On Saturday 27 September, Cath Harding - our Head of Community Fundraising - joined 17 remarkable challengers to take on the trip of a lifetime: a fundraising trek along the Great Wall of China. This is her diary...
Part 1 - Manchester to Beijing
Introductions made and celebratory Prosecco popped we boarded our first flight of the day to Frankfurt en route to Beijing and the Great Wall.
It had been surprisingly painless to peel Mark's mum Lynda off him in the departure lounge. It remained to be seen whether she was stowed in his cabin luggage...though with Kelly's bag weighing in at an impressive 26.4kgs it seemed unlikely that any additional baggage would make it onto the plane safely! Only Carl's case came close - a blessed relief that both Monster Munch and Pot Noodle weigh next to nothing.
After all initial complaints about the flight time clashing with the Merseyside Derby had subsided we arrived in Frankfurt to discover that Jagielka's injury time rocket had spoilt party for the (largely) red contingent but at least it had kept the ying and yang balance intact.
Ten hours later, Beijing, a city the size of Belgium, with 22 million citizens - and judging by the traffic - twice as many cars, welcomed 18 weary travellers with open arms.
A clue to the size of the city was probably having to catch a train at the airport to collect our luggage! To counteract our collective lack of sleep and stop us from mid-afternoon dozing our guides had organised a visit to a local hutong via rickshaw. Here Mrs Fun and her family afforded us the most humbling hospitality by inviting us into her home where she played us a tune on her guzheng (a harp-like instrument) and cooked us all the most fantastic meal. The pet birds and singing grasshoppers only added to the occasion.
A quick Tsingtao in the hotel bar and an early night topped off a tiring, fabulous day ready for a 6.30am start in the morning and our first steps on The Great Wall of China.
Part 2 - Taipingzhai to Huangyaguan
Oh the joy of a good night's sleep and a decent breakfast, even if noodles at 7am just felt wrong.
With a clatter of poles, a squirt of sunscreen, and quite frankly the biggest bottle of hand sanitiser ever to grace the planet (c/o Mandi) we greeted Big Trev our tour bus driver and clambered aboard for our first sight of the Wall.
Once we'd navigated the now legendary traffic of Beijing we escaped the city to find a whole new world of villages lined with apricot filled trees, sweet corn covered roads and Buddhist temples.
From the first sighting of The Great Wall through the bus windows we knew we were in for a treat, but before we set foot on it we had to negotiate a group trip to the toilets! With cries from the ladies of "Which way round do I face?" And "Has anyone got any tissues?" it soon became apparent that trekking on the wall was far from the only challenge we'd face this week.
At Taipingzhai we set about climbing the 50 or so steps leading to the start of our trek and the first steps on the wall. I won't lie - by the time we reached the wall we were all blowing!
For the next few hours we trekked up and down one of the most remarkable landmarks in the world, surrounded by the most amazing, breathtakingly spectacular scenery any of us have had the pleasure to surround ourselves with.
At 6000km long the Great Wall of China is the most amazing structure and, while it is a common misconception that it is visible from the moon, there is no denying that it deserves to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Our warm up trek complete, snow globes and fridge magnets purchased, we continued our culinary (and toilet) adventure with a host of delicious dishes at a welcoming local eatery. A glass of local beer to wash it down ensured that there were a few sleepy heads on the journey to our next overnight accommodation at the Impression Inn where more fantastic food, a courtyard fire pit and an early night prepared us for day two on the wall and an 8 hour trek.
Part 3 - Gubeikou to Jinshanling
"Should all acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind, should all acquaintance be forgot for the sake of Auld Lang Syne..."
It's not the obvious choice for a breakfast tune in China but nevertheless we wholly enjoyed it with our noodles, eggs, bacon and sweetbread.
In the 'capable' hands of Mr Lau (aka 'Big Trev') we left for Gubeikou Village and the start of our 8 hour hike. The undoubted 'King of the Road' took us on a magical mystery tour of exhilarating undertaking, overtaking and honking of the horn. The eventual 11.38 miles of steps were a walk in the park in comparison!
