It’s been a while since the last Q&As. We’ve been monitoring your questions, intending to get around to answering them, but we’ve felt that there haven’t been enough questions to justify a post.
Guess we should have paid closer attention. When we went back and counted, we had 13 questions total (after consolidating similar questions). That’s enough for three posts, but we’ll do it in two long ones (second installment to come in a few days).
Once again, thanks for all the questions and comments. We don’t have time to reply to all the comments we receive, so the Q&As is a great opportunity for us to talk directly with you, and we really enjoy doing them.
Are we back to camping yet?
Oh yeah. Camping, lugging around 22-kg backpacks, boiling snow to drink, wearing the same unwashed clothes for a week, eating instant noodles … yes, we’re back to camping.
During the rehab phase of our trip, we based ourselves in towns and day-hiked along the wall because Brendan’s foot wasn’t able to cope with carrying the weight. We started camping the last week of December and camped out for Christmas. But Brendan’s foot didn’t respond especially well right off the bat, and we camped about half the time in January and day-hiked whenever the logistics of transport to and from the wall were reasonably simple.
Since the beginning of February we’ve been moving forward, camping during the week and staying in towns for our regular days off. Over the last two weeks we’ve finally begun to average about 25 kilometres a day, our summer norm.
You said that camping near the wall in China was safer than camping in most parts of Australia. In what ways is it safer?
We don’t know if it is actually safer, but it feels like it is, at least in rural areas, as opposed to natural areas where you don’t need to worry about the number one danger to campers – other people.
As far as we understand, crimes against foreign tourists are met with harsh penalties in China. Also, it just wouldn’t be that easy to get away with stealing most of our stuff in the small villages we travel through, and we assume the villagers know it – if someone started sporting Macpac fleece around town the authorities would probably figure out who the culprit was soon enough.
On top of that, we don’t camp around people. We make an effort to finish our days well out of sight of any villages or towns. If we find ourselves too close to a large town we can’t easily avoid, we’ll probably try to stay in a guesthouse. We don’t like people knowing where we are camping, for both safety and personal reasons – personal, because if people knew where we were camping, we’d probably never get any sleep.
This campsite above the Yellow River is less than a kilometre from a village in the valley below, but there is no way we can be seen
It’s been interesting observing life in rural China and the roles the family members have. Gangs of bored youths don’t seem to exist in the villages, which might account for our feeling of safety. For the kids, life seems to swing between school or helping out on the family farm. Rarely have we seen graffiti on the wall or other signs of pointless vandalism.
As for the security of our possessions, the most serious threat comes from the shepherds who try out our walking sticks – they never want to give them back. To cameras they don’t bat an eye, but those walking sticks are like gold out here.
How’s Brendan’s foot?
Brendan’s foot seems to have recovered completely from the stress fracture that occurred in August. We’ve had a frustrating couple of months waiting for it to come back to full strength, with many days spent wondering if we should be back here at all. We took off more days than we ever anticipated and we went through more boots (looking for the perfect fit) than we could probably afford, but our patience and perseverence seems to have paid off.
Back on his feet (sort of)
Now that the foot is back to full strength, we only take one day off in a walking week, which means other things are feeling the stress, like Emma’s shoulders, back, wrist, knees, feet … but no one’s asked about those, have they?
How do we update our blog? Are there many internet cafes?
We update our blog and access the internet using our Dell laptop and a Motorola CDMA phone. The China Unicom plan that we bought in Beijing gives us wireless internet access all over China for our specified period of time (which we’ve naturally had to extend). We have only ever been out of internet range a handful of times on the entire trip, which is pretty impressive given our remote location.
We carry two batteries for the laptop, giving us a total battery life of six hours in theory. We rarely get the full use of these batteries, however, as photo editing, internet usage and cold weather chews through the batteries pretty quickly.
Many towns do have internet cafes (called wang ba), though fortunately we don’t need to spend the time seeking them out on our days off because they are usually smoke-filled places where teenage boys go to play teenage boy games.
Are we meeting the same number of people in winter as we did in summer?
No, not really. In summer, there were people working in the fields that we walked through and hanging outside of the local village shop, so an encounter with one person usually grew to an encounter with a dozen or so. Now, many village shops or noodle houses are closed over winter and the only people working outside are the shepherds.
Well, shepherds and the occasional overburdened three-wheeler
One exception to this was the New Year’s holiday period which ran for 40 days. Schoolchildren were at home during the day and many young people who had moved to the city were back visiting their parents. This meant there were more curious young people around who often invited us in for some tea or water. We don’t really blame those people who peered out of their curtains at us and refused to open the door; not many people would open their door to a pair of balaclava-clad, goggle-wearing, stick-holding foreigners (we soon learned to take off the balaclavas and goggles).
What fuel do we use for our stove?
Our stove is a Brunton Optimus Nova Multi-fuel Expedition Stove, and it is a miraculous piece of equipment. I (Brendan) have been through more stoves in the last 20 years than I care to count, and I have never had a liquid-fuel stove that remotely compares. I still marvel at the thing every day. I just can’t stop.
Our stove in action, heating up mulled wine on Christmas Eve
As anyone who has used liquid-fuel stoves knows, they tend to clog. A lot. Most liquid-fuel stoves sold in Western countries burn white gas, which burns hot and is squeaky clean compared to fuels that are availabe in developing countries like diesel, petrol or kerosene. And still they clog.
In six months of continuous use, in temperatures from 40° Celsius to -20°, our stove has never clogged seriously. It rarely requires cleaning. And this is using regular old petrol, a filthy, inefficient fuel for camping-stove purposes.
Not that Walking the Wall endorses any particular brand of equipment or anything.
Did we visit the twin pagodas near the Western Xia Tombs in Ningxia?
Yes we did. The twin pagodas are in a place called Baisikou (Baisi Pass) about 50 kilometres northwest of Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The 13- and 14-storey high Buddhist pagodas stand 100 metres apart at the base of the Helan Shan mountain range. A third pagoda, the Square Pagoda, was built in 1075 during the Western Xia Dynasty but destroyed by vandals in 1990. When cleaning up the ruins in August 1991, archaeologists found little clay pagodas and Buddhist scripture books in both Chinese and Xixia language. According to the interpretive signs at the site, the Xixia Buddhist books are believed to be one of the earliest examples of fixed-type printed matter (i.e., typeset material) in the world.
The twin pagodas with the Helan Shan in the background
The east pagoda