Out Traveler

Alan Cumming’s China Trip


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 not due to martini consumption but icy mountain air or bug bites, and their favourite labels are Berkenstock and North Face.

Imagine my surprise then, when I found myself recently 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 boiled egg and nuts sitting astride a rock and secretly hoping it would rain so I can make use of my orange waterproof two piece ensemble. And this wasn’t one of these Tv shows which 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 shadenfreude. 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, 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 organisations 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, but nonetheless, perhaps because of some protestant work ethic element in my upbringing, I felt that I wanted to actually do something.

Cut to the very next day, when an AmfAR brochure detailing their first ever money raising trek popped through my letter box!

And so that was how I, and 22 others like me, found ourselves schlepping along the Great Wall of China this past October.


The trip was a fundraiser for AmfAR’s Treat Asia programme, a new initiative to promote education, training and research for the HIV/AIDS problem 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 organised by a British-based company called Across The Divide, which regularly leads treks and expeditions all over the world, and 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 over $275,000 better off.  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 needs 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 only normally hear from at Christmas, weddings or funerals.  And 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. And in addition to the philanthropic aspects, there is of course the actual amazing experience of the trek`- not the least of which for me was to be without email and my cell phone for a week - the first time I have been so out of contact in my entire life.  Of course I did feel rather dopey when several of the other trekkers were emailing away and saying goodnight to their children from atop the Wall, and my romantic idyll was smashed even further several times when, whilst marching through remote paddy fields, a little Chinese peasant would pass by chatting away merrily on their mobile.  Ah yes, the global village, isn’t it marvellous.


We started off in Beijing. I have always maintained that you can tell a lot about a city by the driving of its taxi drivers.  If the one that took me from the airport is anything to go by, this place is crazy.  It’s also really polluted, so asthma suffers make sure you pack an extra inhaler. Before setting off on the trek proper we had a chance to do some touristy things like Tianemmen Square, where we chanced upon teams of people in blue overalls peeling chewing gum off the pavestones.  Sadly, Chairman Mao’s tomb was not open. I was gutted as I love seeing dead world leaders with lots of make up on.  The Forbidden City was amazing but very rainy and cold, so when I saw a Starbucks hidden behind a Chinesey façade 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 on a bus and drove for three hours into the mountains to the Beijing Convalescent and Holiday Centre for Cadre (!) where we spent the night being prepared for the assault to come on our senses and sensitivities.

And the next morning it was on to the Wall!  The Wall!  Or Chung Chung, as it’s called here.  It is actually a bit of an eye opener to realise that the literal translation of what we know as The Great Wall is actually 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 realised it.  In parts it is so run down and crumbly that you only realise 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 five day trek was like a marathon session on the 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+ 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 we could buy beer and wine and much fun was had around the camp fire a few beers later.  And boy, did we need a camp fire, 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 modernisation of the motherland at the following morning’s assembly. I taped their laughter on my Dictaphone as 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, the no showering for four days and the fellow trekkers’ snoring all pale into insignificance.  These kids were why we were there.

AmfAR are already planning next year’s trek to somewhere equally remote and fabulous. For more details on the trip of a lifetime and the chance to really make a difference, go to amfar.org.