Q&As No. 5

Again, we received some great questions for the Q&As, our final set! Thanks to all you interested readers posting questions, and if you have any urgent ones that need answering before we pack up our bags and head off the wall for good, make sure you get them in over the next week. We’ll do our best to answer them for you. We apologise if we missed any, it’s a slow process on our internet to go back through the blog and retrieve them.

Is the sky really as blue as that all the time? If so it augurs well for the Beijing Olympics.

Is the sky always blue in China? Well, no. Look at the photo below. This, unfortunately, is the sad fact of the northern China summer – all colour gets washed out as the entire landscape suffers under the dirty grey miasma of pollution and humidity. When the sky is grey in northern China it’s not a pretty grey – no dramatic thunderclouds rolling across the wide open spaces. It’s just hazy, smudgy and ugly.


Hazy shade of summer

Maybe our blog is a bit one-sided, but we tend to publish photos that were taken on sunny days. On these clear days, which is most of autumn, winter and frequently in spring, the sky is an amazingly deep, beautiful blue. In a nutshell, summer just isn’t a pretty time to be in China.

Which is a bit of a worry for the Olympics; August is incredibly hot, usually humid, and frequently grey. As most people know, the Olympic organisers set the Opening Ceremony for August 8, 2008, at 8:00 pm because 8 is a lucky number. From a blue-skies perspective, the organisers had better wish for good fortune indeed, because they’re bucking the climatic odds.

Is there still a tradition of returning to the land something of what you took from its produce, i.e. a little “night soil”?

It was a funny coincidence that someone asked this question around the first of April, because that’s right at the time “night soil” is collected in villages and returned to the fields. (For those not familiar with the term “night soil,” it’s a poetic euphemism for an un-poetic earthy substance we all produce.)

It’s an interesting process (that’s “interesting” if you’ve got nothing better to do but walk for 10 hours a day and observe life around you). Many households have a small stable enclosed within the courtyard walls, and often those stables serve as the toilet for people as well as the animals that live there. On the wall of the stable facing the street there is a hole, and when spring comes around the villagers shovel the night soil out of the hole and into big piles on the street.


Shovelin’ it

Men in three-wheelers or donkey carts then come around, collect the soil and distribute it for use in the fields. It would be interesting to know the economics of this process – for example, do families pay the night soil collector for taking their manure or does the collector pay the families – but at the time we didn’t think to ask.


What a load of cr*p!

What is the traffic like on the roads? You hear about the terrible traffic in Beijing but not further afield.

It may surprise people who have been there, but Beijing streets are oases of quiet and civility compared to roads in the countryside.

In rural China, there are no traffic rules worth speaking of and no one to enforce them. Enormous dumptrucks and four-wheel drives routinely menace donkey carts and schoolkids on bikes, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The only real law is that smaller vehicles and those on foot had better get out of the way when a coal truck comes rumbling down a one-lane road at 60 kilometres per hour. It’s terribly dangerous, and it’s deeply unfair to those who don’t do their traveling in construction vehicles.

Last year there were 89,000 deaths on China’s roadways according to official statistics. With only 2% of the world’s motor vehicles, China manages to account for 15% of the world’s traffic fatalities. We don’t have any way of comparing urban to rural road safety statistically, but we’d be shocked if the number of rural fatalities wasn’t grossly disproportionate to urban fatalities.

What have you been doing about food en route? How much do you carry?

Ahh, food. Something we think about all the time. First of all, we’ll give you a run-down of what we eat during a usual week of camping:

Breakfast – two small packets each of a Chinese specialty called walnut powder. Sound good? Sometimes it comes with instant oatmeal added, or sometimes you can find a super-sweet cornmeal variety. Just add hot water and you’ve got a sweetened, vanilla-flavoured, powdered soupy breakfast cereal. Strangely enough, we’ve come to really like it.

Snacks – biscuits, nuts, sultanas (that’s raisins for the Yanks), dried fruit, dried meat, shrink-wrapped eggs, fruit, chocolate (Chinese or Western), rice cakes, and anything else we find that we’re willing to try (we skip over the shrink-wrapped chicken feet and pigs’ ears).

Dinner – instant noodles. For camping stove food, that’s about the only thing you can buy around here and it gets really damn boring. The shops sell about three dozen varieties and flavours of instant noodles, but somehow they all manage to taste the same. We did find “just add hot water” instant dumplings once but haven’t seen them since.


