In Which Robot Runs A Race, Rides a Horse, and Survives Inner Mongolia

So I was training for a marathon, got really sick, stopped running for two weeks, as my medication made me feel like vomiting every time I breathed, and then ended up running a half marathon in Inner Mongolia. It was…an interesting weekend.

My Inner Mongolia adventure begins at 4:30 Friday morning, reluctantly dragging myself out of bed, and somehow managing to get out of the house in a semi-coherent state, with all of my stuff, by 5. Despite rain and early hour, I luck out with a cab pulling up to drop someone off right in front of my gate as I reach the curb.

It’s a short, hour flight to Xilinhaote from Beijing. The flight attendants muse on the strange majority of laowai on the plane. 怎么多老外啊!I manage to get a nap in to escape loud conversation and the panicky feeling I get when I’m in a small, Chinese plane that hits a lot of turbulence. The foreigners are all herded on to buses and driven two hours through the countryside to the small town of Xiwuqi. The landscape fascinates me; so much construction, no one ever moving in, empty buildings springing up from the rolling grassland. At a higher elevation than Beijing, the clouds are gloriously puffy and hanging low in the sky. The sun is out, the air is clear, the sky is bright and never ending blue.

We are deposited at the Electricity Hotel. The organizers of the adventure, Nordic Ways, could use some tips on actually organizing things. The lobby is chaos and no one seems to know what’s going on. One of the many registration errors, I am informed that I have been signed up for the half marathon, instead of the full. I protest, and ask (twice, even waiting until the initial furor dies down) to switch back, but they refuse. I won’t have an official time or place in the race, which are things that I want, so I grumble a bit, but secretly I am quite relieved to be running the half. I’m only just now on the mend, and 26.2 miles is a lot of miles.

Eventually we eat some lunch (not really satisfying, standard second tier hotel buffet food) and I embark on an adventure to find my hotel, the Golden Leaf Hotel, about a 15 minute walk down the road. It is better than I expected overall, but I have low expectations. The beds are hard; the shower is almost directly over the toilet, with incredibly poor drainage, and there is a random, broken computer in the room; otherwise perfectly acceptable, and no smell of smoke.

Walking with a tall white boy, we make ou way through the city square, enjoying the clarity and higher definition that real life seems to have in such a clean environment, away from the smog of Beijing. Many of the locals take pictures of us or start chatting with us, asking why so many foreigners have converged on their little town, children running by and giggling at us. Beijing laowai are so commonplace, that unless you’re doing something really ridiculous people don’t look at you. I forget that there are huge swaths of China where that isn’t true, that white skin or black skin, blonde or red hair, are sights to be seen.

We eat another unsatisfactory buffet dinner, before I go to bed at an early hour.

4:30 AM Saturday morning. Race Day. I was going to get up early anyways, but my alarm is superseded by a series of explosions directly outside my window, where someone has set of a string of fireworks in the parking lot. I’m awake! I walk over to the Electricity Hotel, partly to eat some breakfast (fruit and water, to augment the Luna bars I ate when I woke up), but mostly because I’ve forgotten how to get to the City Square from my hotel, and there’s a map in the Electricity Hotel lobby.
After a short meal and hydration, I make my way to the square, filled with pre-race jitters. My half-assed training is beginning to worry me. I haven’t been in a running race since senior year of high school. I find others from my charity fundraising team, mingle with them, and finally we position ourselves on the starting line at 7:00.

And then it starts. I had meant to keep a slow pace, having been warned by more experienced marathoners that rabbiting off in the start, when you’re caught up in the excitement, is deadly for a strong finish. I try, I really do, but everyone is so slow. Jogging. I weave my way past most of the half-marathoners towards the front. Everything is good. I feel amazing. The sky is beautiful, clear and cloudless and brilliant blue. The hills are green and lush. The air is clean and I fill my lungs and feel healthier than any “clean” day in Beijing.

