I have had to delay my Wild Women on the Wall feedback while I allowed my stash of adjectives to replenish itself. It had been so severely depleted by the end of Day 2 that I was reduced to:“WOW…Wow, just like….. WOW….”That hasn’t ever happened to me before. Really. I have no idea how to describe the experience in a way that will do it justice (especially with reduced adjective capacity), but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Maybe the photos will help.
Very soon after our arrival in Beijing and an emotional reunion with our darling friend (Genera) Lu, Jan defined our decision making strategy for the visit with the following remark “hey Okes, we’re here for a good time not a long time!”This allowed us to adopt a decision making process aimed atmaximising our experience without any guilt. This was a very good thing. So, should we open another bottle of champagne? Eat another kg of dumplings? Stay up until dawn?……………buy another panda, YEBO YES! What a question! We are here for a good time, not a long time afterall!
Anyway I am getting ahead of myself. We didn’t really sleep on our first night (because we are here for a good time…) and then soon after we had reorganized our packs in the morning we set off (Kim and Lisa reluctantly trailing Jan and Lu) for a quick intense extreme retail experience in the bowels of Beijing’s HQ-for-convincing-fakes. Lisa and I quickly found our shopping mojo and had to be forcibly removed by lunch time. And that was the start of my Chinese culinary awakening (another reason for the eventual loss of all adjectives….) OMG. Honestly. I love everything about Chinese food. I love the fact that its communal, that everyone shares everything (this is a great relief because I get the most debilitating food order anxiety/envy when we all have to place an individual order, especially if its in a foreign language /menu. I love the fact that eating is sociable and that there is constant chatter about the food interrupting the actual conversation (“So tell me, how does it feel to be a third generation Ex-Pat!?Goodness how fascinating to be so permanently transient?” (“OMG HAVE YOU TRIED THE BROAD BEANS???”) So the principle of total food community is delightful and deeply reassuring to me. But then there’s the actual food. Words fail me. Really. The brinjal, the chestnut and pork thingy…the Asian greens and the DUMPLINGS. The food alone would have made the trip worthwhile. I mastered the use of my chopsticks in less than 24 hours, and at home I always use a spoon. Seamless efficiency, Ninja Kung Fu Panda style.
Soon we were running around in circles at the designated departure point trying to round everyone up and cram a small city of luggage into our enormous bus. The bus driver looked fretful. (And rightly so…..the poor man had no idea.) I had a mental checklist of people who hadn’t yet arrived: Deb the Irish (in the club-house pub), Charlotte the Late (still on her way in a taxi), Caitlyn the Matriarch (somewhere in the underbelly of the buss packing fruit, yogurt and bolly into Anna’s actual plug in fridge situation.) These ladies don’t stuff around. Patrizia the spunky Italian had a coffee machine (in an enormous cardboard box. Quaint. J), Desire’ had an vast drill-like object with assorted attachments for torturing sore muscles, there appeared to be at least a case of bolly (each). I hoped that news wouldn’t spread to the RSA chapter of WW, all of whom are limited to one small regulation WW togbag. There would be a rebellion if word got out…..
As the bus pulled away from the apprehensive assortment of husband’s, Lisa and I turned to each other wide-eyed, burstingwith glee. Wesimultaneously mouthed the same words: “There are no followers on this bus!”
Jeepers, a whole bunch of Alphas! Such complete fun! What a fabulous psychological experiment. Anything could happen! And whatever transpires there are going to be some seriaaasstories to tell J
As we headed away from Beijing, darkness began to fall and I had to imagine the scenery. At the foot of the Tianshou Mountain we passed an area famous for its Ming Dynasty tombs. It was clear that we were climbing and the road was narrowing and there were peach and pear trees covered in blossoms and fir trees sometimes visible in the headlights. It was so exciting to attempt to visualize the surroundings we would wake up to. We had to park in the chilly dark some way from our guesthouse because of the narrow streets and the heavily laden WW made their way slowly to our accommodation. There was a familiar smell of wood smoke in the night air. The South African contingent were elated to be assigned a bedroom with a traditional communal bed. It felt like a sleepover party. We were less elated to discover that it was as hard as a concrete floor (this emerged as a distinct feature of Chinese beds) but nothing was going to stop us from sleeping like the dead. We had a lot of catching up to do in that department. But first the briefing for day 1 from our legendary Chinese guide, Jun, just to fill us with anticipation before we fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning was a blur of yellow shirted activity and the first thing I registered as I opened my eyes was the magic smell of Patrizia’s coffee machine. In true Italian style she was (loudly and warmly) dispensing hugs and excellent quality coffee. This was a good sign. I gratefully accepted a steaming cup and made a mental note that the coffee machine was maybe not so ridiculously indulgent after all….atrue necessity in fact.