Mmmm, snackage!

In a common walking week, the villages we pass through usually have one or two shops in them. These shops aren’t really where people go for their groceries (that’s done in markets); these shops usually stock the basic toiletries, canned drinks, beer, bai jiu (grain alcohol), sweets, school supplies and pre-packaged food. You can be guaranteed to find some sort of soft drink or water for sale, peanuts, instant noodles and biscuits, which you buy by the jin (half-kilogram).


A well-stocked, nicely organised shangdian

Because the culinary options aren’t really overwhelming in these small villages, we usually stock up on serious snacks when we go to a larger town on our days off. In these towns you can find Dove chocolate (they’ve got the market cornered), salty crackers, more dried fruit and just about any other snack you would want. So the plan is we carry four or five days’ worth of snacks that aren’t available in the villages (like real chocolate) and buy things that are available when we need them. Brendan’s theory is that by the end of the week we’re hungry enough to eat anything (even Chinese chocolate). Have we mentioned chocolate yet?

How many Chinese characters did we need to learn to get around?

No matter how many characters you learn, you’ll never know enough and you’ll probably forget them anyway. So, having started with that little lesson, here’s our bit of wisdom – it’s not the number of characters that’s important, it’s the topics they cover that is. We learned far too many that don’t have anything to do with life out here in rural China, and we spent months catching up on the most important – translating a Chinese menu.

So what topics are important? Food, food, food. If you’re going to come out here, get a hold of a Chinese menu and get it translated. You can’t expect to eat gong bao ji ding (kung pow chicken) for a year because that’s all you know how to say. Chinese food can be wonderfully tasty and fresh if you know how to order it properly. Other important topics include accommodation, transport, landscape features, crops and animals.

But basically what really helps is a good understanding of the language and characters. Not necessarily proficiency (we are far, far from that), but an understanding. If you know how radicals work, that some refer to places, others to water etc, then it can help in getting you around and it can help in the rapid adaptation that you will need once you get out here.

What’s our day-to-day budget?

You need to budget for three common things – food, transport, accommodation. When camping and passing through small villages, we are often amazed at how little we spend. There simply isn’t anything to spend money on. A bottle of water in the country costs 1 or 2 RMB , a Coke 2 RMB, instant noodles 1.50 RMB and a kilo of biscuits 6 RMB (6 RMB = $1 AUD). If you’re really struggling to scrape together the cash for water, you can even survive on the boiled stuff from local villagers. And of course, if you’re camping then there’s no need to pay for accommodation. So basically, you can go a whole week without spending more than $10 AUD.

But, having said that, when it comes to towns, you can really spend as much or as little as you like. An average Chinese meal for two, which for us hungry hikers is usually two large plates of cold dishes and two large plates of hot dishes (meat and vegetables), rice, tea and beer (for Brendan) comes to around 30 RMB, and there’s still food left over to spare.

Hotels range from the cheap luguans to the more expensive binguans. Luguans cost 10 RMB per person and offer two single beds in a room that can be a spotlessly clean one in someone’s house or can be, well, not clean (see below). Usually there is no running water (water comes out of a large ceramic pot or kettle) and only a pit toilet, about which we will say no more.


Whaddya mean, no HBO?


A washing basin and water heater

It’s no surprise, then, that on our days off we seek the more expensive binguans, which offer a private bathroom, hot water, laundry service, a desk and sometimes even a double bed. They are rated according to a star system, with a standard room in two-star binguans costing about 140-200 RMB, three-star binguans at 180-300 RMB, and four-star binguans from 300 RMB up.

Strangely, two-star and three-star binguans are often quite a lot nicer than those rated four stars, which seem managed to meet the needs of huge groups of businessmen and Communist Party officials – meaning karoake blasting through paper-thin walls at 2 am; elaborate and persistent “massage” services; smoke-filled lobbies and lifts; and drunken men falling down the stairs at all hours.

One thing any traveler in rural China should know is not to pay the price shown on the board in the hotel lobby – you can nearly always pay roughly half the listed price. Usually the reception staff will offer this “discount” without your asking, but if they don’t be sure to ask.

