Leon McCarron comes to Inverness to talk as part of RSGS Inspiring People series about his epic walk from Mongolia to Hong Kong and the new Xuefeng Mountain Trail he helped launchLONGER READ
LOOKING back on his trip walking from Mongolia to Hong Kong nine years ago, Leon McCarron from Northern Ireland now says it was maybe just as well he and his friend were a bit naïve or they would never have done it!
The 3,000-mile trip took them from -30 temperatures to tropical conditions as Leon fulfilled his wish to take a slower trip than the bike travels he had already made on cross-country expeditions.
He will be talking about it on Monday when he comes to Inverness as part of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Inspiring People talks programme with A Window into a Forgotten China.
But since that epic trip, Leon has been back to China.
Last year, he returned to walk in the same country but in a very different way, even more slowly and with the plan to design and get a long-distance hiking trail up and running.
Now his talk will update on progress on that, which has taken things forward.
Leon laughs remembering preparing for that first long walk after cycling round the world and what he should take with him, starting out on the coldest part of the journey.
“We took everything and could barely walk a step!” Leon laughed, who is half Scottish – and spent his school holidays in the Cairngorms or Highlands, as his grandparents lived in Aberdeen.
“We both had a fair amount of experience from before, but this time for me there was no bicycle to do any of the heavy lifting for you, and we definitely overpacked.
“There were very few luxuries, but it was very cold to begin with so we had lots and lots of layers and warm clothes and electronics and our sleeping bags and camping stoves and books and everything else and slowly started to pare that down.
“At the beginning we had a pair of hiking boots and a pair of shoes to change into in the evenings. But the weight of an extra pair of shoes was too much so we just had flop-flops and socks if it was cold! That would mean we would save half a kilogram or so.
“Looking back on it – nine years on – I’m sort of impressed and amused by the audacity of the two of us because I can see now we were so underprepared in so many ways.
“And I’m glad we didn’t realise how hard it was going to be because we would probably be sitting in Hong Kong still worrying about it if we did!”
Looking back, he agrees China will have changed a lot even since then – the changes were happening as the duo were making their journey at the time.
Leon said: “We were moving through a country that was changing so rapidly, it was modernising and industrialising at breakneck speed.
“There are so many things from China that are hard to comprehend when you come from this part of the world.
“Every day we were crossing another motorway that was being built and you would see places literally growing out of the ground.
“Between then and now, to go back to some of these places would be to see an entirely different landscape.
“There have been lots of reasons to go back to China in the last few years for me, but certainly one of them is to see how much the landscape can change in less than a decade.”
Since those days, Leo has travelled a lot, including a 1,000-mile journey through the Empty Quarter desert on the Arabian Peninsula.
But he has also been trying to fulfill a dream to create a hiking trail in China to give others a taste of what he saw on that epic walk.
“There is so much to China that fascinates us all, people are terrified and sceptical of it, but they are also amazed by the scale of it and the natural beauty and deep history and so on,” Leon said. “So I wondered if there was a way I could replicate the sort of experience I had over the seven months and 3,000 miles, but for people who didn’t want to take seven months off work and walk 3,000 miles!
“I thought a lot of that was just a slog.Some of it was wonderful.
“So what if I just take the best parts and replicate them in a much shorter and more bite-size form? And that is where the idea of creating a long-distance hiking trail, in the region of 60-80 miles/ 100 kilometres came from. Something you could do in a week or a couple of weeks.”
Recently he helped launch the resulting Xuefeng Mountain Trail which will now be looked after by local people there and he loves the idea of helping safeguard historical and cultural artefacts in China.
“It is one of the things that is exciting to me about trying to work there,” Leon said. “Part of the big appeal is to try to design a sustainable hiking trail that goes through the beautiful and historic and culturally rich part of the country.
“That also means that intrinsically you are helping to safeguard all those various aspects because they are then given a value. That is happening in a lot of China, there is value being attached to cultural heritage.
“Even to be a small cog in that, doing something that is part of something much bigger, to protect the past, is such a wonderful thing to do.”