5K in, I feel the twinge in my knee. I haven’t felt it in months, not since I started training carefully. It’s not a good sign. I slow down infinitesimally, but keep at it. A steep hill. It takes a lot of effort to run the whole incline; I almost vomit, but order myself to stop gagging and get over it. I do, and keep going. The nausea passes but the pain in my knee doesn’t. My knee worsens. The track is uneven, an incline, rutted, and whichever way I try to hit jars my knee badly. By 7K the ache has spread to my ankle.

By 10K, my hip is now radiating pain. I slow down a bit more. Stop stretch, keep going. Drink some water, eat a banana. Keep going. They don’t have ice at the drink and “first aid” station. My knee twists and twinges. I go down into the grass, stretch, keep going. At 19K I am barely jogging. A shuffle, because when I slow down to a walk, the pain intensifies. A Chinese girl passes me at the water station. But I can’t go any faster. I’m nearly crying, and I’m definitely cursing under my breath. Every so often I land just so and a groan rips itself out of me. Or a vicious, louder-than-I-mean-to swear. Three more women pass me in the last 2K, and I barely continue. I can see the finish in the distance, but I can’t make my left leg work. Every step is agony. One more kilometer to go. It looks like an eternity. I’m afraid I’ve torn something in my knee. My right knee, having compensated this entire time, is now beginning to get twinges of pain as well. I’m afraid I might fall over, because walking is just as bad as running. I’m so close to the finish line and I honestly think I might stop know because it’s so unbearable.

A friend comes running up from behind and claps a hand on my shoulder, which gives me a little bit of a drive to make it. I can keep pace with him. I will keep pace with him if it kills me. Every step takes a muttered curse. I push myself across the finish line, where a girl dressed in a Mongolian tribal costume stands in my way, and insists on putting a heavy horse head shaped medal around me. I push her out of the way, stumble, and collapse, letting the tears fall, because I can no longer put any weight or bend any of the joints of my left leg without extreme pain.

Because it’s China and the organization left much to be desired, there was no first aid tent. Fellow runners who finish around me end up helping me to a chair a few yards past the finish line. Some go off in search of race officials to help, but that never comes. After fifteen or so minutes waiting and being stared at I decide to relocate from the finish line to somewhere slightly less conspicuous. I limp over to a tent where I sit with some other slightly injured runners and try to stretch out the pain and stop myself from crying. Some nice competitors go off on adventures and find me ibuprofen, bananas, Snickers, and water. Someone even finds a race administrator, who suggests he call an ambulance. I look at him like he’s a crazy person, and ask for an ice pack. But there is no first aid station, apparently, and no ice, just an ambulance, that will take who knows how long to get there. I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised by this glaring oversight, but I’m a little upset. Someone finally checks with a convenient store, who happens to have a few bottles of water that have frozen solid. I tuck them all along my leg and sit some more. Some very wonderful, nice person hands me a knee brace. All the locals have gathered to see the finish, and some stare at me in puzzlement, including an adorable trio of young boys who are dressed up like hipsters.

Eventually the ice melts, and all I want is a shower and a nap, so I drag myself up and limp over to the bus where we stashed our belongings before the race. I’ve pulled off my sneakers and walk barefoot on the clean, sun warmed pavement, something I’d never dream of doing in Beijing. The nine year old accidental hipsters with their big glasses bike after me as I shuffle away. “姐姐, 姐姐, big sister” they call out, and I stop, surprised, as they shove two more bottles of ice at me, dissolve into giggles, and bike off before I can pull out my camera. So adorable. If I had been able to move faster I might have stolen them.

I make my slow way home, trying to ignore the fact that I smell terrible, and that I’m half goosestepping and walking most awkwardly and people are staring. I’m almost afraid that if I bend my leg at all, I’ll collapse in pain and then be kidnapped and sold to one of the very many KTVs brothels that line the streets here. (I assume they are brothels. What else is there to do in Inner Mongolia all winter?).

But I arrive without incident to the Golden Leaf Hotel, for a shower that leaves much to be desired. I consider joining other runners for lunch, but instead slowly eat a Luna bar, crawl onto the board-hard bed, and fall asleep for many hours.

