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Wan's Column - Genghis Khan Grassland Extreme Marathon 2011– running with the breeze

Foreword
On the morning of 3 June 2011, I was driving down to Menara Weld for a meeting with MSIG to discuss the coming MSIG Ekiden, a relay event within the Standard Chartered KL Marathon. While on the NPE, my hand-phone rang and Francis Cheng was at the other end of the line, asking if I could take over his place to go to Inner Mongolia for the Genghis Khan Grassland Extreme Marathon. Francis has signed up for the trip in January but due to some urgent business, he is unable to make the trip. I was well aware of this event and this trip was discussed after we did our Xiamen Marathon in 2010. John Tan and Wai Mun, the fame running couple are the organizers and all the 31 slots were taken up in a short while. I did not sign up in January as I was suffering from a slipped disc back in October 2010.

Later in April 2011 when I was feeling better and got back into running, I told John Tan that should there be anyone pulling out, I shall be happy to take over the slot. Very quickly within 2 days, I confirmed my participation and pay the full sum. Francis was very happy that he resolved his issue but two weeks later, I was told he regretted giving up his slot and wished he had actually gone for the trip……ha….making money is not every thing!

The Venue
Let’s get our geography right for those who are not too familiar, Inner Mongolia is not Mongolia but a Chinese province (with about 80% Han Chinese) or more correctly, an autonomous region like Tibet and Xinjiang. To get there we have to fly in via Beijing, then take a one hour connecting flight to a county level city in Inner Mongolia, Xilinhot with less than 200,000 population. Xilinhot is a big center for energy. They have both a massive coal mine on the edge of town and wind generating farms located nearby. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 200 individual turbines now, with another 200 to be built in the coming year. To get to our final destination, we need to take a bus sent in by the hotel to travel to a small town, Xiwuqi where the event is held. This is where the fun begins, we read from the internet that the distance between Xilinhot and Xiwuqi is about 100km (East) but the quality of the connecting roads was not mentioned…..

Beijing First Day
On the night of 29 June 2011, we assembled at KLIA at 9.30pm as requested by John Tan. Lok Chan Chuen, husband of Agnes Tee was kind enough to pick me up from my house and gave me a ride to the airport. The other two Subang Jaya residents, Sook Ying and Linda Trivino went to the airport by a cab. When we got there, the rest of the group was already there (Uncle Hooi Siew Weng, Ms Hooi, Sonny Ng, Jenny Leong, Jenny Lim, Lee Woon Khow, Jenny Lee, Lynn Toh, Tai Kok Keong, Mrs Tai, Peter Lim, Lim Chin Guan, Mrs Lim, Gary Goh, Tan Peck Moi, Yee Fook Sow, Teresa Goh, Wong Sir, Agnes Chin, John Tan and Yap Wai Mun.)The last group to arrive was Lee Mun Fai family (Mrs Lee, Gary Lee and Camen Lee). While we were gathering there I heard from members that two individuals were unable to make it, they were Chan Peng Wah (Wah Chai) and his wife Betty. Their roller shutter factory was burnt down in the morning of 26 June 2011, that morning that Chan was suppose to run the Standard Chartered KL Marathon. I feel sad about it and hope they could reorganize their life fast….so we have 29 members. Most of the Xiamen Group I went with was in the group, except for Francis Cheng and daughter. John was right, I know everybody in the group….it was like a family. After a tiring night on the plane, we reached Beijing in the morning at about 7.00am. It was wisely scheduled that we spend a day in Beijing before taking the connecting flight to Xilinhot. At the airport to meet us was a familiar face, Han Ng, a fellow Pacesetters member and local guide, Annalisa. I last saw Han several years ago when we went to Hatyai for the Hatyai Nature Run. Han is now a freelance tour guide and spend considerable time in China.

We were briefed about the traffic congestion in Beijing (worse than KL) and the choice of hotel in Beijing for the first night. The hotel, Gangyuan Siji Hotel is a local 3-star hotel located near to the airport. It is largely patronized by locals and we found that they are pretty rough in their mannerism. The lobby and the breakfast area were very small and were unable to accommodate the number of guests in the hotel. The real disappointment came when we had our breakfast that first morning. We were served some diluted rice porridge, cold hard buns, boiled eggs and some other stuff that I do not want to remember. Only the boiled eggs were really edible…..I comforted Peter Lim that China is not that bad since it was his first trip to China. Generally, Chinese hotels serve a good spread of breakfast.  Han was well aware of our disappointment and went out to buy some hot dumplings for us, good initiative on his part as he does not have control over the breakfast in that hotel. The following morning, he woke up early to buy back more breakfast for us, soya milk and meat dumplings.

