TREKKING THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
I partnered with Charity Challenge UK to provide photography for their five-day guided tour to trek the Great Wall of China. Alongside a wonderful group of adventurers, who raised funds for various charities before the trip, I came back with a whole new appreciation for China and the beautiful landscapes surrounding the Great Wall.
There certainly is plenty of opportunity to take a chairlift up to the Great Wall, elbow some strangers to make space for that perfect selfie, all before heading back to Beijing to call it a day. But this blog is not about that kind of travel. I think to truly get a feel for how magnificent and vast the Great Wall of China is, you need to spend some significant time there. What better way than to take a few days to trek on it?
While an estimated 25,000 km of wall were built during various dynasties over centuries of China's history, perhaps the most famous section is the 1200 kilometres that sprung up during the Ming dynasty from the 16th century. We didn't trek the whole thing (in case you were wondering). For this trip we explored approximately 90 km.
Trekking the Great Wall in Spring
In early April, a faint scent of hickory hangs in the cool morning air. White plumes of peach blossoms awaken a barren, winter-worn landscape from its long slumber. You can almost watch it all come alive to the tune of chirping birds and the faint whirr of worker bees passing by overhead. Here, the constant bustle and smog-choked streets of urban existence fade away. But one reminder of humanity's need to measure up against nature impressively marks the land. As far as the eye can reach, a centuries-old stone dragon slinks its way over the tallest peaks of the Yan Mountains and dips back down into the deep and foggy valleys north of Beijing. This dragon is known as The Great Wall of China.
I'm standing on top of an old watchtower somewhere along the Gubeiku section of the Great Wall. It’s day two of our trek and today's hike is challenging: many lengths of the wall are crumbling, slowly reclaimed by thorny shrubs and knotted roots. The path is treacherous. Often, one wrong step could send you over a sharp drop or jagged cliffside. I can't help but notice the stark contrast to the Jin Shan Ling leg, a restored section of wall we hiked yesterday. (My legs are still burning from its steep, uneven stairways that seemed to wind over hills and valleys for miles on end.)
Today, however, it feels like it's just us and nature. The paths are narrow and often run alongside inaccessible portions of the wall. From my perch, I can trace the miles of bricks we've trekked along, fading into the mist behind the hills. We're about half-way through our day's hike, and looking over the other side, I can see we still have some steep challenges ahead. The sweeping valleys below fall into swaths of farmland and small villages, but even those are far away. Climbing down from the tower, I notice the gaping hole that an unexploded Japanese bomb punched straight through it sometime during the second world war. It's another reminder of all the stories these walls have to tell. I keep finding myself wondering what other secrets they might hold.
Its’s a strange feeling to get off of a plane and finally meet a group of strangers you’re about to spend a challenging week with. You know there’s a need to perform and the last thing you want is to let down the group. My head is spinning with questions as I drift through airport corridors: “Can I keep up while carrying all my photography kit?” “Will I get on with everybody?” “What if my dodgy knee acts up?”
…“What if it rains cats?”…
Clearly the sleepless red-eye flight has taken a hold of my sanity…
An immigrations officer fumbles with my passport as I awkwardly smile at him. He leafs through the pages, heavily stamping a few before waving me through. I’m now keeping a lookout for people that may be trekkers. (What does a “trekker” even look like?) After some unfruitful speculation, I spot Liz, our UK based mountain leader donning a Charity Challenge shirt. It acts as a beacon. Slowly a group of weary travellers trickles in. To the best of my extent, I introduce myself and just about manage to wrangle out some small talk as we climb into a bus headed to our hotel.
The “Impressions Inn,” our first stop, makes an alright enough impression, (or at least my head on the pillow does). I know from experience that if I allow myself any more than 30 minutes of sleep, I may as well just hand over victory to jet-lag. Outside, there’s a quiet courtyard with a few wicker chairs and tables. I position myself to soak in the last rays of sunlight filtering over the mountain and enjoy the peace in a way you only can after a long-haul flight. Nobody else seems to be staying in this hotel. Apart from a single staff member, who has just spotted me and comes running out, I’m on my own. He sets up an old stereo playing an instrumental mix of about four or five pop songs from the early 2000’s before running off.
I watch as two young women emerge from the building with a folding table and chairs. They set up facing me. “Bar sir?” one asks, placing an assortment of snacks and drinks out. “Don’t mind if I do”.
The beers are just about cold enough to pass as drinkable. I crack one open and am joined by Terri who’s thrilled to discover the only bottle of Corona the “bar” seems to have. She tells me she’s a teacher and works with special needs kids in London. A couple, who are students in Scotland, also joins in and before I know it, we’ve got most of the group hanging out, bobbing our heads to what I think might be a butchered lounge version of “What a Girl Wants” by Christina Aguilera.
We’re invited into a room with a large round table for dinner. It’s big enough to sit all fourteen of us comfortably. The conversation is just about surviving on smalltalk, speckled with some carefully placed humour. Liz suggests we all introduce ourselves officially, and that we share the charity we’re supporting. The stories start rolling in, and before we know it, everybody is opening up. Stories of loss, resilience, perseverance and strength are being told. Everybody here has chosen to partake in this challenge for a personal reason. It’s something we all have in common, and it turns out, it’s what would make this trip so special.