As we set off from the guesthouse on our first day of running I kept having to pinch myself. Was it possible that I was really in China? That I would soon have my first glimpse of the Great Wall? This was something I had daydreamed about as a child and had been anticipating with deeply uncool excitement since we booked our flights late in 2018. After leaving the narrow road we followed our beautiful red ribbon route markers into a deep rocky shaded gorge crisscrossed on its floor by a flowing river. We had to carefully negotiate the stepping stonesand boulders in an effort to keep our feet dry. Parts of the stream were frozen solid in the early morning cold. We were obliged to spread out and run in single file as the Beijing 4 and fabulous guides kept it all together with their walky talkies: Zulu Springbok, Boxing Kangaroo, Leaping Leprechaun …Bald Eagle Stars and Stripes, Powerful Butterfly and Stud-Muffin Hubei (Kevin the long suffering guide and only male representative other than the fretful bus driver).
We trotted through villages and waved at startled local traders selling chestnuts and other produce. Ozzie Kate was a wealth of information (don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story!) and had pointed out the chestnut trees earlier and delighted me with stories of how they came to be in this area: when men were conscripted to build the wall 100’s of miles from their homes, they were often followed by caravans of sturdy, determined women and children. These reluctant original ex-pats were responsible for bringing their dialects, their local crops and building techniques to the villages that sprang up along the wall. My first glimpse of the wall brought an astonishing rush of emotion: I was overwhelmed by its vastness, its significance, how ancient and alive it felt. I could almost feel the complicated web of human triumph, disaster and tragedy humming beneath my feet. I experienced the need to touch it, to feel its rough beauty on the palms of my hands and to add my DNA to the rich tapestry of its history.
I was startled out of my Wall induced reverie by our arrival in a beautiful national park teeming with Chinese tourists. They seemed enchanted to see us and around every corner we would be greeted with thumbs up, high fives and exclamations of surprise and delight. We were thoroughly photographed against the exquisite backdrop of an unexpected lake. And then began the mother of all climbs (except that it was actually just the foothills) and before we knew it we were trotting into a picturesque village which was our lunch spot and which marked the end of the run for day 1. How utterly fabulous! Food and cold local beers were delivered to our tables by our beaming hosts and I enthusiastically set about the process of acquiring stretch marks. I was yet to discover that our host would continue to replenish until we stopped eating and substantial leftovers were visible as evidence of our satiety. Mmmmm I didn’t get that memo. The pork and chestnut dish, I will remember that with joy and gratitude for the rest of my life.
After a short bus trip to our guest house and the lugging of the luggage (following failed attempts to commandeer a tuktuk by the British contingent of our group –clearly losing their colonial flair!) and the re-assignment of certain members of the group to the red tent at the bottom of the garden, we spent the remainder of the afternoon bonding over endless bottles of bolly while we queued for showers (with a diminishing sense of urgency.) We soon forgot we were queuing at all and devoted ourselves instead to lightening our load (less lugging more glugging)by applying ourselves enthusiastically to the champagne. In the setting sunlight of the first afternoon, I marveled at the effortless manner in which our new sisterhood had embraced us (their South African visitors) and the ethos of Wild Women. Mostly complete strangers to us 24 hours before and in no time a bond of warmth, generosity, humour, vulnerability, strength and support had infused our relationship. There was no competition, no ego, no posturing. I looked around at my new friends with wonder and delight, awed as always by the alchemy of the Wild Women sisterhood.
Summary of Day 1.
24km and 800 meters of elevation on the Longquanyu Wild Great Wall (GW) 龙泉峪野长城, Water side GW 水长and the Yellow flower GW 黄花城. A stunning combination of valley, unrestored wall and some restored sections.
