China: Tour for a Cure

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” Molière

Several years ago, I participated on a charity challenge – trekking on the Great Wall of China – which was organised by the Cancer Council Victoria and Intrepid Travel. It’s been on my mind lately, not only because some good friends of mine are travelling in China, but also because my niece is currently battling with breast cancer.

Many of the participants on the charity challenge were taking part because of family or friends who’d battled cancer or lost their fight with it. My motivation was a little different as, at the time, I didn’t really know anyone with cancer. But I did want to do something worthwhile; to use my love of travelling, writing and photography to give something back to those in need. The article I wrote, and that I’m sharing here this week, was first published in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail.

It was challenging trekking on the Great Wall of China but, for me, the hardest part of the program was coming up with ideas to raise the funds. I can quite safely say that the six months prior to this trip was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. But then again, it pales into insignificance compared to the journey undertaken by so many cancer sufferers on a day-to-day basis. My thoughts and prayers are with all of them, but especially my niece.

Good deeds on a stairway to heaven

Travelling in China can be a challenge and our local guide in Xian was quick to reassure us: “Very clean toilets at the Oriental Hotel, definitely five-star.”

In his experience Westerners spend a great deal of time discussing the state of toilets, so now it’s his favourite topic. The following day, en route to Zhongnan Mountain and the rural villages in Huxian County, he mentioned them again. “Outlook for toilets today,” he paused for effect, “not optimistic! Perhaps one-stars.”

Admittedly squat toilets were a challenge, but this group had faced many challenges even before departing for China. For me it began eight months earlier. I attended an information night at the Cancer Council Victoria after reading the headline “See the world and help fight cancer”.

Bryn Skilbeck, Project Officer of Tour for a Cure, explained the tour is a program encouraging people to take part in an overseas adventure tour and at the same time raise funds for the Cancer Council. Based on a charity challenge format operating for years in Britain, Tour for a Cure started in 2003 when the Cancer Council Victoria joined forces with Intrepid Travel. Charity challenges vary throughout Australia and around the world, but here was a chance to do something great for the community, plus trek 80km along the Great Wall of China.

In the following months I put my life on hold to raise my $6000 target. I hosted trivia nights and movie nights; ran raffles and co-ordinated the sale of fundraising chocolates.

Fellow-participant Melanie Bubniw, from Victoria, agreed that the fundraising was not always easy, but rewarding. “The hardest part was trying to fit the fundraising around my other commitments,” she said. “But it was great when I got support and donations from people I was not expecting – and overwhelming when I heard stories from people about how cancer had affected their lives.”

Fundraising was just the beginning. For two months before departure I walked everywhere. Fitness was essential if I was to complete the challenge.

Known to the Chinese as the 10,000 Li Wall, the Great Wall of China stretches about 5400km. Sections were built by independent kingdoms to deter raiding nomads, but when China was unified under Emperor Qin Shihuang in 221-207BC, major works took place to link the wall as a defence line.

Our trek began at Huangyaguan, east of Beijing, and we were immediately in awe of this man-made wonder. A series of steps stretched far ahead, like a stairway to heaven. The way was steep and often narrow. Fortunately the days became easier as we walked into shape.

Hiking from Simatai to Jinshanling I could see why the wall is often referred to as the “dragon’s back” – it stretches across undulating mountains, with watchtowers dotting the peaks. They were beacons, our haven from the wild weather and a motivation to keep going. “We’ll take a break when we reach the next watchtower,” became our catchcry.

It was on this day I met Zhou Xiao Feng, 35, who walks the wall seven days a week, three seasons of the year. In winter, the wall is covered with snow and tourists are elusive so she returns to her farm. She is a hawker who ekes a meagre living from visitors.

Our guides had warned us about hawkers. We would be singled out upon our arrival and our newfound friend would walk the entire distance with us – helping us over difficult sections and enlightening us with Great Wall facts. They hope we will buy souvenirs later in the day.

“Anything locals get from a tourist is a bonus, as they don’t make a lot from farming,” said Jason Williams, our Intrepid guide. We simply needed to make it clear if we did not want help and then ignore them.

But it was a tough day – windy, cold and wet – and we were glad of assistance. I practised my limited Chinese by asking Xiao Feng if she enjoyed working here. Her gaze followed the ancient wall and she smiled. I knew her answer before she spoke. “Piao liang,” she said and laughed – we had been practising “beautiful” all afternoon.

The following day we had blue skies and warmer temperatures; if possible, the scenery was more spectacular. Between Jinshanling and Gubeikou the wall is deteriorating.

Thousands of men, many of them political prisoners, worked for years, often to their death, to build the wall. According to legend the bodies of deceased workers were used as building materials.

On our final day we hiked along the Old Badaling Wall, away from the popular tourist section. Here the wall was extremely steep and had been reduced to rubble; loose scree underfoot ensured most of us spent some time on our backsides.

This day reflected the most challenging part of the trek and was a fitting end to a great experience. “Scrambling down sections of the wall that had deteriorated was the hardest part,” said Queenslander, Kate Bills. “But there was such a sense of accomplishment in being able to complete the trek. The entire experience was very rewarding.”

Eighteen individuals signed up for the China tour, but by the completion of the challenge we were a tight-knit group. The camaraderie and spirit of co-operation was founded on the knowledge that we had raised more than $120,000 to fight cancer.

NB: The tour that I took part on no longer exists, but there are plenty of organisations that run charity challenges raising money for a variety of worthwhile causes, including Inspired Adventures. Just search online for other alternatives.

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