From Exhibitionist to Expeditionist – Along The Great Wall Of China

What’s the strangest chat up line you’ve ever heard?  Mine was during a summer holiday in the French Alps aged 27, and went something like “would you ski with me to the North Pole”?  Some of you may be real hardcore adventurers and jump at that sort of opportunity. But you see, I wasn’t an adventurer.   “Absolutely no way” I immediately replied. I didn’t have to give it a second thought.  Why would I? But more to the point, how could I?’ My only knowledge of Polar Explorers were Captain Scott and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and they were brave fearless action heroes. More to the point, I also new of Sir Ran cutting off his own frostbitten fingers in the garden with a hacksaw on return from a North Pole trip. No thanks very much!

I believed in order to do such journeys you had to be made of something quite unique, with a physical and mental strength well beyond mine. I wasn’t strong and I certainly wasn’t an adventurer.  I was a 6ft tall skinny size 8 model, earning a living working on photo shoots, fashion shows, and body-doubling in movies for Cameron Diaz.  I was all about hair, makeup, heels and my signature hot pink acrylic nails (and yes, I had been known to shed a small tear if I broke a nail!)

A week after I returned home from my holiday, Tarka (he of the chat up line) asked if he could visit me. With no money for a plane ticket, he cycled the 1400km to my house in Devon from the French Alps. Once he arrived, he never left, moving in from our second date. Tarka was a mountaineer and polar explorer, and over several months, he gradually convinced me that we are all far more capable than we think, we just need to be bold enough to begin, and that I really should join him skiing to the North Pole. I also began to realise that I was being offered an incredible opportunity to do what very few people in the world will ever get to do. When I really thought about what was stopping me saying yes, it turned out to be the fear of failure and the unknown. These are common and natural fears for most of us, and in time I realised I didn’t want to let them rule me. So I gave in and agreed, but on the condition that maybe I could start with something ‘easier’. “Like how about we walk the Great Wall of China?!” I suggested. I had done my Duke of Edinburgh at school, so I felt a hiking trip was probably within me, far more so than cross-country skiing across the Arctic ocean.

Now I have a confession to make here, for I didn’t know the Great Wall of China was 4300km long from its Westerly extremity in Yumenguan to its most Easterly point in Hushan on the North Korean border. I didn’t know it involved hiking across the barren Gobi Desert or towering snow-capped mountain passes. I most definitely didn’t know that no-one had hiked it.  It was just somewhere on my bucket list of places to visit and things to see. It turns out I could have skied to the North Pole 5 times in the 6 months it took us to walk along the wall. 

With a bit of research, I was quick to find that the Great Wall was made up of many different walls, all built in different dynasties, heading in all directions. If you added all the pieces together, the wall would actually stretch for over 50,000km. We, however, were just looking to traverse across the wall. There had been two impressive crossings of the wall previously, one by William Lindsey in 1987 taking 18 months, and a further traverse by Gail Hall in 2002 taking 174 days. With new extremities of the Great Wall having been found and confirmed by historians and archaeologists since both of their crossings, a longer full-length traverse from West to East was still left un-walked, and this was the goal we had set ourselves. The longest visa we could get our hands on gave us just 180 days, including internal travel to and from the start and finish. It was always going to be tight!

A fair amount of training was needed to turn my weak body into something that was capable of the task ahead. It began with a backpack full of sand to the weight of 30kg’s, this was the weight my bag would be for real on the expedition. I started by walking just a kilometre down the road. In need of a quick rest (yes I was that unfit) before returning the kilometre home, I sat down on the bank. Immediately unbalanced from the backpack, tumbled backwards to the ground with my arms and legs flailing in the air like an un-righted beetle. I was unable to get up or roll over on either side, pinned down by the weight until I unclipped my chest and waist belts to detach myself from the pack.

As the weeks went by the distance I could cover grew, before finally I was capable of walking 35km a day. In addition to getting fitter and stronger, I also needed to get fatter! I needed some reserves ready for the desert. Now, this bit of preparation I found mentally the toughest. Predominantly because I had spent the last 5 years living off lettuce leaves and avoiding all calorific food at all costs so as I stayed a small size 8 for work. Secondly, I’m embarrassed to admit that a little bit of vanity kicked in and I didn’t want to put on weight over the summer (it was bikini season after all)! Despite putting it off as late as I could, by the end of the summer I started to pile on the pounds by eating double cream on my cereal at breakfast, drinking olive oil and eating cake like it was going out of fashion. Just in time, I managed to gain the additional 2 stone I needed.

