In April 2018, I was lucky enough to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to walk the Great Wall of China to raise money for Junior Achievement Isle of Man (JA). This epic challenge took place on different Beijing sections of the infamous wall including Jinshanling, Gubeikou, Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng and Badaling Great Walls.
JA (Isle of Man) is a Manx-registered charity which works with every local primary and secondary school, helping more than 5,500 young people to develop skills for the workplace. PDMS’ employment and skills website, www.employed.im, supports JA each year through sponsorship of student initiatives such as the Company Programme. PDMS’ staff often volunteer for JA programmes within local schools throughout the academic year, however this year I decided to take it one step further!
The first time I glimpsed the wall from a distance it was very surreal… and it became even more so when up close and standing on the wall itself! Despite previously reading about the enormity of the thing (its length is about 5500 miles through Beijing), any amount of research doesn’t really prepare you for the iconic view of it in person; it just keeps going on as far as the eye can see.
For many of our 22-strong group of Manx trekkers, every day was a fresh challenge and we were tested beyond anything the training walks around the Island could prepare us for. The Isle of Man’s mountain Snaefell seemed like a pleasant stroll compared to one imposing flight of stone steps on the Great Wall. To quote our tour guide; “it’s not really undulating… it’s just steep!”.
Each day offered something new and slightly different.
Day one – Jinshanling: we started off on well-restored sections of the wall. There were some very steep descents and ascents (my feet slid on more than one occasion from the sheer slopes!) and flights to crawl up and down. However, the restored stonework offered a welcome introduction to the wall and smooth terrain – with the development of the area they hope to encourage more tourists to visit in the coming years.
Day two – Gubeikou: we were thrown into a completely contrasting walk as we climbed up the hillside into the most remote and rural wall route of the week (this day was one of my highlights, it was incredible to experience such a contrast to the city wall sections and explore the peaceful surroundings). It was also our longest day, with nearly 8 hours of continuous trekking.
Day three – Mutianyu: we passed through the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, an infamous stretch of 999 demanding steps before you have the chance to jump on a toboggan to whizz back to ground level (thank goodness no more steps to get down that day!).
Day four – Huanghuacheng: the weather was misty and it drizzled throughout the day. But despite the dreary grey backdrop reminiscent of a Manx climate, the day still ended up exciting and filled with adventure… Due to the dramatic change of environment, and the fact that we were climbing some of the steepest and most deteriorated sections, we were barely able to see the edges of crumbling wall which marked the boundary of an interminable chasm!
With the shift of land over time, huge slabs of stone had been dislodged (which came in handy as footholds on the steep ascents and descents!). At times we had to carefully navigate narrow crumbling stone paths with no remaining walls on either side to contain us, whilst at the same time straining to see the path ahead and pushing our way through bushes and undergrowth which has made the wall its home!
Day five – Badaling: we had a last-minute change of route for our last day, which landed us at the Beijing Gate section. This was a very popular starting point and was packed with tourists from all over China – most of whom seemed to be very keen to have selfies taken with us – my face will be forever immortalised in the rural lands of China! Located in a valley, the North Gate had plentiful steps to ascend and descend both sides to complete the loop. It was a strenuous trek but fun to interact with the locals, many of whom wouldn’t have seen a Westerner in person before.
The people of China are extremely friendly and always keen to say hello. Despite the significant differences in cultures, it was incredible to experience their lifestyle and a pleasure to make friends with so many different people. One thing is for sure, if you want to feel like a celebrity getting papp’d, head to rural China – they couldn’t get enough photos of and with us!
The food was always amazing; we were well catered for and never went hungry with a banquet of dishes laid out for us on group tables every evening. Even in the rural locations where they couldn’t access the wide variety of city food they went above and beyond to ensure we had a pleasant stay and meals. Yes, we came across some rather ‘interesting’ delicacies (and I can’t say I opted to eat the more unusual ones!), but all of it was prepared and presented with passion and care.
We managed to raise over £14,000 through the trek and I’ve personally experienced something exceptional – as a result it looks like JA have been spurred on to create even more ambitious challenges in the future to continue their fundraising efforts.
JA chief executive Sue Cook described the experience; “The trek offered some truly breath-taking views but at the same time it offered an extreme mental and physical challenge. There were times when we were trekking along a path less than two feet wide with sheer drops either side of you. For some of the group it proved to be a life-changing experience and what made it extra special was all the support and help we gave each other.”
For more information about Junior Achievement and the work they carry out to support the future careers of young people, visit www.jaiom.im