On Saturday 14th September 2019 a team of 39 MND Scotland fundraisers travelled to Beijing to take on a 5-day trek along the Great Wall of China. The team hiked thousands of steps on various sections of the World Heritage Site and helped restore part of the ancient Wall, all while raising over £185,000 (and still counting) for MND Scotland. Here, our very own Niamh Callan reflects on this once-in-a-lifetime challenge!
After over a year of planning, fundraising and training, the day we have all been waiting for has finally arrived.
Being one of the last to arrive at Glasgow Airport at 11am I was greeted by a sea of red t-shirts just beyond the front door – that’s when it really hit me the enormity of the challenge these 38 people are taking on and what they have already achieved. After a fairly sleepless 24 hours via Dubai, we touch down in Beijing. It already seems like a distant memory as I write this almost four weeks later. We have a 2 hour transfer to our first night’s accommodation, although as we began to discover ‘Chinese time’ seems to be a tad longer than UK time. Our first Chinese dinner was very well received – served on a lazy Susan we shared different local dishes for our first meal together as a group. By the time we get settled in, showered, fed and briefed we all go to bed early to prepare for our early start and first day of trekking.
Our first day on the Great Wall of China. Wow. To say the feeling is surreal is an understatement. We drive right up to the Wall and the steps present themselves immediately, and the steps continue... on and on and on. Definitely not the easy start I hoped we might get.
The Great Wall of China is actually made up of lots of different walls, which I didn’t know, built during different centuries, from as early as the 7th century BC. Stretches were later joined together between 220–206 BC, by the first Emperor of China, and the most well-known sections of the wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
Today we are trekking the Taipingzhai section returning along the Wall to Huangyaguan. This part of the Wall is around 400-600 years old, which surprised me as it’s been so well maintained for being this old.
After what seems like never-ending steps up and down, connected by countless watchtowers, we all make it to our first finish point. In the afternoon, we transfer to our next accommodation and opt for an early night as tomorrow is set to be our longest day with around 6-7 hours trekking.
Our second day on the Wall has to be one of the highlights for me. Today we cover a whopping 27 watchtowers as we trek the remote and stunning Gubeikou section. Some watchtowers are partial ruins and stretch as far as the eye can see, surrounded by greenery beyond imagination. Built in the 6th century this area has not been reconstructed since the 1500s, and remains completely in its original condition – the real remnants of the Ming Dynasty. It really is hard to put into words how breath-taking the views are (although we had our very own David Attenborough on the trek who did a pretty good job! ;) ) and many described it as something out of National Geographic. Photos just couldn’t possibly capture the beauty. The terrain is more varied with fewer solid steps and is more akin to our own hillwalking in Scotland, which is a nice change of pace from yesterday.
Tonight our dinner apparently includes the best sweet and sour chicken in China – so there was a bit of fighting around the lazy Susan to make sure you don’t miss out… to be fair it was delicious. Our hotel has a corner pub where we all have a “few” drinks, some dancing, bonding and a good laugh. We even managed to get our MND Scotland t-shirt up on the pub wall… something we could all leave behind to mark our experience, with our own personal messages.
Most mornings we have toast, bacon, eggs and fruit, but today we have our first taste of a traditional Chinese breakfast of pancakes and fried egg. It wasn’t exactly like eggs and pancakes back home – more like stir-fried eggs with spring onion, some kind of pancake style bread (?!), and a side of noodle soup. However, it was actually really tasty!
For me this was potentially the most challenging day of the whole trip, maybe because of the 30 degree heat. With the sun beating down on our already sweaty bodies we take on many steps from the Jinshanling section – another remote mountainous area, far from the tourist trail. As our guides keep telling us every morning, the walk is “undulating” – however, it definitely feels like there’s A LOT more uphill than downhill.
