9 Days – thousands of steps – plenty of rice – a true adventure to remember.
Here is my China experience
Today started in my home town of Blackburn. Today was the day that I set off, initially on my own, into the unknown to face my fears, to challenge myself and hopefully have fun in the process. My aim was to go with an open mind and to say yes to everything, to put myself in what I find uncomfortable situations to bring out strength and confidence, something that I felt I was missing.
For weeks before the trip I was nervous, I had never done anything like this before, let alone on my own. The unknown was something that I wanted to explore as I was far too comfortable in my 9-5 job. I have learnt over the years that I need to challenge myself. So, this was 2018’s challenge. I was raising money for a charity Mind and everyone had been so supportive.
My dad and sister had very kindly offered to drive me the 220-mile trip to Heathrow Airport (I know I was shocked too). The trip down was great, I hardly ever get to spend time with them, so it made a nice change. We arrived several hours early as my dad wanted to set off in ‘plenty of time’. One of my biggest annoyances is having to wait around, much to my boyfriend’s annoyance (as he’s the opposite), for me, it gives me too much time to overthink. So here we were at the airport, hours before, with nothing to do but wait. My dad insisted he waited with me in case no-one else turned up or I had been coned by the travel company (I know, at 27 I should have been okay on my own, but it was nice him being there). Finally, an hour later, the next person on the trek turned up! It was time to wave goodbye to my dad and truly start the adventure.
It was great to finally put a name to faces, I had been talking to several people for a few weeks before today on facebook. The first lady I met was so kind and friendly she instantly put me at ease. We chatted for a while and then a few more from the tour arrived. I began to feel excited, after 18 months of planning and training I was embarking on this trip. A few more hours in London Airport and we were then boarding the plane. The plane was a standard plane – china air. I had never travelled with them before and so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was strange seeing everything in Chinese. On the plane I got a window seat (which I was very happy about) and I prepared myself for the looong 12-hour flight ahead. I usually like to watch a film on long flights but unfortunately my TV had no Engligh mode (watching films in Chinese is not for me), so instead I tried to sleep, which anyone who travels on long-haul knows this is no easy tasks.
We had arrived! With the travel from Blackburn, the flight itself and the 8-hour jump forwards and I was exhausted. The first thing I noticed when stepping off the plane was the smog, something that I had heard about, but never experienced before. It was certainly a different atmosphere. I was eager to get onto the transfer and get to the first stop, no such luck. The airport was super busy and there was landing passes to fill in. Trying to navigate around the airport was frustrating and everyone was starting to flag. I started to feel extremely overwhelmed by it all, I think I was okay until I spotted all the quarantine bays. I asked someone why they had so many and was told there was a bird flu epidemic. My heart started to race as I had flash backs to when I was travelling in Greece and contracted swine flu (possibly the worst experience I have had whilst abroad). My brain went into over drive and before I knew it was panicking (not even a day in China and I was already panicked, the others in the group must have thought I was crazy). Luckily, there were some great people on the tour, two people noticed I was feeling panicked and came over to me. Just having someone there to talk and reassure me made all the difference as I was ready to collect my bags and get back on a plane to the UK. (Over dramatic – possibly the queen of this).
Finally, out of the airport and on the road. A very narrow and winding road. I was tired, like everyone else. I was suddenly woken up by the coach stopping. We had made it to the lodge. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. I am so used to being surrounded by people and building and atmosphere that I knew this was going to be my biggest challenge yet. I tentatively got off the coach, collected my massive rucksack and ventured into the entrance. The first night we stayed in a place called the nature times lodge, possibly the best place we were to stay throughout the trip. In my mind before coming to China I was expecting to stay in family run lodges that would be basic, others on the trip hadn’t quite prepared themselves for the transition from English hotels to Chinese standards. The room was very basic, but it was comfortable. We had no hot water and the food in the restaurant again was also very basic. It is very difficult to put into words the standard of accommodation in China where we stayed because it is just nothing like what you would find in the UK. We all came together as group for tea, had a few small introductions and then everyone was eager to get some rest before the trek started early the night morning.