Of course as well as the physical preparation there was also a lot I had to learn, like remote wilderness first aid, map and navigation skills, the routines of tent living and much much more. And just like that, I made a tremendous change in life as I knew it, swapping my high heels for walking boots, and leaving all the comforts of a retrospectively glamorous life behind.

On 2nd October 2006, 7 months after I casually mentioned hiking the Great Wall of China, we boarded a 10-hour flight to Beijing, followed by a 6-hour internal flight to Dunhuang in Gansu province. The latter, was the longest 6 hours of my life, as I stared out the window to the landscape below. A landscape I would begin walking across in less than 24 hours. It looked nothing short of luna, vast expanses of nothing. I was terrified. Not helped, by being served an unappetising mid-flight meal of eel to turn my face from a shade of petrified white to a sickly green. At Dunhuang airport we found a taxi driver to take us the one hour drive to our start line at Yumenguan.  Yumenguan is a small tourist attraction, nothing more than a sand structure in the middle of the nowhere, but as the start of the wall, I know it is a regular must-see for the Chinese so this wouldn’t have been his first journey there. However, I think we were the first who asked to be left there! Next came a long battle with our taxi driver, made more difficult by the language barrier, but in short he refused to abandon us deep in the desert, protesting it was too dangerous, pointing at the vast sandy expanses of the Gobi desert stretched out on every compass bearing as far as the eye can see.

Having been crying solidly since I left Heathrow this wasn’t what I needed to hear.  The fear of the infinite unknowns ahead of me had taken hold.  I am a creature who likes to be in control, and from this point on I didn’t know what each minute of the day would have in store, let alone whether I could be in control of it. I now know (since walking the Great Wall) that crying is my body’s release. Whether I’m scared, in pain or just feeling very low, I am often leaking tears. It doesn’t mean I want to quit, or that I can’t do it, it’s just how I deal with the tension, my way of letting go. Tarka knew from the beginning to ignore it. He never pandered to me, asked what was wrong, or if I was okay. I had to fend for myself. It’s not that he didn’t care, it was just his way, and I’m grateful for it. It has made me stronger.

Only a few days into the trip I understood the taxi driver’s reticence.  For in the torrid 40+ degree desert heat we must have become complacent about treating our water.  Vomiting and diarrhoea started and I struggled to keep anything down. As we walked on at a very slow pace weakness and dehydration overwhelmed me.  I kept telling Tarka it would pass as I was desperate to prove to everyone, including myself, that I could do it. I wanted to show everyone that I was made of more than just make-up and false nails. Two days later, after some very feeble mileage, my condition reached a critical level. I was seriously dehydrated, I could now no longer stand up, all strength had left me. In between bouts of violent vomiting and diarrhoea, I started to drift in and out on consciousness.  Tarka had to do something fast. He made me comfortable under some makeshift shade, left me with the satellite phone and some water, took a GPS of our location and headed off to get help. 

Gobi Desert

I remember very little about the time Tarka was gone, it felt like a short few minutes, not hours. I do remember a small lizard coming right up to my face, exploring this monster in his back garden, but I don’t recall the details. I don’t believe I was scared when he left me, I think I was too delirious to feel any emotions. Tarka ran for several hours across flattish Gobi sands in search of a gravel road that crossed the desert shown on our map. There he waited an hour or so for a vehicle to come into sight before finally, a bus appeared on the horizon.  He was not going to let this vehicle pass without stopping.  Standing in the centre of the road waving his arms furiously he forced that bus to stop. Through little more than charades, he explained his girlfriend needed a hospital urgently. Not seeing a girlfriend they were perplexed but Tarka kept pointing towards the glowing yellow sandy horizon.  Finally, they understood their help was needed, now. The bus left the gravel road and headed into the desert. 

On reaching me, the driver and the passengers swept both me and our camp into the back of the bus in a matter of minutes.  Once on the bus, I was quick to notice that I couldn’t move my fingers they had become completely rigid in a claw shape. My arms had become heavy and to lift one from my side was incredibly difficult. I started to panic. My extremities were starting to shut down. I was laid across the backseat of the bus, and despite not understanding what I was saying, an elderly Chinese lady had obviously sensed the panic in my voice, because she calmly made her way down the aisle of the bus to sit with me. She took my hands in hers and started gently massaging my wrists, presumably to get the blood pumping around them again. My panic subsided, and I knew I was going to fall in love with this nation of kind wonderful people.

