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Smashing records on the way to visit a giant bird’s nest.

Day dawned on our final full day in Beijing and the adrenaline ran like a deluge through the veins of the boys. For two long years, the Chinese language students had lived in the shadow of one Benjamin Joseph Topham. This fabled figure of STCC folk lore had achieved the near impossible, managing to traverse twenty-four towers along the length of the Great Wall.

Snakes and ladders was originally developed by the ancient Chinese as a way of passing time during the harsh winters.

In the years since Ben’s heroic acts, the saga, nay epic, of Ben’s victorious journey had only grown more magnificent. Some former students swore that Ben managed to scale all one million steps of the Great Wall without so much as any lactic burn. Other witnesses testified that Ben’s face was illuminated gold upon the completion of his last tower. Even Chinese witnesses were astounded by Ben’s heroics, and his legend is known among the Wall community as the ballad of the Dà Bái Hè (Great White Crane).

Thus, upon our arrival at the Badaling National Park, seventeen young and expectant men were primed and ready. On this day, either history would be made, or glorious death would be achieved in the pursuit of immortality. Starting at the base tower, the group immediately split into two, one half opting to challenge the southern part of the wall first, while the other group challenged the northern side. The southern crew, consisting of Fraser Buckley, Josh Dent, William Topham, Jakob Hoogenboezem, Josh Doocey, Jack Pugh, Ethan McLintock, Josh Grosvenor and Will McCorkindale broke early with the solitary goal of destroying Ben’s record. Arriving at the highest point of the southern route, the super team’s spirits were high and focused on victory.

Team Awesome believes in sweaty male bonding experiences.

Team Awesome practices their battle formation.

Gazing into the distance remaining of the southern route, these hardy lads were not intimidated by the near vertical steps where any slip was surely death. Making use of the centre rails, these intrepid men slid their way down the wall and neared the end point of the southern route, the fabled twelfth tower. For the rowers among the team, Josh D and Will T, it was also a time to ensure that their hard made training gains were not lost. On one climb, the team challenged itself to complete a push-up on each step while on another ascent, sprints and lunges were incorporated.

Climbing stairs is easy when you’re this ripped.

As the team arrived at the twelfth tower, the trailblazers paused and waited for everyone to catch up. In this team, no man stood alone, and the entire group touched the tower at the same time to commemorate the collaborative work that was essential to conquering Ben’s legacy.

Self-explanatory, if this needs to be explained you may need ‘re-education.’

From tower twelve, the team turned around and began the long trek back to summit the northern wall. Drenched in sweat with legs and calves burning, they encountered the dreaded enchantress Circe – aka Mrs Kennedy – who told the brave members of Team Awesome that they only had half an hour to complete the entire northern traverse, and suggested they relax and dine on sleep inducing ice-cream. As bold St Thomas’ men, Mrs Kennedy’s challenge only bolstered their resolve, and with Ben’s battle cry of, “I’m not going to let my brother win!” uplifted the team and carried them onwards. In this last passage, where every step was painful and where every at second landing they were accosted by trinket sellers, the rallying cry of, “What’s gonna work? TEAM WORK!” kept the group pressing onwards.

The post-season rowing sprint programme ensured the development of fast twitch muscle fibres.

Suddenly, tower seven of the northern climb loomed large. Yet the group, as it rounded the notorious precipice of tower five, had lost two of its original number to the dreaded German backpacking sirens.  This loss affected the group greatly, and it was only after the appropriate prayers were said, and incense was lit, that the mission could continue.

Summiting the last stretch of wall as a combined unit, the group touched the goal at the same time. Suddenly, the realisation of what had been achieved flooded over the group. Ben had managed 24 towers in total, but Team Awesome had managed 19 single towers which when crossed twice (forward then back), equaled 34 towers in total.

Many signs along the great wall are made of the hammered bronze taken from the shields of crushed foes.

The boys had not only beaten the Great White Crane’s record, they had absolutely pulverised it. William, giving in to the emotional revelry of the situation, celebrated the defeat of his older brother with a shirtless dance on one of the ancient wonders of the world.

“We knocked the bastard off!”

No Visitors Allowed. Anti-tourist propaganda at its finest.

With new found energy, the greatest team ever jogged back to the base tower to recount their glorious deeds to the enraptured audience of their peers, including those who were unable to topple the oldest Topham. Here amidst photographs and congratulatory pats on the back, the lone strands of a new ballad could be heard from the lone Chinese musician on the ramparts whose song, The Unrelenting Nine who broke the Dragon’s back, debuted at number one on the Chinese Music Charts that night.

The Chinese form the largest number of tourist visitors to the Great Wall.

Following the unprecedented defeat of Ben Topham’s record, the group had another massive lunch and then visited the site of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, viewing the spectacular Bird’s Nest stadium as well as the Water Cube. Both buildings and the square that they sit in are impressive feats of modern engineering and design. The Bird’s Nest and the Cube straddle the Dragon Line, the emperor’s pathway that cuts directly through Beijing and into the Forbidden City.

Whoever said that ‘learning construction with pipe cleaners wasn’t beneficial’ has obviously never been to China.

Shortly after this picture was taken, Mrs Shields renounced teaching and undertook training at an obscure Shaolin Monastery.

After another action packed and exhausting day, the hotel and bed proved to be a reward of the highest calibre. Rest was essential as the following day was another early rise and a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai.

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Taking over a Forbidden City, Hightailing through the Confucius Institute, the Hutong and Peeking Duck.

After the previous day’s late night, the promise of a sleep-in sounded really good. Unfortunately, sleeping in while visiting Beijing isn’t likely to happen, and when I ventured down into the lobby in the morning, the team was ready and waiting for their trip to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Upon arrival at Tienanmen Square, the team was rather disappointed to say the least. From the group’s entry point, the Square itself was rather underwhelming and was dominated by a massive building that housed the embalmed remains of Mao (for those keen on seeing dead people, the body apparently is so well preserved that it looks like Mao is just having a nap). Moreover, there was an obvious absence of parading soldiers and screaming officers, something essential to any Western depiction of a communist country. However, we need not have worried too much, as when we ventured past Mao’s resting place and entered the front of the square,  we saw an area that was both impressive and on a grand scale – and also had one or two guards thrown into the mix.

The local street vendors were out in force in the tourist areas, their coolie hats making them easily recognisable.