After leaving our luggage in the hotel, we set out to visit the Great Wall. Usually, most tourists are taken to the Badaling section which is over commercialized. Instead, we went to the Mutianyu Great Wall located at Huairou District. It was a good decision as the crowd is thinner and we have a good walk up the Great Wall within the allocated time. I last visited Beijing in 2000 and I can see many changes all over the city. For one I did not remember any traffic jam then….After the Great Wall, we visited the Ming Tomb which did not interest me much as I don’t like enclosed area. Sonny Ng and Jenny Leong did not even bother to go in as they were there only a few months ago.  I was more interested in the fresh peaches sold outside the Ming Tomb. They were lightly sweet, succulent and juicy, great thirst quencher…..nice!  

Xilinhot & Xiwuqi
The second day we all had a good night rest and got up early for our flight to Xilinhot. We took the Air China flight and got there in less than an hour. Xilinhot airport is a small but functional airport. When we got out, we saw several foreigners that we thought must be runners going to Xiwuqi. The hotel’s representative was there to meet us and very quickly we went into 2 buses with several foreigners. As the buses were not tour buses with storage for luggage, our luggage went up a separate lorry. This is the part I was not prepared for…….on the bus I meet a couple from Shenzhen but they were American and a local Chinese who spent many years in France.  The American, Blair Lee Holland asked me how long we could reach Xiwuqi…..I confidently told him…about 2 hours!

After about 10 minutes our bus detoured from the trunk road onto the unpaved road shoulders as there is a massive road construction to rebuild the trunk road connecting Xilinhot and Xiwuqi…..my, my, my…..it is going to be a long bumpy ride to Xiwuqi. I flashed my mind back to what Tan Seow Ping told me…”The grassland is nice, something very different from what we used to run on….soft surface…kind to the legs…” but nothing about almost 100km bumpy ride! Tan Seow Ping is the very active Pacesetters member based in Shanghai, she ran in many marathons in China and around the world. The organizer should credit her for giving us the recommendations that resulted in 29 of us going to Xiwuqi.

After about 2 and a half hour, we saw some buildings that could have been Xiwuqi, the bus driver drove into the car-park and out came the ladies led by Jenny Lim running into the building…..oop…it is only toilet break!.......the bus driver told us we have one hour more to get there…..three and a half hour to do 100km!     

The next stop is the hotel, Ujimuin Hotel, probably the largest hotel in Xiwuqi. As the official hotel for the event, there is a welcome banner with the flags of the nation of runners participating. We met the Penang group of 10 runners, led by Lim Chwe Wooi, the brother in law of KC Phee, a Pacesetters member. They are the Hash Harriers from Penang and together with our group, the Malaysians are 39 strong, the largest foreign groups for the event. We look through the list of runners posted on the notice board and realized that the total number of runners is less than 200. This is understandable as Xiwuqi is in a very remote area and paying 150 to 300RMB to run is too much for the local residents.

We had a satisfactory lunch at the hotel and it was suggested to us by the hotel’s representative that we should take a trip to the grassland to watch the mountain bike event. The Genghis Khan Grassland Extreme Marathon is part of a weekend sports carnival organized by Nordic Ways, a Swedish Company in co-operation with the Xiwuqi Municipal. The other events are 3 days of mountain biking of which details I am not too familiar.

When we got to the grassland, we saw a yurt resort, many little Mongolian inspired tents like building that serve as hotel rooms. We are to stay at the grassland for the afternoon as the banquet dinner served by the Municipal is at the dinning hall of the resort. We watch the bike event and enjoy the warm sunshine for a while, took many pictures. Then I saw some horses with a few Mongolian masters, they are for rental, only RMB30 per ride. Suddenly, for the lack of better judgment, I decided to ride a horse, my suffering began immediately….. I found the saddle very hard and my calves were rubbing against the stomach of the horse as I was wearing shorts. When the horse started trotting, it has a certain rhythm and if you are unable to synchronize with the horse, your buttock is going to get slapped by the saddle….that’s was precisely what happened….my buttock was slapped 500 times and bruised, no less. My memory from this failed horse riding experience is a bruised buttock and a few pictures taken for me by Yee Fook Sau with a forced smile on my face.

