Once again I experience and suffer through the hangover after a race. I remember after my first marathon, I had no clue what was going on, life kind of ended, I had no drive and everything felt meaningless. It passed after a few weeks, when I signed up for a new race.
This is different. Adventure racing is different. The months before are filled and every single moment of your life is scheduled. From long bike rides and the endless hikes with elevation carrying a full race pack. The long paddles and the not so long paddles indoors. And the packing, the packing takes endurance. Every single race is different and has mandatory gear lists that makes your visa card burn. And then you need to fit in family, work, social life, the workouts you do for fun…
This time racing took us to China. We spent the first three days in Beijing doing stuff tourists do, the Great Wall, The Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, riding the subway, walking the streets, eating noodles and Beijing duck. People everywhere. History around us. China is overwhelming and big. It’s not the same in the cities compared to the countryside. Beijing was interesting and fun. The culture shock people said would hit me never really hit. It takes about an hour until you are used to the constant flow of people, the traffic and the smoke. People smoke everywhere. Your personal space is constantly invaded and for a boring Swede there are too many people bumping into you and it’s too unorganized. But in a strange way, you get used to it. And it was a good experience: entertaining and fun. Beijing is a great place.
We all know that China has changed, and with it left behind a lot of sad and horrible stories. But in a way it’s still there. There’s a sadness and smoggy look on people’s faces, cameras catching you everywhere, security on the subway, in stores, on the streets, a broken down eastern country trying to rebuild, and in a way, adapt to the western life. It’s going to take generations to turn it around and get the country back to its old self and to become modern. You don’t haul around your 2-year-old on a scooter, without a helmet, with three other kids crammed on there too while texting on your phone. Driving on the shoulder – no problem – it’s empty so it’s an open lane. No fridge, no problem, it doesn’t matter if the food is left out in the sun all day, the food will eventually get cooked anyway. Blocking social media. Controlling people. Those little things…
We took a plane to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang district, in northwest China. A pretty big city with 3-4 million people, marked by the harsh winter weather, broken, torn with a mix of modern and it felt like we left civilization. I am embarrassed to say that I had no clue the closeness to Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia would be so visible. All signs were written in Chinese and Arabic, and sometimes Russian and the city felt divided between ethnic groups. One block had Chinese stores and restaurants, and one block away kabobs, lamb on open fires, people speaking Russian and Arabic and mosques in every street corner. We walked the streets at night and visited the bazaar and it didn’t feel like China, it was a strange mix of the Middle East, Asia and Southern Europe mixed with some dried camel milk, chop sticks, new baked bread, nuts, plastic toys and carnival food.
The area is marked by decades of violence and bombings and as late as 2009 the city experienced one of the largest eruption of ethnic violence in China had seen in decades. It’s far from Beijing in many ways, 3200km, unpolished, raw. Surrounded by deserts, isolated and extremely hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter.
After a night in Urumqi we had a driver take us closer to the race area. We drove 15 hours to get to Kanas, passed endless oilfields, deserts, lakes, and then up in the mountains. From brown and dry to green and thriving. We passed yurts, camels, wild horses, hundreds and hundreds of cows and sheep. Amazing views and beautiful places. We also passed border controls and security more times than I can remember and our passports were the talk of the town. They filled out forms with our names and reason why we visited which was a mystery for most. Both the letters and how we looked. Old athletes? And women too? Westerners don’t come here, its been a closed area for decades. But most people were very friendly and our pictures were taken everywhere usually in the form of selfies. Selfies with SWAT teams, it was a new one for me. It was an interesting drive and we got to see another side of China from the car window and some stops on the way. We took an hour or so at Five Color Hills beside the River Irtysh, a big tourist stop but even there people seemed to be more interested in taking pictures of us than the beautiful nature.
We stopped for a late lunch in a town called Urho and got treated like celebrities. If you ever stop for kabobs, or even a whole lamb, make sure you check the restaurant wall for a huge professional photograph of a group of pale people from Seattle.
We finally made it to the resort in Kanas, built like a little Swiss village. It looked pretty good on the outside but the inside… not so much. We walked around, got our rental bikes that we built and broke down and built again. Tried to fix wheels that didn’t spin, brakes that didn’t work. We walked a little, tried to find coffee, tea and fruit, moved around to get our race legs going. The food situation at the resort was more than interesting. I am all for local and experiencing new things but we all struggled. Kanas is far away from the rest of the world; we could really tell in many ways. A few days passed and it was finally time to race.
We started out with a run through a little village. People were out cheering us on, filming and taking pictures of the spectacle. They looked at us with puzzled smiles really wondering what the heck was going on. We ran to Kanas Lake and switched to kayaks got the paddles, PFDs, spray skirts and took off. It was a beautiful paddle but longer than expected, the water was turquoise and the sun was extremely hot. We paddled north, got our checkpoint and turned around 20k from the Kazakhstan border. Back at the boardwalk it was time to get the gear and our boat ready for rafting. There were people everywhere, volunteers, tourists and SWAT teams, an interesting combination. It was all new to me, we are usually all alone when racing. A little lady dressed in colorful clothing and sun wrinkles around her eyes came up to me with her phone in her hand pointing at me, herself and the phone. She wanted pictures. Her husband and a young man that I think was her son did their best to get all the pictures right. She didn’t even reach up to my shoulder, she was a very tiny woman. She squeezed my biceps and wanted more pictures. A very odd experience when you are half naked getting ready for the next stage in a race, in a time crunch, trying to swallow some energy and get ready. We took our time and she got her pictures.
