It’s that time again. The old email bag is full to overflowing and we’re fashionably late. It’s the monthly (or so) Q&As!
Once again, you’ve outdone yourselves with the quality of questions, and managed to cover some of our favourite topics (beer, music and food) to boot. Keep the questions coming!
How is the beer?
Hot. As in, unrefrigerated. As in, it’s 40 degrees out, you’re stumbling toward a nice shangdian (cornerstore) with a huge icebox out front, and it’s filled to the brim with ice cream for the local schoolkids while cases of beer bottles simmer in the afternoon sun.
In truth, it’s not as bad as all that. Most shops are in adobe buildings, which stay comfortably cool even in the worst heat, and the beer is usually kept on the floor or otherwise away from sunlight. And it’s high-quality beer. Many regional brands are owned by Tsing Tao; the beer seems to be brewed according to the same recipe or something very similar. A 750 ml bottle is two kuai, i.e. about 30 cents Australian. Refreshment comes cheap.
Best of all, the beer is plentiful. A village shop may be too small or poorly stocked to have bottled water, juice, soda or snacks, but you can count on one thing – there will be beer.
What do you eat?
Chinese food for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch, Chinese food for dinner. (Duh.)
More seriously, the food’s been fantastic, unexpectedly so. In all but the smallest villages there will be a noodle shop serving huge bowls of tasty, spicy broth with hand-pulled noodles, vegetables and meat. This usually costs 2 kuai (just like a beer – it’s all about balance) and is more than either of us can eat.
And while the rarity of refrigeration isn’t great for the beer, it’s actually a blessing when it comes to hiking food, i.e. food we can carry in our backpacks. This is because the shops stock a much greater variety of non-perishable foodstuffs than you’d find if refrigeration was common. We eat little sausages of chicken and pork (we don’t ask why they don’t need refrigeration, but no sickness so far), shrink-wrapped preserved hard-boiled eggs, peanuts and an enormous variety of biscuits, cookies, potato chips and other delectables.
When we pass a shop late in the day we’ll buy fresh tomatoes and either eat them like fruit or toss them in with the instant noodles (far superior to Western ramen, by the way) that we cook for dinner. We also shop the fruit markets, and watermelons, well, that’s a whole other post.
Emma preparing Brendan’s birthday dinner: Penne with tomatoes and black olives is a cut above our usual fare
A night market in Lanzhou
When we’re in the larger towns, we do bigger shops in the supermarkets, and we eat in regular Chinese restaurants or from street vendors. At some point, when we get around to it, we’ll do a few food posts, because there’s much more to say. But if there’s one thing we never have to worry about, it’s getting enough to eat.
A street vendor in Shandan
What kind of camera do you use?
We carry two digital cameras: an SLR and a little pocket point-and-shoot.
The point-and-shoot is a Canon S80, 8 megapixels, 3.6X optical zoom. It weighs less than a quarter kilo and slips easily into a shirt pocket.
Emma carries the S80 on the hipbelt of her pack, and we tend to use it quite often as we don’t need to remove our packs to take a photo. (For those of you wondering why there were more pictures of Brendan than Emma early on in the blog, it’s because she had the camera. We’re trying to correct the imbalance now that a few helpful readers have pointed it out.)
Most pictures of us walking or other day-to-day landscape-type shots are taken with the S80. We’re very happy with the image quality, especially considering the camera’s size. The downsides, of course, are the same as with any point-and-shoot: limited flexibility and somewhat lower quality.
Our SLR is a Canon 20D, also 8 megapixels, and we carry two lenses: a Canon EFS 17-85mm zoom and a Canon EFS 70-300mm zoom, both with image stabilisation. We don’t use the 20D as often as the S80 because we keep it inside Brendan’s backpack, but we do use it whenever we’re halfway serious about something, so a fairly high proportion of photos that appear on the blog are taken with it.
The 20D offers usable manual control that the S80 just can’t; also the lenses are a lot better, the ISO range is much greater (100-3200), and the image quality is better. Most of our photos of people, close-ups and action shots were taken with the 20D, and everything taken in low light without a flash was.
Can we expect any video footage?
We are carrying a Sony DV Handycam but aren’t using it as much as we had hoped. The Handycam stays in Emma’s backpack while we walk, so using it means taking off the pack, digging out the camera, filming, packing it up and putting the pack back on, all of which takes time and effort (probably doesn’t sound like much of an effort, but when all of our energy is going in to walking, you’d be surprised at how little energy is left).
We do have footage of some of our social situations which we will try to put up on the blog in the future, but that’s still in trial phase. We will be trying to use the camera more, so stay tuned.
How long does it take you to walk 25 kilometres on average?
The last week before Brendan got hurt we got a cool new toy: a new GPS that can run for about 30 hours on two rechargeable AA batteries. This means we can keep the GPS on all the time, which allows us to maintain more detailed records with a lot less effort, including our average speed when walking, our overall average speed (including breaks), total time walking, and total time screwing around.
As a result, we can tell you that in our most recent week of walking (July 30-August 5), we averaged between 4.5-4.7 kilometres per hour while walking. Actual times walking and resting per day vary considerably, but on average it would take us a bit less than five and a half hours of actual motion to walk 25 kilometres, and between 8 and 9 hours overall when you factor in breaks, lunch, siestas, late-afternoon beers, etc.
How often do you sleep out?
