British brothers hike Great Wall to follow in father's footsteps

British brothers James and Thomas Lindesay have spent months this year traversing the Great Wall of China on foot.

British brothers James and Thomas Lindesay have spent months this year traversing the Great Wall of China on foot.

The pair set off from the Jiayuguan Pass in northwest China's Gansu Province on July 15. It took the two, aged 28 and 21, 131 days of running and walking along the main west-to-east length of the heritage site to reach the Shanhaiguan Pass, where the structure meets the sea, on November 22. Their Great Wall journey covered 3,263 kilometres.

Their desire to complete this adventure was inherited from their father, William Lindesay, who made his own journey along the wall 35 years ago.

William was born in 1956 in Liverpool, and he became enamoured with the Great Wall later in his life. In 1987, he made headlines by spending 78 days walking the wall across northern China. After his trek, he married a Chinese woman and settled in Beijing.

Villagers living at the foot of the heritage site often see the tall, silver-haired foreigner collecting garbage along the Wall. He has devoted more than 30 years of his life to visiting, studying and protecting the structure, and has authored 10 books on the Great Wall and hosted discussions on the degradation of the heritage site's environment.

His work influenced his two sons, who now share his interest in the Great Wall. As children, they spent the majority of their weekends walking and photographing the wall, discussing the site, and collecting garbage from its steps.

"We are Walnuts," Thomas said of his family.

In 2016, the Lindesay brothers flew drones at many locations along the Great Wall. They compiled a portfolio of video works on heritage protection, some of which were broadcast on the BBC and Chinese state media.

Not satisfied with merely documenting sections of the wall, the young brothers sought a new way to experience the site and follow in their father's footsteps, setting their sights on hiking its length.

Thanks to extensive physical training, the brothers ran 30 to 40 kilometres per day. Compared to their father's journey 35 years ago, their trip was aided by more advanced tools, such as tracking apps, GPS watches and digital maps. They hired two support vehicles and drivers to ensure their food supply.

They sometimes spent nights in hotels, and they sometimes camped in the wild. Braving rough terrain and scorching heat, the pair also dealt with a man-made problem – COVID-19 restrictions.

In a county in Shanxi Province, temporary travel bans resulted in the closure of roads, restaurants and hotels. "So we just crossed the county non-stop, in one day, from the crack of dawn to late at night, completely self-sufficient, until we emerged on the other side!" James said, noting that they covered a record 68 kilometres that day.

They were inspired by the perseverance of their father.

"Just as my father journeyed through a closed China 35 years ago. He was apprehended nine times and deported for 'repeated trespass in areas closed to foreigners,' but he managed to outwit and outrun his pursuers most of the time and battled on to achieve an incredible feat. It became his life-changing journey for him," James said.

In the final phase of their journey, their support crew could not accompany them due to red warnings on their health kits. But the Lindesay brothers were not to be cowed by this setback, and they bought a stroller to carry their luggage themselves.

They closed their journey at the Shanhaiguan Pass on the shores of north China's Bohai Bay, just as their father had done 35 years before. Had it not been for the COVID-19 restrictions, they would have continued eastward on the wall.

"To make a journey of thousands of kilometres along the Great Wall is a monumental achievement – at any time," William said. But to have done so in 2022, the year with the strictest COVID-19 restrictions elevates the scale of their achievement to a higher level, he added.

"I am immeasurably proud to say I'm the father of men who has made such an achievement at such an age, during these difficult times."

The brothers said the wall was more complicated than they had imagined before setting off. But they also said that their outdoor exploration of the site gave them a deeper understanding of the structure and the history behind it.

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