‘Twas the night before walking, when all through the guesthouse,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a louse;
Our stockings were hung in the corner to air,
In hopes . . .
Oh forget it, we’ll never get through it. Besides, our hotel is quite comfortable, with air-con and cable, and our socks are clean and dry, probably for the last time.
But it is the night before we start walking, visions of the Great Wall dance in our heads, and we feel like two kids on Christmas Eve. We don’t know what surprises lie before us when we wake up.
We thought it would be fun to briefly record some of our pre-trip expectations tonight. If it’s not too embarrassing, after a few months when we have some real experience of walking the wall, we might check back to see just how deluded we were.
Tomorrow’s schedule (click the pic for a clearer view)
My concerns about the trip are practical, logistical, specific. We’re starting out in desert where water sources are few, far between and of doubtful quality. We won’t run out of water – there are too many villages along the way for that – but we may be forced to carry much as six litres on rare occasions. At a kilo a litre, that’s a burden.
We’re starting out carrying more weight than I’d like: 16.5 kilos apiece without food or water included. A least a couple of kilos can be trimmed without sacrificing much in comfort, and much more can be trimmed without sacrificing safety. Unfortunately, without experience in hiking in China, we’re not yet sure which “luxury items” to eliminate. I hope we can get down to less than 15 kilos apiece pretty quickly.
Naturally, I’m concerned about our safety. However, we’ve worked to minimise the risks, and as long as we use good sense, we both think the risks are manageable and not terribly greater than we might face in daily life anywhere.
My hopes for the trip are a mirror image of the concerns: impractical, vague, probably unrealistic. When I’ve done long trips in the past, after the first month or so, when the routines are set and you’re at peak fitness, you can reach a state where even the hard days feel fairly effortless. Everything seems automatic, and finishing the trip becomes simply a given, the inevitable result of what you get up and do every morning. I hope we can hit that stride.
Finally, I’d like to reach a point where we can genuinely communicate with people. Right now, our conversations are simple. We can talk about where we’re from, our families, and to a limited extent, what we do for a living. Our Chinese is not nearly good enough for long conversations.
Even if we had the words, there are significant cultural differences in communication. Our experience is that Chinese conversations are laced with subtlety, meaningful silences and important non-verbal cues. In other words, pretty much everything my style of communication is not.
Still, I hope that by the end, we can – once or twice – talk to people about their lives. Whether they’re happy now, the changes from their past, and what they hope for their and their children’s futures.
Our trip can be successful even if we never have such conversations, and we may never get there. But that’s a place I’d like to go.
When we began researching whether we could walk the Great Wall, it seemed a little improbable. Not many people had done it in one long stretch without support. Some people told us we weren’t allowed to do it, others told us we just couldn’t.
To me, this was good enough reason to try.
The Great Wall is not just a wall for me, it is also a journey – physically, emotionally and culturally. If I can complete the walk I will have tested my physical abilities like I never have before, and probably never will again. We don’t often get to test ourselves while living with the comforts of modern society, so this is something I want to do now while I have the chance. I know from my own thyroid cancer and my father’s cancers that life can change in an instant.
Emotionally it is going to be difficult. I know there will be lonely times when I long for my friends and family, for a bit of girl talk and a few laughs. But hopefully the inner strength I will gain and the laughs with strangers will make up for this.
From a linguistic and cultural perspective it is going to be fascinating. At university I studied German and Arabic (both fun, almost mathematical challenges) but learning Chinese has opened up a whole new country for me. Through learning more about the language, I hope I can understand just a little more about China’s past, present and future.
And that’s where the wall comes in. It will lead us from China’s Ming Dynasty and before, through the towns, small villages and houses of today, towards Beijing and the people’s hopes for the future. Someone said to me I probably will have seen enough of the wall by the time we finish and never want to see it again. I was worried about that, too. Until today, that is, when we were out walking along it. I realised that throughout this journey there will be the three of us – me, Brendan, and the wall – and what had been an abstract thought for the past two years suddenly became real.
Because we began with a poem, I thought I’d write my own to end with. Not quite up to Clement Clarke Moore’s standards, but true nonetheless.
I hope I can walk the length of the wall
I fear my strength is not good
I hope I can walk and never fall
But I fear that I probably should.
I hope my Chinese keeps getting better
I fear that it probably won’t
I hope I can at least ask for my dinner
But I fear I’ll get given a goat.
I hope the two of us don’t fight too much
I fear there may be some words
I hope we can laugh and laugh it off
But I fear we’ll have our own moods.
I hope a scorpion refuses to bite me
I fear the crawlies at night
I hope the dogs also won’t chase me
But I might have to give them a fright.
I hope we’ll have fun most of all
I hope we’ll take some good pics
I hope we’ll explore all the wall
And do so with nary a tick.