By the time we arrive at the Great Wall for our first day of trekking the following morning, Terri’s jokes already have everybody in stitches. She’s single handedly managed to open up the floodgates of banter, and has already handed out a few nicknames, which incidentally, will end up sticking throughout the week. Pretty quickly, any social caution you might find amongst strangers is all but washed away.
The views today are breathtaking. Seeing the Great Wall is like nothing I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about experiencing a man-made structure that spreads across the landscape, without much regard for any obstacles that might hinder it’s progression. It quickly becomes clear to me that the effort is well worth it as we make our way from one watch-tower to the next.
Learning from a Guide while Trekking The Great Wall
One can only imagine what life would have been like for those who built the Great Wall, pouring everything into laying brick after brick high in the Yan Mountains, come rain, snow or dry summer heat. "A single hand-made brick weighs about 10KG", our guide, Jason, tells me as we begin our third day of trekking the Great Wall from the small village of Xihazi.
I ask him if the Wall was built by forced labour. He nods. For most involved it was a short and brutish life. "But for many, a sense of duty to the safety of home and family" was a motivator in making the Wall their life's work, he adds. It's little insights like these that make having a local guide so worthwhile.
I learn that the bricks were often produced in small villages like Xihazi. After moulding them on their farms, men would carry three to four at a time up into the mountains on their backs. This little fact puts the challenging hike up to the wall into perspective. Still, it's a hot day, and the path up through winding forest trails doesn't seem to end.
With heavy legs, we push our way through thick underbrush. The air is dry and the fine red dust we're kicking up from the path is beginning to cake on to my skin. An overall sense of weariness from the last few days is beginning to take hold of me and it seems like it’s been hours since we left Xihazi without any real progress. Our goal today is to reach one of the highest towers in the region, Zhenbeilou, but it still looks so far away. Jason shoots me a grin. "There's a cold beer waiting for you at the end," he adds encouragingly. I suppose it's not all too hard to figure out my motivators...
Despite having made this trek dozens of times, Jason still approaches it with absolute awe. His excitement is nothing short of infectious and his undying optimism makes the hour-long "only ten-more-minute-hikes" a joy. He has a background in history from his university days, and he's completely passionate about sharing his knowledge with our group. He makes no effort to hide a sense of pride in his heritage and culture which in turn gives us a far deeper appreciation for all that we are seeing.
We stop for a quick bite and a breather. Through a clearing in the blossoming apricot trees, I spot a segment of the Great Wall below. The view is breathtaking and I can't help but stare down into the valley and feel an overwhelming sense of awe. Long distance trekking is a mental game. Little breaks like these are important. Ever so often, it takes a little pause or a stunning vista to give you some perspective on your progress, and more importantly, a second wind. That, or Jason's reminder that a cold beer is waiting at the end...
When we finally reach Zhenbeilou tower, there is a collective sense of relief. It’s the highest point of the entire trek, and a perfect spot for lunch. A few of us purchase small red prayer flags from a vendor, and carefully tie them on a branch overlooking the valley. It feels cathartic and for quite a few of us, myself included, it’s a moment to remember somebody we’ve lost.
Food and Accommodation on our Journey
True to his word, like an absolute legend, Jason hands me an ice-cold beer in the lobby of our hotel before I can even finish checking in. Somehow, it always tastes better after a day like today. To my surprise, I find that my room has a very inviting bathtub, which I make full use of. Until now, the hotels have been nice, but pretty basic. It might be more appropriate to call the rest of them lodges in comparison, but they have also been getting more comfortable every night as we move closer to Beijing.
Finally, supper-time rolls in and I'm seated at a large round table with the rest of the group. Feeling ravenous, I'm overcome with a sense of joy when the first waiter brings out a tray of aromatic food; large steaming bowls of jasmine rice, honey glazed aubergine slices, succulent strips of sweet and sour pork, a variety of soft steamed dumplings and mountains of broccoli and bok-choi with toasted almond slices all find their place on an oversized lazy suzan in the centre of our table. Around and around she spins. With every lap, the mountains decrease in size, until everybody is contently rubbing their bellies. After having had a similar meal most nights so far, I can't help but wonder if maybe some of these dishes are being slightly 'westernised', for our "delicate palettes". Who am a kidding though? After a long day's trek, a good hearty meal just hits the spot and so far, none have disappointed.
Completing The Challenge
As I look out over the last descent on our final day, I can make out the finish line at the bottom of the slope. It's not so much a finish line as it is an unimpressive staircase leading to a dusty parking lot. But that's not the point. Crossing it represents an end to an important and formative journey. What has only been five days now seems like so much more. Together with a group of complete strangers, I've laughed, cried, cursed and commiserated. But more importantly, I've been inspired. Travel tends to do that, but there is more to it here. Each and every person in this group challenged themselves to raise funds for a cause that helped somebody near and dear to them. Every backstory matters, and together, we trekked the Great Wall to make a difference in the world, even if just a small one.