After my nap I try to get my life in some semblance of order and pack, then slowly drag my suitcase down the stairs, and wait for a bus to take me to the grasslands. It’s a half hour ride into the countryside, and we finally pull into the yurt camping area. We spill out onto the grasslands, and I find my yurt, which is less of a felt tent and more of a concrete bunker. Apparently, half of the yurts are actually tents, but mine is just a round concrete room with a window, painted to look like a yurt. There are two beds, a tea table with a water kettle, electricity, a small bathroom with toilet and shower (although I’m not brave enough to try the water of the shower). The air is a bit musty, but no more than the room at the Golden Leaf, and the beds are slightly less hard.

I find some people I befriended on the bus ride as I wander by a field of horses. We’ve got time to kill, and not much else to do, so they suggest going for a horse ride. Great idea, right?

We give the man some money and I hop on the horse, after telling him I know how to rdie a horse (I sort of do, but not really, I just don’t want the guide holding onto my horse, I’d like at least the illusion that I’m really riding). I get on the horse, which has no name, I’m informed, without problem. I get the horse to start walking, no problem. The guys I’m with get on their horses, the guide holding one of their reins, and they start walking behind me, no problem. Then the guide shouts the command at the horses that makes them start running. And then problem.

Until this moment I haven’t given a single thought to the fact that post race, I changed into flip-flops and a sarong. Not only are the stirrups uncomfortable and leaving bruises on my ankles, but, as I discover, while running, I bounce up and down on the horse in such a way that it is impossible for my skirt to stay down. Everyone in the vicinity is given a lovely look at my adorable underwear. I’m mortified. I fight to hold onto the horse with one hand and try to keep my skirt down with the other, which is impossible, so I pull the reins and make the horse slow down. He stops to snack on some grass, and I let him, with some relief, and pull myself together and get everything decent and decide that I’m ok if I let the horse walk slowly for the rest of the trail.

The guide, however, has another idea completely. He’s tickled pink by the whole situation, me yelling out “buhaoyisi” and “stop looking at me” and “nothing to see here” and “oh shit oh shit damnit why am I wearing a dress.” He lets me lull myself into a false sense of security, lazily ambling along the track, while he positions both his horse, and the horse of the American guy he’s leading, behind mine, then suddenly slaps my horse to set him running. The guide laughs his ass off as my horse takes off again. This happens 7-8 more times, and every time we pass another group of riders, so he can tell his buddies about the crazy laowai girl utterly failing at staying decent.

I decide to name the horse Flasher, and finally, after all the running, Flasher ends up at too far of a distance away from the guide to be slapped or hear the running command, and I am able to return to the campsite with some semblance of dignity at a very slow walk.

We leave the horse area, and immediately head to the restaurant to get a beer to nurse my pride. By this time, everyone else has arrived and seating themselves for the dinner. Some of the dishes are pretty good, but I’m never quite satisfied at these large-number banquets. Lamb, boiled lamb, fired tiny pices of lamb, salty Mongolian milk tea, mantou buns, boiled peanuts, tripe, etc. And, to my dismay, there is also a bottle of Mongolian baijiu, which was poured out for everyone (my insides shudder at the thought of that even now).

There is a Mongolian performance with dancers and singers and acrobats, and after dinner several of us find a quiet area on the outside of the big hall and watch thunder and lightning storm sweep across the grasslands miles away. It is gorgeous and powerful and amazing and slightly beyond my words to capture the experience. A bonfire is lit in a big traditional metal fire pit, and terrible music played, and people start dancing. The rainstorm eventually crosses over us and I hide inside until it passes. Someone tries to convince me to dance, so I sway unconvincingly and awkwardly around and glare at them because I can’t bend my leg, asshole, thanks for making me feel bad about myself and out of place. It rains more, and eventually having to be around a large group of mostly strangers and 90% of the few people I do know being good friends of the guy who broke my heart, who apparently is everywhere I look because every time I move to a different area there he fucking appears, is really stressful so I go back to my fake yurt and cry a little bit because my leg really hurts and for no other reason what so ever like I’m not really angry that I’m still bothered by him. And also there’s a giant spider I didn’t notice earlier in the window and spiders freak me out.