And finally, transportation. Local buses are extremely cheap, around 4 RMB to go 20 kms. But they come with serious drawbacks – once a day service (usually at 6am), smoky and cold in winter, hot in summer, noisy, crowded, bumpy, and s-l-o-w. Most towns have taxis available, or at least a guy with a car, but taxi drivers love to overcharge foreigners. We’ve been quoted prices at 5 or 6 times the going rate. The standard (i.e. fair) rate is about 1.50-2 RMB per kilometre, and when you consider that our long trips are usually one-way, that’s all right with us.

Why didn’t Marco Polo notice the wall?

When you think about it, it seems odd that the first well-known Western tourist in China didn’t mention its #1 tourist attraction. We don’t know why he didn’t, of course, but that’s never stopped us from talking a bit of guff.

Before we launch into wild speculation, we should get our dates straight. Marco Polo was in China from about 1274 to 1291, during the reign of Emperor Kublai Khan (he of the Xanadu fame, stately pleasure dome and all that). This was nearly 100 years before the earliest construction of the Ming Great Wall and 300 years before the bulk of it went up. Obviously, Polo didn’t mention the Ming wall because it didn’t exist.

There would, however, have been remains of the long walls built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) along Polo’s route, and he may well have seen them. But it’s worth thinking about what they might have looked like through the eyes of a Venetian trader in 1275 or so. The walls would have been crumbling ruins over 1000 years old – possibly in not much better condition than today – viewed by a man who wasn’t much interested in antiquity. Also, the ruins of the Han walls were located in an empire where nearly every large town was enclosed in walls that served a contemporary purpose and were maintained accordingly – the city walls of 1275 were quite possibly more impressive than the ruins of the Han Great Walls.

It’s also likely that Polo’s hosts wouldn’t have drawn attention to the Han walls. The Great Wall hasn’t always been an important symbol of China: wall-building was an important part of defence policy in some dynasties – the Ming, Han and Qin – but some dynasties saw wall-building as a waste of effort and even a bit embarrassing.

The Yuan Dynasty, which ruled while Polo was in China, was one such dynasty, and for very good reason: the Yuan emperors were Mongols, the very sort of people the Han walls (and subsequent walls) were built to keep out. The dynasty was officially established in 1271 by Kublai Khan, but its roots extend to the early 13th century when Genghis Khan conquered northern China from the Mongolian steppe. Though the Mongols adopted some Chinese customs while they ruled China, they never forgot their Mongol origins. It wouldn’t be too surprising if government officials hosting Polo were less than eager to point out the existence of walls that had been built specifically to prevent someone like the reigning emperor from entering China.

Q&As No. 4

Wow! No sooner had we posted Q&As No. 3 than we got a new set of great questions, enough for a whole new Q&As post. We’ll get to them in a few weeks – they raise some interesting issues we really haven’t covered – but we do need to catch up on our regular posts.

Meanwhile, here’s Q&As No. 4. Keep the questions coming!

Do we see many birds and what are they?

Before we answer this question directly, it’s important to understand that northern China is an ecological disaster. As you can see from our photos, there is rarely any forest cover, and often no ground cover at all.

This is not a natural phenomenon. Although the area of China traversed by the wall is and always has been semi-arid to arid, in ancient times there were open deciduous woodlands across northern Shaanxi and Shanxi, extensive forests on the Helan Shan in Ningxia, and there would have been riparian forests all along the Hexi Corridor.

That is all gone and likely has been for a long time. Over the course of 2500 kilometres covered by foot, we have never seen a natural woodland, and we have probably only seen a handful of trees along rivers that were not planted by humans. Virtually every other tree we have seen was directly placed into the ground by human hands.

As a result, there is practically no wildlife along the Great Wall. To the two of us, having grown up in countries with comparatively rich native fauna, it is shocking. We have seen only three native mammal species on our trip to date – jackrabbits, a few ground squirrels, and amazingly, some antelope. And we only saw the antelope on three occasions. It’s a red-letter day when we see a ground squirrel.

We’ve seen only a handful of native reptiles and amphibians.

We have, however, seen quite a few birds, and bird life is the one gratifying exception to what is otherwise a pretty disheartening natural landscape.


Cock of the walk

Naturally, most of the birds we see are those that have adapted to survive in an intensively cultivated and grazed landscape. We see lots of domestic chickens of course, but also their wild relatives – quail, chukars and pheasants. These ground birds are extremely common and they are beautiful; however, they are also a bit shy and it’s tough to get a good photo of one. We spent a good bit of time stalking chukars to get the photo below, and we’ve been trying for weeks to get a shot of a ring-necked pheasant. We probably flush 10-20 a day, but we almost always have our packs on and never have our cameras out at the critical moment.