Day Two – Badaling Old Section; 5 hours; 6km; 480m ascent
Jet lag is the worst. 2am, 3am, 5.30am, I was awake, thinking about how I should be eating tea back home. Staring at the ceiling above and wondering what bugs where crawling around me. It also didn’t help that the girl I was sharing a room with, was lovely but she snored, something that I didn’t have the heart to tell her during the trip (sorry Cheryl). 7am arrived and it was time to get up for breakfast. Possibly the strangest breakfast I have ever eaten, smiley potato faces?! with rice and dim sun. I was worried that I would be starving out on the trek, so I packed lots of comfort food in my day sack. Onto the coach to our first destination. This was no tourist trip. We headed for Badaling which is the tourist section, we were to venture to the old section. Today the weather was to be desired. It was cold, wet and just bleak. I looked around the coach and I could see a mixture of nerves and excitement. Then we were off, I was actually climbing on the great wall of china and it was fantastic. I was worried that I would be at the back of the group, but to my surprise I was near the front (and continued this position without the whole duration). There was one guy who was super fit and was out walking our Chinese tour guide. (Gavin you are a legend).
I stopped and looked around, all I could see was the wall weaving in and out of mountains. It was breath-taking. Today’s section was all on the wall but because it was wet it made it extremely difficult and, on many occasions, I had to cling onto the side to stop myself from falling. It was a fun day, I learnt how to cook rice using a self-cooking tub and I started to hear some experiences as to why others had also embarked on this trek. Some extremely inspirational people. We walked for 5 hours in total today but again it is so difficult to express how steep this wall is! There are very little flat parts throughout (even though our tour guide said there was – the English word for flat and the Chinese word clearly mean different things). I reached the top of one point, feeling extremely proud, only to look up and realize there was another section still to cover. We powered on, in the rain and finally got to the highest point of the day. Now for the descend. Our tour guide, Hastings (yes that is his English name), stated it was too dangerous to follow the trail back down, so we had to back track the way we had just come. I was glad that I had bought my gloves as I now had to cling onto the sides to get back down. The weather was getting worse. Walking down I also realised how high we had climbed. We were now faced with looking down hundreds of steps with sheer drops either side. An epic view that was also terrifying. We finally made it back to the coach, tonight we were to stay at the same lodge as the previous night before moving on in the morning.
Tonight, we went out for tea to what can only be described as the weirdest place I have been to a ‘restaurant’. The food was lovely, although I think any food would have been nice, I was ravenous. The weird part was that it was in a jade factory. To be honest, I didn’t even know what this was until I arrived – it was literally a factor that made and sold Jade. There was a massive seating area upstairs, but we were the only guest. We had lots of Chinese food – sweet and sour chicken, beef in black bean sauce etc. For drinks we got to try Chinese firewater which was basically Sambuca but with more fire/burn. Not a pleasant experience. After the food we were given a tour of the Jade factory and I honestly just wanted to get back onto the coach – not be followed by sales assistants trying to sell me expensive Jade. If you really want to buy some Jade then this place would be for you, if not, I am pretty sure there are much better places to experience a good meal in the area.
Day three – From Huanghuacheng; 5.5 hours; 450m; about 9km Yellow Flower Trek
Another trying night’s sleep, kept up by noises and jet lag again. Today we were to walk off the wall which I was quite excited for. Today was one of my favourite days on the trek. I conquered many fears today, including climbing up a sheer rock face and climbing down a rickety wooden ladder held together with wire but it was worth it. The highest point on the wall today saw us trekking through Chinese jungle up a mountain to get to the top where the wall was located. When we got to the highest point the group had separated but I was too busy admiring the spectacular view. I would recommend today’s trek to anyone, it was just so beautiful in every way. It was on this day that I was so grateful I had got to experience this part of the world. The weather had cleared up from yesterday, and we were in a difference province. It was starting to get hot. We continued through the overgrown section of the wall, everyone thought I was crazy as I kept my coat on for the entire trek of today. Another fear of mine was getting bitten, especially by ticks so my rational was always to keep fully covered up. After several hours of walking we came to the bottom of some giant steps and decided this was a good place for lunch, it would have been except there was an infestation of flying bugs. Everywhere you looked there was a bug. I attempted to sit down and lasted all of 5 minutes before my sandwich was covered in insects. This was not for me and I was then keen to carry on along with some others in the group.