At the glistening clean modern hospital in Dunhuang (yes the city where we started and got that taxi) I was given my own room and lay there as the intravenous fluids dripped into me all day and night until I finally, 24 hours later, became more human. It was only then that I realised what a stir I was causing, being visited by every nurse, doctor and even hospital visitors, as the news spread there was a westerner in the hospital. I would estimate that during my 6 months in China, only 1% of the people we met along the way would have ever seen a westerner before.  Plus this was not just any westerner, but one with blonde hair, blue eyes and 6 foot tall. I couldn’t be more of an alien if I tried.

After four days rest and recovery, it was time to taxi back out to the desolate spot that had seen a whirlwind of activity only days before and get walking again. To think it was still only week 1! So far I wasn’t looking like an expedition natural. Of course, I was terrified, even more so than I had been at the initial start line. In fact, this may have been the hardest point of the entire journey, as I had a genuine way out if I wanted it. I battled with part of me saying “go home, you’re not cut out for this”, and the other half of me saying “your not a quitter, it was just a blip, you can do better”.  Decision made let’s get going again. “Taxi?”

You guessed it, we had the same battle with this taxi driver too. We asked him to pull up at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Once again, only a vast expanse of desert in all directions marred only by the tyre tracks of my rescue bus, leaving the road and heading east. As I fought back my nervous tears, we again through charades, explained this is where we wanted to be left, I just needed to get walking, I needed to get into a routine.

Is wasn’t long before we had perfected our daily routine. 30 minutes from the sound of the alarm and we would be walking. 4300km or 6 months were just too bigger numbers for me to get my head around, even walking all day often seemed too much to focus on. So we broke our walking down to one hour slots, I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other for 60 minutes at a time, I could do that. At the end of each hour, we would take a short 5-10 min break along with a snack if we had any. The days I had a biscuit as a reward each hour, where the best days! The time we walked for 3 days with no food, definitely comes up there with one of my biggest lows. We would eat and buy food in villages as and when we could, and as we moved East and the weather turned ever colder we were welcomed into peoples homes to be fed and housed each night more and more. Regardless of where we stayed the daily plan was always the same, to be walking by 6 am with the aim of covering 35km’s in one-hour intervals. Some days we managed more distance and often a lot less. Our worst day, due to the most difficult of terrain, we walked for 12 hours to only find ourselves 1km further forward than where we had started. With a good routine life became simple, almost monastic; food, water, sleep and walking. Only ever enhanced by breathtaking scenery and incredible hospitality.

After a month of walking and still deep in the desert, we faced one of our largest storms. On sighting two towering dust devils swirling majestically in the distance, we silently watched in bewilderment at such an incredible sight. As it changed course and headed straight in our direction we noticed it preceded a huge sandstorm. The winds knocked us straight off our feet and in a bid to brunt the worst of the storm we erected the tent behind the best shelter available in such barren landscape: a dune. With the sand too fine to hold firm the pegs in such an onslaught from the wind, we resorted to burying the tent a foot deep in sand, with the combined weight of the bags and our bodies to keep it stationary.  Laid out on the ground, with the roof being blown flat across us, we covered our faces in our silk thermals in an attempt to filter some of the sand that filled the air. Surprisingly we never felt in any danger during the storm, well I might have briefly been concerned that the sand in the air might suffocate me, but mainly we just giggled at the ridiculousness of the situation as we laid with bandit style masks over our faces, ski goggles on our eyes, whilst in a completely flat tent!

After 500km we arrived at Jiayuguan to see our first real glimpse of the wall standing proud. Although the famous fort has been vastly reconstructed, the wall that stretches out from it was not reconstructed and maintains much of its original splendour and magnificence. From this point the wall steadily became more impressive as we travelled east, but only when we reached the great mountain ranges 2500km from our start point did the wall emerge in all its glory. The sandstone construction we had seen for so many months, gave way to the towering stone construction that is known the world over, snaking its way over the mountains with vertical grace and unequalled grandeur. Initially, the wall had been my enemy, something I could blame for my suffering. But now, over halfway into the journey, physically and mentally stronger, I was able to find pleasure and a friendship with the wall. It was almost always with me, a silent companion by my side. (Well maybe not the vertical sections… rock climbing with a heavy backpack on, up knife-edge ridges, with incredibly loose footings, was especially challenging, and I might have yelled at her (the wall) a bit).