After carrying our boat and tied up our gear, we got into the water and started floating down the river. What we thought was a slow and steady raft got to be a fun and wet couple of hours. I’m happy I’ve done dome rafting the past few years. Our boat barely stayed afloat, it was filled with water and it was close to flipping a few times. 2 out of 4 paddles broke but we laughed all the way. Chip did a great job guiding us from the back of the boat. We somehow got to shore and started carrying heavy wet backpacks, gear and the boat up a steep hill and the off to the next transition. The next TA was at a rest stop beside the road. A few tourist busses had stopped and as usual we had cameras and people around us. We got out of soaking wet clothes, ate and filled up our backpacks with water and food for the next 24 hours and took off. Uphill. Uphill. Uphill. I had trouble breathing which felt weird so early in the race. We walked and walked and the day became night. The hill became a mountain and elevation all made us feel a bit off. We passed yurts with families, mountain tops, valleys, open fields with flowers, rivers and wild horses. Wetlands and herds of cows, ice and snow. Far away the thunder rolled in and the night was cold. You walk and walk and rest on your poles for a 2-minute nap, walk some more and the sun disappear. Find a checkpoint and move on. The night feels endless and the cold and the wind sneaks in under your fleece and coat. And then it turns around and your body wakes up and it feels like you’ve been sleeping. After walking down a steep river chute for hours I managed to get a bit stuck in between a few slick rocks and hurt my foot. We took a 15-minute nap sitting by a river around 5am and waited for the sun to raise and then we started walking again.
We hiked through valleys in in the forest for hours and finally made it to Hemu village by afternoon, got the next map up and did a 10k orienteering course in the village before we headed to TA. Hemu is considered one of the most beautiful villages in China and it didn’t disappoint. It’s quiet and picturesque, still relatively isolated from modern life. It’s a thousands of years old settlement space for the Tuwa, a local nomadic minority with its own religion and language.
We walked to the outer parts of Hemu to find the next TA. It was crazy hot and we couldn’t find shade anywhere. I finally took my shoe off 10 hours after I slipped and heard a little crack. It didn’t look too good and it was very swollen and blue. Surprisingly an ambulance was parked beside the TA/parking lot and a hopped over to find someone who could tape up my foot. They just shook their heads and called for the doctor that was 2 minutes away. He came over and started squeezing and bending my foot. The translator said that it was broken. Ehhh, don’t think so. I asked for tape and the very nice doctor wrapped it up in gauze and told me to sit. He smoked 5 cigarettes in 10 minutes, talked intensively and said stupid over and over. I hopped off and tried to get ready for a 350km bike leg. I couldn’t get my foot in the shoe and peddling didn’t work so to not keep the team in TA too long I decided to let the team go and meet up for the paddle after the bike. They took off and I packed up. They had a grueling bike ride a head of them, it was hot and I heard reports about huge amount of bugs.
I tried to catch a ride to Altay, 5.5 hours away, to get ready to paddle and after that a long hike in the desert. I waited by the TA with the police. We had a conversation going for hours, I spoke Swedish/English, they spoke Mandarin. I tried every single language I’ve learned but not even a word in Dutch/French/German came through. The smoking doctor came by a few times to check on my foot. The only English words he knew was “stupid, no race”. I have no clue what we all talked about but we all laughed every now and then. It was 38 degrees Celsius and they kept bringing me ice for my foot and hot water to drink. I also found the first cup of coffee in over a week (for $8). Good times.
I finally got picked up by a driver and 3 young volunteers and we all drove to Altay. The conversation kept going in the same way, but now via google translate. Are you hungry? No. Are you tired? Yes. I fell asleep after a few hours but had to wake up for passport controls. Since I was racing and most of the time in water I didn’t have my passport. The driver took care of the problem and I tried to be very quiet in the back seat.
I hopped in without shoes in a hotel lobby in Altay and I actually had a room waiting for me. A really nice race volunteer helped out and I even managed to find my luggage that was waiting for all the racers. I was dressed for biking in very hot weather, with no shoes, I smelled pretty bad and looked everything but fresh after paddling/rafting/hiking for a long time and the first thing happening at the hotel was more selfies with the hotel security. I found my phone and checked on the dot so I knew when to meet up with the team. They moved really slow, I slept for a few hours and checked again. Made sure I had a ride to the lake, taped my foot and waited. And waited. They kept biking and I kept checking the dot.
All of a sudden the course was cut short. It was really windy so the paddle legs got cancelled. It changed the whole race. I got ready to meet up by the desert to hike 50km. Everyone told me it was a bad choice to get out there, the bugs, wind and heat was overwhelming. I waited and all of a sudden more teams came back in and our team #8 changed route and were headed my way. They got short coursed and had to head back to Altay. Not what we wanted and not why we went all they way to China for. But the part of the course we finished was magnificent. The beautiful views, the green grassland, yurts, horses, camels, endless forests, snow, heat, blue skies and mountain mists. And to be where only nomads wander, animals feed and birds fly, to see that part of the world, that was a once in a lifetime experience.
We all of a sudden had a few days to kill in Altay. We walked, spent time with new found friends, slept and ate until it was time to head back to Beijing. This time we flew back from Kanas – Urumqi – Beijing, a trip that took a day. That also gave me a new perspective on flying, dealing with security and luggage. That’s another story, another day. We made it back to Beijing and we spent a long time in the executive lounge by the bar, spent one night, had a continental breakfast that lasted 3 hours and flew back. And I almost missed the flight since I didn’t have a visa to Canada.