31 May 2012
From there is was directly onward to the nearly 1000 steps up the Stairway to Heaven. We huffed and puffed, snaking up a 65 degree incline over steps large and small as well as people large and small. The reward at the top was 150 kilometer visibility across 270 degrees of expansive mountain ranges that not even I had ever seen before. Today was, without question, the clearest sky I have EVER seen on the Great Wall. It was so clear, in fact, that you could not only see the entire Beijing skyline but even spot the whole in the CCTV "pants" building!
Thanks to our lightning pace it was only 10:30am when we stepped off the Mutianyu section and onto Jiakou, another but of more "wild wall." For the next hour and a half we bobbed around overgrown trees, near crawled along extremely narrow sections of wall, and inched along dirt pathways that looked as if they hadn't been traversed in years. It was, once more, a high-flying adventure of the most inspired kind!
The reward for our grit was another spectacular unobstructed view, this one 360 degrees, of picture-perfect panoramas that you can't even dream up they are so pristine. The sandwiches and cookies when down nice and then so did we - descending for the umpteenth time back to the valley floor.
Because this team is so wildly gung-ho, we decided to tackle tomorrow's trekking in the afternoon, ascending for the last time to the dizzying heights of the Great Wall. I could go on again about how beautiful and spectacular it is but you'd just get more insanely jealous. 43 group photos later we were headed back to the farmhouse for a well-deserved rest. After all, we did trek for 6.5 hours today!
As I write I can hear the group nattering on about the day. It is all punctuated by Sherrin's infectious laugh, Judy's occasional gasps, and Chris' never ending offer to grab us another round of beers. Such a Kevin move.
The thought that our trekking time is over hasn't quite sunk in yet. I think I'll let the shock of Beijing remind everyone tomorrow. For now, it's time to celebrate.
29 May 2012
Of course, this wasn't before heaps of laughter, sweat, and some extremely steep inclines. Roughly half way through our walk we came to the second steepest section of the entire wall. It consists of 102 steps set into the hillside at an eighty degree angle. There are points where you very nearly feel like you are walking upside down.
I set the challenge at completing all 102 with no stopping and nearly everyone took me on. By the end Bron was wincing courtesy of burning calve muscles but she made it and the prize was well worth it: 360 degree unobstructed views of one of the most dramatic sections of the entire Great Wall. You feel as if you are standing on top of the world.
The day wasn't without a fair bit of humour, which one would expect from this bunch of troublemakers and hoodlums. A gaggle of very enterprising Inner Mongolian women spent most of the day with us, using the cunning tool of guilt to invoke a significant number of purchases. They also made some brilliant assumptions about the inner workings and relationships of our team. On that note, may I present Father Kevin, Mother Sherrin, and Son Glenn to you. Ladies and gentleman, the 2012 Youngcare Inspired Adventures China family! A brilliant site.
It is onward to Mutianyu section, where we will get a good nights sleep before embarking on what is probably the most difficult and longest trek of the adventure. We can do it!
One final note: we would like to send a special shout out to Deborah's Mum, who is our most ardent and committed supporter across every social medium - FB, Twitter, you name it! We love you, appreciate you, and thank you! Even Deb.
28 May 2012
We stopped for lunch - ham and vegetable sandwiches, a hot dog stick, and bottled water at a watch tower that marked the highest point of our walk. As we sat there devouring our individually wrapped power packs it felt as if we were literally sitting at the top of the world. The wind rushed through the 24 windows (our "air conditioning," we joked) and the wall stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, snaking along the hilltops with a lightness and ease that seemed almost peaceful.
In the afternoon it was down to the valley floor before rising up yet again to rejoin the Great Wall at Jinshanling. Glenn made a valiant effort to protect Leanne from her fear of heights while Amy powered up the hillside like a wind-up toy spun to full speed.
Today we also met Kevin, Chris' alter ego who is kind-of a jerk. He is rude to the ladies, does some very daft things, and never puts safety first. This caricature could not be further from the real Chris, who barnstormed across China today with the Youngcare flag waving behind him like a cape. So not something Kevin would do.
