Great Wall Trek Diary for Wednesday 7th November 2001

This is my diary for Wednesday 7th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

I’ve also just uploaded a Google Earth file for the whole trip, with (approximate) hike routes plotted, which might be of interest to someone…


Wednesday 7th November – second day of wall walking; Simatai to Jinshanling

[This was a real rollercoaster of a day, in which I pushed myself (or to be more accurate, had no choice but to push myself) into and beyond physical discomfort and exhaustion in a way I never had before - and in doing so discovered just why it is that people do that. The wall was the best of the week, the countryside beautiful, the weather perfect, and the company marvellous. I'm sure I'll always look back on this day as one of the greatest of my life.]

My favourite photo from the whole trek

Another beautiful morning! Up @ 0630, get shit together, rucksack in coach @ 0715 then brekkie – coffee (warm hands!), apple, tomato, egg, doughnut, back to room to pick up bag (couple of photos w/ minipod), to coaches 0745. Don’t want to get on! [I didn't want to leave this place where yesterday had happened. Silly, given the day that lay ahead. I still struggle with letting go of good things...] Set off, up into mountains. Very windy, very barren, very rural – but lots of activity: people riding in open 3 wheelers, chopping crabapples, hefting bricks, etc. Flags/banners all over the place.

“The People of Xinglong County Wish You A Good Trip”. [A sign over the road that made me smile.]

Haven’t seen much wildlife: a few birds but mainly just domesticated animals: pigs, chickens, geese, goats, horses, camels. It’s very cold, I guess that’s why (birds migrated?). Good thing: no insects! (OK, 2 wasps and 1 beetle – but not bad!). Feeling very good this AM, things twinged slightly when squatted to get at rucksack shortly after getting up, and nose a bit blocked – have been neglecting nasal spray, must rectify [at the time I was taking a corticosteroid spray for rhinitis] – but other than that fine & raring to go. :-) My back feels completely fine – all praise to Allah. Lots of beeping (hey cows!), ie every time we want to pass anything. Quite a few dogs, mostly alsatianoid mongrels.

1710 Oh my God, what a day. I really don’t know how to describe how I feel, what I’ve done, where we’ve been. Incredible. I’ve just never done anything like that in my life (not even yesterday). But first it’s time for my first shower since Friday. Let’s go!

1755 Oh man, that was fantastic. The best shower I ever had in my life – and now the heating’s on! This room [in the hotel at Jinshanling, at the end of the walk] is so much better than the one at The Barracks – actually feels like a hotel, rather than, say, a tent with walls. I’m so exhausted, but I also feel absolutely fantastic – this must be why people get into exercise. There was a bit at the end today where I and Louisa were running along a bit of wall, giggling at the absurdity of it. Presumably by this point the pain barrier had been smashed to smithereens.

This morning was hell. But in a good way. Today’s walk was Simatai to Jinshanling, the hardest and most dangerous section we’re doing, but also the most “classical” and just generally groovy – or at least that’s what they’d said. They were not wrong – although of course three days to go. Well, anyway. Pre-walk through Samatai (Opera!), pretty naff, then split into two group: main group (turn left at wall), and crazy group, with me in it, turning right & going up a real fuckin’ steep bit to a high point, then coming back down & catching up with others (in theory). Estimated time: about 1.25 to 1.5 hours.

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Two other things to note: it’s pretty warm but I’ve got both my coats because I’m sure Anthony said it’d be much colder today, so I’m heavily laden; and also, the hawkers. Huge crowd waiting at wall, hook onto us (one each) and follow. Real pains in the arse at first, but actually ended up quite appreciating them – guided way a couple of times, were encouraging, and said “Be careful” many many times; carried packs if desired (I didn’t), sold book at end (100 yuan - hmmm, let’s have a look at it – yeah, not bad – lots of pictures, basically).

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OK, so anyway, the crazy group (about 10 of us) [later referred to as "The Simatai Suicide Squad" - photo below] storm through hawkers and start up RHS. V steep, hot, v fast – totally knackering. Rest @ first tower then up again, more of same. Bit icy too. It’s hell - complete hell. So hot. Stops are essential but don’t fully recover. By second tower I’m already regretting it – bad idea. But up we go, hawkers still with us. We’re aiming for tower seven, total insanity. Some sections slightly easier, but all pretty difficult. Gets better towards top – end attainable, I suppose, and less hawkers, though still enough to get in the way. At 5 or 6 there’s a steep metal ladder with handrails & Pete (?) stays there – it is pretty hairy. Get to 7, Anthony wants to go one beyond (apparently police stopped him last time), hell why not? So we make it to 8 (and not followed by hawkers on this section). It’s great – views fantastic though it’s really hazy unfortunately. We made it! Group shots… There’s a bit more (people up there – one guy was running earlier), but we’ve got to turn around – aiming to catch up with main group at some point. Back down hard work but not as hard as up. So hot! Less rests on way down, and at back so can’t improve that.