The massive square is set out in front of the Forbidden City, and is flanked by the Chinese National Museum and the Great Hall of the People. Both buildings are absolutely monumental in their scale. From a distance, neither building looks particularly large, but when one crosses the square to stand in front of them, their sheer size is revealed. Rather than performing any compensatory function, the Chinese socialists have a ‘big is better’ ideal and building on this scale is believed to emphasise the importance and longevity of the ideal. The square itself was first established in the 17th Century and over the years has been expanded several times. Following the 1950s, the final expansions were completed and the square can accommodate up to 600,000 joyfully happy people.

When making models, Jack could never get the scale of his buses correct.

Man 1: How do you know your dad is planning for the future? Man 2: He buys two cases of beer instead of one.

From the square, the group then traipsed north to the entrance of the Forbidden City. The city covers over 180 acres and was built in 1420, with a total of 9,999 and a half rooms (unbelievably, they ran out of bricks and the last room has been largely forgotten). The city is incredible and its architecture and design is unparalleled in the world. It is recognised as both a UNESCO Heritage Site as well as a Chinese National Treasure, right up there with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

Unfortunately, the booked Chinese foot masseuse forgot to show, much to the disappointment of the boys.

Exploring the place required some decent footwear and patience as crowds flocked lice ants all over the place. Our students, wearing their bright blue shirts, scattered like the aforementioned ants through the various courts and probed the immaculate gates. The group spent most of the morning exploring, and didn’t even see a quarter of the city. We, the teachers, were very thankful to our guide, Happy, who kept the boys moving and on time. By the end of the morning our feet were so sore that most of us were wishing for a foot massage, but our itinerary had other plans, and it was less a case of Happy Feet, and more a case of grin and bear it.

Finally, Joshua gave in and submitted to a token pic with a native cat.

Immediately after our visit to the Forbidden Palace and lunch, we were taken to the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing. Here the boys performed a haka as a way of thanking the Institute for all the work they had done for us.

You put your left hand in, you put your left hand out, you put your left hand in and you shake it all about…

Following a few quick speeches and obligatory photographs, we were then given free reign through the Institute’s museum and education space. This interactive and informative place was easily the best maintained and enjoyable museum experience encountered by the boys and staff. Interactive media allowed the boys to dress as women, play badly strung instruments, and hit a bell set with about as much musical talent as a fingerless pianist. The exhibits were also clean, easily viewable, and the interactive electronics actually worked! All had a fantastic time and just as everyone began to run out of steam, we were again ushered into the bus for a trip to the Hutong.

The auditions for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, had several stand out applicants.

The Hutong are the old neighbourhoods in Beijing and their narrow streets and quant brickwork hark back to an older China. However, inside the buildings is a world that is anything but old. As a major tourist site, the Hutong bustles with modern cafes, trinket and souvenir stores, and just about anything else you could care to imagine. Set against a meandering river that joins two lakes, it was a beautiful spot and the boys launched into another round of exploring and adventuring. Meanwhile, the geriatric teacher posse immediately headed west and found, and I kid you not, a cat café.

On the quest to find Jet Lee and a Chinese film set.

The cat café is either a dream come true for feline fanatics, or a potential nightmare for anyone with hygiene issues. The coffee (which was served with pictures of cat’s paws and faces on the foam) was surprisingly nice, but was served on tables that cats leisurely strolled across and cleaned themselves on. The café was essentially a place where you could go to hide from annoying pet allergy people, or a place to take pet allergy people to see them succumb to anaphylactic shock.

What’s new pussy cat? WoOooOoooOooooOo.

Finally, after another long day, we sleepily made our way back to the hotel for a duck dinner that went down extremely well. Unfortunately, a little too well for one boy who gorged on the skin and who later discovered that rich foods are better eaten in moderation. Fortunately, he was able to sleep it off and join the team the following day as we braved the Great Wall and a long standing record.

The demise of one or two of the lads.

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A Gunfire Breakfast, silky shopping, amazing feats, and a triumvirate of scorpions for supper.

When your phone rings at 3:30am, it is very rarely for something good, and I will admit that I slumped out of bed with great reluctance. I can still remember my father saying something along the lines of, “the soldiers got up just as early and risked their lives, you’ve got it easy.” so without a decent excuse to stay in bed, I rolled onto the floor and slithered my way towards readiness.

After trudging semi-conscious down to the hotel lobby, I was greeted by the sight of fifteen or so yawning and mumbling, school boys. From there it was onto the bus and down to the New Zealand embassy to commemorate New Zealand’s soldiers in the ANZAC day ceremony.

Overlooking the stolen French embassy, now occupied by New Zealand’s MFAT. Take that you Rainbow Warrior sinking toads!

When we arrived, sometime around 4:20am, we discovered that the embassy was actually the old French embassy. It was being used by MFAT while the New Zealand embassy was being fixed up. Here in the cold morning air, the staff struck up conversations with the various people milling around, while the boys made like penguins and huddled in a tight circle for warmth. After an hour of waiting in the cold morning air, the ceremony began with all the pomp and ceremony expected at an ANZAC service.

The tribute wreaths at the New Zealand Embassy.

One of the highlights of the service was seeing the vast array of foreign military officers in attendance. Officers from Turkey, China, Russia, Australia, Fiji, Canada and Korea were all there in full brass to lay a wreath at the ceremony. On behalf of St Thomas of Canterbury College and Christchurch Girls’ High School, Fraser Buckley and Eva Watson also placed a wreath.

Fraser and Eva laying the wreath on behalf of STCC and CGHS.

At the conclusion of the service, the students were invited to a gunfire breakfast. Unfortunately, for the Girls’ High group, Ms Yan decided that everyone was in need of warming up and quickly left on the bus. For the STCC boys that remained, a full English breakfast of sausages, toast, scrambled eggs and bacon awaited. The teachers were even better off and received a tote of rum in their early morning coffee.

Food, glorious food, can’t wait till I get some.

During the breakfast, the group yarned with the ex-pat community and the students posed for photographs alongside the military personal from other countries. Undoubtedly, the highlight for the boys was meeting the Russian officer who looked like he had just stepped out of a Cold War film. No one doubted that he could have killed half of those in attendance with just his pinkie.

The boys posing with foreign military personnel. Captain Kalashnikov in the centre rear.

Representative’s of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army checked to ensure that no one was using YouTube, FaceBook or Google.

After the breakfast, it was hotel time and a chance to catch up on some much needed sleep. In that time, some boys slept, while other completed their journal entries, then suddenly, it was time for lunch and a visit to the Silk Street shopping centre.

Silk Street, less streety, more mally.