It was so steep at times it was easier to run up the hills to just get some momentum at that angle. My short legs struggled at times (I’m 5.2 if I’m being generous) and was on my hands and knees scrambling up rocks. Today worked all of my muscles at different times – calves, thighs and bum, but the views across the landscape stretching all the way to the horizon were worth it.
This evening we hear news from back home that Fernando Ricksen has lost his brave battle with MND. I think this gave the team an extra boost to keep walking and fighting for those who no longer can, a moving moment in the middle of the trip for many of us.
Visiting a more well-known and touristy area, we trek the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and conquer the mighty 1,000 steps (apparently more like 1,100) that take you up to the ‘Heavenly Ladder’. This is where famous dignitaries and presidents are taken up by cable car for photo calls.
The 1,000 steps take us to Tower 10 and we still have to make our way up and down (less often down) the steps to Tower 19 where we meet for our big group photo. This feels like a real high point and a huge achievement for the team. For those who wanted the extra challenge you could climb up the Heavenly Ladder (the steepest steps of the trip at a 45-degree angle!) to Tower 20.
As a reward for our hard day’s work, we take the toboggans back down to the bottom of the Wall and have dinner in a jade factory where we learned about the different types of this semi-precious stone, how to tell if it’s fake, and to do some souvenir shopping.
Our final day of walking comes around so quickly, yet it feels like weeks ago when we first met in Glasgow Airport. Fortunately, today is a short day but still a challenge. With the blazing sun overhead and a steep uphill and downhill (does that sound familiar?), this was particularly challenging for our injured participant, who was such a trooper on this trip. With a smile on her face and a heavily strapped knee she completed the final day like a true hero. What an amazing personal accomplishment to have completed this tough, tough day!
To finish the afternoon, we help repair a section of the wall by cementing a brick each, then take a transfer back to Beijing. The repair was extremely emotional for many members of the group; leaving messages and photos for loved ones and reflecting on why we are all here doing this and what we’re fighting for. A perfectly poignant way to end to the trek.
When we get back to Beijing, to celebrate our final day of walking, we have the option to go to an acrobatics show and/or have some massage/reflexology. I did both – the show was fab, and my massage was… interesting… with a few bruises to show for it!
If I could I would be able to write something amazing about every single person I met on this trip, but I don’t think anyone will be mad with me giving a special shout out to Eugene (well except maybe Eugene that is!) who celebrated his 50th birthday on the trek. What a fantastic way to mark this milestone and I hope we did you proud.
Before finally heading back to Beijing Airport we have one day of touring the city, including a trip to the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the ‘knock off’ market (sorry if I’ve just burst the bubble – that Louis Vuitton present isn’t real!). This was followed by a final celebratory meal to end the trip before the main group set off for the airport, leaving seven to stay on for an optional extension trip. A really fun night to end of the week and celebrate everything we have achieved!
For such a large group I was so happy to see the dynamics work so well and friendships for life develop - I hope everyone agrees with me.
I have been on two of these trek now (shameless plug for my Machu Picchu blog if you want to get a feel for that trek... the biggest difference is no showers and camping! 😉) and what I’ve really found is it’s not just about the physical challenge. For many this is a personal journey, one that can be shared with people who have gone through, or are going through, something similar.
Now, I’m not one for standing up and making speeches (Iain, our head of fundraising, does that far too well for me to try and follow) but I want our whole team to know I could not be prouder of everything each and every one of you has achieved, on and off that wall - physically, personally and emotionally. There were so many highs and some lows but as a team we all worked together to achieve something great and raised over £185,000 for MND. I hope you’re all as proud of yourselves as I am of you and that the experience has been as special for you as it has been for me.
So, all that’s left to say is thank you, well done and hopefully see some of you, and plenty of new faces, on our 2021 challenge (ppsst… we’ll be launching February 2020, so keep your eyes peeled or join our email list below to get a notification).
Thanks to everyone who has donated to our China total, which is going towards supporting families across the country and funding research to find a cure. You can still donate to my page for MND Scotland at: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/niamh-callan1.
add your comment