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March/April 2005 | The Great Walk

March/April 2005 | The Great Walk

Alan Cumming treks China's Great Wall in the name of charity

I've never thought of myself as a trekker.

Trekkers, I've always assumed, are people who spurn room service and give each other Swiss Army knives for Christmas. Their rosy cheeks are caused not by martini consumption but icy mountain air or bug bites, and their favorite labels are Birkenstock and North Face.

Imagine my surprise then, when I found myself marching along in the bracing mountain air, sucking down water from the tube connected to my rucksack's built-in bladder, looking forward to a lunch of a boiled egg and nuts while sitting astride a rock and secretly hoping it would rain so that I could make use of my orange waterproof two-piece ensemble. And this wasn't one of those TV shows that seem so popular these days in which hapless celebrities are thrown into circumstances beyond their ken and comfort zone and the rest of us get a healthy dose of schadenfreude. Oh, no. This was real life, and I was there willingly. I even liked it! Hell, I'd do it again!

"How did this happen?" I hear you cry.

It was actually one of those weird, fateful kismety things. One night at dinner I had been telling my friends how I felt such a fraud for being publicly lauded for the work I do with AIDS organizations and charities, when really all I was doing was going to parties and shouting my mouth off. Of course, I understand that when you're famous, people take your picture when you go to parties and people listen to what you have to say and, good or bad, celebrities have the public's eyes and ears. Nonetheless, perhaps because of some Protestant work ethic element in my upbringing, I felt that I wanted to actually do something.

Cut to the next day, when an American Foundation for AIDS Research brochure detailing the first-ever fund-raising trek popped up in my letter box! And so that was how I, and 24 others like me, found myself schlepping along the Great Wall in October 2004.

The trek trip was a fund-raiser for AmfAR's TREAT Asia program, an initiative to promote HIV prevention education, training, and research in Asia. During our visit to China, we had several talks and meetings with AIDS specialists and were horrified by both the scale of the problem and the many cultural and social issues involved that make dealing with it so difficult.

Although under the auspices of AmfAR, the trek was organized by a British-based company called Across the Divide, which regularly leads treks and expeditions all over the world, often in conjunction with charities like AmfAR. We all had to raise a minimum of $10,000 to participate, and so by the end of the trek TREAT Asia's coffers were better off by over $275,000. Aside from my epiphany about trekking, there are many reasons why I would thoroughly recommend a trip of this kind. First of all, raising such a large sum is a feat that requires the help and support of friends and family, so before you've even left home you're in contact with a whole slew of people you normally only hear from at Christmas, weddings, or funerals. Second, by doing something that takes you way out of your normal routine--let alone comfort level--you really do inspire people and make them think that if you feel strongly enough about an issue to fly to the other side of the world and go camping with a bunch of strangers, then it must be something worth thinking about.

We started in Beijing, and before setting off on the trek proper we had a chance to see some touristy sights like Tiananmen Square, where we chanced upon teams of people in blue overalls peeling chewing gum off the pave stones. Sadly, Chairman Mao's tomb was not open. I was gutted, since I love seeing dead world leaders with lots of makeup on. The Forbidden City was amazing but very rainy and cold, so when I saw a Starbucks hidden behind a Chinesey facade I suppressed my rage at American imperialism exporting its filthy drug habits to the East and popped in for a grande soy misto.

Then we were packed aboard a bus for three hours into the mountains to the Beijing Convalescent and Holiday Centre for Cadre, where we spent the night preparing for the coming assault on our senses and sensitivities.

And the next morning it was on to the Wall! The Wall! Or Chang Cheng, as it's called here. It is actually a bit of an eye-opener to realize that the literal translation of what we know as the Great Wall is "the long city!" Go figure. But it is both great and long, and we were all blown away by the sight of it wiggling off through the mountains into the horizon.

We were actually on the wall before we realized it. In parts it is so run-down and crumbling that you only realize you're on it when you go off and look back. In other parts it has been maintained and is very grand. It is, it has to be said, hilly. The eight-day trek was like a marathon session on a StairMaster. So, yes, I have buns of steel.

Walking for six or seven hours a day allows you to get to know people pretty well. And my fellow trekkers were quite an eclectic bunch from all across the country. Some had lost family or loved ones to AIDS, some were HIV-positive themselves, and some, like me, just wanted to raise some money and do something. There were grannies, socialites, and students. We were all exhausted by the end of each day, and when we arrived at our camp each night we were delighted to see our tents set up for us and the kitchen tent bustling with preparations for our dinner. Also delightful was the fact that we could buy beer and wine; we had much fun around the campfire after a few beers. And, boy, did we need a campfire because as soon as the sun went down it got really, really cold. One night a van pulled up and a man from the army base we had passed on our way down from the wall got out and started to sell us Red Army quilted coats. They were a bit smelly, but I got one and--remember where you heard it first--everyone will be wearing them next year.

The best part of the trip was when our camp for the night was the playground of a rural elementary school, where the kids swarmed around us all evening and we watched them swear their allegiance to the modernization of the motherland at the following morning's assembly. I taped their laughter on my Dictaphone, the perfect antidote to future blues. Seeing them and remembering the statistics about the spread of the disease in rural areas made the cold mornings, not showering for four days, and the snoring of fellow trekkers all pale in significance. These kids were why we were there.

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