The Silk Street centre is a famous knock-off mall where one can bargain for just about anything and everything. The students were encouraged to use as much Chinese as possible as this always results in a better discount, and were then unleashed on the all too practiced shop owners. If you want fake Louis Vuitton, this is the place: Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, NBA singlets, silk scarves and ties, Boss Hifi, and Levis were all in abundance. Many boys got ripped off, some boys made a killing, and some boys got banned from various shops altogether. All in all, it was a great experience with many students coming away with both trash and treasure. I hope that enough of the boys remembered to get gifts for their families, because exiting the store with only 6 yuan left for the rest of the trip cannot be a good thing…

Mr Newton being offered money by the shop keeper to get the ugly shirt off his premises.

Once out of the shop, it was off to see an acrobatics performance at the local theatre. Now we thought we had seen acrobatics at Malong, but they were nothing compared to what we witnessed in Beijing. Incredible feats of balance, coordination, flexibility, strength, and teamwork were the order of the day. Whether on foot, bicycles, or motorbikes, the displays of sheer lunacy astounded all of the boys who sat through the show in rapt attentiveness. The performances were of the absolute highest order and were easily on par with anything that Cirque de Soleil perform.

Bicycle races are coming your way,
So forget all your duties oh yeah!
Fat bottomed girls they’ll be riding today.
So look out for those beauties oh yeah.

Leaving the theatre, the boys then rolled all their enthusiasm into a series of pun-offs that would leave even the best ‘dad-joke’ dead in the water. This was to become the theme of the night as after dinner, a short walk found the team at the Donghuamen Night Market off Wangfujing Street.

The entrance to the craziest meat market in Asia.

The Donghuamen Markets are an institution in Beijing and act as a magnet to both Chinese and Western tourists. Upon entering the markets, one is accousted by the sheer magnitude of the visiting consumers/sightseers, the smells (not often good), and the vast array of food on offer.

Stingaling is a “most repulsive ugly thing” and much better off eaten after frying.

One of the first foods to capture the attention of the STCC boys was the scorpion on a stick delicacy. These ferocious little blighters sit impaled on a skewer, twiddling their little legs and waiting to be deep fried. Amazingly, all the boys tried the morsels and despite the odd crunchy shell caught between the teeth, no one vomited. On the contrary, once over the initial revulsion, many actually admitted to liking the taste.

Joshua putting a dent in a scorpion.

Matt will happily eat any snake in the grass.

From the scorpions and into the market proper, vendors and food merchants alike screamed out for attention, often battering good-naturedly with the boys. Somewhere in between the stuffed squid and the fried giant centipedes, a group of boys managed to appear in the traditional dou li hat. For those unfamiliar with them, think Raiden from Mortal Combat, or for those even older, think James Pax’s Lightning from Big Trouble in Little China. Needless to say, a bunch of tall Kiwi youth, in traditional bamboo coolie hats, caused a lot of merriment amongst the vendors, Chinese and tourists alike, with many photo opportunities throughout the night.

Tahuora bringing little trouble to big China.

At the end of the night, after the longest day yet, the students trudged back home through the dazzling heart of Beijing. Songs, jokes and even more photo opportunities continued to overshadow the extreme tiredness of the boys, and by the time the group got back to the hotel, the teachers were so tired that they were literally dead on their feet.

Tomorrow would bring the promise of the longest walking day with a trip to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. In the meantime, death by mattress was the only foreseeable option for all those but the most insanely energetic.

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Total immersion, 300kmph, and bamboo flavoured poo.

Following the visit to Malong, the next big event that had the boys nervously excited was the day that was to be spent with the Chinese families. Unlike other situations, where less confident boys could exist behind the language skills of the more developed Chinese speakers, being by themselves would ensure that there was nowhere to hide (cue clichéd horror music from the shower scene of Psycho).

Thus, on our way to the pick up zone, we saw a combination of false bravado (picture a Chihuahua holding its ground to a Rottweiler), quiet contemplation, and straight cut fear. However, despite the fears, the boys found their time with their families to be the most rewarding experience of the trip and we have decided to share an example from one of the boys’ diaries below:

Jakob Hoogenboezem

Jakob and his host family for the day. The blonde man on Jakob’s left was the family’s adopted Romanian orphan, Magnus.

Today was the best day yet. The second we walked into the school I could tell that today was going to be awesome. I saw a young girl holding up a sign with my name in it. I approached her and introduced myself. Her name was Jessica and she was very kind.

We went to a shop and baked cupcakes and cake pops which was so much fun. We than had lunch which was Hao Chai and it was delicious. Then we went to Wu Chan, China’s oldest running market. During the trip, I chatted constantly with Jessica, her sister, her mum and her friend. Jessica became quite a good friend!

It was challenging because her English wasn’t very good but I managed to still talk with her.

We had dinner then bused back to the uni to home. She gave me a gift and we said our goodbyes. I thanked her for her hospitality and gave her some gifts.

Today it really showed me how hard it can be for others who are in New Zealand with a very small vocabulary. Today I loved it and it brought me a lot of joy. I even had a tear in my eye as it was such a memorable time. I will always remember this and will treasure it. Thanks for the nice day Jessica and Co.!

While the boys were out fraternising with the locals, the teaching staff were taken to the East Lake Scenic area. This is a massive park and nature reserve (87 square kilometres) that has been extensively developed with interconnecting paths and walkways. The place is renown for its picturesque landscapes, and on any given day, brides and grooms can be seen making the most of the stunning scenery during their pre-wedding photoshoots.

The happy couple just before they were photobombed by Mrs Kennedy.

Another great aspect of the area are the plenitude of cycleways and easy to access bicycles. For one Chinese dollar, you can hire a bike for a half-hour to explore the area. Being generally a bit slower than the boys, the staff opted to get tickets on the electric carts that drove us around the lakes, and gave us a fantastic view of both the greenery and the locals.

Mrs Kennedy, Mrs Shields, and Ping just before a round of dynamite fishing on the lake; a very cheap experience at only 10 Yuan a stick.

The East Lake Moto GP officials struggled to get all racers to go in the right direction.

The day following the family day was uneventful, with only a test and some shopping to break up the day. We had originally planned to leave Wuhan on the overnight train, but some struggling timetable logistics meant that there were to be some changes to the original schedule. Instead of taking the overnight train, we were now booked on the following morning’s high speed train to Beijing.

Life’s a whole long journey so before your grow to old, don’t miss the opportunity to strike a little gold…

The train itself looks exactly as you would imagine, long and sleek with a tapered front end. After being ushered through ticketing, we soon discovered that the trains are not ideally set up for large travelling groups. This forced us to spin the movable rows of seats so that each pair faced each other. In the space provided behind the turned chairs, we jammed in our suit cases. While solving the issue of the baggage, we had created a new issue. The chairs, now facing each other, had limited space and we all found ourselves with interlocked knees, and zero leg room, for the five and a half hour ride to Beijing.

