Hi guys, Holly here. Back from my first ever DA overseas challenge.
It was an experience with many firsts. A first time for setting my feet in the captivating land of China. A first for trekking six days in a row. A first for eating porridge with chopsticks. The list goes on.
You may have seen the numerous updates whenever I was able to post back and beat China's social media restrictions, but here's the lowdown on what has to be my most amazing adventure yet. Prepare for tales of (chocolate-based) tragedy, perseverance and only the best/bad jokes that we deliriously laughed to as we shimmied, climbed, hiked across the Wall that I can now personally confirm is Great. Really, really great. Ready?
On the Friday that we flew out to Beijing, I couldn't quite contain my excitement. I was going to be walking on the Great Wall of China in a matter of days and exploring a country that was so far from my ordinary in culture, customs and surroundings. Meeting the group of trekkers that I was soon to be trekking the Wall with was surprisingly less daunting than I had anticipated. They were all absolutely lovely, a sea of friendly faces and eruptions of laughter, I knew straight away I was in for some fun times ahead. We flew from Heathrow to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Beijing and I think a combination of a comfy travel pillow, pure excitement and too much chocolate ensured the journey flew by (pardon the pun).
After a coach trip where we had fleeting glimpses of the Wall along with vibrant culture, and the hustle and bustle of local life, we reached our first accommodation of the trip. The Wall was mere metres away from our rooms that centred around a square courtyard, which was further framed by picturesque trees, intricately detailed architecture and sections of the Great Wall itself. The pinch-me moment was beginning to set in. With jet lag hitting hard, many opted to rest before dinner but I think the big kid in me just wanted to explore. The Wall was RIGHT THERE! I grabbed a few items and took a stroll around the nearby area; there was a beautiful pear garden and maze just around the corner from our rooms so in a bid to resist setting foot on the Wall before our first official day of the trek, I attempted the maze with the trip leader's number on speed dial in case I got hopelessly stuck. Luckily, for the sake of my pride, I didn't have to call Ben and I had time to find a spot near the entrance of the Wall to write in my diary and take a few pictures of my cool surroundings. Flags fluttered in the breeze, intricate detail adorned the walls, gates and doors everywhere you turned, and red flowers and greenery burst from every corner.
As I sat taking it all in, I began to wonder if I had something on my face or was unknowingly doing something against China's customs, as countless locals stopped, pointed and asked to take pictures. I soon clicked on that many had travelled from even more remote parts of China than we were based and hadn't seen many English people before. I felt like quite the celebrity. (Maybe a little less glamorous).
And we're off!
There was a definite excitement in the air as we set off for our first day of trekking, taking our baby steps along the initial section of the Wall with our camel packs full of water for the day and in my case, way too many snacks to be justifiable. Old habits die hard. Our trek began with little motorbikes whizzing past and goats hauling carts, chickens running loose and locals greeting us with warm welcomes, by the time we had reached the entrance to our first section of the wall we were about a mile or two in. There’s a message written on a sizeable boulder that translates to something like ‘you are only a true hero, when you have walked the Great Wall’. This gave us a little fire in our belly as we faced our first-of-many set of stairs.
The group were already comfortable with each other and personalities were coming out, which made the unknown of the challenge ahead that little less intimidating. We all knew the itinerary for each day but reading about something on a piece of paper is very different to actually doing it and as we clambered up the Wall, it was a strange, tingling feeling finally experiencing this iconic part of the world and knowing we were going to be spending six full days exploring it. Day one was a healthy mix of busy sections trawling with locals due to their national 'Golden Week' holiday that was just coming to an end, and taking paths a little less trodden and out in the sticks. Ben presented Doc Simon and I with flower crowns to easily spot us in the crowds which smelt amazing. And as this shorter day of trekking proceeded, easing us in well for the week ahead, thoughts turned to the following day – pitched to be one of the tougher days of the trek. In fact, everyone in the group found different days more difficult than others, depending on their strengths, weaknesses and how much they had eaten and slept each day. This came as both a reassurance and sense of the unknown, but it was the nature of the challenge and I loved not knowing what was just around the corner.
'Undulating' may be considered a swear word...