To say the group was shattered tonight is a gross understatement. As I write I can assure you there are 11 full tummies (1 vegan and 1 vegetarian) who enjoyed a brilliant supper before doing some brief shopping and sliding right under those big fluffy dunas. Maybe it's 10, as Kevin is probably wreaking havoc somewhere. More wall tomorrow. Stay tuned!
27 May 2012
Our first stop was the Qing tombs, where some new-age mini buses literally zoomed us into the labyrinth of underground resting places that once housed China's last great emperors, their wives, and concubines. As you descend deep into these monolithic tombs the cold air sweeps over you, a reminder of just how thick the marble walls are.
After a fantastic lunch sitting around the worlds largest lazy Susan it was onward to take our first steps on the Great Wall! The bus chugged up and up to the entrance, where we made our 37th toilet stop of the day, made sure we had Judy, listened to another 3 innuendos from Leanne, and decided to follow Glenn's matching neon orange watch and shoes up to the wall.
Now it's dinner in the dining hall before we watch the sun set over the Great Wall from the central courtyard of our charming guesthouse. We know, you definitely wish you were here!
26 May 2012
Af a leisurely morning exploring the maze of local Hutong neighborhoods that surround our tucked-away hotel, we hopped on the bus with Mr. Lee, Jessi, and Alan en route for Tian'anmen Square. Nearly 1 square kilometer, Tian'anmen can hold more than 500,000 people! That is the population of Perth. It's immensity was staggering as was the incredible interest in taking photos with our very own Leanne. She seems to be this group's "diva" and none of us really think she minds.
It was then onward to the Temple of Heaven, whose temples are once again hidden deep within protective outer walls and extensive gardens that stretch in every direction. Beyond the spectacular temples, what really makes the Temple of Heaven so brilliant is the throngs of locals who make wonderful use of all the space. In one area a large group of men and women sing Chinese classics. In another, two men lean in closely as their game of Chinese chess heats up. They slam the pawns down on the table as their respective posses, formed into a packed semi-circle, offer never ending advice and moral support. Further along the path a group of women knit together while, nearby, couples practice waltzing - the most elegant activity the Chinese take part in. It is an eclectic, eye-opening view into real people and always a highlight of our trip.
From here we moved on to dinner, diving into two very hot pots of classic Sichuan cuisine. This do-it-yourself dinner is always highly enjoyable. Ths time it was magnified by our surprising Bronwyn with a birthday girl crown, giant cake, and GIANT knife with which to cut the cake. Is there any better way to ring in the big 2-5 (I was told to say that)?
We finished the day with a spectacular acrobatics show that had us pinned to our seats in mutual anticipation and fear. My goodness, some of tha acts they take on are stressful even to watch much less perform!
Thankfully, we made it safe and sound back to the hotel with all 11 participants intact. Why thankfully? Because we may have accidentally left Judy at the restaurant and completely forgotten her for, oh, 10 minutes or so. It was definitely Bronwyn's fault. Definitely. Wait, she is the birthday girl. Okay, it was definitely Leanne's fault. Definitely. It's off to bed now as we have a very big day ahead of us tomorrow.
24 May 2012
The tears were streaming and emotions were running high and Jill, the founder, and Ann, the Australia Director led us around the perfectly manicured 26-acre facility that now houses over 150 rescued bears.
We spent the morning watching breakfast time for the newest additions to the sanctuary before getting an inside look at the actual practices of bear bile farming in the education centre. To say it is a ghastly and incredibly inhumane practice is a gross understatement. While tough to take, it was important to gain a better understanding of what still takes place in areas across Asia. We next stopped into a surgery room, where the resident veterinarian was performing a biannual check-up. Yes, that's a bear on the operating table!
After lunch in the team cafeteria we got an update from Jill on the current work of Animals Asia to stand behind the Chinese people against this horrific practice.
