Fourteen members of the Lismore Runners group travelled to China recently to participate in their chosen version of the Great Wall of China run, a full marathon, half-marathon, 10 km or 5 km. We ranged in age between 55 and 70 years.
The first ‘wall’ was obtaining our Chinese visas – two of us had applications rejected and needed to fly to Sydney for new passports, receiving the visas with only two days spare.
When we flew into Beijing we had a few days to sightsee before the actual run. Of course Tienanmen Square was one of the first places we visited. Our guide warned us not to mention the words Taiwan, Tibet, or tanks/riots while in the square, as there were lots of people listening - the walls have ears! - and she could get into trouble.
Indeed, each light post had about six CCTV cameras watching us, and we were given to believe that there were lots of plain clothes police officers around.
Despite all that is said about Beijing, the weather was lovely and the pollution minimal – clear blue sky, the flowers out and no smog. One couldn’t have hoped for better.
The day of the run was clear as well, and we were all up at 4.00 am for the start, travelling 90 minutes by bus. The scenery around the Wall was spectacular – rolling green mountains for miles, with the Wall snaking over the tops of all the ridges. Even better, hardly any other tourists.
The run itself was extremely difficult, very steep up and down – most of the way it was old stone steps, some short, others high. Sometimes there were no steps, but it was still incredibly steep, and going downhill on these parts was like walking down a roof.
Three of us did the marathon of 42 km; five (including me) the half marathon of 21 km, three the 10k, and three the 5k.
Needless to say our times were nowhere near what they normally are for these run distances on the flat. I’d guess that on average we exhausted more than twice our usual times, and exhausted is truly the word.
However it was a great experience; the scenery was wonderful, and the camaraderie as usual was special, That said, we were all pleased to get back to our hotel that evening, clutching very large and pretty medals, and harbouring feelings of accomplishment.
The oldest in our group was 70 – he did the marathon more easily and quickly than anyone – and I think could walk better than anyone the next day.
After this we still had a week left in China. We caught the high-speed train to Hangzhou where we visited the beautiful Westlake, and a tea plantation, then Shanghai, with its famous Bund in the city’s colonial part, on the river, looking across to the modern high-rise sector on the other bank.
It’s a gorgeous and astounding view looking across at the architecturally designed high-rises, brilliantly lit at night. It was like standing in the past, looking into the future.
China is meant to be an undeveloped nation; but it seemed so much more developed than Australia in terms of road systems and other engineering feats.
In Shanghai there were times when you could look down and see five more layers of roads underneath, all spaghettiing around to reach different destinations.
Some of us took the subway into the centre - extremely organised and enjoyable journey, easy for us to navigate even though we had no Chinese language.
The final three days of the trip were spent on a cruise of the three gorges part of the Yangtze river, starting at the famous dam and finishing at Chongching.
Before the dam was built, thousands of people would die each time the river flooded. The dam caused the water level upstream to rise 100 metres. More than a million people were relocated to high-rise villages, which were purpose-built before the dam was completed in 2012.
The function of the dam is three-fold – protection against floods, generating hydroelectricity, and enabling the navigation of ships on the now wide and deep river. As well as locks for the ships there is a concrete boat lift.
The scenery in the gorges was beautiful – soaring cliffs, which must have been even more majestic before the dam caused the river level to rise 100 metres.
Running is a great excuse to travel, and a great way to get different perspectives on other countries.
Dr Kim Kerr is a Northern Rivers GP and, like her husband Dr Charlie Hew, a running enthusiast.