It’s now Monday after my week with my trek group and I have a lot to catch up on in the journal! Last time I wrote I had got to the point where we had crossed the border into China and headed to bed before the final stretch into Beijing.
Saturday 15th October – Tuesday 18th October:
We were woken with a knock at the door at 4.30am to prepare to alight from the train when it arrived in Beijing at 5.45am. After a bit of faffing to get ourselves up and organised we had a fair amount of time to kill but enjoyed a minute to reflect on the journey and the experience.
Arriving into the city it was a sea of smog…. You couldn’t see further than about 50meters in front of you – I wondered if this was just the way it was in Beijing but later in the trip I discovered this had just been an extreme day – pollution was high but some days definitely worse (and more visual) than others.
After a quick photo to mark the end of our journey we made our way to try and find a taxi to the hotel….our first challenge. Fortunately, I had the name of my hotel in Mandarin (more luck than preparation) but Sarah only had the English name. We found the taxi queue and attempted to get a ride. Sarah stood with the lady leading people into taxis for a while and they couldn’t work out where she wanted to go and after showing no less than 5 drivers my address they all refused to take me…. Turns out it was too close and not worth their while (about 10 min drive).
So we gave up and tried to work out plan B. Deciding that everywhere has Stabucks with free wifi we attempted that as an approach but couldn’t find one. We then spotted a hotel across the road from the station with both Mandarin and English, we made our way there and saw a few taxis on the side of the road on route. Sarah had read that as long as the taxi was ‘golden’ (yellow) with another colour, they were legit. We finally managed to get one driver to take us to my hotel, Sarah came with me with the thought that the staff at my hotel should be able to get the name of her hotel and send her on her way.
We arrived at my hotel and it was beautiful…. Sarah sorted her address and the concierge found her a taxi…. An emotional goodbye after a crazy week and she was on her way! It was about 6.30am so understandably my room wasn’t available but they gave me a coffee and sat with down with the wifi code which allowed me to catch up on the fun I’d missed while I was away! 125 WhatsApp messages, hundreds of emails and a few imessages kept me entertained while I waited for my room.
At about 8am I was shown to my room – 6 hours earlier than check in, I was in heaven. The room was literally the size of my flat. I enjoyed a long long shower, ordered some breakfast, put literally all my clothes in for laundry and put myself to bed for over 3 hours! Waking up I decided to go and explore and had a swim and jacuzzi in the facilities before another long shower! After all of this I finally felt human again.
I enjoyed some dinner down at the hotel restaurant – a Chinese buffet but not how we know it at home… the food was incredible. After a good feed I headed back up to the room for a bath (2 showers and a bath in one day…. possibly excessive but after none for a week, it was necessary!) with a glass of wine before heading for another decent sleep.
I took Sunday morning equally as easily. The rest of the trek group weren’t landing into Beijing international until 1pm so I allowed myself a bit of a lie in. After some breakfast, a shower and packing up my bag with my sparkly clean clothes I was ready to go and see where my next adventure took me!
Taxis are really cheap in Beijing so I picked up another cab for my journey ahead…. It was an experience! Traffic in Beijing is completely crazy, people coming from all directions, tuk tuks also floating in and out of main traffic and cyclists, humans just going as they want – all hoping not to hit each other. I thought London traffic was bad but I’d seen nothing!!
I arrived at the airport with plenty of time and so grabbed a sandwich and coffee (with the world's cutest table number)... I was so early that I started getting worried I was in the wrong place as I couldn’t see James (the tour leader) or the local guides anywhere. Obviously, they were more up on the time it takes for UK citizens to get through immigration and so turned up a little later. James was lovely – British guy, 36 from High Wycombe originally, living in Brixton when he used to live in the UK but has spent the last year travelling around America and then Charlie and Peter (their Western names) our local guides for the week who were so much fun.
The group finally started coming through at about 2.30pm and it was lovely to recognise some faces immediately from the briefing day we had in August in London. There we 17 of us on the trek in total, plus Beth from the charity and the three tour guides, a nice group. When everyone had arrived we headed to the bus…. I have to admit it was lovely to have a bit of responsibility taken away from me… this is the first time since leaving the UK that I haven’t had to work out how to get from A to B or know where we’re staying etc. The transfer to the first hotel was about 90 minutes, Charlie (and main local guide) and James did some briefing and then most people fell asleep after their journey. I was sat next to June who also transpired to be my roommate for the week. June was absolutely lovely – in her 50s, she had recently lost her sister to the illness…and then her father 8 days later (not through the illness). She was clearly very out of her comfort zone with the whole trip and extremely emotional about everything she had been through. We spent a lot of time talking about everything and anything on our first journey together!
