It’s been nearly 2 months since I returned from China, and I have finally got round to typing out my thoughts and memories of this incredibly rewarding and completely unforgettable experience.
Before I start though, lets rewind back to August 2016. My grandfather had just passed away from a short battle with cancer. He had spent most of his retirement years fundraising for the Royal British Legion, and also the Alzheimers Society which is a charity in Britain that focuses not only on finding a cure for Alzheimers and dementia, but also giving help and support to the families of people suffering from the disease. We had received a lot of help from them back in the late 90’s right up until 2004 when my grandmother sadly passed away from this disease.
Last summer while my granda was ill in hospital, he asked us to keep fundraising and donating to Alzheimers as it was still a very important cause to him. A few months after his passing I was still trying to think of something to do. I thought about donating money directly to the charity, but then I thought about possibly doing something in his memory and trying to raise even more money than I had in the first place. Then, almost by magic, I received an email from the Alzheimers Society listing their fundraising challenges for the next year, and the picture at the top was a group of people trekking the Great Wall of China. Within a week or two it was official, I was going to be one of them!
A year of preparation and fundraising, training and trekking, visas and vaccinations, the time came for the challenge. Here is a somewhat simplified day-by-day account of our trek, and what we went through.
Days 1 & 2: Berlin to Beijing
The first two days were travel. I had around 32 hours of non stop flights – from Berlin to London, to Dubai, to Beijing, and finally by bus on to Huangyaguan – where we spent the first two nights. I won’t bore you with any details of this, because to be honest those 2 days are just a blur!
Day 3: Huangyaguan
This was our first full day in China. We arrived in the dead of night to our accommodation, quickly learning that this would be one of the better bathrooms on our entire trip, and we were completely oblivious to the fact we were staying in a former military fortress entirely surrounded by the Great Wall! We had a short morning briefing about the days ahead before a quick history lesson and relaxed walk around our fortress accommodation, which was also a small (and so styled) museum and local heritage site.
In the afternoon we took our bus up the mountain for a short downhill trek to get us warmed up for the rest of the week. Our lead bus driver Mr. Liu showed us his magical driving skills by taking a 52 seater coach up some incredibly unsuitable roads, against the local drivers who are willing to overtake a bus even on blind corners with some sheer cliff drops if they mess up.
Once at the top we started trekking. 8 miles/13km covered in total, with a 880ft/270m climb, nothing too serious compared to the rest of the week! The route was cool as we trekked over a mountain and down the other side straight into our fortress where we were staying. When we got back we had a few hours to kill before dinner, which we used to drink beer and get to know each other.
Day 4: Huangyaguan to Mountain Village
This was our second day of trekking, and a real introduction as to what lay ahead the rest of the week. We were to trek the 9 miles up and over the mountains toward a farmers house where we would spend the night. We started from our fortress accommodation early in the morning and headed straight up the steep section of the wall that was looming over our fortress for the previous 2 days. Once we got to the top the trail seemed to disappear up a mountain, and into the clouds.
This is when we were then faced with ‘Heavens Ladder’. 302 steps directly up a cliff face! And once we completed that, we had to trek even further uphill, to the very top where we then had to walk along a ridge at the summit. Something I will admit, even for someone who does not have a fear of heights, was pretty frightening. If you slipped here it was almost 750 meters down at either side, unless you were lucky enough to be impaled on a tree!
Thanks to some quality leadership from our experienced guides, nobody died here, so we kept going toward our rest stop at a mountain top cafe for lunch, which was really just a porta-loo, some vending machines, and a billion wasps! After this we continued trekking around the tops of the mountains, where the weather opened up some spectacular views for the rest of the days walking.
We arrived at our farmers house accommodation just after 6pm, and sat down to a well earned feast of Chinese food! It was on this night where I tasted the local delicacies of both pig face and chicken feet… not the worse things I’ve ever eaten, but I won’t be ordering them again anytime soon.
Later that night while we were getting a history lesson on China and the culture from one of our local group leaders, the local police came to the farmers house to check all our passports and visas were in order, a reminder of the communist government in power and their grip over everything in the country.
Day 5: Mountain Village
Our third day of trekking the Great Wall of China, we started from our farmers house and again went directly uphill to a place called the ‘Three Province Stone‘. A marker for where the three provinces of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei all meet. The trek up was yet another beautiful journey along some unrestored parts of the wall, taking in endless mountains with the wall stretching endlessly into the distance.
Once we made it to the top we were mauled by locals who were fascinated with 45 white people at this random place over 100km from Beijing. One of them snatched our group leader Kevin and started shouting “Bear Grylls… Bear Grylls!” while forcing him into photos. I’m also pretty certain the lady fixated with me said ‘James Cordon’ to her friend, but I’m taking that as a compliment!