From there it as off to meet Jasper (above), perhaps the world's most famous Moon Bear. He has been living at the sanctuary for over a decade and, without question, rules the roost. We even had a chance to see him defend a lady bear against a few overly keen males. "Typical," Jo said.
We were joined by several additional guests later in the afternoon to celebrate the official opening of the new Bear Kitchen, where over 500 kilograms of food is prepared every day for the furry residents. It was a brilliant opportunity to grasp the scale of the operation. Our final stop was the site where bears that have passed away are remembered. It was a touching and respectful place of tribute. Jo had the opportunity to say a heartfelt goodbye to Cookie, the bear she has sponsored for many years who passed away in February. She placed a small stone atop the traditional Chinese pyramid-shaped gravesite, said a few words, shed a few tears, and slowly stepped away.
To think what has been done to these impressive, important, valuable creatures far exceeds disturbing. As we drove away, however, I think it gave us all a sense of relief to know that the entire staff at Animals Asia are working to end this horrific industry. They can be sure that with their reinvigorated resolve and commitment, this group of 20 epic fundraisers will continue to stand with them.
Now, a few more pictures of these adorable creatures:
22 May 2012
Thankfully all went according to plan (barely) and we arrived safe and sound at the sanctuary by 11:30am - just in time to spend several fun-filled hours with these adorable bi-colored bears. They ate, they played, and boy did they sleep! Like champions. Absolutely epic sleepers. There were moments when some of us re visibly jealous of their very plush lifestyle. "You mean just sit here and you'll put food within reach and replenish it then afterwards I can just lean back and take a nap? Yes, I can do that if I must."
The visit offered a great foil for our meeting the Moon Bears tomorrow, as the Pandas remain a prime focus of so much attention in China. I think we are all hoping for a similar amount of attention placed upon the challenges facing the Moon Bears!
For now, for today, we will just have to find a way to enjoy the lovable, huggable, adorable Pandas.
19 May 2012
From here it would be a solid five hours to our local farmhouse which would be home for the night. After a mandatory group picture we charged forward, clouds still lingering. It took just under an hour for us to reach the base of the Stairway to Heaven: 1,000 continuous steps climbing directly up the ridge of the mountain at a 60-80 degree angle!
The heavens had still not opened up on us though the moisture in the air combined with the intense summer heat meant the heavy humidity was rapidly becoming our biggest foe. We shook off it's intimidation and remembered what had brought us here: those wonderful bears that we had been working so hard to fundraise for. "Let's do it for the bears," Maya said, and do it we did. In fact, I'd say we SMASHED IT.
By 2pm we had reached our final tower. Waving goodbye to the wall, we headed down, down, down deep into the valley below where our bus met us. From here it was just a five minute ride to the farm of our hosts for the night. As I write this the sounds of food frying, dishes being washed, chickens clucking, ducks quacking, and Aussies laughing fills what would otherwise be total silence. It's a brilliant sound and I think we are all wishing we could stay a little bit longer!
Now time for drinks, food, and a few more jokes about the Kiwi accent!
18 May 2012
Each day Jo is teaching our co-guide Bob a new word. Two days ago it was "prune." Yesterday it was "caboose" (don't ask). Today it was "escalator." After 8 kilometers of seemingly never-ending stairs going up and down and up and down and up and down it was all any of us could have asked for. Thankfully, today also brought with it a small army of Inner Mongolian ladies who acted as a support crew for the duration of our walk. It was fan central for a majority of the walk as once again we were greeted with brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the low thirties.
Today's section - Jinshanling to Simatai - is, in a word, dramatic. Dramatic cliffs, dramatic steps, and dramatic views of the dramatic mountain terrain that stretches in every dramatic direction. The last bit of drama was most certainly the dramatic way with which the Chinese women bargain. It is no holds barred and you either play along or get eaten alive. I did a little coaching though everyone always starts out timid but within a few hours it is gloves off, game on!
The award for deal of the day goes to Debby, who somehow managed to secure two fans for the price of one. The "how far will you go for something" award goes to Jenny, who managed to have a panoramic photo driven in from another town. It was impressive.