We sleep out probably 75 percent of the time. Depending on how tired we are, it’s often easier to walk out of town and find a well-protected campsite than it is to ask around town for a place to stay. But if we need electricity to charge our various toys and don’t feel like instant noodles for dinner, we will try to walk to a town large enough to have a guesthouse in it.
How do you deal with the creepy crawlies at night?
Fortunately we haven’t had to deal with many creepy crawlies. When we camp out in the open, Emma is vigilant about keeping the tent doors zipped shut. So far, the guesthouses we’ve stayed in have been relatively clean and haven’t offered much in the way of eight-legged visitors. Hearing other stories from other travelers, it sounds like we’ve been quite lucky.
This “luck” can probably be attributed to the climate and region we’ve been in for our first two months. The desert, although home to the dreaded desert cicada, is a dry, barren place. Basically there are a few beetles, the odd centipede, and some really annoying things that look like large ticks. Emma was worried about the beetles at first because they storm towards you when you stop walking for even a minute, but after silently observing them crawl towards Brendan one day and then back off after they’d checked him out, she realised that their defence strategy was all show.
Also, when your legs are aching and you’re really, really tired, you develop ways to ignore the little buggers. That said, they are kind of interesting, and since they’re about the only wildlife we see (apart from birds, which don’t sit still very nicely), we do snap off the occasional shot.
Son of the desert cicada
A kissing cousin, maybe?
The lacy wings of this dragonfly are beautiful; click the picture to see it properly
Has anyone else ever “walked the wall?”
Quite a few people have.
Dong Yaohui, currently Secretary-General of the China Great Wall Society, hiked it from east to west over 508 days in 1984-85 (see our earlier post, “A Great Celebration”). Liu Yutian, a railway worker from Xinjiang, walked the wall in 1985-86. Other Chinese people may have walked the length of the wall, but we don’t read Chinese well enough to research the question properly.
A fair number of Westerners have traveled the wall by foot. William Lindesay, an Englishman, ran the length of the wall in 1987; you can read about his adventures on his website at http://www.wildwall.com/ and in his book Alone on the Great Wall. Our friends Eddie Davis and Beau Bacevicius, two Americans and to our knowledge the youngest people to walk the wall, completed the journey in 2000; their story is at http://www.studenttraveler.com/mag/01-01/china.php. Gayle Hall, an American, became the first Western woman to walk the Great Wall (as far as we know) when she completed the journey with two Chinese companions in 2002 (see “China’s Great Wall made for a great walk”; the Chinese companions are not named in the article). Nathan Gray, a New Zealander, completed a wall-walk in 2000-2002; his journey is recorded on his website http://www.oakroad.net/nathangray/folder-2877.html and in his book First Pass Under Heaven.
Lest you think we’re simply ambling along a well-trodden path, however, let us assure you: NEVER BEFORE has an Australian-American couple consisting of a 33-year-old (when we finish) Australian woman and a 41-year-old American man with Australian permanent residency hiked the length of the Great Wall. It’s unprecedented!
Have you encountered many different kinds of music?
Care for Kenny G? The Carpenters? Barry Manilow? Then you’ll love China.
The largest music market in the world (potentially) has a weakness for the syrupy Western love song. From Muslim night markets in China’s western provinces to the skyscrapers of Beijing and Shanghai, you will never be far from music that went out of fashion when bell-bottoms did (the first time). If you didn’t learn all of the words to “Top of the World” when you were a kid, rest assured, after a few months in China you will.
You’ll also hear plenty of home-grown love songs in the Middle Kingdom. Earlier this summer it was impossible to get away from a damnably catchy song in Chinese called “Hui Lai” (“Come Back”). In fact, even now that we’re out of China, it seems to have permanently lodged itself in our brains.
But there is more to music in China, it’s just not blaring from the speaker of every second shop stall. At festivals like Naadam in Mongolia, we hear traditional forms or interesting combinations of traditional forms melded with rock.
This monk is playing at a Buddhist ceremony marking the beginning of the Mongolian festival Naadam
A traditional Mongolian ensemble; note the carved horse heads atop the necks of the instruments
Also, Beijing has a large and growing rock scene. We didn’t have time to see many bands while preparing for the trip but the few bands we did see were great.
For much better info than we can give you here on Beijing rock, go to http://www.chaile.org/. It has podcasts too.
Will you need to get new hiking boots?
We expect to go through at least two pairs of boots apiece, probably three in Brendan’s case because he needs more support now for his bunged-up feet. The boots do take a bit of a beating, not just from hiking, but also from water and mud (we know, it’s a desert, it’s hard to explain).
I’ve told her time and time again . . .
Good hiking boots for our large feet (Emma’s long feet, Brendan’s wide feet) aren’t available in rural China, so we’ve pre-bought the boots that we like and that we know won’t need much wearing in. We’ll have those sent to us somewhere along the wall when we need them.
How’s Brendan’s foot?
Actually, no one has asked this question recently, but we assume it’s because y’all are too shy.
Our more recent medical appointments have confirmed the initial diagnosis of a stress fracture to the third metatarsal of Brendan’s right foot, and it’s looking as though we’ll still be off the wall for a few weeks. We’re doing all we can to speed recovery (keep your eyes out for a post on all of the rockin’ rehab Brendan’s doing) and hope to be back on the wall in late September.
We’ll still be posting several times a week between now and then, though, so don’t go away.