Sleeping beauties.

However, as cramped as we were, the students generally made the best of the situation, with people sharing spaces, wandering up and down the train, and sleeping where and whenever possible. This was made slightly more bearable by the spectacular sight of the countryside and cities whizzing by at some 300kmph.

William Topham killing two birds with one stone. Having a nap while cleaning up everyone else’s rubbish.

When we arrived in Beijing, we were immediately ushered through the crowds to see the Beijing Zoo’s Panda exhibit. The Pandas are a major source of pride for the Chinese, and the animals are extremely comical. Like plush toys the size of a medium dog, the Giant (whoever named them giant must have had a seriously good stash of opium) Pandas rolled around, ate and defecated – much to the amusement of the boys. There is nothing quite so hilarious to a teenage boy as a Panda pushing poo off its mini zoo fort.

The most active Panda caught in between its favourite activities, pooing, eating, and sleeping.

After viewing the Panda enclosures, we had about twenty minutes to see the rest of the zoo (for future reference, an hour at a zoo is far too little time). Unfortunately, the Beijing Zoo hasn’t kept up with the rest of the world. Its enclosures are tired, run down, and do not emulate the open spaced and unfenced enclosures of large modern zoos. It was quite sad to see large animals pacing in small spaces, and the Polar Bear looked so forlorn that many of our boys walked away feeling extremely sorry for it.

The unhappiest Polar Bear on the planet.

After another dinner at a nice restaurant, it was an early night for the boys. The following day was our ANZAC day and we had booked a spot at the New Zealand Embassy to commemorate the event. For the boys, that would mean a telephone call from the hotel staff at 3:30am to ensure that we were there on time!

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Celebrity Status!

The day that everyone had been eagerly anticipating rolled around overcast and the colder than expected. For once, it wasn’t a struggle to get the boys out and ready in time, and at 7:40am, a throng of nervous boys awaited the bus outside the hotel, ready to jump into a new immersion experience.

The ride to Malong Middle School took us out of Wuhan and into the countryside. Here, as high density residential areas slowly gave way to farmland and smaller housing, one couldn’t help but admire the natural beauty of the region. Lush and green with a deep red soil, every spare bit of land is meticulously shaped and planted in a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Turning off the main road, we quickly found ourselves driving up a narrow dirt path that meandered through newly developed residential areas and suddenly, we were at the gates of Malong Middle School. Once, having emerged from the bus, the boys were confronted with hundreds of school children yelling with excitement at the sight of two bus loads of pale skinned Kiwi kids.

Arriving to a red carpet experience – Malong Middle School!

 

After working our way through the throngs of children, we were ushered into the school hall where the school’s hierarchy received us in a formal ceremony. We sat through speeches from both the Chinese officials and responses from our boys. We were also treated to song and dance from the intermediate aged students who performed in beautiful traditional clothing and who were all outstanding. Our cultural group reciprocated in kind with the national anthem and from there the students were divided into small groups to go and teach a class of Chinese students.

Beautiful Chinese performers.

Mrs Kennedy doing the introductions at Malong Middle School.

Matt speaking to the assembled masses of Chinese officials.

Jack cracking rude and inappropriate jokes to get a laugh from the Chinese students.

The Chinese classrooms are extremely small by New Zealand standards, often with up to sixty students crammed into the room. Once again, there are no electronic devices, and the students have a strong curriculum focus on mathematics, Chinese, and English. Each New Zealand group consisted of three or four students who entered the Chinese classrooms and launched straight into crosswords, tongue twisters, art and song.

Josh Grosvenor teaching the junior students at Malong.

Jack Pugh getting some translation tips from Ping.

The New Zealand kids were put well outside their comfort zones, but the amicable Chinese students definitely made life easier for the students. Laughs, confusion, solidarity and awkwardness prevailed and after just over an hour, it was time to leave the classroom for lunch.

A typical Chinese classroom. A plethora of willing Chinese students with a pinch of Kiwi.

Without going into detail, lunch was a boarding house experience on metallic prison trays, but the food was good, and the boys – who had all received gifts from their classes – were able to show off their new treasures to each other.

Mrs Kennedy showing how its done at the calligraphy table.

Following lunch, it was out into the playground to participate in impromptu games of basketball, table tennis, futsal and calligraphy. The Kiwi contingent got fully into the spirit of things and everyone was involved in many of the activities on offer. During this time, the Chinese students took the opportunity to demand autographs from our students and each boy and staff member signed hundreds of pieces of paper, autograph books, arms, and the backs of student’s shirts.

Ethan McLintock, rustling up some bets during a table tennis exhibition.

Will McCorkindale protecting the goal from the literal Chinese hoards.

Following the lunch hour, a proper game of basketball was organised which was slightly unfair. The height of Mitchell, Luke and Jack ensured that the Chinese students never stood a chance and the STCC boys won the game comfortably. To seek revenge, the Chinese ordered a game of tug-o-war and positioned their meanest and strongest on the rope. However, with a rallying cry and consistent team work, our Kiwi warriors – both male and female – decimated the opposition and brought pride back to New Zealand, especially as the tour in 2015 had lost their tug-o-war title.

Christian proving that white boys can jump!

Luke Hancock on the attack, looking for the boys to set up their screens.

Mitchell setting up a great lay-up. It missed.

Tahu-baller on the charge.

From there, a performing troop of acrobats of the highest calibre performed for us, their unbelievable feats left many speechless and amazed.

Tahuora and Fraser acting as the magicians assistants during the acrobatic performances.

An impressive display of chair stacking that left the boys’ bottle flipping tricks looking rather lame.

After a long day, with many uplifting experiences, we finally boarded the bus and headed home, weary heads and closed eyes being the ultimate testament of the day’s festivities.

Students at Malong mug for photographs – fantastic and fun students.

Teachers brought their children to school to show off the white folks!

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A Welcoming Ceremony, getting more fibre, another museum, and some dancing.

As mentioned in a previous post, the days here are stupid crazy. The brilliant crew from HUST have our days so action packed that our brains barely have time to keep up. Fortunately, in the midst of all the adventure, our beloved hosts had the foresight to slow things down somewhat and, four days into our visit, ran an opening ceremony.

The who’s who of HUST!

