Our trek along the Great Wall of China

November 1, 2010

The experience of a lifetime whilst raising funds for and awareness of autism

Way back in February I had an idea, I wanted to have an adventure with my eldest son Rowan, whilst raising funds for the National Autistic Society and awareness of autism in general. After a chat with Rowan and without too much thought I booked us on what is known as an open charity trek along the Great Wall of China. The trek was to take place in October and it all seemed so far away, so we just got on with our busy lives. What we didn’t realise was just how much of an adventure it was going to be! How could we?

Great wall of china

To raise sponsorship, I ran workshops and webinars on a donation basis. We also did the usual of asking around friends, family and business contacts for support. I am happy to say we are close to our £10,000 target now. To prepare, I walked the 7 mile journey to work and as the trek drew closer, 3 days a week I would walk home as well. 14 miles walking and a full day at work was an interesting time. (The A23 from Merstham to Croydon is not the most scenic of routes). My walk to work is pretty flat, and the Great Wall of China has lots of steps, so I added some intense work outs on the step machine to my preparation. Rowan at 21, is in great shape, loves walking and just walked more than usual.

I must say, on the fitness side I felt pretty confident. There was something else I had a concern with though, and that was the heights. I had a real issue with heights, something I had kept to myself. I mean, as a hypnotist, I am the guy who helps others with their fears. The heights bit was the part I hadn’t fully thought through when I booked the trek. The organisers sent us a presentation which included images from previous treks, and then I discovered we would be trekking along unrestored parts of the wall, that run across the tops of mountains. When I looked at the pictures sent by the organisers of classic tours, one part of me thought oh ****, the other part thought Michael, just get on with it, you’re an NLP Master Trainer, use your NLP on yourself.

At last the day came; with all our new trekking gear we set of to Heathrow where we were welcomed by the organisers and met some of our fellow trekkers. At this stage we didn’t realise the level of camaraderie that would develop in the group. We flew to Vienna and Beijing. For me it was a first to travel in walking boots, a suggestion by the organisers in case the bags get lost! (which did happen for one person) At Beijing, we began to get to know more of our fellow trekkers and I began to have a really good feeing about the week ahead. We met our trek co-ordinator, Diane, a wonderfully efficient, super fit woman who really kept the whole week flowing even in the challenging times. We also met Roger, our Chinese guide who through the week demonstrated that he knows everything about anything Chinese and could also scale steps to the Great wall, hills and mountains at amazing speed. Dr Nick, our super calm doctor was going to be on hand should we need his medical expertise!!!!!!!!!!!!
From the airport, we had a two hour transfer to the area of Jinshangling where we would begin our trek on the Jinshangling part of the wall the following day. I have to say the Jinshangling hotel was rough by anyone’s standards! I didn’t mind the roughness, I was having an adventure and I was with my son. What more could I want?

We woke up to wind and rain on our first day of trekking, this wasn’t in the plan. Prior to the trek we were told it would be 18 – 22 degrees centigrade. Many of us had bought ‘funny hats’ the day before because it was so cold. So after a breakfast of cold eggs on half toasted bread we were ready in our hats with to take on the Great Wall. As we climbed the steps to the wall and then got on the Wall in the wind and hail, the humour and laughs from the night before turned into a gritty determination as we trekked in the rain. The wall crosses the top of the Jinshangling Mountains, and is punctuated by watch towers. Roger, our trekking guide informed us the Great Wall is also made of blood and bones, during it’s construction one man died for every square metre of wall. As you trek you get a sense of the sheer enormity of this man made construction and the suffering and toil that when into building it.

When we got to the unrestored part of the wall and the ‘steps to heaven’ that were broken with no sides, I realised why the trek was called a challenge. As we descended the wall one of my colleagues twisted his ankle badly due the slipperiness of the wet stones. Full credit to this brave man he hobbled on for whole trek. I was in total admiration of his indomitable spirit. We now realised there was an element of danger attached to this experience, and it’s much more than a charity walk.

On day two the sun was shining, this changed everything as although we knew we had a challenge we were smiling again. However this day was the most challenging for me, but very fulfilling. We were trekking the Great Wall at Gubeikou which dates back to the Ming Dynasty. The previous day, we had trekked mainly restored parts of the wall and some unrestored parts, day two was all only on unrestored parts of the wall, and that included some very narrow steps up to the wall and a ridge alongside the wall that must have been about a foot wide. I used all my NLP skills here to hold my state and deal with a very real fear I was feeling at certain parts of the day. I didn’t want my son to sense what I was feeling, but I needn’t have bothered he was away ahead of me and even led singing session at the highest point. I also didn’t want to spread what I was feeling to my colleagues, especially as I had helped a fellow trekker who had a fear of heights with some hypnosis the day before. I paced myself, by focussing on every watch tower, and as I reached each watch tower I felt a sense of achievement. The ‘breath of life’ NLP technique was useful here as was pushing those sensations outside of me. At the end of this day I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I have to say the scenery this day was enthralling as much as the trek thrilling despite the ‘fear’ I experienced.