The idea began to take shape when he met his friend Denis, who is Chinese but lives and works in Bristol and China. The two used to meet up when Leon was in London and the two began to discuss the possibility of setting up a hiking trail in China and where would be a good location.
“Through those conversations we began to look seriously at Denis’s home province of Hunan, he thought that area might be interesting’.
“So we went to take a look and it was very beautiful and what someone might think looked very essentially Chinese.
“There were lots of agricultural and rural landscapes – lots of rice terraces, a few different ethnicities living alongside each other, lots of traditions of oral storytelling and folklore and music and I thought it would be amazing to just try and design a week-long hiking trail there and bring people both from other parts of China and from the rest of the world.
“That was when we discovered that really nothing else like this exists in China.
“Hiking is not yet a popular activity, but suddenly there are 1.4 billion people who are starting to adopt all sorts of new recreational activities as the middle class grows in China.
“And wouldn’t it be great to get people into hiking and things that are sustainable and healthy?
“I then brought in a friend from the US who has a lot of experience of trail design and we spent most of last year working on it.
“We covered hundreds of miles in the scouting phase and used existing pathways to do it in a symbiotic way with the landscape.
“We wanted to use paths that have already been cut by someone else, old farming paths or shepherds’ routes, old trade paths, things like that.
“We were asking in villages ‘Where does this go’? If younger generations don’t use them any more, we asked where their grandparents used to walk.
“You look at satellite imagery and piece it all together.
“Then you just try and use these paths to try and tell the story of a region, so someone from another part of China or the rest of the world could come in and almost experience that story with their feet.
“They walk it like you might read a book. Each village is another part of the story. Over the trail you go through this rich experience.”
Leon’s enthusiasm is obvious as he talks about being in Hunan province and creating the trail with international experts and local people, using existing pathways.
“We leave and pass it on to the local partners and it becomes theirs. They are integral to this, they own it and keep it alive and keep taking it forward so if they want to adapt sections in future – becauseone bit feels like it doesn’t work, say, or they want to slightly reroute it to go through a different village, then they can. And that is the most organic way for it to develop.
“It has been a lot of fun.”
He loves the idea this trail will be the first of its kind in China, attracting foreign visitors to this undiscovered corner, and will hopefully breathe life into ailing communities, and give people ownership of their cultural heritage.
Leon will also talk about tourism a little bit as well as China in Inverness.
”As we all come to think a little bit more about how we traveland what our impact is on the environment it’s not just responsible for us to be suggesting that everyone go flying off to China to go hiking.
“But if people are going to China anyway or that part of the world anyway, then why not include a week of hiking in there?
“Or for the hundreds of thousands of ex-pats who live in China too. And the Chinese themselves, as they explore the rest of the world, why not also encourage them to stay at home more and to reduce their own flights and travel and reduce their own carbon footprint by going and doing something in their own backyard.
“And inevitably there are things that Chinese people will not know about their own country, it’s just a byproduct of living in such a vast place!”
There are more trails planned.
“We’re looking at doing another trail in China, hopefully,” he said. “And also a trail in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq – which is maybe not the first place that might come to your mind for a little hiking holiday!
“But the landscape there is very distinct from the rest of Iraq. And it is incredibly safe – and very beautiful.
“I’ve rarely come across a place that makes my jaw drop with quite so much frequency, so we are trying to design a trail there and we are making good progress.”
He laughed: “I’m highly aware that not that many people are going to be queuing up for the next chance to go hiking in Northern Iraq, but these things happen slowly, slowly.
“And I just love the lovely idea that something as simple as walking could be one of the ways we alter our perception of a place like Iraq.
“You know we think of it in terms of conflict and suffering and I’d like to slowly change that in the way in which we look at it as a place of natural beauty and prosperity.”
Leon is speaking at the Highland Council Chamber, Glenurquhart Road, Inverness, tonight (Monday, February 10) and the talk begins at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10and are available via rsgs.org They can also be bought at the door.