Sadly, not everyone in the group wanted to continue as the next part was extremely steep, I know some people had suffered with some injuries, so the group was split into two, some going with Hastings and the rest going back to the coach with our English tour guide. At the time it would have been so easy to say yes, I am going back to the coach as when I looked at what was to come, it was a sheer rock face that had no steps and was definitely not flat. It was another guy in the group Will who really motivated me to push myself, and I am so so glad that he did because this next part was hands down the best experience! We carried on for around another hour, it was gruelling! We all motivated each other and when I got to the peak, I was so proud of myself for physically being able to climb to that point. There were several times when I thought I was going to fall backwards, I felt dizzy and sick, but I could see Gavin and Darryl ahead and knew I had to keep moving forwards. At one point I was over taken by Will and this motivated me even more to try to catch back up. At the top we rested. I don’t think we could quite believe the surroundings. It was like looking at a painting. Just vast landscape, but a full 360 view of nature, high above the jungle. Were we had started was now just a dot in the distance.
We descended which was a challenge on the knees. Many, many steps, followed by more steps and slops and then finally a wooden ladder that was wired together. I hate ladders in general and so this was difficult for me to overcome but with the help of the guys in group, anything was possible. We trekked now on a downward slope through the jungle and down the mountain side, soon reaching the bottom ready to be picked up by the coach. At the bottom there was a lady selling drinks and potatoes?! It surprised me how we could walk for hours and hours and not see another person, and then suddenly, there would be someone trying to sell you something!
We had to wait for a while for the coach as the other group had got lost, usually things like this would have freaked me out, but today, I felt calm and that I could face anything. I love this feeling and wish I could keep it with me always. There was a moment where our group was left whilst Hastings went to get the others and at that moment we were completely at the mercy of China. We had no passports and we had no idea where we were. As we waited there was a guy who walked past us with a giant fish, possibly the oddest thing I saw the whole trip. Eventually everyone was back together, and we headed to our next location. Deep in the heart of this new Provence, a true Chinese experience.
We arrived and there was a bonfire for us. A nice welcome from this family who were eager to make sure we had a nice stay. We were the only ones staying at the lodge this evening which didn’t surprise me as we were literally in the middle of nowhere. The rooms where interesting – tonight there were bugs, and plenty of them. I am not sure if I still had adrenaline from the days trek as the bugs just didn’t faze me. I was so so happy that tonight I got a hot shower! After three days of cold showers it felt extremely nice to feel hot water on my skin. I stayed out around the bonfire for a good few hours, I laughed a lot this evening and we had good conversations. When I finally went to bed (covered head to toe) I slept like a baby and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go.
Day four – Jinshaling main gate – Gubeikou; 8hrs; 14km; 630m
Today was the hardest day of whole time spent on the trek and I mean just pure sweat, blood and tears hard. Today’s wall was bits of everything from restored parts, to unrestored, to jungle, to just wilderness, to feeling secure on the wall, to feeling extremely unsteady with sheer drops either side. There where thousands of steps, again, and by the end of the day my feet hurt. Today I tried to take lots of photos and videos to capture the extent of what I was seeing but none of them do it justice. I got to a point today where I actually took my coat off and walked through jungle with bare skin (I know, I was shocked too). We all pushed ourselves so hard. Many of us conquering or own fears, especially those who were scared of heights (well done Donna! – I cannot tell you how proud I was to be in a group walking with you, even though I had never met you, the sheer determination you showed today was true bravery). There was points on the trek today where it was just rocks and stones with sheer drops either side – I was so glad I had my poles. Toilets on the trek were basically squat holes in the ground (A common occurrence in China).