On day three: we trekked through the Black Dragon Pool Park; again the scenery was breathtaking, but different from the previous days, in essence trekking over rocky terrain, some dirt trails, and over ridges. In the afternoon we trekked up a mountain to a watch tower which is the highest in this area. As I stood and admired the panoramic views, I felt brilliant inside, just brilliant. I was ‘high’ literally, no fear. I was with my son, and some fantastic people. This was one of those ‘beyond words’ experiences, and I felt very emotional to say the least. The Wall has that effect on people (well me anyway). Its magnificence and its history (sometimes brutal) touches you deep inside. When you’re on the wall, wherever you look it’s there, it’s open and raw and that’s how I felt and it felt right to feel that way.

That emotion carried over for me that evening to when we spoke about our selected charities. I had given many presentations on the challenges people with autism and aspersgers syndrome face in the build up to the walk. Tonight was different; I wasn’t asking for sponsorship, I was just sharing our story and why we chose our charity. It was an emotional moment for me and I had to work hard at holding it together when Rowan stood up and said his bit as well. I also had to work even harder at holding it together when a lady told of how she lost her 33 year old son within 17 days of diagnosis of melanoma tumour. That’s what made these people special, they were coming from the heart.

Days 4 and 5 of the trek were on the Great Wall Mutianyu and then Juyongguan Wall. These were both restored parts of the wall but had huge steps. At one point we climbed 464 consecutive steps to reach the highest watch tower on the Mutianyu Wall. The Juyongguan Wall pass was built in 1368, which in Great Wall history is relatively new. On day 5 we started our trek at 5.45am to negotiate a very steep climb to have a sunrise breakfast where we watched the sun come up over the mountains. This was an absolutely beautiful sight, another breath taking beyond words moment. We trekked up and down the mountain range through passes to the finish line of the trek. Everyone was very emotional at this point, this was a personal victory and something to celebrate as well as reflective moment where people considered their own journey and motivation for taking part.

We then transferred to Beijing and spent a day seeing as much as we could. The magnitude of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City again was breathtaking. This is a city of contrasts, with the old and the new at every corner. A great experience in Beijing was lunch at a Hooton, a traditional old Chinese home, cooked by the lady who lived there. She cooked the best food we had had on just two rings. Amazing considering there were 25 people in the group at this point. I also visited the Temple of Heaven Park, a 2,700,000 square metre park. The Temple was built in 1420 A.D, during the Ming Dynasty to offer sacrifice to Heaven. At 7.00am in the morning this was the busiest yet most calming park I have ever been in. There were people meditating, others doing Tai Chi in small groups, old men water painting on the pathways, people of all ages playing ball and racquet games. It was a really great experience.

One thing, I had not anticipated was the level of camaraderie and connection that occurred in the group. Thirty people in total took part raising money for 16 different charities. Most were walking for a charity close to their hearts. Some people had lost loved ones to different forms of cancer and in one case motor neurone disease and were walking for related charities. Others were walking for charities raising funds for the deaf and blind. Some were walking for local charities, hospices; there were three guys walking for the Royal Air force association who had brought our mascot for the walk, a teddy bear we christened Olive, in full RAF gear. Olive was an active participant in various fund raising games and must be the most photographed bear ever. One other lady was walking for the National Autistic Society. The youngest was a beautiful girl of nineteen, born deaf , who enrolled on the trip solo – so much guts and determination. I won’t guess the eldest in the group, but given the response from some wonderful ladies when the Roger our guide described 60 as old…………….(I won’t say anymore). Two girls, trekking for a cancer charity, wore a charity t shirt with a different person’s name on every day, a friend or relative they had lost. I couldn’t help but think how we must cherish life. The one thing that stood out in all my trekking colleagues were not ordinary people, how could they be? They were committed to raising funds to help others and had given up a great deal of time in doing so and taken on an enormous challenge. Everyone was pushing themselves so far beyond their comfort zone; these people were very special indeed.

There is so much more I could say about this trip. I have not mentioned any of my co-trekkers by name for their personal privacy because this article goes out to 10,000 people. Every one of them made an impression on me and I am grateful for their contribution to my journey on the Wall. If you want a challenge, take a look at the Classic Tours website, then take the step. Challenge, teamwork, personal accomplishment, new friendships and raising money for a great cause what more could you want?


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