We then came downhill back toward where we started, but we couldn’t help but notice the local butcher was chopping up the village pig in the back of his pickup truck! If you were to ask me to describe rural China though, thats it. Everything is basic, but everything works. And everyone is friendly, despite the massive language barrier, people will just wave and smile at you, making you feel very welcome over half the world away from home.
Back at the farmers house we regrouped and set off down a 7km path to our busses which had been parked on the main road overnight as they couldn’t make it up to where we were staying. In total this was a 9.5 mile/15km day of walking, with only 1000ft/300m climbed.
While we were buying some mystery flavoured potato chips at the petrol station, the two bus drivers argued about which route was faster to our next night stop. Mr. Liu said the mountain back roads were slower, but shorter and with less traffic. Whereas Mr. Shu opted for the Beijing ring roads were longer but obviously you could drive faster. Lets just say one of them was very, very wrong!
90 minutes after Mr. Liu’s bus had arrived, Mr. Shu’s bus finally made it to our accommodation for the next 2 nights. A unique riverside motel with some more good cooking and alcohol! We once again sat down to a feast of Chinese food and beer, before chatting together late into the night.
Day 6: Jinshanlin/Mutianyu
Another long and difficult day of trekking as we drove to a touristy section of the wall called Mutianyu. And by touristy I mean the things we come to expect from any attraction in the world, but something we had somehow gotten used to not having the previous 3 days. Toilets!! There was also a museum, a Burger King, a Starbucks, and even a cable car up to the top! However we wouldn’t be getting that. Instead our local guide James decided to lead us up the back path to the wall.
About 3 hours of uphill, through endless almond nut fields, trying not to step on all the mantises, and absorbing even more spectacular and unforgettable views across the Chinese landscape. Once at the top we were greeted again with some of the most spectacular views of the entire trip. You could literally just see the wall stretching over every hill way into the distance. As there were some seriously steep sections ahead, our guides had planned the day so we were going down these parts and not up.
We continued over the mountains for another 3 hours – up and down, from watchtower to watchtower – and once we reached the end of our days trek we were given three choices to come back down the 400m mountain to the base. The 700 steps, which no one opted for. The cable car, which again I don’t think anyone went for. And the toboggan, which all 45 of us went for! 1 mile/1.5km downhill in a steel toboggan took just under 5 minutes, and speeds of close to 30mph/50kph in one or two places!
In total day 4 involved trekking 10.5 mile/16.5km and the biggest uphill climb of the week at 2600ft/800m uphill, and with the exception of the toboggan most of it back down again.
Day 7: Jinshalin/Mutianyu
This was scheduled to be our longest day of trekking, with some of the most spectacular sights to be seen. Sadly bad weather changed our plans. Not only would we not be able to see anything, but we would actually be risking our own safety. Instead our leaders opted to take us back to Mutianyu again. As a more touristy section of the wall we would be safe, plus people could choose what they wanted to do that day, if they wanted to rest injuries or take it easy.
One of the guys on our trip, Ed Jones, had gotten some unfortunate news the day before about his father (who was battling Alzheimers) being taken to hospital back in Britain. Taking a day off didn’t seem like the right thing to do. So some of the group went ahead and climbed up the 700 or so steps back to the wall, turning to the left and doing a short trek before descending again. But myself, Jim Lang and Doctor Ed decided to be rebellious, and to turn right at the top going as far as we could in the short time that we had.
We made it about 2 miles/3km before having to turn and head back. The dense fog made it difficult to see anything, but some of the sights we did get were simply spectacular, and something most visitors to Mutianyu would never witness. Overall we trekked 6 miles/10km and climbed 1400ft/430m in only 3 hours.
After this we transferred to our hotel, the Yang Fang Da Do hotel (it’s real) on the outskirts of Beijing. It was a beautiful 4 star accommodation, and it was everything you’d ever dream of! It had pillows, and heating, and lamps, and even a toilet with a seat! We had another group dinner together before relaxing with some more drinks and chatting the night away until eventually the beer ran out and the staff sent us to our rooms. In a government run hotel, you do what they tell you to.
Day 8: Old Badaling
The final day of trekking, and an emotional one for everyone involved. This time we went to a place called Old Badaling. A touristy section of the wall, but without the tourists! Like some abandoned city, it was completely forgotten about, just us and a handful of locals.
This day simply has too many stories to write down. Things like Doctor Ed getting in trouble with the ‘Great Wall Authorities’, yours truly helping lead the group stretches, and screaming ‘Ni Hao’ at the top of the mountain and getting a reply from someone down below. Shaking beers, foot massages, racing back down the wall like you’re in some sort of Mario Kart game, and of course many tears and hugs. This day had a little bit of everything, and if anything was made more emotional knowing our trek was at an end, and this was the last time we would see the Great Wall of China.
Once we finished our trekking we bussed the 2 hours into Beijing itself to our final hotel for the next two nights. Some of us went out to explore the local area of Beijing for a bit, seeing the beautiful Temple of Heaven and the locals all playing strange card and chess style games throughout the grounds. And nearly getting killed at every traffic junction because again there simple are no rules!