Today I think everyone went through different emotions. It became clear quite early on in the day that one girl was really struggling, I was torn between staying at the back with her to help her through and pushing myself and staying near the front. I went to the back but very quickly changed my mind, she was not in a good place, I wanted and needed to be around positive vibes, and this was not that. We stopped for lunch, after having to scale down the wall, along a ‘path’ that was not a path, to walk below an army base camp. A very strange detour. We were just walking down hill through trees getting hit my branches and at one point I felt so unbalanced I had to scramble down on my bum. This led to its own dangers as when I tried to get up, I pushed my foot against a boulder that was unstable and went flying backwards, only to then see the boulder fall forwards and hurtle towards the front of the group – luckily no-body was seriously injured and we were able to carry on unscathed.
Again, we had walked for hours seeing nobody and then lunch came there was a lady trying to sell us stuff. I wondered how far she had walked that day. At lunch we were told by Hatings that we were an hour behind track and that we needed to be back to the coach and make the time back before night fall as it’s dangerous. If anything was going to motivate me to sprint back to the coach it was the thought of having to stay in the jungle after dark. So, we finished our pre-packed sandwiches and ventured on. The front of the group was super-fast but we often had to stop to let the back catch up, sometimes waiting 30/40 minutes at a time. I was starting to worry as there was a massive gap between the front and the back and this was clearly very distressing for the girl at the back. All the group made it back to the coach, except for one girl and the English tour guide. We waited nearly an hour for them to get back down, when she made it we all clapped which I think really annoyed her. I Knew it must be so difficult to be so far behind everyone else.
Back on the road to the next lodge, no idea where I was, I was trying to comprehend what I had achieved today. The mood was lower than it had been for the last few days. Everyone was hungry and ready for bed. We checked into our new lodge, again we were the only ones here. Today we stayed in little wooden lodges that again where full of bugs, more so than any other nights. I put my bag down and thought, yes, tonight is going to be a night where I sleep with no bare skin showing and ear plugs in. I felt a bit deflated, but Cheryl perked me up, we played Jason Durulo music and got ready for dinner, we laughed and joked, and I felt much better. Tonight, tea was in the lodges ‘restaurant’ the food was basic again. I am not sure what I ate but it was all filling. After food I was ready to climb into bed, but Hasting said he had a treat for us which was learning how to write in Chinese. I decided, although at first it sounded boring, to stay and see how it went and it turned out to be the funniest night of the whole trip. I laughed and laughed and then laughed some more, for hours until there was only a few of us left, my jaw hurt, and the Chinese lady turned all the lights out on us. Just what I needed after such a tough day.
Day Five – Jinshaling East – Jinshaling Main gate; 6 hours ; about 10km; 530m
Today was a very awkward day. I don’t want to write negatives things in my account but it’s difficult to avoid it when the whole day was clouded by some of the group getting lost and one girl deciding she no longer wanted to continue. To be fair, the actual day itself, at the front of the group was brilliant. The group had now split up (unintentionally) and I was with a few people and Hastings. The guide was telling us stories and showing us certain viewpoints, it was all still very pretty. The problem with today was that we were starting to get back into civilization so the wall was becoming more touristy, ultimately this meant that there were groups of people and with the wall being single person size at points, we all become separated into our own little groups. This would have been okay if we all knew where we were going, however we didn’t and ultimately some people got lost. On previous days, you could look behind and see where everyone was very easily, but today, you looked back and there was no way of knowing where everyone was. Hastings and the English tour guide at the back where meant to be in contact with each other the whole time, but the English tour guide couldn’t work her radio properly and therefore Hastings couldn’t get hold of her. Others who and I were at the front of the group got to the end point and waited for a while, it was busy, so Hasting told us that there was a bar nearby which would have beer, we didn’t need telling twice so off we ventured to the have a quick drink before the others got back. 3 drinks later we started to wonder where everyone was, we had been in the ‘pub’ (a Chinese version of what we would call a pub) for a long time and it was starting to go dark. It turns out that one girl at the back had had enough and decided to get a cable car back down so the English our guide left the wall (without letting anyone know) to detour to the cable car. This meant that the people in the middle now had no way of knowing where to go or where the end point was. The Tour guide found her way back to realise some of the group was still on the wall and somehow this was the people at the front’s fault. I have never been spoken to in such a way that I was made to feel like a 5-year-old who was being told off for running away from mummy. Luckily, and eventually, everyone was found, but the atmosphere on the coach on the way back was extremely low and it was clear several people where very annoyed (including myself).