Those 26,396 steps were a simply wonderful experience. A day of the most incredible 360 degree panoramic views, an entirely different landscape from yesterday but equally as impressive. Unlike yesterday the wall today was unrestored and as a result threw up a different physical challenge. Craig, blinded in both eyes following a rocket attack in Iraq in 2007, gave us heart failure when he stumbled briefly after lunch - only for him to turn around calmly to us and say "don't worry, you're not going to lose me'. He's absolutely right, not one of us have ever seen anyone so well balanced and nimble in his feet, he's a cat...but we all call him Bear (Grylls).
Despite the length of the day and the personal challenges faced everyone one finished the trek with a smile on their face, including a teary Sonia who found strength despite her fear of heights, with the help of Dr Wong, and pushed through the tears to end in style.
Another amazing day.
Part 4 - Jinshanling to Simitai
Day five will be etched into the memories of all of us on the trek for two very different reasons, the challenging weather and the coach journey home.
Having left the 'luxury' of the lodge (it's giant ants and jumping spiders) at 9.30am armed with spam butties and sponge cake doorstops - the rain descended.
With the rain came the mist, throwing eerie shadows across mountains, ravines, and of course, The Wall. Overnight the scenic panorama of yesterday was changed beyond recognition, though remarkably with no loss of beauty.
The inclement weather made the terrain underfoot slippery and at times treacherous, a challenge every member of the group rose to brilliantly.
Jess, despite crunching, painful knees, showed great mental determination and completed the day heroically. The walking pole salute from the rest of the team for her, Sonia and Georgie was testament to the camaraderie in the camp.
"Bear" once again proved an inspiration to us all, offering sane and invaluable advice and a seemingly endless supply of practical accessories which defied the compact capacity of his rucksack. Meanwhile Mark proved that having a prosthetic leg has no impact on his ability to move gracefully across difficult terrain like a nimble and agile mountain goat.
Cold, tired, but ultimately warm with accomplishment we polished off our (delicious) spam sandwiches and dragged ourselves back to the coach for the transfer 'home'.
Our bus driver Mr Lau (aka 'Big Trev') has, in the space of 5 days reached legend status with 18 Alder Hey Trekkers. His Stiglike driving skills and random overtaking manoeuvres have had us drawing straws to sit at the front from day one.
Today's two hour journey was nearing its conclusion when we approached a rather narrow barrier in the road. As we headed towards the offending barrier, Dr Wong pointed out to Trev that in all probability we weren't going to fit through the gap. The carnage that followed is difficult to describe in the written form but try to picture the following:-
- 1 x 36 seater coach
- 1 x 36 seater coach attempting 3 point turn across two narrow lanes of busy traffic
- 1 x fully wedged coach
- 1 x cyclist (carrying umbrella) within a heartbeat of losing at least his umbrella/life
- 2 x irritable and extensive queues of traffic either side of the road
- 1 x bus driver (Big Trev) off the bus scratching his head
- 1 x video footage available for a small donation
Needless to say that once we finally extricated ourselves from our interesting vehicular predicament we were very grateful for a well-earned hot shower and evening meal.
We began to look forward to our visit to the Heavenly Ladder in the morning.
Part 5 - Mutainyu
13,490 steps - 193 flights of stairs
And after the rain came the sunshine and a breathtakingly Heavenly (pun entirely intended) day.
Despite a late night for some (names withheld to protect the guilty parties!) we ate an early breakfast and left for The Wall shortly after the Bride, Groom and wedding party…at 7.45am!!
An event free coach journey enabled us to beat the crowds to the foot of the Heavenly Ladder and the 2000 stairs to the top. With group renditions of Another Brick in the Wall we climbed our way up, and up…and up.
23 watch towers later all 18 Alder Hey trekkers plus Oli stepped over the final step at the summit to rapturous applause, team hugs and medal ceremony.