A chukar

These birds, and most of the birds we see generally, are familiar to me (Brendan) from my childhood in northeast Kansas. Though northeast Kansas is a lot wetter than the areas we’ve crossed, it’s at the same latitude (39-40° N) and the temperature’s roughly similar, albeit less extreme. The birds we see are almost certainly different species from those I grew up with, i.e. they are Asian species, but the general types are the same. (In the case of ring-necked pheasants, even the species is the same – they were imported to Kansas from China as gamebirds.)

The other ground bird we see, and which we’ve written about before, is the “wall owl” (see The Tengger Desert).

In addition to ground-dwelling fowl, we’ve also seen quite a few waterbirds. Most of the small irrigation dams we see are earthen, and they leak, creating small wetlands downstream that provide some slight mitigation for the extensive wetlands destroyed on riparian floodplains in irrigation country. In these wetlands we’ve seen stilts, avocets, sandpipers, killdeer and other common waterbirds. Less commonly, we see migratory waterfowl on the larger waterbodies.


A stilt below a dam in the Hexi Corridor


Two geese on the Yellow River in early March

About the only forest birds we see are woodpeckers, which seem to have adapted very well to using the poplars lining many roads in irrigation country. There is a large red-crested species similar to crested woodpeckers from the southeast U.S., and a lovely greenish flicker-type bird unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Like the pheasants, these birds are all too quick for us to photograph.

Songbirds, dependent as they are on natural woodlands, are much less common. We do see a few, none of which I recognise, on higher mountains where the shrub cover appears more natural.

Do you ever get lonely?

China’s a tough place to be alone – and by that we don’t mean that it’s difficult emotionally. It’s hard, bordering on impossible, to get any time to ourselves. Countless times every day people shout greetings, run up to us to practice their English, crowd around and pepper us with questions, try to sell us things, try to buy our things, and offer us rides, tea, dinners and stays in their homes.

Loneliness is something that doesn’t come up a lot.


Sometimes you just need to get away from it all – Emma near a beacon tower

That’s not to say we don’t ever miss being with people we know and with whom we share a common history (as well as a common language). We can’t wait to get back to Sydney to see our friends, families, and dog; and we can’t wait to settle back into our house, surrounded by our stuff, and feel at home.

Do you ever get scared?

Feeling scared comes in the shape of two things: dogs and heights.

Heights have always been a problem for me (Emma), but through the radical exposure therapy that is walking the wall, the fear is slowly getting under control.

Dogs are another matter because we don’t have any control over them. We haven’t written about them before but they are a huge concern, probably our most serious on a daily basis. In northern Shaanxi (two a’s) and northwestern Shanxi (one a), many families keep dogs chained outside to act as guards for their sheep or produce. These dogs are large, mostly ill-treated and mean; and they go crazy when they see us. Chained or unchained, they are enough of a concern that we often go completely around a village if we can in order to avoid them, whether we need to get water or not. Our advice to anyone considering a similar trip in this part of China is to carry a walking stick – it’s not a pretty fact of life, but Chinese dogs are very familiar with the meaning of a raised club and they behave accordingly.


Oh, and we’re occasionally ambushed by hostile archers

Would it be possible to ride along the wall on a horse?

Funnily enough, just at the time we were asked this question we were were considering buying a donkey – to the point of pricing them (about 2000 RMB -$330 Australian – in central Shaanxi) and picking out a name (“Wallace”). The reason we were looking was because Brendan’s foot was recovering slowly, but he eventually came right so we dropped the idea.

But while we were thinking about it, we found ourselves looking at the terrain in a new light, asking questions like, “Would this be too steep for a donkey?” “Is there anything around for a donkey to eat?” “What would we do with the donkey if we stayed in a town for a night or two?”

Horses are not donkeys, of course, and over the terrain we walk they are somewhat less versatile – they’re not as good on very steep slopes, they can’t browse on desert thorn-bushes and they need more water. Nevertheless, most of the things we thought about probably apply to horses to some extent.


Walking the wall . . . now wouldn’t that be the life?

