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Oct 29, 2007
The Great Walk of China: Q&A with First People to Walk the Whole Wall - Forbes Life


In March 2007, Tarka L'Herpiniere, 25, and Katie-Jane Cooper, 27, of Devon, England, became the first people on record to have walked the entire Great Wall of China. Their six-month, 3,000-mile trek from Yumenguan Pass in central China to the North Korean border took them over snowcapped mountains, across the Gobi Desert and to a lot of places in between where local delicacies such as cooked dog head were just another way of saying "Howdy, stranger"--a good thing, as the duo spoke little Mandarin. The owner of an adventure travel company, L'Herpiniere has braved many previous expeditions, including a dramatic 2006 attempt on Mount Everest. His girlfriend Katie-Jane Cooper's prior notable trekking experience had been l imited to sauntering catwalks as a fashion model. ForbesLife contributing editor Finn-Olaf Jones caught up with L'Herpiniere in Chamonix, France.

How did you come up with the idea of walking the Great Wall?

I was supposed to go to the North Pole, but that fell through. Katie said, "Why don't we just walk the Great Wall of China?" We assumed it had been done before but then we started doing research. Several people before us had already done monumental walks along the wall. But since the late '90s, archaeologists had attributed an extra 500 kilometers to the wall, so we decided we'd be the first to walk the entire length.

How did Katie, with no prior expeditions, make this trip?

Despite her comfortable life, Katie has a strong inner drive and she overcame a lot of challenges. But there were some days where we walked without saying much. She managed to lose an inch in height from spinal compression from walking around with such a heavy backpack for so long--an osteopath stretched her back out when we returned to England.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the Great Wall?

Most people think that it's one continuous structure of towers and stairs. That's the part most tourists see near Beijing, and much of that has been rebuilt. But the wall is really made up of thousands of separate structures that go 52,000 kilometers in all sorts of directions. Less than one percent of that is standing in its original form. Lots of it is just piles of adobe or traces on the ground. We had to use satellite photos to navigate some sections because often there's so little to go by.

Did you ever have trouble from the locals?

There were a few personal-space issues. We were often the first Westerners anyone had ever seen, and some would come right up and touch us. But I've never experienced the kind of hospitality and generosity that we met in China. And I've traveled to a lot of places. As for the bureaucracy, we told the Chinese embassy what we wanted to do and they gave us a six-month business visa and otherwise we were left alone.

Was the food also an adventure?

I genuinely like Chinese food, but [the Chinese] have almost the opposite conception of what tastes good than Westerners. For instance, they won't eat the chicken breast but they'll eat the feet and the heart.

Where would you stay at nights?

The wall doesn't run through many large towns, so we mostly just pitched a tent. Some places the temperature would get to minus 35 degrees Celsius [minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit], so we'd sometimes walk the extra five or ten kilometers away from the wall to find a small village to sleep.

Is it really a great wall?

It has lots of surprises. For instance, three weeks from Beijing we were climbing over a mountain and suddenly there was this church steeple covered with crows in the middle of nowhere. It must have been the remains of a missionary church. Another time when climbing the ridge at Simatai northeast of Beijing we came upon a steep cliff face and we looked up and could see the wall staggering straight up over the mountain and going on and on through the mist as far as we could see. It really is one of the most awe-inspiring constructions on the planet.

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