Travelling the world: the preserve of freedom-seeking gap year students, rat race escapees and millionaires. And now, a 28-year-old Mancunian by the name of Michael Lee Johnson. Like many, Michael’s adventure of a lifetime will be travelled alone and involve thousands of kilometres. But unlike others, Michael will cover the kilometres – all 15,000 of them – on foot, unaided, and potentially through some of the most dangerous countries on Earth.
Fed up of being a slave to his computer, in July Michael will fly to Beijing and spend three years walking back to London (though he’s set aside another two in case it takes him a bit longer) in a journey dubbed On Foot to Freedom. But with a background in web design rather than adventure travel, why has Michael set himself a challenge many feel is impossible? And why China, an unfamiliar country whose language Michael does not speak?
“London’s the place that’s free, whereas in China such freedom isn’t enjoyed,” he explains. “My entire journey’s ‘on foot to freedom’, so it makes sense to walk from China to London because of the political reasons – you are actually walking to freedom.”
So is this mammoth walk – a term that hardly seems adequate for the epic journey Michael is planning – really a political statement, an extreme way of raising awareness of China’s questionable human rights record? Well, not really – and if it was, China wouldn’t be the most sensible place to do it. Rather, Michael will focus on exploiting the potential of social media to raise awareness of himself and On Foot to Freedom as brands.
‘Freedom’, he explains, has a double meaning. Yes, there may be well-intentioned abstract political motives, but this will be a journey primarily undertaken for personal rather than professional reasons. “I’ve been sat at a computer for the last 20 years so I think it’s time to leave the monitor and walk from one side of the world to the other,” Michael says. “I’ve been sat at a computer for so long – it’s not a life. I’m not scared of dying, I’m scared of not living. Some family members think I’m going to find myself, but I’ve already found myself – life is about creating yourself, not finding yourself.”
His determination is admirable, but does Michael understand the risks of walking alone from one continent to another, through one of the most volatile regions on Earth? After a year and a half of intense planning and training, he firmly believes so.
“I’m working between 16 and 18 hours every day, spread between training, marketing, eating and sleeping,” Michael explains. “I’ve been training on Ben Nevis and Snowdon for the last seven months in different weather conditions, but the journey is planned in such a way that I should arrive in each country at the right time, so there shouldn’t be any real extremes of temperature. The only thing I’m really concerned about is not being able to get food and water, as at times I’ll be away from civilisation for seven to 14 days. I’m doing it alone, but it would be great if I got some kind of Forrest Gump following along the way.”
It’s this isolation and the gaps between destinations causing the greatest concern – not just among family members, but those who’ve completed similar journeys using more practical means. During one stage in the Gobi Desert, for example, Michael is likely to walk for 15 days without seeing another human being. Motorists who’ve completed the same journey have warned Michael it’s impossible on foot, but he has a little trick up his sleeve – or rather, one being pulled by his shoulders. “I’ve spoken to a guy who walked from the bottom of South America to the top of North America. He used a trolley to carry all his supplies, and he’s taught me how to build one.”
Central to Michael’s preparations is the route, which will be loosely based on the old Silk Road trodden by Marco Polo. The first confirmed stage is a 4,500km hike from Beijing to Kashgar, a western Chinese town close to the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan borders. Via Xian and the Beijing Wall, it will take approximately one year and three months to complete. “Once I’m in Kashgar I’ve got three possible routes in mind,” Michael says, “but because of the problems in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan I won’t be able to confirm which I’ll be taking until the time.
“A lot can change in three years; one route I have in mind would be simply impossible at the moment. I know it won’t be a walk in the park whichever I choose, but the premise stays the same: I just need to put one foot in front of the other for three to five years. I’m loaded with maps and a GPS system, so I shouldn’t get lost.”
Michael is obviously limited in terms of how much equipment he can take, but his 22 sponsors will be providing all the gadgetry he needs en route – a lightweight laptop, phone and camping equipment: tools that will allow him to plot his route online in real time. Other necessities will be packed into boxes and wait for Michael at various city storage locations.
With the bulk of preparation work completed, Michael is looking forward to finally beginning a challenge he first mooted at the tender age of eight. Amid the frenetic media attention the clock is slowly ticking down to 21st July – the date he will board a plane at Heathrow and fly to Beijing, the Chinese capital.
“I’ll spend a week there on an intense Mandarin course,” Michael says, “and then it’s a case of getting going. I’m planning to walk over 25km each day at 4mph, though some days I’ll have to walk between 40 and 50km. Luckily China’s quite flat, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem until I get to the mountains and the desert.”
We’ll be keeping tabs on Michael’s progress, but for regular updates you can follow the man himself on Twitter.