We visited two of the yurt tents to see the conditions, it was small but cozy. By evening when the sun is coming down, we gathered in the banquet hall for dinner. While waiting for dinner, we were conscious of the time as we wanted to take some nice shots on the sunset at the grassland. Of course those of us with an ordinary camera without a filter can only take amateurish shots. It was Lim Chin Guan and Tai Kok Keong armed with their Canon DSLR cameras that showed off their professional approach to photography. You get to see some nice pictures taken by them in this article.

The banquet is pretty grand by county standards. The main table was seated by high ranking officials from the Xiwuqi Municipal and senior management of Nordic Ways, including Torbjorn Pettersson (Event Director) and Eric Ma (Event Manager). The highlight of the dinner is the serving of the whole lamb, the Mongolian style. Each table gets a plate with cut up portions. The lamb was lightly seasoned and you could taste the lamb in its original taste. Included in this dish was the lamb intestine stuffed with lamb blood, we took a small piece but none of us like the stuffed intestine. I am grateful I was not made to eat the lamb eyeball as was shown in Lonely Planet a few years ago. We were well fed and drank enough beer to retire early for the next day’s run, the reason why we were there….

The Grassland Marathon
The sun was up at 7.00am and we have surveyed the start/finish area the day before, we need about 10 minutes to walk over there. It was agreed we leave at 6.20am to get there by 6.30am and take a group picture at the venue. When we got to the venue, we saw a very small crowd and the organizers were busy putting up the final touches on the start/finish area. Lyn Toh commented that it looks like the event is just organized for us like a private run. Soon a group of school kids came in whom I thought they are volunteers but it turned out that they have been invited for the 1KM dash, keeping us company for the first KM. As the total field was less than 200, many of could stand at the pole positions, an extremely rare experience for us back home in Malaysia.

The run was flagged off without much fanfare but good spirit of the runners with a beautiful warm sunny weather. We ran passed the town, our hotel and then from tarmac to gravel roads leading to the grassland. By the second KM, we are on the grassland. Very simple signage was put up, red arrows for 21KM/42KM and yellow arrows for 10km. When we were on the grassland, the only trails we can see are the trails made by 4 wheel drive to mark the routes. At the start I was keeping pace with Wong Sir and Agnes Chin, we were singing the theme song from the TVB series “Genghis Khan” made popular by the late Roman Tam and Jenny Yen. However, before long the presumably higher altitude and undulating route made it more difficult to sing. After a few KMs, Wong Sir and Agnes Chin left me behind and I found Lim Chin Guan for company. We went on enjoying the grassland and we even stopped to take a few pictures with a few volunteers. At one point we took a wrong turn but were notified by the officials and no serious loss but a few lost minutes. Later, we found that Agnes Tee and Wai Mun too lost their way in their 10KM run. The fun part about the run on the grassland is the wilderness, a rare experience for us city folks. At some stretches, we can’t see anyone in front, back, left or right. This is a far contrast from the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon when I have to fight for my space from the start to the end in a 21KM event. There was a slight breeze throughout the event, cool but not chilly, it was very comfortable with the warm sunshine (sun block protection is needed)

The refreshment station is every 5km, you get 500ml water and isotonic that it is advisable to drink more as it is rather dry. I was running slower than I am used to as this is my first 21KM since I got my slipped disc last October. After the 12KM mark, Lim Chin Guan went ahead as I slowed down, my second 10KM is slower as I did not have enough mileage in my training. I just took my time, enjoyed the grassland and the cows, goats and horses that grazed part of the route. At about 17KM mark, Uncle Hooi and Sonny Ng overtook me at their marathon pace……my respect to these two senior citizens. At the 18KM mark, I can see some civilization and I knew the end is near, I got out of the grassland onto the gravel roads and then onto the tarmac. The town was very quiet when I got in, very few spectators on the roads but the handful of spectators did their part to cheer us. I got in at 2hrs 52min, way slower than my usual 2hrs 12mins I can do before my slipped disc. Despite the slow time, I am happy I completed the run and a placing of 19th in the Men 21KM. Later, I found out that there were only 26 finishers in the Men 21KM, a very small field indeed.

Of our 4 full marathon runners, Lee Mun Fai and Lim Chin Guan decided not to continue the second lap and were contented with the 21KM completed. Our two senior citizens, Uncle Hooi and Sonny Ng continued with their second laps despite Jenny Leong pleading Sonny not to continue….talk about single minded senior citizens. After a short rest and some pictures taken, we walked back to the hotel, have a shower and then come back to see Sonny and Uncle Hooi completing their run. Our timing was quite accurate but just missed Sonny’s finish by minutes. We have to wait a little longer for Uncle Hooi as he tripped during the second lap and slowed down. Like great aged warriors, Uncle Hooi has no intention to give up and completed the run shortly after 6 hours.