We are on the bus now en route to our final section of the wall - Mutianyu. Spirits are high and Bev just grabbed my attention to say "this trip is a winner." I couldn't agree more. When you combine an important cause like Animals Asia with the motivational physical challenge of tackling the Great Wall of China you can't but create an absolutely winning formula and we haven't even seen the bears yet!
One final note. Mehri decided to conduct an anthropological study today seeing how many people she could convince that the section of the wall we had walked on actually dipped into Russia. I believe she had six in all that bought the story. For the record we did not cross into Russia. Or did we? I guess you'll have to come to find out!
17 May 2012
By 6am the bright morning sun was pouring into our rooms, slowly thawing the late-night cold that had crept in. Thanks to just a touch of rain and a great deal of wind, the wall welcomed us with brilliant blue skies - a treat here in China!
After our "continental" breakfast of bread, pancakes, tomatoes, spam, and a plate of butter that looked suspiciously like slices of cheese, we hopped back into our shiny bus and, this time, literally zoomed onward to Gubeikou Great Wall.
The next five hours saw us trekking along the least restored section of our Inspired Adventure. At points, the wall itself was no more than 1 meter wide. This was not terribly popular with those of us scared of heights but Kerri, Maya, and Jo powered on brilliantly!
The mother-son team of Bev and Matt were on fire today. Matt has been filming some "real deal" video footage from his head camera and Bev moves with machine-like precision. "I do a lot of mountain climbing," the 67-year old told me. Don't we all!
Before long we stepped down off the wall and passed through a deep valley being farmed for corn, grain, fruit, and vegetables. An hour later we reconnected at Jinshanling Great Wall, a slightly more restored section of the wall that continues some 100km onward without interruption.
Bring it on!ey, take a shower, pop open an ice cold drink, and have a good laugh (mainly at the expense of Thomas and Anton). After dinner we got in a little shopping before heading off to bed. Tomorrow promises an exorbitant number of steps. Bring it on!
16 May 2012
We loaded the luggage into our fancy big bus and zoomed off into the brilliant sunshine. Zoom, however, may be too strong a word. Lurched. We lurched off into the brilliant sunshine and otherworldly traffic. Slowly but surely the piercing high-rises and 10-lane wide highways rolled into never ending swaths of mid-height apartments before completing their transformation to single-story shops and fields of wine grapes lining a newly paved two-lane country road. This is the new China: a nation of extremes and contradictions wrapped in a dramatic history and filled with some of the friendliest, kindest people in the world.
After three hours of bumbling along we reached our first stop: The Eastern Qing Tombs. Designed to perfect symmetry with the Western Qing Tombs located equidistant directly west of Beijing, the tombs cover roughly 3000 square miles! We descended deep into the earth to find the air was cooler thanks to the massive intricately decorated marble walls. We next rose to the highest point of the burial site, which offered sweeping views of the dramatic scenery around us. I snapped this shot of Mehri and Rasha, which I promised to post so they would stop picking on me.
After a delicious power lunch (food is a big part of our adventure) and photo shoot with our new Chinese fan club (the number of times our photo has been snapped far exceeds anything I have ever experienced) we continued on another hour and a half, catching our very first glimpse of the Great Wall snaking its way along the craggy mountaintops above us. No matter how many times you have seen the wall, this initial glimpse never stops being magical.
It was finally time for this incredible fundraising team, who has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help Animals Asia protect the Asian Black Bear, to take their very first steps on the Great Wall! This team escort must confess that this is always a trip highlight. The looks on people's faces as the step up onto the World's largest-ever building project a priceless, as nothing can prepare you for its immensity.
We spent the next several hours heading up stairs then down stairs then over ridges then through towers and along winding paths getting a taste of what the days ahead will bring. A special mention goes to Julia, who overcame her fear of heights and unsteady footing and smashed today's walk. We are all so proud of her! The wild applause she received at dinner really speaks to her awesomeness.
Off to bed yet again, as tomorrow includes more than 10km of walking on this really great wall!