Once into the mountains, and winter well and truly upon us, we began to endure temperatures as low as -35°C. I had never been in temperatures anything below -10°C, and that was probably getting the peas out of the freezer at home. After spending nights shivering uncontrollably in my sleeping bag I would wake to find my eyelashes would have frozen together during the night, the tent and equipment covered in ice and my boots frozen ridged. As I stepped outside the air would instantly rip through my clothing and any exposed flesh rapidly developed a waxy cuticle common in frostbite and frostnip. 

During these colder temperatures, if we were camped anywhere near a village then we would very quickly draw a crowd of curious, and perhaps initially a little nervous, onlookers around the tent. It usually just took one smile before their fear left them they would smile back and before we knew it, we and our belongs were being swept up and ushered into someones warm home. I always got a feeling that there was quite a debate as to who would get the ‘special guests’ to stay in their house. As if it would be remembered for years, “You know that time when the foreign people stayed with us in 2006…” nearly all the rural houses we stayed in were little more than a one-roomed building, often housing three generations of the family.  At least half of the room was made up of a Kang, a traditional long brick or concrete bed/platform, that was hollow inside. Next to it would be the cooking stove, the heat from which would be piped into the Kang to make it warm. On here the family would eat, sit, play and come nighttime sleep, all lined up like sardines. When we were welcomed into there homes, not only would they feed us like we were kings, but they would then shuffle along the Kang a little closer to each other to make room for us. Night after night we were looked after like this, even on their equivalent to Christmas day we were taken in and made to feel part of the family, including gifts. We only wished we could have spent more time with each of the wonderful people we met each day. Experiencing such warmth, hospitality and generosity when not even a word has been spoken, just a shared smile, is something that will stay with me for life.

Rural China
I made the furniture look small

After 105 days walking I suffered a major back injury that almost prematurely terminated the expedition, again. With a fever of 38°C and nerve endings being damaged in my lower spine due to compression from my backpack, I was rushed to a hospital for the second time. Luckily we were closer to civilisation and no busses were hijacked this time. With visa date restrictions creeping ever closer and no time to rest more than a couple of days, the decision had to be made whether to end the trip or push on at the risk of possibly causing further damage to my back. I had come too far to not make it now, the decision wasn’t a hard one for me, I was going to finish this. We posted home any kit that was not absolutely crucial, in a bid to reduce the weight of my pack giving me the best chance of making it. All that remained was to walk a minimum of 35km’s for the remaining 57 days to the finish line.

The second great storm strangely came in the last week. In a country with very little snowfall, we woke to find that a freak front had moved down from Siberia, bringing with it the worst blizzard that Northern China had seen in half a century. Overnight 2 metres of snow had fallen in places and the formidable prevailing winds were causing catastrophic damage to buildings and causing havoc on the roads. Vehicles had been abandoned and submerged under snow, buildings lay in ruins, people barricaded into their homes and in turn, Northern China was forced to come to a standstill. Having previously thrown away our thermal layers, in a bid to lessen our load, and our boots full of holes after having walked such vast distances, the storm threatened to delay us beyond our visa deadline. The wind swept down from the north across the open rice plains hitting us side on and bringing the bitter sting of wind burn and frostnip once again. We were so close but had so little time left, we just had to pull our hoods up put our heads down and battle on.

On the 18th of March 2007, with just a few hours to spare before our homeward bound flight was due to depart, emotions were high.  We had finished our epic 167-day journey at Hushan on the Chinese and North Korean border. I had learnt a lot about survival, determination, humility and kindness.  But most importantly, I had learnt that ordinary people, as Tarka had believed from the get-go, can in fact, despite lack of experience and faith, do extraordinary things. Having accomplished over 12 million footsteps between us, the last few were very moving made more so by the arrival of my parents. Waiting at the finish point, they were tremendously proud of what their daughter had achieved despite everyone’s pre-expedition doubts.  I was torn, I was so elated that I had actually gone and done it, but also sad that it was over. Walking had become my simple way of life, I’m not sure I was ready to go back to the complex life of bills, jobs and first world problems. With tears streaming down my cheeks I rushed forward to hug my mum, so happy to see her loving smile, but as quickly as we embraced, she quickly recoiled. It transpires that one set of clothes and only a couple of showers for the entire 6 months leaves your aroma to be somewhat ‘eye-watering’!

Article first published in Adventure She Magazine. Issue 1 2018

The 1 hour documentary The Great Walk of China is available to watch here.

The film was the Winner of the people’s choice award at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival 2009 | Nominated for best independent film at the Media Innovation Awards 2009 | Featured at the Adventure Film Festival 2009| Featured at the Autrans Mountain Film Festival 2009 | Featured at the Dijon Mountain Film Festival 2009

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