Generally, everyone is happy with the small but nice friendly event. John Tan and Lee Woon Khow came in 4th  and 6th for the Men 21KM respectively and got position medals. Tan Peck Moi came in 6th in the Women 10km. That afternoon when we were gathering at the lobby we saw someone from a distance that we thought was Jenny Lee. We were wrong, it was a Jenny Lee lookalike, she was Ms Soo from Taiwan and she took part in the marathon that morning. We have a picture to show you and you judge for yourself of the similarity…… perhaps Jenny Lee’s long lost sister!

We decided that afternoon that we will celebrate with a special Mongolian Hotpot dinner. We got some recommendations from the hotel and it was our best dinner of the trip, just RMB56 per pax. Each of us got a small hotpot and we cook our own food in the privacy of our little hotpot. The main ingredient was beef and lamb sliced into thin pieces, dipped with peanut sauce….it is heaven!  Take a look at the pictures of the dinner and you appreciate what I mean.

On Sunday morning we have to leave early as we anticipate a 3hrs bus ride, a little faster as there was no rain since we arrived at Xiwuqi and the road is expected to be dry. My suffering begins the moment the bus hit the gravel road. My bruised buttock hurts each time the bus hit a bump and that went on for 3 hours….no less. This is the first and last time I will ride a horse. I was grateful to reach the airport and the plane was not bumpy…thanks!

Beijing Holidays & Future Plans
We have 3 more days in Beijing and we visited all the standard must see places (Lama Temple, Fragrant Hill, Tian An Men Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Capital Museum, Drum & Bell Tower and Wang Fu Jing Walking Street) that I have been before in my earlier trip 11 years ago. Therefore, I will not write about them and they are well documented in many travel articles and TV documentaries. The only new place I visited this time was the Bird Nest Olympic Stadium and the Water Cube Swimming complex. However, we only have time to look at them from outside and took some pictures. These are massive structure and most of the workers who worked there are from Henan Province, which is the subject matter of my next proposed trip to China for the Zhengzhou Kaifeng Marathon on 25th March 2012.

Despite a 2-star rating, I like the hotel in Beijing City Centre, Xin Yuan Inn. This 35 guest room hotel is converted from a bath hall from the Ching Dynasty, situated in the Hutong area now protected from high rise development by the government. We got a glimpse of old Beijing from the Ching Dynasty with the modern amenities. There are two lakes within a 2KM radius from our hotel. Each morning, I took a walk with Peter Lim to look for meat buns as the hotel breakfast is the standard bread, butter and jam fare. Wai Mun and Agnes Tee discovered some good takeaway from the Hutong area that served fried fritters and peanut soup. Needless to say, these are our additions to the otherwise bland breakfast served by the hotel. My large pack of Old Town 3 in 1 Coffee was a hit, it went in record time!

While the surrounding is generally nice from the pictures taken, Beijing just could not resolve the price of progress, the traffic jam leading to air pollution. I will not consider doing a run in Beijing as there is visible smog in the air whenever it does not rain. We only have one clear day, the day we arrived by from Xiwuqi as it rained heavily the day before. Beijing is generally dry throughout the year. I will not want to come back to Beijing as a tourist but I will use Beijing as a transit point to go to other places in Northern China. 

During the few days, we cultivated a closer relationship among the group and our two guides, Han Ng and Annalisa. We enjoyed our breakfast at the roof top garden each morning and the late night beer session at the lobby area. On the last day when we were on the way to the airport, our local guide Annalisa shared with us a recording of Kanas, Northern Xinjiang. It is a beautiful place, some say even nicer than Jiuzhaigou in Xichuan. The access is via Urumqi and the place is pretty remote, near to the border with Kazakhstan and Mongolia. I think I go there someday…..as the holiday bug is biting again…. Lim Chin Guan has already expressed interest….so I have company.

Note – Nordic Ways website is www.nordicways.com

P/S – A special thanks to the running couple, John Tan & Yap Wai Mun, the trip organizer. I look forward to more trips with them. The inconvenience of the road journey from Xilinhot to Xiwuqi will be a thing of the past once the new 100KM road is ready. I believe the road will be ready by next year as the Chinese are known to build roads very fast.  

  
Wan Yew Leong
16 August 2011
wanyewleong@gmail.com

 
 

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