It's difficult to know where to start describing what this trip was like, so I guess there's nowhere to start but the beginning!
DP and I have been fundraising since the start of the year to do this trek on behalf of Scope, a leading UK charity who campaign for the rights of those with disabilities to lead a full and inclusive life in society, and help those with disabilities to do just that through schools, support for families and independent living support for adults. On the 17th September, we got up for an early start, after a few days of frantically running around for our last bits and pieces (lots and lots of handy packs of tissues and alcohol hand gel), and made our way to Leeds and Bradford Airport for our flight to Gatwick to meet our trek buddies.
As it happened, we met three trek buddies early - a girl with stunning red hair caught my eye, and I wondered aloud how on earth she managed to get her hair that colour. I also noticed that she was wearing hiking boots - as were her two companions. They turned out to be the first of many great people we were to meet on the trip, and we all headed towards the Emirates check in desk at Gatwick together, where we all met our rather subdued fellow trekkers - all of course on best behaviour, since we were all strangers and no beer was flowing!
A couple of hours killing time at Gatwick and we were ready for our flight to Dubai. The food on the plane was surprisingly not inedible, though there was the inevitable bread roll that you could bounce off the walls. We arrived in Dubai at silly o'clock, all with red eyes, but after a bit of idle duty free browsing some of us gathered at the coffee stand for a chinwag, so the ice was broken. I can't say the flight to Beijing was as pleasant - DP is 6'4", and while the London crew had given him a seat on the emergency exit, the Dubai crew could not, because the plane was full, so poor DP had to cram into the sardine seats with his knees pushed against the seat in front for 8 hours.
We arrived in Beijing mostly tired and red eyed, and fairly aghast at the sheer scale just of the airport - you have to get on a train to get from the terminal where you arrive to the baggage collection point! We were scrutinised by the impassive masked officials for signs of the dreaded swine flu, our passports peered and frowned at, before being impatiently waved through to start our incredible Chinese journey.
Meeting us at the airport was Fiona, our trek leader, and the Chinese crew - James/Yao Di, Grace, and Jenny, and not forgetting the bus driver Mr Han. James tried to cram some Beijing facts into our tired heads, but we were all too busy fighting sleep enough to take in some of the sights of the new city. Bikes everywhere, people pedalling rusty trailer bikes perilously balancing all sorts on the back, little kids sitting calmly on the handlebars of a parent's bike while the traffic whizzed past. The contrast of ancient Chinese pagoda-style buildings with utilitarian Communist austerity was everywhere, and the modern opulence of the Olympic village and surroundings seemed to spring from nowhere.
Our first hotel was located just near a large reservoir that seemed worryingly low. James told us that they used to have a problem with it bursting its banks, so they let some of the water out, but the water never came back to fill it, and so all the riverbanks are now being used by local farmers for growing corn, which seemed to be the favoured local crop. We headed in to check out our rooms, and get a much needed shower, ours was disappointingly just a dribble and impossible to get the temperature between freezing and scalding, which was not good as there is not much worse than long haul flying for making you feel completely, well, disgusting. But we managed to get clean, or, well, clean-er and made our way to the courtyard for the first of many local beers with our new "brothers and sisters" for the week. James called us all "brothers and sisters" as because of the Chinese one-child policy, he never had any siblings growing up. Bless!
The Tsing Tao local brew loosened tongues somewhat, and while DP headed to the table with the lads to do some boy-bonding, I went to a table with some of the girls where I quickly found several like minded lovers of innuendo and dirty jokes and soon we were competing with the locals for loud laughter. We had our trek briefing for the day ahead, and met our trek doctor Nina who extolled the many virtues of alcohol hand gel and blister plasters.
The night was tough - while we went to sleep straight away, the cicadas started up their chorus in the wee hours and I could not get back to sleep. I dreaded the first day's trekking on only a few hours on top of all the flying, but there were many of us in the same bleary-eyed boat, faces white against our red Scope T-shirts as we trudged through for breakfast. Breakfast was odd, to say the least - the Chinese seem to make their bread very sweet, which was a little strange with the fried eggs and sausage. Having travelled in Asia a fair bit before, it all had the familiar smell and taste of the Asian versions of Western food, which looks like Western food and yet has that distinctively Asian flavour. I made a mental note to seek out the Chinese breakfast when I could do. At least the fresh watermelon was lovely.
Our first day's trekking took us to Mutianyu, where James informed us that this was our "warm up day". One of our members, personal trainer Lloyd, took us through a warm up, of some stretches and general doing of silly bouncy things, much to the amusement of some locals. He earned himself the nickname "Terminator" for his so called "light warm ups" but more later about how he was eventually terminated....
"Warm up Day" once we got to the wall, consisted of steps, steps, and more steps. We climbed 16 watchtowers, and at the end tackled the "Oh My God" steps - 450 damn near vertical steps climbing up to the final tower, but it was so misty that day we couldn't see a thing! The vertigo sufferers had their first challenge of the day coming down those, and we were all glad to stop for lunch, though I have to say another thing that the Chinese cannot do is sandwiches. For the love of God, stick to the rice and noodles! We can deal with not eating bread for a week, I think they have this idea that it's all we eat here!
The descent from the wall on Day One was a luge, in other words a big metal slide running down the mountain, where you sat in little dodgem kart type things with a stick in between your legs (oo-er missus) that either made it go or stop. The boys were discouraged from playing bumper cars by Fiona, whose inner teacher came out complete with wagging finger, but of course, like boys, they didn't listen. The Chinese also don't really do health and safety, and I did have a "whaaaaaat" moment when I got on to this little plastic thing and held on to my stick and realised that there wasn't really much keeping me on this thing.....but hey, I'd paid my 40 yuan and didn't know the Chinese for refund, so off we go....a few "oh shits" later and I was thoroughly enjoying it, and would gladly have walked the wall again just for another luge ride!
Our first taste of haggling came at the market at the bottom, where DP secured himself a "I Climbed the Great Wall" T-shirt for 20 yuan for himself and one of the other guys, and was pretty chuffed with his bargaining skills until one of the others announced he got one for 10 yuan (about £1). It was here that we also got our first taste of Chinese public toilets, and the Art of Squatting and Aiming. A few of the girls had bought "she-wees" which are meant to allow women to pee standing up, but most chickened out of using them, and I don't blame them because one of the reasons I didn't get one was Overflow Fear - peeing into a plastic funnel just doesn't seem right, and what if you pee quicker than the thing can empty? Mess! I think we just need to accept that we are not men, and we don't have the appendages to pee standing up. End of.
Day One of trekking also happened to be DP's birthday. I had been organised and brought his card out with me, and in the evening, our Chinese crew had organised a birthday cake for him and got all the trekkers to sign a picture of where we had trekked as a birthday card. Of course, he was bought more than a few birthday beers, but what better way to spend your birthday than trekking one of the most amazing sights the world has to offer, among people who were rapidly becoming good friends.
That night, we slept peacefully, having been donated some earplugs by some of our charitable co-trekkers. Trekkers 1, Cicadas 0.