We arrived at the new lodge much later than planned and nobody was in the mood to be social. Tonight’s lodge was set in what I felt was a creepy area. We had to walk down what can only be described as a back ally to our room. Me and Cheryl were both wondering what we were going to walk into, but to our surprise the room was nice. It was very spacious and there was lots of glass windows that made it feel open. The shower was nice and the beds where comfy. I saw a few bugs tonight, but I am not sure if these were bought in our bags from the previous place we had stayed. We unpacked and headed to the main part of the lodge for tea. The same food was served, lots of vegetables, rice, chicken, beef and fish. At this point I would have quite liked a burger and chips, but it was hot and filling. One girl had now decided she had had enough and somehow got herself back to Beijing. I feel this is a real shame, but perhaps the best decision for her as she clearly wasn’t enjoying it. She had been at the back of the group for the whole trek and didn’t come to meals with the rest of the group, so she hadn’t managed to form any connections with anyone which was such a shame as I thought she was a lovely and really interesting.
Day six – Mutianyu; 5 Hours ; 9km; 530m
The final day of the trek – everyone’s spirits where high and I think people where very conscious this was the last day! As one girl had gone, the group now picked up pace dramatically and we were at one point was 40 minutes ahead of time. At the end of the day we were told we completed today in the fastest time that Hastings had known. The trek itself was incredible, it was all about the views, I just couldn’t get enough of them. Everywhere you look was just beautiful. The air was clear, and I could see for miles. There was some part of the trek today that was off the beaten track – we started in the jungle and then it became apparent that we were heading into the main section of the wall. At lunch time we stopped at a beautiful view point and I gave in and bought an ‘I have climbed the great wall of china top’, I do love ‘tat’ I have to say. We ended up at the ‘gateway to heaven’ which was hundreds of thousands of steps all downhill. This would have been much more enjoyable if it wasn’t the most tourist spot of the wall. Trying to battle both the steps and other people made this the most frustrating part. It made me really appreciate the fact that I had been able to experience the wall at it truest, natural beauty. After hours of stepping, we were finally at the bottom. WE HAD MADE IT! The feelings of emotion that I experienced at this point was indescribable. I was happy, sad, empowered, overwhelmed, strong, weak, all rolled into one. At the bottom, we were now very much into the tourist part, there was a subway sandwich shop and lots of groups of school children, visitors and coach loads of day trippers – none of them knew what we had just been through, what we had all achieved!
We then had a coach drive to Beijing. I was excited to see what tonight and tomorrow would bring as we got to explore the capital. Our hotel was now a ‘proper’ hotel. A holiday inn. It had a proper reception and entrance and was exactly what you would get in the UK. I think we all wanted a little bit of home comfort now. On arrival we had a bit of free time so me, Callum and Will decided to have a venture out, something that I had missed, usually on holidays I am free to go where I want but in China and out on the wall it was just not possible. So, we headed out, a lot of people where starring at us as we were white which was odd but expected. Chinese culture is very different to ours (more on this in day 7’s log). We found a McDonalds, of all things. after days of rice we were drawn in by the thought of chicken nuggets and chips. Tonight, as a treat, we got to go for a Chinese massage. I was super exited for this as I had no idea what to expect. It was strange. They rub you with your clothes on. There was a lot of hitting and twisting and poking but not much relaxing. I wouldn’t personally recommend it, but it is worth doing as one off just to experience it. We then went for tea, we walked from the parlour to the restaurant, trying to cross the road in Beijing is a challenge as there were so many cars. It was only now, in the city that we were offered different types of food. So, I ended up eating fish eyes, which I wouldn’t do again, meatballs that was unknown meat, and a chicken’s head which would be definite no from me if I was asked to eat it again.