Oh my nerves! Indelibly printed forever in my memory as the Day of the Dumplings. For breakfast. I had already had more than enough breakfast (including a second helping of Janice’s amazing home made Hot X Buns) when our host casually brought out the dumpling bowl and placed it provocatively within reach of my chopsticks. Thank God we had clarified that we were here for a good time not a long time… or I may have turned them down. Eventually, somebody led me (firmly) away from the dumplings. It was supposedly for my own good. I was bereft. We were anticipating a long hard day and we had to be on the road by 6.30. (So fuelling up was critical!)The sky was sunny and blue, the WW were dressed in pink, blossoms were everywhere in a profusion of delicate colour and somehow everyone had woken up willing to embracethe ethos of the pigtail (instant silliness). Under the circumstances we were all in high spirits and undaunted by the fact that a police presence en route may demand a detour and an additional local guide. In fact not even the anticipation of the three brutal climbs that Jun had warned us about managed to dampen our enthusiasm. Well not yet, anyway.
I officially ran out of adjectives about half way up the second climb. Just like that I was reduced to nothing but “wow”. Minutes before I had been happily chatting to Anna and Yolande(no sign of trouble) and suddenly I had no adjectives. None. Not one. All used up in less than 48 hours, like a tween’s data allowance. WTF? The climb itself may have had something to do with it, but the views, the crazy fairy castlehiggledy piggledy towers and wall and the insane patchwork of rugged mountains and forests. And the blossoms. It was all so ancient and so beautiful and so remote and so otherworldly (and so vertical) that it literally took my breath away. The rest of the day was a blur of prayer flags, and happy birthday songs for Lisa (and beautiful blessings for her dad) and endless ups and downs and finally the tourist mecca of Mutianyu. Some of us descended the wall on toboggans (the pigtails made us do it) before running the final few km’s to a beautiful market for lunch. Patrice helped me to bargain efficiently for my fabulous spherical Panda. (Dumpling, obviously. As much as I adored him I suspected he may be a visual warning of what may happen if I continued to consume dumplings at the same rate.) An utterly hilarious party-bus journey followed with Ozzie Kate (Boxing Kangaroo) turning in a flawless performance as Abba(Dancing Queen) and Madonna (Like a Virgin)culminating in the unprecedented Isle Flip.
By this stage the bus driver was becoming increasingly fretful. Yolande and Ilke were bounding around the bus engaged in a fierce competition to see who could record having burned the most calories, the rest of the WW were placing bets on their favorite contender, drinking champagne, singing along and conducting animated conversations with people 10 seats away. The atmosphere could be best described as “carnival”. The driver breathed a sigh of relief as we all disembarked at our guesthouse and silence fell in the empty bus. I hit jackpot with my room mates and was delighted to be sharing with Anna (plug in fridge) and Desire’(drill/massage device complete with multiple attachments). Another awesome dinner and fabulous, exhausted bonding with friends, another round of stretch marks, aching smile muscles, depleted adjectives and then another deep sleep on a (new normal) concrete bed clutching Dumpling the panda in a contented embrace. J
Summary of Day 2:
27.6km with an elevation of 1666 meters. 3 massive climbs the 3rd being the most spectacular. We were on the Moyashike Section GW 磨牙石刻公园, Big West Wall GW 西大墙, the North Gate Wall and the Mutianyu GW 正北楼&慕田峪. A combination of trail, restored and unrestored wall and breath-taking vistas.
