I was only in the car for a few minutes when I heard the advert on the radio for a trek on the Great Wall of China with Charity Challenge. I was instantly curious… was I brave enough? I figured there was only one way to find out and only one charity I wanted to do it for, The Somerville Foundation, a charity very close to my heart as my husband was born with a very rare congenital heart defect. It turned out to be one of the biggest, scariest and most amazing challenges of my life!
I started training for the 5 day, 10,000 stair trek in January, my weighted rucksack became part of me as I took my two dogs for walks that consistently covered more and more distance. As where I live is fairly flat, my family were regularly treated to me trudging up and down my stairs for long periods of time, often at 5am, as part of my training for the many stairs I was going to face. I also started fundraising, doing pasta nights, afternoon teas, a quiz night, boot fairs and a Christmas cake raffle and, with amazing support from my friends and family, I raised a jaw dropping £3,390 for The Somerville Foundation!
After all the hard work and preparation, the day finally arrived to go to Heathrow Airport; start my adventure and meet the people I was going to be spending the next 9 days with. I needn?t have worried as everyone else was as nervous and excited as I was – and treasured, life-long friendships were born.
When we first arrived we met our fantastic guides Michael, Jason and Jenny who did an amazing job of looking after us for the whole 9 days, their knowledge was endless and they had an abundance of patience, always making sure we were safe, listening to our moaning and sharing our achievements. The first hotel was more comfortable than we were expecting and the Chinese banquets we had each night were delicious, recognisable and thankfully not living up to the many horror stories we had heard about Chinese food. We also had our first encounter with a squat toilet, which we were soon to discover, was definitely going to be a challenge on our senses and our tired legs after a long day trekking! We woke up the next morning all really keen and excited to get going on our first day?s trek. Every day we would be walking a different section of the wall; our first day was a renovated section call the ?Jinshanling Loop? and with it the suddenly, and now obvious, realisation that to reach the wall each day would be a lengthy and often very steep climb up a mountain to get to it.
The climb was definitely worth it as our first proper views of the wall were breathtaking, but the enormity of it became obvious as you could see it snaking, almost fluidly, along the spine of the mountains for miles and miles each way. We were also introduced to the near vertical steps and slopes that would become part of our everyday trekking and, for me, how vulnerable I felt being so high up with often sheer drops either side. At least we had the luxury of supporting walls on this section and our first experience of the most impressive picnic spots I have ever seen. We finished our first day exhausted but elated and hoping our legs would make it through the week.
On Tuesday we walked an un-renovated section called the ?Gubeikou Gate?. This was a very different experience to the day before as in places the wall had crumbled away completely, there were no supporting walls on either side and often all that was left of the towers were the platforms they had stood on. This was also our first introduction to the interesting challenge of having to avoid the trees and vegetation that was growing wild, sometimes forcing the path dangerously close to the edge of what was left of the wall. This did not help with my fear of heights, but yet again we were rewarded with the most unbelievable views. The carpet of tree tops we could see from that high up were in full autumnal magnificence, a dazzling array of oranges and reds were a privilege to see. The week after our visit, there was a good chance of snow and the leaves would be all gone.
Wednesday was the ?Mutianyu? section, which started with a steep, 1,000 metre climb through forest and thankfully the day started with a heavy mist that clung to the mountains which helped me as I couldn?t see how high we were getting! We finally reached the top and, just to make sure we were as high as we could possibly go, we had to negotiate two very basic, handmade ladders to get up to the tower. The first part of the trek was on un-renovated wall which then met the top of a renovated and very popular tourist section called the ?Stairway to Heaven?. Where the two sections met, we were greeted by the impressive sight of hundreds of red ribbons all tied to the trees, fluttering in the wind, each carrying a message of love or hope written by someone wanting to leave it in what seems to be to closest place to heaven as you can get on Earth. Some had been there for years and were tatty and faded but still carrying their precious messages. I bought a ribbon and left a message of love, health and happiness for my family, tied it high in a tree, loving the thought that it will stay up there forever.
Thursday we tackled another un-renovated section called the ?yellow flower route? which involved a difficult climb up through a chestnut forest, and as with the other un-renovated sections, it wasn?t open to the public. I loved these sections because I felt very privileged to experience parts of this special place that very few people get to see. Unbelievably, the last days trekking gave us yet another different and amazing experience of this great wall. This section was the ?Badaling? section which had been renovated and was the first with hand rails! The coach took us to 600 meters and we were to climb up to 1200 meters. We started the mornings trek in freezing fog, the sun a weak, watery disk barely visible in the sky and the stairs disappearing upwards into the clouds, keeping the steep climb ahead of us a secret. Our tired legs kept taking us up and up until suddenly we broke through the clouds and found ourselves in brilliant sunshine with views that will stay with me forever. The surrounding mountains were peeking through the carpet of clouds, crowned by the towers of the wall and the scenery changing constantly as the clouds rolled past.
We finished the trek with a mixture of emotions; pride, achievement, sadness that we?d finished our last trek and excitement as rest of our time in China will be spent in Beijing experiencing what it had to offer. We arrive at our final hotel and given 45 minutes to change, then headed down onto the Beijing Underground to catch a train to get us to a Chinese theatre to watch an exciting and vibrant acrobatic show. Our next treat was something our tired bodies would thank us for, a full body massage! With all 17 of us in one room together, you could only imagine the groans (and laughter from the ticklish among us) as they worked on our achy muscles. Tired but relaxed, we headed back to the hotel.
Our last day was jam packed. We started by visiting the Temple of Heaven and after joining in with Tai Chi, dancing and keep fit in the temple park we were able to experience a tea ceremony, learning about the different teas and their benefits. Next, we made our way to an indoor market to practise our bartering skills and lastly, we had a fascinating tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. That evening we had our celebration meal which was not only a chance for us to enjoy our last night together but to celebrate this amazing, unique and life changing experience that we had all shared together.