TWO YEARS AGO, Argentinian photojournalist Diego Azubel set off to walk the Great Wall of China, intending to document an epic trek by a team of five adventurers: a Malaysian monk, two New Zealanders, an Italian and himself. Almost 15 months later, he finished the gruelling journey alone, having seen the others gradually drop out less than four months into the expedition. 'It was supposed to be a documentary about a team, but I ended up filming myself,' says Azubel. 'It became my story.' Besides the film, that story is told in his still photographs that go on display today at the Chouinard Gallery in Mid-Levels in an exhibition entitled The Great Walk. The images reveal how the 32-year-old struggled more than 4,000km through the icy chill of winter and the desert heat, ravaged by injury and his resolve tested to the limit, to create one of the most comprehensive photographic and video accounts of the Great Wall; a structure as far removed from popular conception as Azubel was from his homeland. 'I didn't expect anything like I encountered,' says Azubel. Like most outsiders, he knew little about the Great Wall, 'other than that it is in China and can be seen from the moon' (this precept is dismissed by some as a common myth). Before he left his London home, friends peppered him with questions - 'how do you get on to the wall, are there stairs?' and 'what will you eat?' - which he confesses he couldn't answer. 'And when I got to the wall, it was nothing like a wall,' he says. 'There are bricks in Beijing and at the fortresses at its beginning and end, but the rest is made of whatever material they had to hand, sand-baked mud in the desert and rocks in the mountains.' Says Azubel: 'I did not know people lived on the wall. Some people even use the Great Wall as one of the walls of their home, others have cut holes through it. When I saw how they had destroyed it, I felt angry. For us [foreigners] it is the Great Wall, but they live with it every day. Everyone I met had ancestors who had died building the wall. You learn to see the reality of the people who live there.' Azubel - who started out in 1990 as a fashion photographer but whose career soon evolved into travelling photojournalism - was better prepared than his companions. When the monk, Reverend Sumana Siri, invited him to film the mission, Azubel immediately sensed the plan was ill-conceived. 'The guys going didn't even know how long the wall was,' he says. 'They thought they could walk it in three months.' Azubel obtained a map and realised it would take far longer to walk its length from Jiayuguan in western Gansu province to Shanhaiguan on the Bohai Sea on the east coast. They set off on October 9, 2000, but on the second day the monk 'nearly died of frost bite,' says Azubel. 'He was blue and his lips were white.' Five days into their journey, they were arrested for the first time and detained by security officers, but released after questioning. The 'team' was falling apart and by day 10 the monk, who had been lagging behind, disappeared. They found out later he'd quit. One New Zealander and the Italian pulled out a short time later later, leaving Azubel a solitary companion, until typhoid got the better of him. 'I waited three weeks for him to recover and get his strength back, but afterwards he didn't have the enthusiasm,' says Azubel, who soldiered on alone. 'I had sold us to sponsors as a team, but from the start we weren't. I think once you commit to something, you should finish,' he says bitterly. The three-week break enabled Azubel to rest his knees, which were were wracked with pain. He continued on and with no tent, Azubel relied on offers from farmers, shepherds and villagers to find cover for the night, or slept in a cave or one of the towers. His 35kg backpack carried mostly photographic equipment, not supplies. 'At night it was difficult [to find accommodation] because I was wrapped up in clothes, had a beard and was bigger than them, so they wouldn't open their doors.' He spoke to the curious natives he met in broken Putonghua, answering the same questions again and again. 'It was great to interact with the people. That's what made the trip,' he says. 'Sometimes shepherds would call me over. We couldn't say much to each other, but they'd look at me and smile. Some had only two pieces of bread to last from sunrise to sundown, but they would insist on giving me one piece.' His walk - during which he covered between 4km and 40km each day - was slow because he would frequently stop, set up his tripod and take pictures. In 15 months he shot 200 rolls of film, 68 hours of film and took 360-degree digital shots for a Web site. The greatest challenge was keeping his professional motivation. 'Once I came around a corner and saw a few towers in a row. It was a beautiful sight, but I didn't have the energy to get out my equipment. I didn't take the picture,' he says. 'I constantly had to keep telling myself to take photographs and not just keep walking.' The Great Wall was built by different dynasties spanning more than 2,000 years, from the seventh century BC until after the 14th century, so the wall varied almost as much as the scenery during his trek. Says Azubel: 'Every day it changed. I walked through the four seasons from dry desert to spring when everything was green. At times I felt I was walking on the moon.' Meeting people was what made the trip special and they dominate his photographs. 'Everyone knew [Argentinian football hero] Diego Maradona,' says Azubel, who had a kick-about with children once or twice en route after stopping in villages. But perhaps the real star of the film is himself. Although his companions faltered, Azubel knew he would make it. 'I am quite stubborn. I knew in my mind I would finish. I would only fail if my body didn't let me finish.' Towards the end, his energy draining daily, Azubel slipped on a loose stone and plunged four metres into a ditch. 'Luckily I landed in the only place without stones. All I injured was my thumb trying to hold on as fell,' he says. 'After that I started taking it easier. Every day my body ached.' For the last week, however, his brother joined him and 'the pain disappeared'. The day after he returned to Beijing on December 31 last year, his trusty Contax G2 camera gave out for good. It was a symbolic end. Like Azubel, the camera had been pushed to the limit. The Great Walk is showing until October 30 at the Chouinard Gallery, 1 Prince's Terrace, Mid-Levels. Open: 11am-8pm. Diego Azubel will hold a one-hour slide show and talk at 7pm tonight and tomorrow, and at 2pm on Sunday. To register call 2858 5072.