Trek China Challenge
In our bright pink T-shirts, we were all shapes, sizes and ages but at seventy I was the eldest. All strangers, we had signed up to Breast Cancer Care’s “Trek China Challenge”, a sponsored endurance test along the Great Wall of China.
I was ready for the journey of a lifetime.
On arrival in Beijing, we whizzed along busy motorways past skyscrapers and industrial areas, then on spanking new roads planted with acres of spindly fir trees.
It was cold and dark on arrival at Simatai mountain lodge and facilities were basic. I retired to bed in a dormitory for four, donning warm pyjamas and grateful for the hot-water bottle I’d packed at the last minute.
At 7.30 a.m., we met in the courtyard, dressed in our trekking clothes. We were cold and apprehensive, tired from the ten-hour flight and time change. I took it upon myself to lead an impromptu warm-up followed by muscle stretches.
We 32 trekkers were divided into two groups, each accompanied by a representative of the charity, a Chinese doctor and a Chinese guide who spoke good English, and we were driven to our starting point, Gubeikou.
The Wall wasn’t as I had expected but a narrow track high up in the mountain peaks, unkempt, exposed, daunting and precarious.
Known as the Great Dragon, it stretches thousands of miles across the north of China, from Qinhuangdao on the Yellow Sea to Jiayuguan near the Mongolian border; it switchbacks through 17 provinces, from Shanghai Pass (Old Dragon’s Head) by the Pacific Ocean to the salt lake sand marshes of Lop Nur, where it finally lays its writhing tail to rest.
It would take about 300 days to walk its entire length but none of us had that time to spare so six very different sections had been selected.
We trekked through wind and rain, the ground uneven and wild with gradients of up to 70 degrees, much of the Wall derelict, strewn with rubble, overgrown with vegetation and without a parapet. Sure-footed “hello people” – Mongolian peasants named for their habit of introducing themselves with a cheery “hello” – appeared from nowhere and, for a few yuan, offered a steadying hand in times of trouble.
We trekked for over five hours, taking in 23 of the 1,200 watchtowers, and at Jinshanling our waiting coach transferred our weary bodies back to the lodge.
Somehow on Day Two, we staggered on through another 43 watchtowers, following a rough track with steps that were inconsistent – high and low, narrow or shallow.
Nothing had prepared me for the rough and precipitous terrain.
A break presented us with the challenge of descending a sheer rock face via three vertical, rusty ladders.
This was in order to make our way across a suspended wooden plank bridge, which swayed a thousand feet above a narrow gorge with a silver ribbon of river below.
To complete the ordeal, we leapt off the far rock face, suspended in a
A welcome break! One of the very high points of our trek!
Setting off along the Great Wall of China.
A local lady offers me a hand – and a hello!