With the risk of sounding repetitive, to say the scenery surrounding us was consistently magnificent would be an understatement. The Wall, trailing for miles into the distance cut a formidable sillouette into the horizon and it was with a spring in our step that we entertained the (previously un-encountered) masses of visitors on our return descent. Jo, in her search for a suitable place to 'pay a visit' found that she had perhaps too much spring and inadvertently went the extra mile for the cause, taking a wrong turn. She eventually returned to the fold no worse for wear and still with enough energy for her daily burpee tuck jump.
Having enjoyed traditional Chinese cuisine since our arrival, today's lunch perfectly summed up the increasing influence of western culture in China…our Subway sandwiches went down a treat!
After a short planned diversion to the local Jade factory we headed to our new digs to reflect on the days hiking and get a good night's sleep.
Part 6 - Juyongguan and Badaling
Our final day of trekking brought with it a little bit of glamour in the form of Kelly and her magnificent ‘Where’s Wally’ knickers!
Starting at the ancient pass of Juyongguan, and with Mao Zedang’s famous quote “You’re not a real man until you’ve climbed the Great Wall” ringing in our ears - we set about the day happy in the knowledge that each and every one of us was indeed a real man!
Pausing to admire the pagodas whilst posing for pictures with Oli and our local hosts, we climbed yet more magnificent steps, inhaled the sweet scent of incense and marvelled at the abundant availability of plastic chickens en route.
The afternoon brought something a little different - the much anticipated opportunity to help rebuild a section of the Great Wall at Badaling, and the chance to leave a small keepsake in the Wall for all time. With thoughts collected and messages composed, an emotional group took individual turns to lay their bricks and leave notes, pictures and various strands of familial hair.
With the trekking part of our challenge now complete many of us took advantage of the offer of a 90 minute massage to ease away our aching limbs before heading out for dinner, a trip to the Beijing Acrobat Show and the culinary delights of the Donghuamen Night Market!
The incredible variety of ‘interesting’ creatures available soon became somewhat of a bush tucker challenge. Various members of the group courageously sampled ‘delicious’ delicacies including scorpion, seahorse, snake, spider, silkworm and locust to name but a few. It would simply be a lie to say that there was no dry retching in Beijing tonight!
Part 7 - Beijing: The Final Chapter
And so to our final day and an opportunity to embark on a spot of cultural sightseeing.
Our first stop took us to the architecturally splendid Temple of Heaven and the hugely entertaining park that surrounds it. An entirely wooden building with not a nail in sight, the Temple had our property developers Craig and Gary scratching their heads in wonder and applauding the design in awe. The Park meanwhile provided excellent people watching opportunities with traditional board games, Tai Chi and a variety of musical ensembles competing for the attention of the park visitors.
In contrast, standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square an hour later, with its significant political past and its capacity to hold 1 million people, you could almost feel the importance of its role in Chinese history and sense a degree of paranoia with the security checks and heightened Police presence.
With cries of ‘Britney Spears’ and ‘Cheryl Cole’ ringing in our ears, we regularly found ourselves smiling for the camera and introducing Oli to the throngs of families out in force to enjoy the Chinese holidays.
Following a brief pit stop for lunch we set off again on foot to cover the short distance to the Meridian Gate and the entrance to the 600 year old Forbidden City. Michael provided a brief history lesson as we set out to take in the surroundings, thankful that none of us would ever be required to be one of the Emperor’s 3000 concubines.
Mid-afternoon represented a shift in cultural sightseeing as we left the Forbidden City…and headed to Hongqiao Market to barter and shop. An hour and a half later, laden with clothes, bags, watches and fridge magnets we became the first group in history to collectively make it back on the coach on time!
Our impressive timekeeping ensured that we had an hour back at the hotel to freshen up and don our glad rags, ready for our last night.
The celebration meal proved to be just that. Presentations and speeches complete we headed into Beijing for a last night to remember, joyous in our accomplishments, beaming smiles on our faces… firm friends made for life.
Cath is Head of Community Fundraising at Alder Hey Children's Charity and trekked the Great Wall of China with 17 remarkable fundraisers.