For dinner we went to a famous Chinese restaurant where you don’t just get a table, you get an entire room to yourself! The chef comes to you with an entire duck and shreds it in front of you. We were also able to use our new Chinese vocabulary and hand gestures to order beer!
Day 9: Beijing
Our final day was a sightseeing tour of Beijing. We started by visiting a silk museum where we learnt all about the making of silk and the famous Silk Road. Our hostess Mary was phenomenal. She screamed “follow Mary” as she moved throughout the museum, before giving the most unique marketing pitch involving a freakishly accurate solo demonstration of my sex life under a silk duvet… a marketing tool which strangely worked so well that half the group ended up buying silk duvets!
After this we went to the centre of Beijing to see Tiananmen Square which was mostly closed off due to the huge government party conference going on that week. But somehow our local guide James got us in, and we got to explore a relatively empty square. Myself and Jim walked away from the group to take some quick photos of The People’s Hall, the building where the conference was taking place. We quickly noticed we were not only being watched and followed, but we were also being recorded by a “security patrol”. He didn’t make much effort to hide his iPhone recording us, but at the same time he wasn’t making much of an effort to pretend to film or photograph the surroundings, and once we headed back toward the group he left us alone. A truly strange experience, but another reminder of the governments control over this somewhat secretive and paranoid country, and the suspiciousness of 2 westerners breaking away from their local guides. After the Square we moved north into the seemingly endless Forbidden City, which was both beautiful and spectacular with an astonishing history that is really hard to believe.
After this we then went to a tea room where we got a demonstration of how to brew and pour authentic Chinese teas. Just a bit different than your Tetley’s with milk and 2 sugars! And finally on to the famous Pearl Market, a place where there are no prices, only haggling, and by just walking past a shop you obviously want to purchase the most expensive thing they have. The shop staff are aggressive and annoying, but at the same time absolutely hilarious.
That night a few of us went to the local theatre to see a play on the history of Kung fu. Something that I honestly went in with low expectations, but came away thinking it could probably be on the West End or Broadway and have a pretty successful run! We finished the long day with some final beers in the hotel lobby. With a 3am wake up call most of us just stayed awake to the point of no return. Or at least that was the plan until we were told by hotel staff to be quiet or otherwise we would be deported a few hours earlier than scheduled.
Day 10: Beijing to Dubai to Heathrow
The long travel day back to London. We left our Beijing hotel at 3am, through the airport for a 7am departure. The only thing I remember here is seeing KFC open at 5am and thinking “I don’t care, I’m getting a Zinger meal right now!” and then being disappointed to discover Chinese KFC has a breakfast menu that does not have chicken, fries, or even Cola! Turkey and egg white sandwiches with milk. Absolutely heartbroken.
Onto the flight and I was sitting with my boys Ed and Jim, and we decided to watch the same movie, pressing play at the same time so we would all be in sync, laughing at having fun all the same time. That lasted about 5 minutes in before Ed fell asleep completely ruining our Despicable Me 3 fun time.
8 hours later we landed in Dubai, and the first thing on my mind was the fast food I had been craving since that morning in Beijing airport! I was the first one to find the McDonalds, quickly followed by almost everyone else under 30 in our group. We then boarded our next 7 hour flight back to London, where we again tried to sync our movies again to zero success.
Once back in Britain it was time for our goodbyes. While crowded around the baggage carousel we all hugged and cried, going our separate ways. Or at least they all did, I had to spend the night in Heathrow airport before flying the 2 hours back to Berlin the next morning!
Day 11: Heathrow to Berlin
Another early start as I caught my 8am flight to Berlin, where once I landed I dropped off my bag and went straight to work for a 4pm Eisbären game against reigning champions Munich, before finally going back home to sleep for what felt like an entire day!
This was a trip I will never forget. Despite all the oddities of the country of China with the controlling government and the excessive pollution, I loved every second of it and I would hope to be back someday. If you have ever thought if doing something like this, I would say go for it. It will be something that will change your life. Sure its hard work, the preparation, the training, the kit needed and the travel to get there, but it was worth every little struggle.
When I started fundraising I set the target of £1,500. My mum and her friends held a Zumabathon fundraiser in my hometown which on its own raised well over a thousand pounds! Now, one year later, having raised just over £4,500 (€5,090) I cannot thank everyone who has donated along the way. Every pound, euro, dollar, penny, cent, or whatever else you can donate is very much appreciated. Our group as a collective has raised a phenomenal £185,000 (€210,000) in just over a year! You can still donate easily and securely online in multiple currencies through my JustGiving page, and all the money donated by you goes directly to the Alzheimers Society as I paid for the trip and all expenses myself.
One last time, thank you. To the local guides, the trek leaders, the bus drivers, the charity reps, every one of the 41 other people on that trip, and to every one who has donated and helped along the way. I cannot put into words how much this means to me and my family.