We ended up thinking that a donkey or horse could work out well, provided you were willing to accept a few things. First of all, you’d need to be flexible in your route. There are quite a few slopes and canyons along the wall that aren’t practical for donkeys, and less so for horses. At times you’d need to make detours around canyons that are many kilometres long, or where the brush is too thick you might need to travel along the roads below the mountains.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you’d depend heavily on villagers for food, water and boarding for the horse. Having some workable Chinese, and particularly a strong vocabulary related to caring for a horse or donkey, would make life a lot easier. You’d also need to budget some time almost every day not only to care for your animal, but also to conduct the transactions necessary to care for your animal. And business does not move quickly in rural China.

Finally, it’s not easy to hide a donkey or horse. Every night we try to camp out of sight of people, and we are rarely more than a kilometre or three from a village. We stay out of sight by using small land features to conceal ourselves – zipping around a small hill or into a gully. This would be a lot harder with a horse or donkey.

But where there’s a will there’s a way, and we have no doubt that anyone who is determined to travel along the Great Wall by horse and is willing to research the issues, plan carefully and approach the journey flexibly could have a fantastic trip along the wall.

When did we last speak English to someone other than ourselves?

No matter where we’ve been, the last time we’ve spoken English with someone is generally the last time we’ve spoken with a person younger than 25.

With the exception of some areas of central and northern Shaanxi, most Chinese students and young adults recently out of school in this part of China have some English – usually just simple greetings like hello, goodbye, pleased to meet you and so on, but we often meet kids with basic conversational English at about the same level as our Chinese. It’s not uncommon for kids to have much better English than that.

It’s impossible to overstate how important learning English is to young Chinese people. Having good English skills is seen as a ticket to a good job, and kids study long, hard hours to acquire them. They also go well out of their way to have as much contact as they can with English speakers like us.

On the other hand, if you change the question a bit – so that it is “When did we last speak English to another native English speaker face to face?” – the answer is a lot different. We haven’t met a native English speaker in our entire time in rural China. This part of China isn’t really on the Lonely Planet suggested itinerary.

Q&As No. 3

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

July-August Q&As

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.

June Q&As

We’ve had a lot of great questions in the comments section of our blog, and though we try to keep up, it’s not always possible to answer each one in a timely fashion.

So, we decided the other day to have a monthly Q&A, where we’ll post answers to the questions asked in the previous month. This month’s is more of a June + the first week of July Q&As, but from now on, we’ll try to post shortly after the first of every month.

Meanwhile, keep up with the questions!

Where is Bailey staying while you’re walking the wall?

For those of you who don’t know, Bailey is our pet spoodle. She is staying at a great doggy farm in the Illawarra about two hours south of Sydney, where she has other dogs to play with, a farm pond to swim in, no cages, and lots of loving care and attention.

Every month or so she gets to spend a week with Emma’s mum and dad, Mike and Di Nicholas. Just last week she had her second birthday party, where she got a new imaginary friend to replace Jake, the stuffed toy dog who met an unfortunate end at the paws of a larger (real) dog.


Bailey and her new imaginary friend, Jake II. Photo by Di Nicholas

How many steps will you take on your journey?

A lot. We started out carrying a pedometer, but quickly ditched it when it turned out to have some annoying quirks.

However, during the time we had it, it seems we (Emma actually; she carried it) averaged about 2000 steps per kilometer. If you multiply that by 3000 kilometres you come up with a figure of 6 million.

Do Chinese people walk the wall?

Yes. In 1984-85, Dong Yaohui, who is currently Secretary-General of the China Great Wall Society, walked the wall from Shanhaiguan to Jiayuguan (opposite the direction we’re taking). You can read more about Mr Dong in our earlier post, “A Great Celebration.”

It is entirely possible that other Chinese people have walked the length of the Ming Great Wall, but our inability to read Chinese at anything but a rudimentary level means we can’t really research the question.

It also should be noted that you don’t necessarily need to take off six months and walk 3000 kilometres to “walk the wall.” In April, we were among 1300 people (nearly all of them Chinese) who took part in the 5th International Great Wall Walking Convention, an event organized by China Volkssport Association (CVA). Each of the participants walked either a 10-kilometre or 15-kilometre route along the famous section of wall at Simatai. Every year the CVA organises a walk on a different section of the Great Wall. If you’re interested in the CVA, there is an English-language page on their website at http://www.mrqh.com/english/abuot.htm.