The ceremony was a chance for the boys to see just how much importance the university places on these cultural exchanges. The opening ceremony was a veritable who’s who of the academic hierarchy of the Confucius Institute, and the HUST College of Languages. After listening to some speeches from the Chinese hosts and Mrs Kennedy, the students were invited to perform their number one hit, Mò lì huā (the jasmine flower song) and God Defend New Zealand, which they did with great gusto. This was followed by a rousing haka to acknowledge all the dignitaries and the fantastic work that they had put into making this trip a possibility.

The boys at the beginning of the Haka, doing the College proud.

Once the morning’s antics concluded, it was time to get a little more fibre in our diets, and we were taken off to the Yangtze Optical Fibre and Cable Company. The O-F double C (for those cool cats), is China’s premier producer of fibre optics and operates in many countries around the globe. We were lucky enough to have the company’s General Vice-Secretary (at least I think he was) show us around. An extremely knowledgeable and humorous man, our tour guide extolled the virtues of his company, his products, and the good that his company was doing around the globe. Peering through darkened windows into the sterile environments where the optical fibres were being produced, one could only stare blankly as terms such as 80 gigabits per second, and 3.17 million meters of optical fibre per month, were bandied about. Nevertheless, we somehow got the strange feeling that despite all of our own governments talk about high speed cabling, New Zealand is a little behind the times!

The General Vice something-or-other, getting very enthusiastic about optical fibre.

The students on the tour through the Yangtze Optical Fibre and Cable Company.

From the O-F double C to another museum, we soon found ourselves at the HUST History Museum. Here in an old redbrick building, we learnt how the university has its roots in the old Tongji Medical Hospital, established by Erich Paulun, a German living in Shanghai over a century ago. During the Japanese invasion of 1937, the medical school moved around the country, eventually merging with the Wuhan School of Medicine in 1950. From there, with the assistance of the Central Government of China, the university as it now stands began to develop. The government in 1952, had the goal of developing a higher education programme for the rapid development of the country, and Wuhan was to become a major centre of this ideal. Eventually, after surviving the cultural revolution, the Dot-Com bubble burst, and Y2K, the former Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Tongji Medical University, Wuhan Urban Construction Institute, and the Wuhan Science and Technology Vocational College combined to form the new Huazhong University of Science and Technology, or HUST for short. So, to keep a long story short, HUST has an incredibly impressive pedigree of some of China’s top academic institutions and the scary thing is, it is only going to get bigger and better.

Spot the odd one out at the HUST museum.

Finally, to top of the night, the boys were treated to a lecture by one of China’s premier dancers, Vivian Yan. A stunningly tall, slender and intelligent woman, Vivian described the origins of Chinese cultural dance, and its manifestations throughout the regions. She then taught the boys some simple Chinese movements that were performed with great gusto, and maybe a little less refinement than the demonstrator anticipated. If you’ve ever watched a new born camel take its first steps, you’ll get what I mean. Nevertheless, the boys worked hard on their ‘Chinese dance hands’ and Jack Hurley came away with the prize for best male dancer. The boys also had the chance to watch a traditional Chinese dance from one of Vivian’s students and before we knew it, another day had come to a close, and with it, the promise of the following day and a trip to Malong Middle School.

Vivian Yan cajoling the boys into a false sense of security, before pouncing and making them dance!

Fraser Buckley and Jack Pugh doing their best impression of a baby camel’s first steps.

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A school visit, a trip to the Yellow Crane Tower and a performance.

Timothy Preston looking both bold and beautiful in Wuhan.

Here at HUST, the students are beyond spoiled. Sheltered from the frenetic activity of the outside world, the university sits on 1,153 Acres with 72% green coverage. Trees, parklands, ponds and gardens have earned HUST the title of “The University in the Forest.” Unfortunately, one of the down sides of this is that the tree that is most in abundance is the Oriental Plane. Most Kiwis are familiar with this, though probably without knowing it. In our youth, the fruits of the tree formed the fibrous and prickly ‘itchy-bombs’ that we used to rub down each other’s backs. Here in China, the fruits are far more sinister. In full season, the fibrous fruits begin to disintegrate and form a fine cotton-like substance that floats through the air, mercilessly attacking airways and eyes with complete abandon. Many in HUST resort to wearing glasses and medical masks to avoid the irritants, and avoid them you must. Getting some in your eyes feels like someone is deliberately putting needles into your iris, and breathing the floating evil into your airways results in a hacking cough and an ample production of phlegm.

The fruit of the Oriental Plane – floating death at its finest.

Apart from the evil floating death, classes have continued to be enjoyable for the boys. After finishing class the other day, the boys were taken to HUST Middle School, which sits just outside the university. The school consists of 3,000 students from intermediate to senior level. Each class has up to 50 students and there was not a single laptop to be seen! Broken into their groups, the boys visited an intermediate class where they were treated to singing, poetry readings and musical recitals. The boys also did a bit of Q&A and each class enthusiastically quizzed the boys about their lives back in New Zealand. We finished the visit with the boys doing a spectacular haka to several hundred of the students.

The boys posing with two students from HUST Middle School.

Members of Team Tiger explaining Kiwi life to Middle School students.

A day or two later (we are all quickly losing track of time due to all the activities on offer), the group found itself on a bus, fighting its way through the day time traffic in Wuhan. Driving in China is an experience in itself and the Chinese drivers are nothing short of spectacular. There seems to be no real enforceable rule other than the vehicle in front gets to do what it wants. Because of this, drivers are hyper vigilant and also extremely considerate. Horns are used as a simple positional warning and no one seems to get upset when cars cross lanes or cut into traffic. Because of this chaos, drivers are aware of the traffic around them and ensure that everyone gets to where they want without too much trouble. In our time so far, despite the quantity of traffic, we have yet to see a single accident.

Our adventure through Wuhan’s traffic culminated with a stop at the magnificent Yellow Crane Tower. The tower that stands is the most modern of approximately 12 plus iterations of the building that have existed since 223 CE. Build in 1983, the tower now sits more than a kilometre from its original position.

On top of Snake Hill sits the stunning Yellow Crane Tower.

For those who like a good yarn, The Legend of the Yellow Crane Tower follows:

“According to the books “Retribution Record” and “A Biography of Immortals,” there was an immortal named Zi’an. One day Zi’an transformed into the image of a poor man and went to Xin’s wine shop. Xin did not judge Zi’an by his appearance and offered wine to him for free. This happened day after day, and it continued for several years.

When the immortal was about to leave one day, he used an orange peel to draw a crane on the wall and said, “Upon clapping, the crane will come down and dance.”

