Would we allow our own children to go off on such an adventure?
This story from Andrea Meanwell a Rohan Ambleside customer is about her trip to China during her teenage years. An amazing account of a young person’s trip to what has always been a challenging part of the world. Even more so in 1988. This story ends with Andrea’s question “would we allow our own children to go off on such an adventure“, this struck a cord with me. It is a good question. Please add your comments at the bottom of the post.
Fancy a trip to China?
Working outside on the farm all day, mostly alone, your mind tends to wander and dwell on past experiences, so I was really pleased recently to meet up with my fellow team members from the Yorkshire Schools Exploring Society expedition to China/Tibet in 1988 at a remote climbing hut in the Yorkshire Dales. I wanted to ask them “did this really happen?” about a number of events, as some seem quite unbelievable now.
I had been orienteering regularly for over 10 years and was looking for a new outdoor challenge when I saw a poster at school that said simply “Fancy a trip to China?”. A month later I found myself in the Yorkshire Dales on a selection weekend, being woken during the first night and being told to go and recover a casualty from the top of Whernside. Several extreme challenges followed, including having to sleep outdoors on the top of Ingleborough on the second night.
Initially, when selected, my reaction was to question whether I should go. If we could get up to such extreme adventures in Yorkshire, what on earth would happen in an unmapped part of China ( formerly Tibet) in the foothills of the Himalayas? There was also the small matter of £2000 to raise. With everyone’s encouragement I decided to go for it.
My parents took me to the Rohan shop at Long Preston to choose my kit (adults clothing this time, too big for Millie Miglia now) red Rohan Bags with a matching jacket and a spare pair of green Rohan Bags. We were given T shirts to wear, and I took an old cagoule and ski hat. Remarkable to think that I set off without a breathable waterproof, as these days I don’t even walk my dogs in drizzle without my Cloudbase jacket.
Given the choice of mountaineering, canoeing, trekking or mountain biking I chose mountain biking, never having done it before, and being warned that it was the most physical of the activities. We trained one weekend/month for a year. I remember having to carry my bike on my shoulder up Buckden Pike TWICE in one day in the rain. Could we really need to be that fit on the expedition itself?
The answer was yes. The first challenge came in the form of an unfortunate set of circumstances including a delayed plane, and landing in Pakistan in the middle of a military coup. Instead of simply refuelling the plane we were escorted off the plane by men with machine guns, put on coaches and bussed to hotels where we were guarded by soldiers. My parents, watching the news at home, commented that it was a good job that their 17 year old daughter has passed through Pakistan the previous day. Thank goodness we didn’t have mobile phones to tell them we were being held by soldiers in a country we didn’t have visas for! The drama was only just beginning.
After our unexpected visit to Pakistan, we eventually arrived in Beijing and visited the Forbidden City and the Great Wall before travelling for 3 days by train to Xining via Xian where we were some of the first Westerners to see the terracotta warriors being excavated.
Arriving in Xining, we were told that our visas had been refused and that we were not allowed to visit the Anyemachen mountains. The expedition leader entered into over 12 hours of intense negotiations while we waited and slept.
Negotiations were successfully completed, our expedition would be allowed to go ahead if we took some young Chinese people with us. Whilst not ecstatic about this as we doubted their levels of fitness would match ours, we set off for Quinghai Hu.
Our expedition group was to travel by bike from Quinghai Hu to a sacred mountain for the Tibetain people. Whilst we were doing this, the mountaineers would climb a mountain that had never been climbed, the canoeists would canoe around the lake and the Trekkers would trek on a traditional Tibetain pilgrimage.
The Chinese said that our cycling challenge simply could not be done. They would meet us at the foot of the mountain, at a given time, but should we not turn up they would assume we had all died and not wait. How we laughed. We could cycle twice that distance , we had no anxiety about accepting these terms.
A week into the journey, tired and exhausted from eating a very limited diet with little water and suffering the effects of altitude, our group leader told us that he didn’t actually think we could make the journey in the time. We would have to increase our mileage, no matter what. There was a town that was known to be about 25 miles ahead. We could get bread and food there, we all resolved to redouble our efforts.
On entering the small mud brick town we knew initially that something was wrong. There was an unnatural stillness. On entering a house, one of the group saw some decomposing animal bodies on the floor.” Get on your bikes and ride”was the order. Cycling along, exhausted and starving, I faced up to the fact that I might never get home. More alarmingly, I couldn’t remember what my home was like. I couldn’t picture my family. The only thing to do was to keep cycling.
Thankfully, we found a river and a dead sheep. These two things meant that we could eat and drink.Eating our stew, we met some hunters looking for snow leopards, who through gesticulation told us another town was ahead.
On route to the town, however, we came across a road block with some officials. They told us through our Chinese friends, who incidentally had a remarkable talent for cycling even on ‘sit up and beg’ bikes, that Bubonic plague was epidemic in the area (hence the deserted town we had visited) and we would have to have several large cuts put in our arm to ward it off. All with an unwashed knife. For a second time, we rode like the wind and did not look back. The plague was carried by small desert rodents. One team member found one in his sleeping bag that night, and we all watched him anxiously over the next few days to see if he would develop plague.
The last few days of our journey were downhill, and we did reach the destination at the given time. I cried and cried, as I did when the plane landed at Heathrow. The Rohan gear never failed me (although our tents and bikes did), I wore the red Rohan Bags and the jacket every day for over 4 weeks, and put on the green ones to come home in.
“What a luxury, a clean pair of trousers”.
It was great to meet up with some of my fellow expeditions recently to ask “did that really happen?” Yes, it did happen, and we all debated whether we would ever allow our own children to go off on such an adventure. Was this enough to put me off travelling for life? Well, the following summer I packed my rucksack again for another adventure, but this time without the security of the group..