Standing in Huangyaguan, a small rural Chinese town, we see the Great Wall for the first time – majestic and daunting, rising into the mountains behind us. Most tourists visit the busy, restored sections of the wall, but with local guides we’re fortunate to start our trek in this beautiful valley in the heart of the Yanshan Mountains.
We’ve just spent the night in a traditional mountain hotel. At breakfast I’m not the only person unable to eat very much – after a year of fundraising, training and planning, I’ve been swinging between feeling nervous and excited since arriving.
I decided to sign up for the trek because my Grandad suffered with Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve experienced first-hand what a horrible, life altering disease it is. Having this personal connection gave me the determination to raise the target of £3,350 for Alzheimer’s Society and, on the wall, to keep going, one step at a time.
Before even arriving in China fundraising was a huge challenge, but (although it seems impossible at first) raising such a large amount of money is achievable. With the help of friends, family and generous business owners, I planned various events, stalls and collections. Fundraising truly helped restore my faith in the kindness of strangers – just one small conversation can result in donations and support.
Our first day’s walk lasts for five hours in unseasonably hot weather, but the views are breathtaking. Our guides stop regularly for breaks and by the end our group of 50 people has gelled into a team – laughing, cheering and supporting each other. That lunchtime we learn that so far we’ve raised £170,000, a figure that I keep in my mind when the trekking becomes tough. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the endless steps and hills of the Great Wall; it really is never flat! At the end of the day, as we descend back into the village, my legs are wobbling and my knees ache.
Waking early, our second day takes us up Heaven’s Ladder, a steep climb of over 200 steps leading us up the cliff face. Ascending into mist, we walk along narrow paths with sheer drops and meander through a forest neighbouring the wall. Even with limited visibility, the area is stunning and peaceful - we hardly meet any other people during the challenging seven-hour trek. Gathering at the top of one of the wall’s old towers, I take photos before we slowly work our way down an uneven, rocky trail into the village of Qian Gan Jian.
After a night around the campfire, we walk through the farming village and back into the mountains. Here we follow an unrestored, crumbling section of the wall, carefully walking along narrow paths and over trails of flagstones. Although tired and achy, the group support each other, and throughout the walk I take moments to absorb the views and think about my Grandad. After lunch we walk along a quiet road through beautiful valleys, dotted with flowers, fire-red trees and passing tuk-tuks. From here we travel by coach to Jinshanlin, where we spend the night.
The following day we walk from the village of Gubeiko and back to Jinshanlin, starting the day with a steep climb to reach the wall. The views are incredible. The mountains dot into the distance for miles and the Great Wall snakes amongst them from watchtower to watchtower. Climbing and descending the unpredictable steps, I scramble up towers dating back to the Qing Dynasty to enjoy the stunning panoramas. At first the trek seemed overwhelming, but as my body adjusts and the adrenaline kicks in, the walking becomes more and more enjoyable. Our guide carefully leads us along sheer pathways through farmland and past a few local cafés. Despite the language barrier, the local people are friendly and welcoming, and I feel fortunate to experience this unseen, rural side of China. We spend the night in Jinshanlin and, after eight hours of trekking and a traditional Chinese meal, I sleep well.
Our fifth day of trekking is spent mostly travelling through mist and light rain, passing 22 of the iconic watchtowers. It’s a very tough trek and includes some of the steepest sections of the wall. At points, we need to clamber up near-vertical steps of old bricks and sheer ramps along the top of the wall. My knees are really aching, but with support from newfound friends and a knee strap, I complete the walk. We’re treated to a night in a ‘western-style’ hotel in Old Badaling – I’ve never seen a group of people so happy and relieved to see comfy beds. We celebrate with a quiz and spirits are high; our local guide even volunteers to have his hair cut off in aid of the charity.
The weather holds out for our final day of trekking, which takes us up onto Shixiaguan (stone gorge) wall, at ancient Badaling for an emotional finish. Tired, I find the trek tough, but don’t want the experience to end. We’re challenged by walking up and down steep brick slopes, often without walls both sides. The team cheer for each other after each ascent and the views (if you’re brave enough to look down) show the unbelievable heights, distance and achievements we’ve shared. We climb to a height equal to that of Ben Nevis, where our brilliant guides greet us with Chinese ‘champagne’ and medals. I feel overcome, honoured, joyful and sad all at once, and we share photos, hugs and tears.
As we descend from the mountains for the final time I reflect on the amazing journey we’ve shared. Trekking for a week, pushing yourself to unimaginable limits, raising money for Alzheimer’s Society’s vital work and meeting a group of inspiring people is an incredible high. It has truly been a life changing experience and such a confidence boost. I return home with smelly boots and memories to last a lifetime.
Photos: Ellen Tout