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Byline: Doug McKinley

IT'S late in the day and a descending fog is beginning to swallow the sun.

Across the hills, the long tentacles of the Great Wall of China begin to disappear into the shroud.

The day has been exhausting but inspiring and I have 10 friendly companions for my 11-day walk along these ancient ramparts.

There's laugh-a-minute Keri Hughes, a 40-year-old nurse from Abingdon in Oxfordshire, Bethan Bishop, a mum-of-one from Birmingham, and Ben McKenzie a security expert from Lancashire.

A few days earlier we were strangers. Now here we are together, 5,000 miles from home.

We're not in China to get fit or to walk 60 miles of the Wall just because it's there. For most, a personal tragedy inspired them.

They want to repay debts that perhaps can't be repaid, to put money in the bank of charities which helped them or their loved ones through life's greatest challenges.

"I'm doing this for the Spinal Injuries Association," says Keri. "About three years ago I was in a car crash and damaged my spine. I was told I would never work again.

"I don't have a lot feeling on the right side of my body and I find the walk difficult at times. I often can't feel where I'm putting my right foot, so I stumble a lot.

"But I'm determined to finish. I want to get something back that I lost after the accident and raise money. The volunteers at the Spinal Injuries Association were great to me." The Great Wall of China is a popular choice for this kind of venture and thousands of Brits completed charity treks last year. But it's no stroll in the park.

A series of connected walls and spurs stretching nearly 4,000 miles from the Yellow Sea in the east to Inner Mongolia in the west, building began around the 5th Century BC and continued until the 16th Century AD. Much has eroded and crumbled, but the parts we hope to conquer are in good repair... mostly.

One chal Heav almo One challenging section is Heaven's Ladder, 200 almost knee-high steps climb like a thi tack day alre tro climbing into what looks like a sheer cliff topped by a thick blanket of fog. We tackle it on only the second day and my legs are already warning me of trouble ahead.

A inc wh of st d As we plod up the incline I chat to Ben, whose walk is in support of Sands, the charity for stillbirth and neonatal deaths. In April 2010, his son Noah was stillborn suffering his son Noah was stillborn, suffering a rare umbilical cord problem.

"There was no indication of there being any problems before the delivery," says Ben. "The condition went undetected during scans and routine antenatal appointments.

"We were very naive about stillbirth and didn't realise how common it is - about 17 per day in the UK.

"Sands was so supportive. They did so much that I wanted to say 'thank you' in some way. A few fun-runs or sponsored swims didn't seem enough."

How's it been so far? "The walk is fantastic. China is so different from anything I've ever experienced," says Ben, marvelling at the view. "But I do struggle with the food."

By day seven we are in the picturesque Jinshanling section. The fog that has dogged us is beginning to break and we can see the dragon's back of the wall snaking over hilltops and deep valleys.

ba sna anB com our tea to n night They stays By now we have a comfortable rhythm to our days, and a genuine team spirit, as we trek to new lodgings each night. They stays are a combination of small spartan hotels and farms.

The farms were rough but more interesting, whereas the hotels felt like a Chinese version of a Travelodge.

We chat about our personal reasons for the walk. Andrew Matthews from Leyton Buzzard is walking for Macmillan Cancer Research in memory of his mother, who lost a battle with cancer. Cherie Callender - who runs a care home for people with dementia in Caterham, Surrey - is raising funds for research.

Susan Ford is doing it for St Christopher's Hospice in Sydenham, South London, for their support when her dad died in 1989 and again with her mum in 2009. Yvonne Mills is walking for Macmillan out of sheer altruism - "it's a cause I believe in".

Bethan Bishop and her sister Elena Miles are here as part of a long challenge to raise pounds 10,000 for the QE Hospital Liver Unit in Birmingham, where Bethan, 39, had a tumour removed two years ago. They're doing well - to date they and their family and friends have raised pounds 8,808.

For our last day on the Great Wall the sky is clear blue and everyone is in high spirits. The Wall at Juyongguan is fully refurbished and has a slight theme-park feel. But no matter, we all completed our challenge.

Jonathan Bryan, MD of charitybased travel specialists Discover Adventures, who organised our trip, says there's huge interest this year.

interest this year.

He said: "In 2010 we booked 5,100 people on trips. This year it's 6,033. It could be a one-day UK walk to raise pounds 100 or 10 days on the Great Wall for pounds 4,000."

so He explained cutbacks have forced many charities to rely on volunteers. He added: "But for our clients it's a chance to get out of their comfort zone, experience new places while raising money for a cause close to their hearts."

FACTBOX Discover Adventure have 11-day Great Wall of China treks departing April 19, September 20 and October 11, 2012, with 10 nights' hotel/lodge accommodation, flights, transfers, most meals, entrance to Forbidden City and other sites.

Payment options are a fundraising target of pounds 3,100pp or self-funded pounds 1,240pp with pounds 349 registration fee. At least 60 per cent of the target goes to charity. Adventures are challenging but fine for beginners prepared to train - prepared to train - the firm offers full support and training. See www.

discover adventure. com, call 01722 718444, or email info@ discover adventure. com.

prepared the the best section of the Wall for your adventure. My personal favourites are the Jinshanling and Simatai sections. They are the most picturesque but they are remote so pack food and water.

?? AKE sure you have good sturdy, but well broken-in, walking boots or shoes. An uncomfortable pair will destroy the pleasure.

?? wary of hawkers trying to sell you antiques - they are unlikely to be genuine.



CHINESE BURN: Doug's charity-trek group reach the Jinshanling section TIME OUT: Walkers have a much-needed rest and, left, the beauty of the Juyongguan Pass WONDER: Jinshanling section of the Wall
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 8, 2012
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