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Mark Hoyle is a friend and an instructor at my tai chi school. Born with 5% vision, Mark has never let it interfere with living a full and adventurous life. He loves visiting the wonders of the world, so when he offered me a chance to travel with him to Machu Picchu I jumped at it, even though I knew nothing about it.
After a series of busy and exciting workshops in the USA, I was looking forward to a long walk among nature in the mountains. Five days of beautiful views and fresh air would be heavenly. I did learn something about Machu Picchu being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but still nothing about the Inca Trail.
I love walking. When I arrived in Stockholm for the first time at 8am after flying for 30 hours, struck by the beauty of the city, I dropped my luggage at the hotel and walked until 10 pm. I thought the Inca Trail would be a piece of cake.
The first day I realized the cake was full of rocks, the entire Trail was solid granite. It is 35 km long, these rocks were cut without any metal tool, positioned so perfectly that none ever slip. It was an unimaginable task in 1400 AD.
I could not focus on the amazing Trail in front of me. The air in my lungs seems to disappear at high altitude and I ran out of breath too quickly. It is hard to slow down when I am used to take stairs two at a time. I have had arthritis since my early teens due to chronic malnutrition during the Great Famine where I grew up in China. Tai chi has transformed my health especially improving my arthritis, but my knees with 55 years history of arthritis did not like constant pounding on rocks.
I was exhausted by the end of day one. The Trail was magnificent, but saw none of that as I struggled to keep up with the group. We were late because of me. Most other trackers we met were much younger than me, and they were a pretty athletic looking lot too.
Sharing a tent with Mark was a different experience from any hotel rooms that I am so accustomed to. At 2 am, I needed a bathroom visit. I did not use a flash light so as not to disturb Mark. After 20 minutes of fumbling with the double zips on the tent in the dark, I stuck my head out and was shocked to meet eye to eye by moonlight three gigantic donkeys and a barking dog. Fortunately they were much more interested in the grass than me as I took the long walk to the dirty and smelly toilet.
They warned us that the second day the hardest – a full 8 hour day of trekking up to 3800 m! They were right, the first day was a piece of real cake compared to this! I asked our guide what would happen in the event of a medical emergency. What if someone fell and hurt themselves badly, or had a heart attack? Russell, our friendly guide sidestepped my questions quite skilfully. Then I realised there probably wasn’t much they can do! The fear of trekking in darkness urged me on; I extended and over extended my physical ability despite my restricted lungs! Pushing myself passed my comfort zone led me to strain my left knee resulted in more pain. Russell stayed with me to keep an eye on me; we were late again, barely making it before the night fell.
Russell told us the third day would be much easier. By then I had muscular pain all over, both knee joints were agony with mixed arthritic and injury pain, my body was beyond exhaustion. Was I glad it was going to be an easier day! But it rained. I found out my ski jacket (I used to ski regularly) was not waterproof in heavy conditions. All areas outside the Poncho became wet and cold, my hands became numb. That was a mixed blessing because the numbness also stopped the burning pain from my allergic reaction to the insect spray! Oh yes, those insects were tough.
The rain not only made the Trail much more challenging, it added weight to the porters’ luggage so we had to defer our lunch. Instead of lunch at 12, which means a well deserved rest, we had to press on. It was getting more challenging every minute; I was in pain and exhausted, and breathing with difficulty! I began to think of giving up.
Something deep inside me stirred. It was the shadow of my qi (inner life energy). I normally feel well and fit with a feeling of qi flowing like water in the river when I walk. Like a shadow in the water that I could not quite touch my scattered qi. but I knew it was there and I dug deep down it. My inner voice told me: “The key to cultivate qi is the tai chi principles”. I started working on slowing down, moving smoothly, and keeping the flow. As the qi became more reachable, I could focus on my weight transference – touching down lightly to minimise my knee pain, and keeping an upright posture gave me more positive spirit. I unfastened my chest buckle of my back pack to ease the restriction on my chest muscles. I found out that taking more rest before I became exhausted, shortened the recovery time and my speed actually improved. Fortunately, like the many times we filmed our outdoor tai chi demonstrations, the rain stopped at the critical time. My qi gathered and helped me to keep going. Slowly and steadily we arrived at the lunch site by 3 pm.
After lunch, Russell told us, to my surprise, that we would camp there – we have done the day’s work! And he said that we were very close to a famous ruin called Qunchamarka. Mark suggested that we went there to film tai chi.
I love filming in great mountains and rivers where the nature’s qi enhances our tai chi powerfully. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse, so we took our tripods, cameras and video cameras and off we went. My body was not in good shape and my mountain boots were heavy. I did not know how I managed to complete the Tai Chi for Arthritis set, but it would be one of the worst ones. Click here for a YouTube clip of this.
I recalled my struggle and the tai chi principles came to my rescue. So I controlled my movements, checked my body structure with posture and good weight transference for the next set. As I gained better control of my movement and body, I was able to ‘Jing’ my mind – focus at being present and be serene and mindful. I could sink my qi to the dan tian using my dan tian breathing method. I ‘song’ – loosening and gentle stretch my joints from within, going deeper into the tai chi principles give me more power. I felt the qi return and the altitude had less effect on me. My pain was more tolerable. My tai chi was coming back!
As my mind and body became better connected I felt the energy of this ancient fort. Over the most magnificent mountain, as though the “spirit of the Incas” joined me, my tai chi took in that energy, I felt the power of my tai chi like I had never felt before. That was the most amazing experience!
That was the turning point, I filmed several sets with Mark and myself. By the time we were finished it was nearly dark.
The next day I felt the difference from the minute I woke up, my qi was flowing, lungs less restricted, knees less painful. I felt the freshness and the power of the mountain. I saw the flora, different orchids and the incredible path made with rocks. I fully enjoyed the movement, and for a change was leading the troop most of the time. We stopped again at Fort Intipata to film more tai chi. Click here for the next clip. It was quite amazing that the rain stopped again during the filming. Despite the stop we arrived at the next destination early!
I often compare my tai chi journey to climbing a mountain. Now I really appreciate climbing the mountains!! And when you think you have reached the top, beyond the crest is another peak. The views are indescribably magnificent, definitely worth the effort. Of course the best is the journey – how to find your qi especially when it was in shadow! If you want to follow us walking the Inca Trail, do your research, train for it and be prepared!
The last day was rewarded by the splendid Machu Picchu. One cannot imagine the work – how did they carved such huge stones that fit into each other almost seamlessly and made magnificent buildings without mortar and without chisel and metal back then!?
Machu Picchu is the icon of the Inca civilization. Built in 1450, it is a huge structure that is made from hundreds and thousands of rocks. There are over 600 terraces and hundreds of buildings. It is 2438m above sea level with magnificent extensive rock structures. Hundreds of thousands of rocks fit together with impossible precision without mortar. There are even fountains with aqueducts within the rocks.
How did the ancient Incas build the Trail and Machu Picchu? I suspect they knew the way of qi!