While many people in the office that had experienced this challenge had already explained that trekking the Great Wall is varied, I didn't expect it to be as diverse as it was. And it was very much agreed that while we didn't have any particular expectations of what this trip was going to be like, the Great Wall surpassed everything we could have imagined. Following winding mud trails, stepping from rock to rock, using our poles to steady ourselves along steep descents and hiking ourselves up impossibly large steps that continued for miles into the misty distance among the peaks. Through forest, up hills, along undulating paths that twisted and turned off into all directions, passing through innumerable watchtowers and along exposed parts of the Wall with sheer drops either side that allowed you to look out as far as the eye can see. The enormity of your surroundings was incredible, the time and dedication spent on the Wall is hard to get your head around even as you stood there amongst it and being able to explore so many different sections of this man-made creation was the most surreal experience.
Lazy Susan? We thought 'Efficient Susan'
Come the second day, everyone was raring to go for another chance to experience the Great Wall and all the little surprises that each day brought. A random yet hearty breakfast was served to us on Lazy Susans, as were the majority of our meals. It made for an amusing element to our meal, whizzing around to grab your desired dish or rather, whizzing dishes away from the opposing person on the table. After filling our trusty camel packs for the day, I ran an impromptu warm-up in the courtyard which included more than a few squats to prepare us for the hole-on-the-floor toilets we had access to. Sufficiently pumped for the day, we set off. Many of us, including myself, initially made the mistake of layering up as the mornings started slightly chillier. However, Leader Ben reeled off 'be bold, start cold', and starting off feeling a little bare definitely worked out best as you soon worked up a sweat scrambling up the many steps and the sun didn't take long to appear.
Each day brought new challenges for each member of the team, whether it was the rice pillows that we slept on in some of the more remote accommodation or the relentless procession of steps that varied in size making trekking seem like an ancient assault course at times. The unusual local foods that we were presented with, or the famous 'OMG steps' that really did make you shout 'oh my god' (or words to that effect) when you laid eyes on them. The trick with each challenge that you faced, was to face it with humour and embrace the wonderful, wacky experience that you're in. I plumped up the rice pillows and used some of my many clothing layers to cushion my head, tired enough from the excitement of each day and a helping of rice wine, sleep came easy. The challenging steps? We thought of any and every song that could relate to the Great Wall and the miles we had been trekking; The Proclaimer's '500 miles', Nancy Sinatra's 'These boots are made for walkin' and AC/DC 'Highway to Hell' were among the many suggestions that kept us occupied and harmonising as we tackled each step one at a time. And the food... well, fried chicken's foot definitely brought us some amusement, but generally the food was tasty local cuisine that kept us well-fuelled. And in between meal times, I had a chocolate stash that Willy Wonka would have been envious of. Highly charged on e numbers, the group's support network and the magic of the Wall, nothing could stop us.
In fact, the biggest disasters that I encountered was running out of chocolate midweek. Doc Simon and leader, Ben, were very concerned so we made an imperative stop at the shop one evening to restock my supply. Other than that, a badly-packed bottle of rice wine, yet all the same much-treasured souvenir, smashed inside my bag during the trip, meaning I smelt rather alcoholic. All I am saying is dry bags are your friend, and if it wasn't for one of these gems my many layers of clothing may also have been soaked with the powerful stuff too! On that note, a few things that I was glad to have had in my bag include...
- Lunch box - protecting my dear sandwiches that you were more than ready to devour by the time lunchtime came around.
- Walking poles - having not used poles before this trek, I was a little apprehensive but considering how uneven and steep the terrain was across the Wall - everyone was very thankful they had an extra leg of support. I just used one of my poles as I liked having one hand free but everyone relied on them differently.
- Dry bags - I brought along 4 or 5 dry bags and they were so handy to keep all of your things tidy and together, especially when you are moving between different accommodation. Not to mention, also very handy if you don't wrap up your liquids like your Mum has taught you and you have an alcoholic leakage in your case.
- Notepad and pen - now you may just want to use the Notes section on your phone, but I liked whipping out my notepad and pen here and there and jotting down some notes about the day. And it certainly made relaying my experiences- including writing this post- a whole lot easier, so it's benefited us all! What's more, I got my family to write funny and motivational notes to me, which I read at certain points across the Wall. These messages fuelled me like a share pack of M&M's.