The Simatai Suicide Squad Looking back at Simatai

Down, down, down, past point of entry, to fantastically wobbly bridge then up steep metal stairs (almost vertical), three or four flights - argh! Feeling really bad now – awfully hot, carrying too much, thought we were stopping for lunch! At back, argh.

Chain bridge at Simatai

Then we do stop for lunch (about 2pm), it’s very good (crazy club sandwich, rice, egg, apple), and great to stop, but hawkers are spoiling it. Argh, so much less nice than yesterday but should be even better – gotta get out of this headspace. Know who “my” hawker is by now, but there are many more. They’re not actively disturbing us, just hanging around & chatting loudly. Others also finding it hard – I guess that’s good! Who’s in group? Anthony, Llew, Louisa, Laura, Emma, David, Peter, Neil, Becca, Richard, Ollie, er… Chris, Tony (?), Kit, Hugh.

Jogger’s nipple – ouch!

Follow the crumbly brick road

Then press on. It’s hard, but spectacular. Still hot, but have moved fleece to under lid of backpack and that’s really helping. Have now basically paired up w/ Louisa (Anthony suggested twos & threes to spread hawkers – working for us with just one each but others not so lucky) and it’s pretty good: similar paces, and she’s nuts about photography, and also very talkative, which was exactly what was required. Some icy patches a bit dodgy, hard going. Really hard part is not knowing how far we have to go – there’s supposedly a checkpoint somewhere? Wall goes on as far as we can see, and time’s getting on, are we going to make it before dark? (At least Anthony’s behind us.) We reach a point where wall goes up steep & crumbly, looks good but guides guide us around, onto path off wall – quite pleasant little bit but find out later could have gone over (Ant + others did) & it’s great. Ah well.

Louisa Thumbs up for the wall!

Great thing that happens just before this point is we can see Jinshanling, our destination, so we have an idea of how far we have to go. This buoys our spirits immensely and we’re really anjoying it again now (though have picked up Jinshanling hawkers). At next tower meet Harriet, and hawkers want to go home. Nearly there (or so we thought) so buy book & postcodes from my guy (120 yuan) since he’s been such a trooper, and crack on.

Guides

Now coming through back of main group, Correley (sp?), Lola & Rhiannon (having trouble w/ hawkers), and Harry, who promptly yomps off. Help C, L & R along for a bit (Louisa does same steps 3 times!) then Anthony coming up from behind & nearly there so go on. There’s the end – and Anita! Go out on ledge for photo & guides shout Nonononono! They think I don’t know this isn’t the way down! By now we’re feeling absolutely great & not dark yet so we go on to the extra bit (about 4 towers), and Oh My God is it fantastic! The hawkers don’t follow! We’re on our own! We feel great – this is why people exercise. We’ve passed the pain barrier & are worrying that we can’t feel the damage we’re doing – but don’t actually care. So quiet & peaceful – Anthony, Laura & Emma are behind but not with is. This just tops the day off perfectly. I want to keep writing about this because I’m feeling it now (24 hours later) but it’s so hard to describe. Ah, fuck it. We ran to an out of the way bit in hope of good view/photo of Jinshanling. Not very pretty though so didn’t bother. Still, was worth it for absurd giggliness of run.

Setting sun over Jinshanling Peace, perfect peace

As we came down off wall, onto muddy track into Jinshanling, Louise told me about working on a ranch in Montana – sounds fantastic. As we enter village hawkers reappear – gaaah! Are we going the right way? Stop & wait for A, L, E behind us. L & E go into shop, A joins us – heartiness & tales all round.

We go on to hotel, Cathy & Anita waiting outside. My bag’s in my room already! Cool. Get to room; it’s great! Much nicer than barracks. The shower – oh yes! Clean clothes, mmmm. Excellent. Just getting dark when arrive @ hotel. Bit of sitting around saying wow (still feeling great), bit of diary. To restaurant for pre-dinner beer @ 1830, meet w/ Diana, Wyn, and others. People drifting in, end up on table with 8 women – haven’t done that since uni! ;-) Meet Jill for first time. Food better than Barracks, sort of. Definitely eminently edible and enjoyable. Jill buys 12 quid bottle of wine (rubbish). Briefing on tomorrow, sounds good. Then 2030 bonfire & firecrackers outside – woohoo! Really nice, mega toasty. Mainly standing around w/ Becca, Llew, Tracey (who lets me use her phone to send a text message to Julie!), supping beer & talking stuff. Becca’s definitely up for getting us all dressed up for the last night. Some people playing charades or something inside – but I stay by fire. Me, Llew, Neil, Jill last ones there, then us two go back and crash, unsure of time but think before 2300.

Dinner at Jinshanling hotel, third night Thrilling headgear around the fireside

Malc’s sleeping bag is ace.

The blessed room