And the CVA walkers are off . . .


. . . and they’re making their way to the top

Of course, every year thousands of Chinese tourists walk the most famous sections of wall at Badaling, Jinshanling and Simatai, as do thousands of foreign tourists.

Do they have monkeys in China?

Yes, but fortunately for Brendan, not along our route. (For those of you who don’t know us personally, Brendan broke his little toe badly a few years ago while attempting to photograph some monkeys in Thailand. This question refers indirectly to that little mishap.)

Have you seen any rabbits?

This question also has a backstory that may require explanation, especially for non-Australian readers.

Recently, Telstra, an Australian telecommunications company, ran a TV ad in which a family is driving along and one of the kids in the back asks the question, “Why did the Chinese build the Great Wall?” The father answers, “To keep the rabbits out!”

(Umm, this probably doesn’t make sense if you don’t live in Australia, but it is funny.)

Anyway, to answer the question, yes we have seen some rabbits – enormous jackrabbits, among the largest we’ve seen.

Are you guys carrying all those books you source?

Thankfully, no. Our library is an electronic one, consisting of books we’ve scanned into our laptop:

• Dong Yaohui, The Eternal Great Wall (Beijing: China Nationality Art Photograph Publishing House, 2005)
• Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
• Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 BC – AD 2000 (London: Atlantic Books, 2006)
• Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Cambridge University Press, 1990)

We also have a fantastic piece of software, PlecoDict, that includes several English-Chinese dictionaries and will translate any Chinese character we write on the screen of our PDA.

Finally, we use Encyclopedia Britannica online and do Internet research, though we try to limit ourselves to reputable sites.

All in all, it’s a decent library, especially considering it’s weightless.

How far do you walk each day? Are some days longer than others? Do you have a planned destination each night?

So far we’ve walked 25 kilometres a day on average, with our shortest full day being 20 kilometres and the longest at 34 kilometres.

We do have a planned destination each night, which is approximately 28-30 kilometres from wherever we happen to be.

We also have an approximate schedule for the entire trip, which we drew up using nothing more sophisticated than some crude maps (the only maps we had at the time) and a ruler. Now that we’re able to gauge distance accurately using GPS, it’s becoming apparent that our trip will be a fair bit longer than anticipated. We’re currently revising our schedule in light of this “finding.”

What is the temperature in the desert?

When we were researching the trip we found out that the average daily high for June in most towns of the Gansu corridor is around 28 or 29 degrees Celsius, which sounded all right to us.

What we didn’t realise is there are two kinds of days in Gansu. On sunny days, it’s about 35 (we did have one day of 41 degrees, but that was exceptional). On cloudy days, it’s about 22. That makes for an average of 28 or 29, but the thermometer pretty much never registers that temperature except on the way up or down.

So it’s either blistering hot or overcast and gloomy. Oh well.

How much water do you carry?

More than we wish we had to. On cool days we’ll go through 2 to 3 litres per person while we hike plus 2 litres per person for dinner and breakfast. On our two-day trip through the Gobi Desert we drank 18 litres apiece in less than 48 hours.

We rarely begin the day carrying less than 3 litres apiece; how much we’re carrying at any given time varies according to the weather and the distance to the next village. The most we’ve carried at one time is 7 litres per person.

These amounts will decrease as the weather cools and we travel through more populated country in the east.

Do you have telecommunications and electricity along the route?

Telecommunications in China are remarkable – every town of a couple thousand people has at least one mobile phone tower. This means we can get mobile phone reception almost anywhere. Everybody is on their mobile phone, all the time. The whole country seems to be bypassing land lines.


Brendan phoning home from who knows where

We also usually have an Internet connection through our CDMA phone, although away from the bigger centres it is often so slow we can’t access email or upload material to the website. Still, considering we’re generally in the middle of nowhere, it’s pretty amazing.

Every village we’ve been to, and almost every house, has electricity. This has been a surprise to us, especially as Gansu is one of China’s poorer provinces.

How do you find time to walk and keep up the blog?

We’re struggling a bit, to be honest. Between walking, finding a place to stay every night, talking to people, writing, and taking photographs, it can be hard to find time to just be tourists.

The time may come when we’re forced to make some compromises in our plans – either not write about some things that we think are interesting or cancel some of the side trips we hope to take – but we haven’t reached that point yet.