The transfer took us to the Badaling area where we stayed in a little hotel called Nature Times Hotel… it was basic but absolutely fine. We made our way to the individual rooms for a bit of a shower and freshen up before dinner. Dinner was interesting, it’s always funny meeting a group for the first time…. A lot of pleasantries and exchanging the same questions and then comparing the experience to the last dinner of the week! The food was standard Chinese food – pretty similar to the dishes we’d have at home but some with a bit more spice. I’m not the biggest fan of Chinese food at the best of times but I’m embracing it for the next week! After dinner everyone headed back to the rooms, they were all exhausted following the flight and so I took the opportunity to catch up on some of the book.
Monday came around quickly and we were greeted with beautiful blue sky…. After a quick breakfast (rice and meat anyone?) we packed our bags, filled our water and were off to start the first day of trekking. The drive was about an hour from the hotel and we headed to the Ancient Badaling part of the wall, the Badaling area is well known and quite touristy but we were really lucky in that our guides had arranged for us to trek on a more secluded part which you have to be a local to pay to go in and they restrict numbers – it was fantastic!
The first day was a little shorter than the others – totally of 7km which sounds like a walk in the park….but it was STEEP – at one point one of the group was literally on her hands and knees crawling down the slope! Dad’s walking poles really did come in handy!
The first day turned out to be one of the more emotional days – it’s funny, I obviously knew I was doing the walk for Pancreatic Cancer and I know the impact that illness has on me, but I hadn’t really registered that some of the emotion would present itself when trekking. Thinking back on it now, of course it would…. the challenge itself, dad would have loved it…. the way I got there, he would have been so excited by and these things, mixed with meeting some incredible people also trekking for a similar reason – some of whom had lost people within the last year - was totally overwhelming. There were a few tears across the group, particularly as people took a moment to look at the incredible scenery and really take in what they were doing and why. Naturally being a group of 17 there was constant chatter but it was quite incredible at one point… we all sat down on a rest stop (as we did relatively regularly!) and progressively the group just got quieter and quieter until we were all sitting there, looking at the scenery and just reflecting…. It sounds so twee but it was a magical and quite a bonding moment across the group.
As it was a shorter day we finished trekking at about 2pm and so lunch was when we were done for the day. We were taken to restaurant about 20 minutes from the end of the walk …where we had Chinese food … very similar to the night before. Following lunch the local guide had offered us the opportunity to visit the historic Emperor’s tomb so we all decided to head along there – it was really interesting.
The landscape behind the tomb was spectacular as well – amazing mountains. Charlie (our local guide) continued to tell us stories on the way round… some about what we were seeing, some about Chinese culture and other just silly anecdotes and jokes, he was really fun.
After the tour we headed back to the hotel (the same hotel we had stayed at on the first night) – approximately another 50 mins in the bus. We were all exhausted by this point! Another quick freshen up and we were down for dinner…. Another evening of Sweet and Sour chicken and rice!
Tuesday was a little more overcast but still a good trekking temperature and good enough visibility to get the views. A slightly longer drive this morning as we were progressively making our way away from the city. The day of trekking was completely different to Monday. On Monday the section of the wall we were on had almost all been restored in (relatively) recent years…. On Tuesday it was completely different. Following a steep trek up through the forest we finally hit the wall, entirely unrestored and just beautiful to look at.
We reached the wall at the only point that it appears to break … looking down from our viewpoint the wall appears to disappear on both sides of a river…. Actually it is just submerged with water following years of global warming and rising water levels so now it is entirely hidden.
We, as a group, quickly became very close, mainly due to the common driver of us being there but also due to toilets…. Oh.my.god…. toilets in China really are nasty – I don’t understand how they can be as gross as some of them are, but they truly are! It got to the extent that we all actually ended up preferring finding hideouts to the side of the wall rather than going in the next actual toilet! At one point on the Tuesday we hit one of the towers along the wall and a lot of us were bursting, so in true English style we formed an orderly queue and made a makeshift ladies toilet – hilarious.
The walk on the second day was equally as steep as day one but had the added challenge of the uneven surfaces and overgrown foliage! We saw literally no one throughout the entire day with the exception of one Irish group who we happened to come across as we were trying to make our way down an extremely narrow, stupidly steep and uneven part of the wall….they were making their way up! We all quickly became acquainted with one another as we had to pass nose to nose to get passed …. Quite interesting!
Lunch on the second day was provided by a local farmer which was amazing…. He cooked the food at home and then hiked up to meet us at an agreed point. A bag full of bananas (no good for me of course) and…naturally…. Some rice and meat, we all had a good sit down and enjoyed eating on the wall.
