Retiree Ooi Thean Hin was so awed by the sheer magnitude of the Great Wall Of China and its purpose of keeping out invaders in ancient times that he took on the challenge of exploring it on foot.
There are more than 16 walls built in China, with five Great Dynasty Walls.
Ooi chose to walk the outer perimeters of the Ming Wall, built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), as it was one of the most intact stretches.
He broke up his journey into yearly treks so that it would be less strenuous. In eight years, the retired business development director made seven trips to China to trek along the wall. There was a year that he could not make it due to family matters.
His plan was to walk the 10,000li (5,000 km)-Ming Great Wall Of China from Jiayuguan in northwestern Gansu province to Shanhaiguan district on the coast in Hebei province.
His first excursion began in September 2009 and his last one ended in October 2016 at Laolongtaou (or Old Dragon Head) by the Bohai Sea in Hebei.
On average, 62-year-old Ooi walked 35km or about 10 hours a day. He walked 5,658,383 steps (or 3,033km) on the Ming Great Wall to complete his dream trip.
He chose the autumn months of September and October for his journeys, and recorded the 300km to 500km he walked on his blog Dream To Dare.
Ooi’s walk was to promote the awareness of C.O.U.N.T (Compassion, Optimism, Unity, Nature and Tomorrow). Hence, he named each trek a Count as he was counting his footsteps.
C.O.U.N.T sums up his vision: “Every fortunate person to demonstrate the Compassion of one’s heart and donate to the destitute and needy, so that together we can share and partake in the Optimism and hope for the Unity of all peoples to preserve the wonders and beauty of Nature for our children of Tomorrow.”
Kedah-born Ooi worked 10 years in Britain and another 10 years in Singapore. In 1993, he returned to Malaysia. After more than 30 years of corporate life, he retired to pursue his “innate passion of wanderlust”.
Every year, he mustered the courage and strength to continue his walk, in part inspired by the many “angels” he met along his treks.
There were the ever smiling and helpful shepherds, the grinning shopkeeper who offered an apple, the villager who put him on a bus to Wuwei city (and “saved” him from walking another 10km to the highway), the children whose laughter guided him out of the darkness, the young man who offered him dinner and board for the night and the kind family who took him in.
Ooi walked mostly alone on his first two trips. But on and off, his friends would join him along certain stretches in camaraderie and to boost his morale.
He would start his trek early in the morning and come down from the Great Wall before dark. His guide would pick him up in a jeep and send him to the nearest farmer’s house or a local hotel to spend the night. He would resume his walk early the next morning.
He seldom slept at the Great Wall Of China because he did not want to carry a heavy backpack for overnight treks. Occasionally, Ooi and his friends did spend the night at the Great Wall – in the tower on the Qinglongxia stretch and on the open high wall in Dadi along the Huangyaguan stretch.
Once, he took longer to come down from the Great Wall, got lost and had to trek in the dark with only his emergency headlight to find his path.
His guide, Chen Huai, a Chinese national, is also a travel writer. Chen’s book, Walking Along The Great Wall, in Chinese, was published last year to document his own journey and that of his travel companions.
“He didn’t walk the Great Wall with us. After dropping us, he would go to nearby villages mostly to capture the rural landscapes, cultural practices and people,” said Ooi.
However, Ooi was lucky that he had a regular walking companion, German manager Andreas C. Lehmann, who accompanied him on the last five years of his walks. In the second year, Lehmann walked for two-and-a-half days with him through the most difficult stretches on the Yulin track in Shaanxi province.
In his first year, Ooi covered 593km in 23 days (with three days’ rest in between). He walked an average of 30km daily.
The last day of his first trip was the toughest – he went up and down the mountains and stopped in his tracks when he came to a dead end where the wall had fallen 30m into the Yelllow River (or Huang He).
Crossing the desolate sand dunes in the desert was tough as well. Many portions of the wall were covered in sand. Some days, he walked for over 10 hours with just 30 minutes for rest or lunch and had blisters. Thankfully, he had his GPS tracker and a mapped out track (prepared by Lehmann) or he would have been lost countless times.
Ooi found that many sections of the Great Wall had disappeared – some were gobbled up by farms, others had become part of factory walls and levees for irrigation canals. Some walls were beautifully intact, snaking up the mountains with their remnants of forts and sentry posts.
In his blog, he wrote: “There were the spectacular views …the beauty of the new crescent moon beside the lone bright North star at 6am with the Great Wall and the Shandan mountain silhouetted against the orange rising sun, walking through the fields of bowing yellow sunflowers and the saluting and listening corns, the herds of two-humped camels and the smiling faces of villagers and children awaiting the return of their sheep, goats, donkeys, horses from pastures up in the hills across a setting sun.”
Ooi’s most memorable experience was crossing the forbidden Simatai Sky Bridge in 2014 with Lehmann and Junji Kawabe. This 100m bridge (40cm wide in some places) is one of the most treacherous sections of the Great Wall.
“The sides of the ridge on which it sits are so steep that it seems one is walking along a narrow rope bridge. It was downright crazy (to attempt this crossing). One mistake would make the trip a catastrophe,” he said.
Once, Ooi had a bad encounter in the mosquito-infested Yanchi county. Thousands of the dreaded Loess Plateau mosquitoes (in northwest China) swarmed him. Insect repellent did not work and he “felt like jam on toast for their breakfast!”.
Eventually, he covered himself top to toe (with cap, head net, clothing and gloves) and resumed his hike.
The most difficult and challenging hike, he felt, was the gruelling west Sandaoguan section to Jiaoshan because many parts of the wall are in poor condition. Ooi and Lehmann had to trek on trails overgrown with thorny shrubs and bushes to bypass the dangerous parts.
Ooi probably cheated death twice during his treks. In 2012, he had a “great fall” off the wall at Dayingpan in Beijing’s municipality. He missed his footing and fell 12m down the mountain and landed on top of two young trees.
“Fortunately, my waist pouch and backpack cushioned my fall. I only grazed my hands,” he recalled, adding that his frantic teammates came to his aid and were relieved he was unhurt.
In 2014, Ooi fell 5m off the side wall of a tower at Xifengkou in Hebei. He landed on a collapsed pile of bricks but again, his backpack cushioned his fall. He had slight injuries on his right elbow and back.
Some unforgettable harsh realities of Ooi’s trips were “walking through the freezing cold, the merciless temperature of the desert, and the tortuous climbs up the mountains”. Then, there was hunger, sheer exhaustion and body aches.
However, it was a great walk for he “experienced great humility, humanness and also learnt about the simplicity of humanity”.
After the treks, many people enquired after his well-being. He jokingly told them: “Apart from a crooked left foot, a Baker’s cyst (a pocket of fluid that forms a lump behind the knee) on my right knee and tired old bones, everything else is great.”
Then, there are others who are curious about what he would do next.
“If my legs are willing, I shall accompany Andreas on his 1,000km expedition of the Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234) Great Wall along the Mongolian steppes. That journey shall be my C.O.U.N.T 1,000,000 trots (a journey on horseback),” he said.