China trekker Leon misses ‘a fry and a dram of whiskey’

AN Articlave man nearing the end of a 3,000-mile trek across the Far East says he has been struck by the extreme poverty of many Chinese people – but has also been left overwhelmed by their exceptional hospitality.

Leon McCarron began walking across the Gobi Desert from Mongolia in November and has almost completed his trek across the middle of China.

The professional adventurer is making the trip with his English friend Rob Lilwall, aiming to raise £80,000 for international children’s charity Viva. They are also filming footage of their trip to be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel.

The Gobi Desert means “waterless place” in Mongolian. Contrary to romantic thought, it is not a sandy desert but bare rock. It has average temperatures ranging from −40C in winter to 45C in summer. True to its name, annual rainfall ranges from just two inches in the west to no more than eight inches in the north east.

“We pulled a small trailer with our food and water to do us for a couple of weeks,” Leon says.

The pair experienced temperatures around -10C during the day and down to -30C at night.

The first section of their trip across the Gobi was 250 miles to the Chinese border and then another 400 miles through similar terrain inside China.

Leon admits he has missed his home comforts.

“When I am at home there is nothing I enjoy better than sitting in front of the television to watch football with a beer,” he said.

“But that doesn’t help you achieve anything. The first few days of a trip are always the hardest – you want nothing better than to lie in your bed and watch some television.”

So how does he relax when on the road?

His escapes are thriller and detective books on Kindle and he also listens to folk music. Another comfort is his hip flask with Bushmills whiskey – a taste of home.

And what is the one thing he misses most about home?

“I wouldn’t say no to an Ulster Fry – just a fry,” he says.

“I get a call from home every few weeks but it is expensive so I send an email home every week. I get a lot of emails from supportive friends.

“You can be sitting at the side of a road in China feeling down and then you get an email saying ‘Keep up the good work!’ It really lifts your spirits.”

Leon says he has witnessed for himself the huge gap between rich and poor in China.

“One day you can be in a poor village where people have to crack the ice in the river to get their daily water. You can be staying with the poorest people who live on a small plot of corn which they eat and sell – and who keep a few animals.

“Then the next day you can be staying with a guy who owns six BMWs who has just opened a chain of factories.

“There is just so much capitalism going on for a communist country. It is fascinating.”

The most surprising thing about his trip has been the Chinese people, insists Leon.

“They are so welcoming and inquisitive about why you would make a trip through their country. They are so welcoming and friendly, making meals and free tea for you. I was not expecting this level of a welcome. It has given us a real boost.”

At one point the pair got lost in a valley and were taken in by an elderly couple, both around 80 to 90 years old.

“We were in the middle of nowhere without food and they just took us in and fed us and gave us a place to stay for the night without asking any questions. They had such thick accents we could not understand them.”

Leon has a deadline to make it back to Northern Ireland. He has been nominated to carry the Olympic Torch through Cushendall on June 3 so they are aiming to finish their trek in Hong Kong by May 26.

He was nominated for the Olympic honour after completing a cycle trek in 2011 across the US, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia – once again ending in Hong Kong.

Follow Leon’s progress on