The immortal’s words were true indeed. The crane started to dance amid heavenly music, and it attracted many customers to the wine shop. Within ten years, Xin became a wealthy person.

One day Zi’an returned to the wine shop. Xin was very thankful to him for the crane. Zi’an took out a flute to play. A white cloud descended, and the crane on the wall flew to Zi’an. The immortal rode on the crane and left.

Thereafter, Xin built the Yellow Crane Tower on the site where the immortal had left.”

The tower itself is immaculate and its five stories rise 51.4 metres above Snake Hill, providing stunning views over all of Wuhan.

Overlooking Snake Hill from the top of the Yellow Crane Tower.

The Tower is one of the Four Great Towers in modern China and consequently, it draws large numbers of Chinese tourists. In this environment, our boys quickly found themselves the centre of attention as flocks of middle-aged Chinese women jostled to get photographs with them. Amidst the entire bustle, one student reluctantly found himself the centre of a huge amount of attention. Much like Harry Stiles among a group of tweenagers, Christian McCoy – with his fantastic hair – proved to be almost too much for the Chinese to comprehend, and people crowded around him, tugging his hair and pushing him into photographs. Standing on the sidelines, it really was quite hilarious watching how uncomfortable Christian was with all the added attention. After telling him to enjoy the fame and go with it, it soon became clear that Christian had no real desire to have flocks of people following him around and our group quickly moved on.

Our very own celebrity Christian McCoy mugging for photographs.

While Christian avoided the attention, some other boys, particularly Jakob Hoogenboezem and William Topham, made full use of their new-found fame and mugged for as many photographs as possible. Will was unarguably the most One Direction of the outing, winning the daily competition by getting a photograph of himself with the most women possible (13 by his count).

Bowen Hodgson mastering the art of Metallica and the Guzheng.

After the trip to the tower, some of the professional musical students from HUST treated the combined group to a musical performance. Here, a range of eloquent singers and musicians performed a variety of traditional songs on instruments that typified the beauty of Chinese culture. Many of the boys were taken with the attractive young women and spent a lot of the performance staring doe eyed at the performers. Despite the obvious genetic quality that was on display, I don’t think that the boys will be cranking traditional Chinese music through their iPods anytime soon. However, all these experiences serve to broaden their appreciation of some of the finer aspects of the foreign culture.

The two host performers explaining the night’s proceedings to the students.

A trio of the extremely talented traditional performers.

Tomorrow we are off to Malong Middle School, for the boys to further their cultural experience in a more ‘real’ China.

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Arrival, class and singing just about everywhere.

A young Josh Grosvenor mastering the art of passing time while travelling.

Sorry for the delay in updates! The trip so far has been a whirlwind with very little down time and one heck of a lot of action.

The flights over were virtually without incident, though a few of the lads did get a bit airsick with one boy managing a brilliant technicolour yawn that left him in need of a change of shorts.

Boys discovering new and improved patterns of movement in Wuhan’s arrivals lounge.

Once we arrived – eventually – in Wuhan, we took a bus to the hotel where we were greeted by a downpour that was so heavy that boys got thoroughly soaked during the 10 metre run from the bus to the doors. It was here that the boys showed true STCC character and launched themselves into unloading both of the tour buses, including all the bags of the other schools accompanying us on the trip.

Tahuora Burcher looking suitably wet after helping to bring in the Girls’ High suitcases.

Bowen Hodgson telling Matt Ryan that a broken foot isn’t really a good enough reason to stop bringing in suitcases from the rain.

Once finished and given the chance to dry off, the boys discovered their rooms and were then quickly ushered off to their first Chinese meal, complete with gammy Kiwi chopstick assassination and flying bits of meat. Those less gifted begged for forks, and soon all the boys were ready for a sleep on what were later acknowledged to be the hardest beds in existence.

Some of the many selections available to the boys at meal times.

The first day of lessons began with an introduction to one of the student restaurants. These massive eating halls have dozens of different shops that sell an enormous range of Chinese foods, ranging from noodles to chicken stomach, and jellyfish salad to spring rolls. The boys pay for their meals with a pre-loaded smart card that they flash across the till. Most of the meals cost less than $2 New Zealand (in total), so the boys are always well fed.

An image of less than a third of the restaurant/cafeteria where the boys get their meals.

After breakfast it was straight into class in a massive building that looks more like a giant office block rather than a university. The lessons that the boys have been covering range from basic Chinese language skills to singing lessons and word games.

The combined tour group in class for the first time, the STC boys noticeably hiding out at the back!

One of the songs that the boys had to learn for a performance is translated below:

What a beautiful Jasmine flower

This beauty in full bloom

Scents the air

And deserves lots of praise for its

Sweet and white

Let me pick some flowers

And send to others

Oh jasmine flowers

Jasmine flowers

Unfortunately I cannot link to my YouTube account, so until I get back to New Zealand you’ll just have to imagine the boys’ wonderful singing!

Classes here are really well run, with excellent teachers who turn a lot of the monotonous language acquisition into enjoyable games that the students really enjoy. Many boys are even beginning to test their language skills on the locals, but need a lot more practice as the locals speak very quickly.

Jakob Hoogenboezem attempting to go unnoticed by the teacher in class.

On the second night here the boys ventured into Wuhan’s New World City. The shopping area is massive and would take all of Christchurch’s malls stacked one on top of each other to begin to get anywhere near its size. Lights, a million and one Adidas stores, and shirt sizings that made the boys feel like heavy weight wrestlers were in abundance, and the boys even joined in a dancing group practicing on the street. The night district has a number of streets that are built to resemble various different countries. The Spanish street has a huge statue of Don Quixote, while the French street has a full size replica of a cathedral with a Burger King in it.

It has been fantastic to see the boys pushing themselves out of their comfort zones, and many of the boys are quick to volunteer and stretch their own boundaries. Some are even game enough to sit by themselves with Chinese students for lunch.

A quick stop outside the impressive Wuhan Museum.

One of the first big highlights of the trip has been the visit to the Wuhan Museum. Here in this monumental, traditionally-styled Chinese complex, the boys got to look at the skull of Yunxian Man– one of the oldest hominoid artifacts – and a variety of Chinese and Classical relics which gave them a greater appreciation of the ancient societies.

Yunxian Man: this fossil of a hominid crania was discovered at Yunxian in 1989, and was attributed to Homo eretus

The museum was topped off with a performance of an ancient bell set. The bells, approximately 1000 years old, were excavated from a king’s tomb and are still playable today. The musical traditions of China are particularly incredible and were hundreds of years ahead of Western music at comparative times.

