Cycling out of mediocrity

Cycling out of mediocrity

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 3½ 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.

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