We finished up at about 4pm and headed back to the coach where (appropriately nick named) ‘Drive’ was waiting for us. Another long commute we arrived at the next hotel at a 5.15pm. The hotel itself had lovely staff, so friendly and welcoming. There was a little firepit outside in the pretty courtyard. The rooms were clean but a bit odd….the bathroom had two showers, one of which appeared to me connected to the toilet. All the hotels (other than our last one) were wet rooms and they just seemed to get soaked throughout…. We learnt quickly not to take any clothes in with us and leave the towel outside the door!
Dinner was a bit more varied tonight, including one interesting caramel sweet potato – it sounds terrible but was actually pretty good! A few of us decided it was a night to enjoy a glass of wine so invested in an aptly named ‘Great Wall’ bottle of red which we had with dinner and then around the fire they put on for us afterwards. It was a lovely evening with a bit of fun music and a few drinks before the normal 10pm head to sleep! Tuesday was the evening I tried to catch up with my journal a bit…. I’m now the following Wednesday so still have a lot of work to do!
The rest of week remained pretty consistent weather wise (excluding the last day which I’ll talk about later!)…. We lost the bright blue sky but continued to have bright days with generally good visibility.
Wednesday was the first day we took our own lunches with us on the trek so we enjoyed being entertained by what they left out for us to take…. It actually ended up being ok – I made up a plastic cheese and cucumber sandwich and took a few snacks to go with it. Most of the people coming directly from England had bought a lot of snacks and sweets with them for the treks, this was something I didn’t have as I didn’t had the space in my rucksack and anything I did have (Haribo for instance) was devoured on the TransManchurin (god, I miss Haribo) so I had to make do with my ‘bounce’ balls and goodwill of my follow trekkers (who were always very generous!). Breakfast making was accompanied by a repeat of Old Lang Syne in both English and Chinese… a song that then continued to be in our heads for the rest of the day!
The third day of trekking was our longest and toughest day, it was slightly different in that it was a mix of unrestored and restored parts. The unrestored was really interesting as, ironically, there were very few bricks still on it….
They had either been destroyed by the Japanese in bombings in the 30s or taken by Chinese locals to build their own houses over the years! So a lot of the morning part of the walk was on gravel paths above the walls. As the day went on it was obviously coming more and more restored and then suddenly someone realised we had wifi! How on earth that was possible was beyond us but Charlie informed us we were heading towards the more touristy area of the wall and so they accommodate for us. Forgiving myself for therefore fitting the stereotype of an annoying tourist I decided that would be a great opportunity to FaceTime mum and let her see the spectacular view…. A quick 20 second hello and a panoramic view, I think mum was quite chuffed to get the call!
Despite heading into a touristy area we saw practically no one for the rest of the day until we landed at our end point. This was the only day we could walk down off the wall to the hotel and there were a few local stall and vendors along the way. I picked up the mandatory magnet and we headed to the hotel which was pretty grotty…. It was probably the worst of the lot but we grinned and carried on…. We weren’t there for luxury and we were all in it together! James had warned us of this hotel so we were prepared!
Dinner was equally unappealing – it really is amazing how some places can do food so well and others, doing practically the same dishes…. So badly!
At the beginning of the week Beth (the charity rep) had mentioned she would like to try and do a ‘Purple lights’ picture with us in preparation for the Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month Purple Lights initiative so we headed back to the hotel and all grouped in the courtyard (which in fairness, was quite pretty). Beth had bought some purple glow sticks with her and we all lined up alongside each other, one person clicked their glowstick and passed on the light to the next person, all around the group, we then had a minute quite to reflect on why we were there doing the walk. As you can imagine it brewed a lot of emotion but everyone hugged and talked some more about why we were there and sent out love to all our loved ones…. We then celebrated them all and created a fantastic picture for Purple Lights.
As you can imagine, the bad food and huge amount of emotion meant we were all ready for a drink. As if by magic there was a local bar in the area we were staying in! Given the area was more tailored to tourists a local guy, who happened to own the company Charlie worked for as a local guide, had opened this bar to appeal to us westerners! They sold Chinese and other types of beers and every spirit under the sun…. it was tiny but just what we needed! June was particularly emotional and so we sat quietly and had a toast to Johnny and June before going back to join the group in what turned out to be a fantastic evening! The bar had a guitar which was found by Stu and Tim who both sing and play in local bands back in the UK and we had a great singalong over a glass of wine, beer or Baileys…. A really lovely ending to a tough day!