A traditional performance of Chinese music played on bells unearthed from a tomb that are more than a thousand years old.

In between classes and excursions, trips to the local courts to play basketball and futsal have proved popular. Jack Hurley has become the unofficial choir leader in the bus rides around the city, while the boys have been entertaining the locals with their exuberance and joie de vivre; many a stranger has stopped to take a photo of them in the street! Christian is perhaps the most mobbed and encountered something akin to local Beiber fever when we visited the Yellow Tower, but that’s a story for the next entry!

A typical sight in China. Electric scooters appear from everywhere and even ride into oncoming traffic!

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A field trip through Kibbutzim, deep fried fish, a battle zone and a few drops of merriment.

On our last full day as a united team, the group – led by the extremely capably Ephraim – ventured off on an expedition to visit a famous kibbutz and experience what like must have been like for the early Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Before we experienced the kibbutzim, we travelled up a long windy road to the top of the Naphtali plateau where we visited the Belvoir Crusader castle. The Hospitaller fortress, built in the late 12th Century, overlooks the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. After the battle of the Horns of Hattin, Saladin’s forces besieged Belvoir where the Hospitallers managed to hold out for a year and a half. Saladin was impressed by the tenacity of the defenders and upon the castle’s surrender, he allowed the Crusaders to leave unmolested back to their homelands.

Looking over the moat towards the ruins of Belvoir.

The castle, which is magnificent in its size and strategic position high above the Jordan River valley, is incredible and a must visit place for anyone venturing to Israel. After the quick visit, we then made our way to the first kibbutz where we would learn about the early Jewish migrants and their quest for a homeland.

Simon overlooking the Jordan River Valley from a rampart on Belvoir.

Unfortunately, for the early Jewish migrants, Palestine wasn’t quite up to having a Jewish presence when European Jewish migrants began to show up in the Ottoman occupied territories. Numerous instances of Bedouin raids, sabotage and crop destruction forced Jewish migrants into collective communities, not only for protection, but also for financial security; independently a Jewish family could not afford the land, but in groups the potential financial power increased. Thus, the Kibbutz became an early form of self-sufficient outpost designed to feed and protect its inhabitants as they clawed their way towards the hope of a new future.

Gareth and Peter playing soldiers on an old Bren Carrier at Gesher Kibbutz.

It was with a hope of a new future that Palestinian born members of the Jewish youth movement, HaNo’ar HaOved, established Kibbutz Gesher in 1939. The new Kibbutz was purchased with help from Edmond de Rothschild and Jewish migrants from Northern Europe soon made the place home. The Kibbutz was established right on the banks of the Jordan River and controlled access from Palestine into Jordanian territory. Because of its position, it was strategically a very important site in terms of commerce and access.

In 1948, after declaring independence, the State of Israel was attacked by the surrounding Arab countries. Kibbutz Gesher came under heavy fire from the Jordanian Arab Legion who used armoured vehicles and light aircraft to try and destroy the defenders. The attack was eventually repelled with the Legion’s forces suffering heavy losses. Despite suffering minimal casualties, the Kibbutz was destroyed during the hostilities and was eventually relocated 1km down the road and a museum that documents the history of the area was established.

Bridge blown up by the members of the Gesher Kibbutz during the War of Independence.

While visiting the Kibbutz, we were given permission to access the militarised zone separating Israel from Jordan. Here we got to see for ourselves the bridges that had been blown up by the defenders of the Kibbutz to prevent the invasion of the Arab League. Not too far from where we stood, was a Jordanian observation post and we could see, much to our amusement, the Jordanian soldiers watching us through their binoculars!

Soldiers from Jordan keeping an eye on us as we entered the militarised zone between Israel and Jordan.

Following our visit to Old Gesher, we then went to En Gev Kibbutz, a fishing kibbutz that also acts as a holiday resort. This hard working community sits on the tranquil shores on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Here we were treated to a lunch of deep fried Galilean and Mediterranean fish. The experience of eating deep fried whole fish was somewhat sensational. Those not used to fish in general found the process rather nauseous and stuck with the chicken offerings, while those keen pescetarians among us, delighted in second and third offerings of the delightful fish platters.

The meal before tucking in at En Gev Kibbutz.

Finishing the meal at En Gev Kibbutz!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there we took a winding ride up the Golan Heights to Mt Bental. From our position on the mountain, we overlooked Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. This spectacular vantage point also serves as a military post in times of conflict and we were able to wander around the tunnels and trenches that protect the soldiers during hostilities. Back on the surface, as one looked into Syria, we were able to see the Syrian towns of Khan Arnabah and Al Qunaytirah.

Khan Arnabah, Syria.

Al Qunaytirah, Syria

Both these towns were subject to severe fighting in 2014 between forces loyal to the Assad government, the Nusra Front and ISIS. The towns and area now resemble little more than ghostly landscapes with no visible life and the shells of buildings dotted around the landscape. It really was startling to see the juxtaposition of Syria on one side and the developed agriculture of Israel bordering it.

The observation and defence positions on Mt Bental.

This mountain also gave us clear views across to Mt Hermon and also across the Valley of Tears where the Israeli Defense Force fought off over 1,000 Syrian armoured vehicles (tanks and APCs) with only 175 Centurion tanks. This massive battle was a part of the Yom Kippur War, an event that occurred when the Syrian and Egyptian armies attacked Israel on its most holy day, the Day of Atonement. The battle saw the Israeli tank forces win the battle after four destructive days that saw their forces reduced to only 15 serviceable tanks run by a skeleton crew of injured men. Ultimately, the Yom Kippur war saw over 2,000 Israelis dead and some 7,000 injured in a battle to preserve their state.

Looking toward Mt Hermon from Mt Bental, the Valley of tears separating the mountains.

After bearing witness to the sites of one of Israel’s most remarkable pyrrhic victories, we finished the day at the Golan Heights Winery. The winery, Israel’s 3rd largest producer of wines, has vineyards scattered throughout the region at various altitudes and microclimates that enable it to produce a range of delicious red and white wines. We were treated to a quick tour and a tasting by a fantastic gentleman who related ground-breaking and technologically innovative growing techniques that have enabled the Golan Heights Winery to put Israeli wines on the world map.

Some of the women waiting expectantly for their wine!

After the tour, some of us purchased some of the lovely beverages for the road which – given the two hour drive back to Jerusalem – made for some interesting toilet stops. Regardless, the trip was extremely enjoyable and I felt privileged to have been able to see so much of the Israeli cultural and military history in such a short space of time.