- Anti-bac gel - Stock-pile the stuff! We seemed to go through a lot of it. I used my hands and knees to get up some of the steps and work my way along some of the more exposed parts of the Wall, so the fruity cleanse was welcomed when it came to whipping out my next snack.
The high (notes) and the lows
After a long day of trekking - sometimes up to eight hours - yes, you read that right, the taste of a cold beer, putting your dusty boots up in a hammock in a remote b&b and thinking about the highs, lows and downright mad moments of the day behind you was just what the doctor ordered. Dobble was the game of choice, and soon became an avid addiction amongst the group. I, for one, saw my heart rate on my Garmin soar in the first minute of playing. Rice wine was another, more inevitable addition to our evenings. Rice wine was the drink of choice for the (questionably) brave, when in China. After the initial burn, it had a slight after taste. To be sure, I had several more. And it definitely seemed to help fuel the efforts on Karaoke. Another trip highlight and hilarious evening activity. The group were quite proud of the four hours we managed to kill singing our favourite songs and the raspy throats the next day were worn like medals. The energy you muster after several consecutive days of trekking is surprising but the multitude of photo-bombs, cheesy jokes and funny moments definitely help along the way.
Some of my favourite moments will surprise those who know me, as they were times when we sat silently at the Three Provinces point, looking out at the sprawling landscape just taking in the most beautiful view I'd ever laid my eyes on. Another, when we waited by the last watch tower of the day one evening to catch the sunset. Who doesn't love a sunset view? But this was next level. Wrapped up in my multitude of layers, looking out at the pastel sky dimming over the peaks I just wanted to transport all my nearest and dearest so they could see this moment for themselves, knowing I wouldn't be able to quite do it justice when I got home. But sharing that moment with just a handful of people that I had got to know so quickly over the course of the week was just brilliant. I also took this moment to slip a paper note in the Wall - hopefully to be found in years to come. Or maybe never.
The local guide, James, was a fountain of knowledge, having explored more than fifty sections of the Wall and he also happened to have a cheeky sense of humour. He kept us entertained with his witty remarks and topical facts about the Wall and Chinese culture, especially through some of the tougher parts of the challenge when people really appreciated that distraction. The team we had to depend on were absolutely outstanding. I may be a little biased as part of the DA team, but seeing how the leader, doctor and local guide covered all bases and were consistently on hand for support - was reassuring to say the least. All with a joke or two to hand. Invaluable.
On the last day on the Wall, it was misty and moist (sorry, to have used that word!), which ramped up the challenge factor. With more steep and relentless steps to cover before we could tick the Great Wall off the bucket list, it was a bitter sweet day knowing we had completed the challenge yet had to leave this extraordinary place. We finished up our trek at a point that was almost as high as Snowdon, a pretty satisfying finale to the adventure. And before leaving the last watch tower on our return, the DA team revealed magnums of champagne to quench our thirst. Perfection. There was quite the eruption of euphoria as bubbles poured and we cheered to our successes: a bucket list adventure - check, iconic landmark - check and surviving six, long days of trekking without seriously injuring ourselves, not giving up or getting arrested - CHECK!
After our time on the Great Wall, Beijing felt like an intense opposite that welcomed us to another element of China. From an enthusiastic Silk Factory assistant named Mary to the chaotic marketplaces where you could buy everything from a kimono to some Calvin Kleins, the tasty tea tour, and the satisfying massage back at the hotel - Beijing was an explosion for the senses. And a just end to a truly unforgettable experience.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and maybe I should have made a collage rather than writing this post. The pictures give you a glimpse into the astounding beauty of the landscape we explored and with some keen photographers within our group, we've got some real wonders. The trip was packed full of so many lifelong memories that put a huge, cheesy grin on my face every time I find myself daydreaming of China, it's hard to capture it in one succinct post. Really, you need to discover it for yourself.
So, that's a little flavour of my China adventure, from yours truly. Feel free to get in touch and ask away, any excuse for me to talk about my new favourite place. And I'd love to know if it's sparked a curiosity to set foot on the Great Wall. Until my next adventure!