I am asleep by 11, but some unknown number calls twice at midnight, and no one replies when I answer. Then at 12:30, right as I had just gotten back to sleep, two girls from my fundraising team knock on my door, since apparently someone had taken over their yurt. They also wake me up at 4:30 in the morning, thinking I was on their 5 am early bus.

I stayed in bed grumpily until 7, when I couldn’t lie still any longer. I wander around the grasslands. It’s sunny and bright, but very windy, and the wind only get stronger and clouds darken the sky. Even in a sweatshirt I’m freezing, and there’s nothing happening inside, not even breakfast, so I return to my yurt and huddle for warmth and read. Eventually I go back outside when I see signs of life from other yurts, and eat a sad breakfast of cold youtiao, salty milk tea, cold hard boiled eggs, cold mantou, and some millet grain mixed in with cold rice porridge and sugar.

We can’t find any water for the longest time, and when we ask, they sell us bottles of something fizzy and chemical lemon tasting. I’m dehydrated and dying for a drink, and only after watching the waitresses pour some hot water for themselves from a filtered spigot, do we find drinking water. It was boiling hot, but better than nothing.

A bus is supposed to come pick the twenty or so of us who had stayed in the yurts and not taken the early bus back. It had been posted many times on posters at all the hotels the afternoon before to arrive at ten o’clock (we had photo evidence). After waiting 45 minutes outside freezing our asses off, someone calls one of the Nordic Ways coordinators. She says there is no bus coming at all. We call the other coordinator, who agrees that, yes, it was crazy, wasn’t it, that we have all been waiting there. No, you’re not supposed to try to relate, you’re supposed to fix it. Eventually, a bus arrives an hour later, and brings us back to town.

We arrive back at the Electricity Hotel and unload our luggage. Four hours to kill, and no plans, so I go to lunch with a few people at a recommended hotpot restaurant. Delicious, filling, and hands down, the best meal all weekend. Lamb, beef meatballs, thick chewy rice noodles “kuan fer,” tofu skins “doufupi” enoki mushrooms, cabbage, potato and sweet potato, and my favorite, small round pumpkin cakes that had been deep fried, to be dip in condensed milk.

Afterward finishing up the meal, the engineers/energy industry guys announce they are going to explore a power plant. Having nothing better to do, I decide to tag along. Because China.

We hire a cab to take us there. He drives us onto the plant, one of us gets out and chats to the gatekeeper for 30 seconds, showing a business card and explaining, he is a coal power specialist showing his American partner a Chinese plant. I guess I’m just a groupie along for the tour. It’s slightly ridiculous and surreal, walking right onto the half built power plant, no one stops us or questions us. And I clearly don’t look like I should be there, wearing flip flops and leggings, and the sarong from yesterday wrapped around me as a scarf, protecting my face from the sand being whipped up in the wind. We don’t have safety helmets or anything, but none of the many Chinese works says a thing as we poke around the coal burners and power lines, climb up steep stairs (slowly, in my case) and snap a few pictures. There were a few curious glances, and a couple catcall whistles as we left, but just…no reaction to our obvious trespass.

We cab back and I sit in the hotel and rest my lef until the bus to the airport arrives. We arrive an hour before the tiny 4 terminal airport will let anyone check in, so mot of the foreigners camp out on the floor, waiting. I peruse the small gift store for a snack, but don’t really feel like buying a box of sheep jerky or dried ants. I settle on a bottle of water and a pretty terrible ice cream, and finally we depart half an hour late to Nanyuan, the domestic/military airport to the south of Beijing.

It’s a tiny airport, similar to the one in Xilinhaote. None of the lines and back up of the Capital Airport. It’s a matter of walking out the the front door to get a cab almost instantly, and only a RMB50 ride back to the center of the city, split between two people. The south area of Beijing is so strange and different than the within third and second ring road. Completely local, there’s no development, no foreign companies, no foreigners, hardly any buildings over a few stories tall.

I arrive home and drag my suitcase painfully to the elevator (sitting still on the bus and plane made the pain worsen) and immediately call Gung Ho, ten minutes before close, to order an emergency pizza as there is no food in my fridge at all. It arrives and I stay up long enough to inhale half of it before collapsing in bed and ending my Mongolian adventure.

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