An image of the Golan Heights Winery – wine tanks that are temperature controlled by computer for optimal conditions.

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Hypersalinity and the Desert Fortress

Just as many people incorrectly assume that indigenous populations of people still run around in flaxen skirts, so I have found that many people also assume that the Middle East is a hot place. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Israel this and the mercury was sitting at a belligerent 16 degrees Celsius as our tour bus pulled up to the Dead Sea. With an overcast sky and scattered rain dotting the distance, our arrival at the saltiest mecca on the planet left much to be desired.

Disembarking the tour bus, we found ourselves at the equivalent of a beachside resort. Unfortunately, this beachside resort had seen better days, but I guess that with our visit coinciding with the middle of winter, the owners weren’t too fussed with ensuring that the resort looked spic and span. Regardless of the ratty looking facilities, we Antipodeans made full use of the amenities and after some hasty changing and some pics with some local women (“We gonna post these pics on the net so that our divorced husbands can see we don’t care”), quickly found ourselves immersed – well something to that effect – in the waters of the Dead Sea.

Now the Dead Sea’s mineral content is literally one third of its composition, making it one of the most hypersaline lakes in the world. This environment is also extremely hostile to all forms of life and consequently, only some ridiculously tough bacteria and a whole bunch of tourists make their homes within its waters. The lake itself has been drying up at an alarming rate but that hasn’t seemed to put a dampener on any of its therapeutic properties with many thousands testifying to the uniquely skin enriching qualities of the water and mud. As the New Zealand contingent rushed past the nervous looking Korean tourists and lifeguards towards the warm waters of the sea, most would have thought that we were attempting to escape the soaring heat of an Israeli summer. Yet the temperature, or lack-there-of, was no deterrent to our hardy group, and soon virtually the whole contingent was floating across the surface of the oily sheen.

Enjoying a ‘borrowed’ beer in the Dead Sea.

After approximately an hour of frolicking in the water, an experience that included an attempt to body surf (the storms around the lake had kicked of some small waves), and the obligatory mud soak, we found our time at the Dead Sea had come to an end. For me, this could not have come sooner as I had inadvertently splashed myself in the eyes with the toxic waters of the Dead Sea. Now to say that this was an uncomfortable experience would be a euphemism in its most insincere form. The truth is – with no hint of hyperbole – that getting splashed in the eyes with Dead Sea water is akin to rubbing a mixture of salt granules, lemon juice and tabasco sauce in one’s eyes with a toothbrush. Needless to say, with my eyes burning, I quickly made a frantic exit up the beach, lurching zombie-like through the shallow waters over the sharp but slippery salt rocks that festooned the bottom of the lake. I then immersed my head under one of the handy shower heads close to the shore to rid my eyes of the pure evil that had engulfed them.

Layered with mud and a dab at the Dead Sea

After an experience resembling the fate of Lot’s wife, it was a with some relief that I found myself back on the bus and able to skol down large amounts of glorious water. Soon after, the clouds literally parted and the floods that had closed the road to Masada subsided. My historical nerd, as you can imagine, was at this point doing exuberant cartwheels and the long drive down the Dead Sea seemed to occur in an instant. Suddenly, looming out of the cliffs on the western side of the sea, appeared a natural citadel which could only be the fabled desert fortress.

Masada, the unique heritage site, was built by Herod the Great sometime around mid-30 BCE on a previous but rudimentary fortification. The structure is built at the top of a large cliff-top plateau that only has one access point, making the refuge impossible to attack by any normal means. Josephus, the turn-coat Jewish-Roman historian, stated that Herod built Masada to provide shelter in times of revolt. Herod needed to worry about this on two fronts. Firstly, Herod had conquered the original Jewish monarchs, the Hasmoneans, and the Roman senate subsequently installed him on the Judean Throne. Thus, as a vassal of the Roman Empire it is hardly surprising that the Jewish people were not exactly enamoured with their puppet king. Secondly, Herod had made an enemy out of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and she made no secret of the fact that she wanted control of Judea.

Looking down from Masada, the Roman camps and siege walls are clearly visible almost 2000 years later.

Outside of the reasons for its creation, what stands out is the sheer scale of the fortress. While ruins remain where once palaces (yes, multiple), administration buildings, storehouses and barracks stood, little imagination is required to envisage how splendid the site must have been in its heyday. Ensuring that the population in Masada was watered, Herod had an entire valley damned in the surrounding mountains and also had an ingenious drainage system on the mountain created to fill a number of gigantic cisterns. These cisterns would have been able to keep the population on Masada watered for up to ten years.

Overlooking some of the facilities at Masada.

Yet despite all its ingenuity, the seemingly unconquerable Masada was not only defeated, but was crushed by the Romans in 73-74 CE. The fortress had fallen from Roman hands sometime early in the First Roman-Jewish Revolt when the Sicarii, an extremely militant offshoot of the anti-Roman Jewish Zealots, overran the Roman garrison on the mountain. Over the next few years, around 1,000 Jewish insurgents and refugees found asylum at Masada. When the Romans began to mop up the last pockets of Jewish resistance in the 70s, Masada was laid siege by a force of 15,000 Romans who at first were unable to breach the extensive defences of the fortress.

The siege and attack of the impenetrable fortress by the Romans is something that can only be understood with the naked eye. Standing at the top of the citadel, the remains of the Roman camps and siege wall are still evident almost two millennia after the final assault. The height and complexity of Masada made any direct assault suicide and so the Roman siege general, Lucius Flavius Silva, ordered an earthen ramp built against the western wall of the mountain. This 114-metre-high ramp enabled a siege tower with a battering ram to eventually breech Masada’s walls and allow the Roman army access onto the Plateau.

The guard rail covers the breach in the walls where the Roman army broke through.

Here, legend states, the Roman army was not faced by the Jewish rebels, but by mass suicide. Josephus writes that instead of falling victim to the tyranny of the Romans, the Jewish rebels drew lots and killed every last man, woman and child in the fortress. Not to be outdone by the lack of battle, the Roman army then sacked the settlement, setting fire to the buildings and pillaging what they could find.

Regardless of the narrative and the historical debate that surrounds its authenticity, Masada truly must be seen to be believed. It’s size and the scale of the Roman siege remains are astounding. So it was with some disappointment that our time at Masada came to an end and we were ushered down the mountain inside the massive cable car. At the time, I felt like I had only just begun to explore the incredible site and there is still a massive desire to return and appreciate the historical place and all it can reveal. Till then, I’ll have to rely on my photographs and overly active imagination.

Israeli Flag flying over the entrance to Masada.