Back at the hotel, it was nice to know that there were no bugs, some of us (Charlie, Callum, Cheryl and Will) decided that it would be a good idea to have a ‘few drink’s’ which turned into drinking a full bottle of JD and getting to bed sometime early morning.
Day 7 – A tour around Beijing
Today we woke up slightly later than we had been doing which was nice seems as I was feeling rough from the night before. The thought of having a city tour today wasn’t really appealing to me at that moment in time but I was eager to see what China was all about. On the coach Hastings told us stories about the one child policy in China and how it no-longer exists. It was an interesting topic for conversation. Our first stop on the trip was Temple of Heaven. Temple of Heaven is a pretty, very touristy area, it holds some religious buildings which are very fancy. We got some free time to look around and take photos which was nice. Next stop the tea rooms. This was quite a nice experience as I do enjoy a good cup of tea back home. We sampled several different teas including Jasmine and yellow tea. Some others in the group bought some to take home but I felt there was other things I wanted to buy as next we were off to the markets. Buying things in China is very different than in the UK. In China you haggle. I was lucky to have been with Callum at this point who was extremely good at getting the best price. I walked away with some beautiful chopsticks (although I still can’t use them properly) and a real leather bookmark. We then had lunch (McDonalds again) and then headed to Tiananmen square.
I am not sure where to start with Tiananmen square, there is a lot of hush hush around this place. This was place was controlled very strongly by the army and in my head, it was what I expected north Korea to be like. I felt uncomfortable, so did Hastings. The square itself is named after the Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) and it’s just a big square with a large picture of a guy called Chairman Mao. I think it is mostly famously known in the UK for the student protests and the burning of the monk but in China all the media is heavily sensitized so I wonder whether they are even aware?! We then walked to the forbidden city. The former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, it now houses the Palace Museum. It was nice to look at first but then I felt it just went on and on and on and quite frankly I was ready to go back to the hotel. We walked around for a good hour or so and then headed back. The day had been interesting, but I felt there was a lot of China that I didn’t and still don’t know about.
Once back at the hotel we all got ready and went out for our final night. We had to use the tube which was an experience. I have used many undergrounds before across Europe and America, but nothing really prepared me for this one. It was squished, and we were on for 9 stops. It was strange looking at people’s phones and seeing Chinese symbols instead of letters. I was thankful we had Hastings because I would have got lost. We made it to the show (late) which was a Chinese acrobatic show. Some people in our group loved it, I was less thrilled. I am not sure if was because 3 of us got split up from the group and had to sit the other side of room whereby there was a woman who was sneezing and coughing all over us. I nearly walked out, all I could think was she had bird flu and it was going all over me. At one point I felt snot go on my ear and I had to put my hood up. It was hard to concentrate when she was being so disgusting! After the show I was ready to sleep, it had been a long day, but back at the hotel some of the guys wanted to have some drinks, I decided one wouldn’t hurt (famous last words). We decided to play a game called ‘ring of fire’ that some of us had played a uni. For those of you who don’t know, this is a lethal card game with never ends well. Hastings decided to play with us and so it began. we started drinking around 10pm and by 1am everyone was drunk, especially Hastings! What did we expect when we mixed JD with beer, vodka, Bacardi and firewater?!? safe to say the night ended with lots of sick and sore heads in the morning.
The final day
I woke up and instantly regretted the fact that I now had to get to the airport and survive a 12 hours flight back to the UK. Hastings was taking us to the airport and he looked 10x worse than I felt (and I feel this is an understatement – I am not sure how he even got up?). Some the others were staying for extension tours but sadly I had to head back. We waved everyone off and then onto the airport. Much less busy and hectic this time with no scary bays or temperature checks (funny how they care when you come into the country but not when you are leaving). My flight back was long and uncomfortable. Back in the UK I was determined to stay away to speak to my dad, I think I lasted all of 10 seconds before I woke up and I was back in Blackburn.
Overall an out of this world experience which I would highly recommend to anyone. It is tough, and I would say the fitter you are the more you would enjoy it. I have made friends for live and shown myself I can survive on my own. Now for the next adventure….