Dumplings again for breakfast. OMG. As we set off on the gentle warm up stretch that preceded the climbing that was to characterise day three, I realised that I was no longer able to fasten the waist strap of my backpack. Oh dear. But, you see we were here for a good time……
The unrestored wall made of brick and compacted earth was vastly different from the previous day’s experiences. It felt particularly beautiful, wild remote. I was intensely aware of the fact that I wasn’t ready for this experience to be over. It was going too fast. I made a conscious decision to slow down and soak it all in. Today was Gabby’s birthday and we were delighted to catch up with her and Christine at one of the astounding ruined garrison/tower thingies, where they were sitting in the shade with the local guide and the sweetest pair of Chinese dogs. Gabby was quite far along the process of converting the dogs to veganism. Things seemed to be going well until someone donated a stick of Liz’s beef jerky and suddenly they changed their minds and reverted to their original carnivorous state. We skirted a military zonebefore finally entering the legendary Jinshanling area of the wall. At this stage I was chatting with Charlotte (the Great, no longer the Late) who was leaving Beijing soon for Hong Kong and who was explaining how emotional she felt at the thought of no longer having relatively easy access to the majestic presence of the wall. She had been in Beijing for years. I had only been there three days but I felt completely able to relate to her sentiments. We had to keep pausing to just soak in the magnificence, to imprint it on my retina and my heart. We regrouped for lunch in a beautiful spot, then regrouped again for beers at the stall of our lovely local guide. And then suddenly, just like that we had come to the end of our route and we descended the wall (why? Why? I could see it continuing to infinity into the distance.) Right there and then I made a promise to myself that I would be back one day. I had seen just enough to know that there was too much wall I hadn’t yet experienced.All that was left was the joy of the pristine gold grouted shimmering toilets (the best in China!), the unexpected and beautiful red silk finish banner held up by our guides at the endand the emotion that always follows a beautifully executed adventure among soul mates. Blessed beyond measure.
Summary Day 3:
16km and 900 meters of elevation. We were on wall for the most of the day it was truly spectacular as we had the wall to ourselves for the entire section of Gubeikou&Panlongshan GW 古北口&蟠龙山长城. The Jinshanling GW 金山岭长城 is newly restored and magnificent.
Because we were in China for a good time, not a long time, and despite the fact that Wild Women on the Wall was officially over, it made perfect sense to drag our tired legs back up to the wall to watch the sunsetthat evening on a frolic entirely of our own (as one does.) There was much enthusiasm for this plan at lunch time, but it as the excessive food, fabulous champagne, lactic acid and 5 star accommodation (no concrete beds or squat toilets this time) began to work their magic, support for the idea waned and by late afternoon there were only 7 die-hards determinedly walking the talk of being in China for a good time. Our sunset excursion did not disappoint. I will remember the depth and perspective of the sunset, the nine visible layers of mountains disappearing into the distance, the faraway views of the wall burnished by the gold of the setting sun until I am 90. Everything about that sunset felt astonishingly intense: the crisp cold champagne, the astonishing quality of the air and the light, the deep affection I felt as I watched the animated faces of my beautiful new friends, the belly laughter and the dull ache of satisfaction and accomplishment in our legs. Life doesn’t get any better.
We trotted down the steps without a care in the world, looking forward to our final evening with happy anticipation. We hopped onto a waiting tuk-tuk (we had commandeered it and its driver, our guide that day, on the way up to the wall) and set off for our hotel. The last thing I recall is Patrizia urging our driver to slow down (how does one do that with half a ton of Wild Women and a lot of dumplings on board?) and the trailer flipping and rolling in a lazy, graceful, slow-motion arc as it tried to negotiate a bend in the road. I distinctly remember being overwhelmed by a feeling of deep gratitude. My next memories involve a group of alpha women mobilizing like an elite army to deal with the (apparent) carnage. Everyone had a role to play (mine uncharacteristically involved lying still and obeying instructions). Ilka, Lu, Charlotte (despite herself being injured), operated with calm precision to get us all to hospital, scanned and treated. (Well, it was mainly calm except for very briefly when Jan went into lioness mode with the hotel staff and flung my classy silver bed pan of urine with rather more aggression than necessary in the general direction of some unhelpful bystanders).
I have no words (oooh actually I do, adjectives FLOWING here!) for the capable, calm, compassionate competent, resourceful, efficient group of women who managed every step of the process of stabilizing everyone and getting them safely home/to hospital in Beijing. And those who kept it all together back at the hotel.The team work, selflessness and generosity of spirit (even from the exhausted and the injured) was awe inspiring and I will remember it with admiration and gratitude forever. The Wild Women certainly know how to have a good time. But they sure as heck know how to handle a bad time too. I would go to war with these women. Tomorrow. Just saying.
(I am forever grateful that everyone, especially stellar Stella, survived pretty much unscathed to tell the tale of what will become known in Wild Women folklore as the Chinese Double Tuk and Roll Incident).