a trade show. “I was awful. I didn’t make a single cent after eight weeks,” he recalls with a grimace. “I tried a few other jobs but I wasn’t confident about launching a business career.” So he applied for a grant to get trained as a teacher instead. He spent two years teaching in a secondary school in Oxfordshire.

“It was a baptism by fire. In the first year, I couldn’t control those kids at all.” He found his rhythm by the second year. “I learnt not to take myself too seriously. I learnt that even if you are totally failing at something, it’s not the end of the world. So I learnt to enjoy myself more.”

But just as he was settling into his job, his cycling companion sent him a fateful e-mail. The lives of the two friends had diverged after their big adventure on the Karakoram Highway. Like him, Mr Humphreys also did his teacher training after Edinburgh, but instead of teaching, he went on more bike trips. He set out on an ambitious trip around the world, cycling from London to Cape Town, to South America, Alaska and Asia. On his vacations, Mr Lilwall would fly out to places like Ethiopia and La Paz to join his friend. One day, he received an e-mail from Mr Humphreys asking him to cycle with him across Asia.

The e-mail included a quote from an Eminem song: “Look, if you had just one opportunity, just one shot, to seize everything you ever wanted, would you take the chance …?” That struck a chord. “I was a geography teacher. I told myself that teaching jobs were not hard to get and it would not be too bad for my CV if I took 11/2 years off teaching to explore the world. And as Al said in his e-mail; ‘If not now, then when?’” And that is how the duo ended up in Magadan, in north-east Russia in September 2004.

“We looked at the map and it was really the end of the road. So we said: ‘Let’s start there, some place end of the world-ish.’” They had some crazy – many good, some bad – adventures along the way. The conditions were often punishing. In many places, the temperature was -40 degrees. Coal miners and indigenous tribes in Siberia would invite them into their homes, feed them, sometimes with exotic fare like pony liver, and offer them respite from the cold.

“One night, while we were riding alongside the Trans-Siberian railway line, some guys in a car pulled up beside us and robbed us of all the money we had,” he recalls. On another occasion, a kindly couple who ran a trucker’s cafe in the middle of nowhere in Russia offered them a hut near the cafe to rest for the night. “In the middle of the night, we woke up and saw that the cafe was on fire. We ran out. The couple ran out in time but the man who was helping them run the cafe did not. The cafe exploded and killed him,” he says.

When they reached Japan a few months later, he and Mr Humphreys parted ways. “Al wanted to do northern China and then head back home. I had it in my head that I wanted to go to Australia. I also realised I needed to do this trip alone because I was relying a lot on Al and hiding behind him to fix things, to be the problem solver. “I saw how much he had grown and I told myself I should try and do this too.”

He cycled and sailed through several places including Busan, Tianjin, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea – before ending up in Australia. After Australia, he cycled home to Britain, through South-east Asia to China and Tibet as well as India and Pakistan. Over the course of the trip – which lasted three years and two months – he kept a blog and shot videos of his adventures. Publisher Hodder & Stoughton offered him a deal to write Cycling Home From Siberia, and National Geographic used his footage for a six-part TV series of the same name.

While the trip has given him memories and adventures to last a lifetime, Mr Lilwall says his biggest coup was meeting his wife Christine – a lawyer turned non-governmental organisation worker – in Hong Kong. The two had a long-distance relationship – with Christine occasionally flying out to meet him in different places – before they tied the knot in 2009. The couple now live in Lantau Island in Hong Kong; both of them work for a charity called Viva helping children at risk.

In 2011, the intrepid adventurer embarked on another challenging expedition. “Instead of cycling home from Siberia, I thought we’d walk home from Mongolia,” he says. With a cameraman, he flew from Hong Kong to the Gobi, trekked through the desert before going down the Yellow River. The result was another book and another documentary series. Each adventure, Mr Lilwall says, has helped him grow up a little. He has plans for a few more expeditions but is not ready to talk about them yet.

“There is a lot of can-do in me now. I’ve learnt so many things through my experiences. We are all strong enough to make it through life. And people will help you along the way,” says the explorer who now gives at least two talks a month to establishments ranging from multinationals to schools. “I use my trip as a metaphor to explain things like goal setting, resilience and problem solving. The power of the message is in the story. Stories are far more powerful than just bullet points.”