Thursday, June 2, 2016

Prelude in C Major: days leading up to the Great Wall Marathon 2016.

I arrived around 10:00 pm in Beijing on Tuesday 17 May, after a more than 24hr trip from Namibia and probably an hour’s sleep in total during the journey. The absolute highlight of the three part flight there was seeing the Himalaya Mountains. Although I am not the mountaineer in our family I had an overwhelming urge to find myself on foot amidst those immense snow-covered peaks and desolate valleys. From our vantage point the entire mountain series seemed pristine and untouched, beckoning to be explored. Snow has that beautiful way. Very much like the moving sands of the Namib Desert of my country of birth, snow eradicates any sign of intrusion and impact very effectively and rapidly. My mind wandered to the countless explorers who lost their lives on those mountains. Their remains too, are softly hidden beneath the snow.

Himalaya mountains, Tibet.

After arriving in Beijing we weren’t allowed to disembark the plane as a health inspector first had to inspect the 20 passengers that were travelling from Luanda for possible signs of Yellow Fever. Apparently there was an outbreak again. So we were stuck in our seats for an additional 30 min. When we finally left the plane it was the usual long lines for customs, and another 40 minutes passed. What is it with these visa-requiring countries that can make one feel SO nervous once it is your turn to present your little green book? I think I look guilty as a mass murderer when they glance at you so suspiciously to check if you look like your passport photo. Jo, I swear I hold my breath every time, hoping I still look like my photo in the book!

Then off to fetch our baggage, and unlike any other airport I have ever visited, in this one we had to embark a subway to the baggage terminal! And it was NOT a short ride!

Thank heavens my dear thorough Hubs arranged for me to be picked up from the airport and be taken to my hotel. My driver didn’t speak a word of English, so there wasn’t any talking going on in the taxi, but after a very long drive I realised that we were lost. The guy was talking on the phone quite often, and his tone of voice didn’t sound too excited. Poor man, it was already nearing midnight. We finally stopped in a VERY dodgy area of the city sporting rundown shacks and streets reeking of sewage. Absolutely no English were to be seen and the situation was not instilling any confidence in this Namibian girl. By this time my driver had climbed out, lit a ciggie and started asking for directions. I’ve never been THIS lost in a taxi, I must say. I had already made up my mind that I was certainly not getting out of the taxi in that part of town. Then he could much better take me back to the airport, but I was not getting out. I also knew that he wouldn’t have nearly enough English to force me to get out! Luckily it wasn’t necessary, as he was directed per phone to my hotel. And after he half-swallowed his cigarette he got back in and it was another 5 minutes' drive and I was home. Finally. 

And boy was the Qianmen a pleasant, comfortable hotel! I fell asleep around 1 am and slept for a solid 11 hours! And then still felt half-paralysed! I spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets in close proximity to the hotel, taking in the sights, smells and sounds of China. I have to admit the smells, mainly of street food being barbequed such as squid kebabs and very strange-looking chicken limbs took away my appetite completely, so I settled on bottled water and bananas and of course my suitcase full of packed food from Namibia (cheese, droewors, Nakd bars and loads of dark Lindt gracefully hidden by my all-knowing Hubs, wrapped in notes and drawings from my boys!)


Prosperous Supermarket across the street from our hotel. Stockist of beer and iced lattes.

On Thursday we woke at 5 am to leave Beijing for Jixian, the rural region where we would stay for the race. Our tour guide, a Chinese woman, was named Jessica, which I doubted seriously, as seriously as I am not Lin-Yang, but it worked for us. I learned later from another Chinese guide, Roger, that they were each handed a dictionary in their respective international schools from which they were instructed to pick themselves an English name to make it easier on their teachers. Which makes sense. Jessica, as all the other guides I came in contact with, were extremely helpful, vibrant, and very efficient. This was the 17th time around for this marathon tour, and the organisers have clearly sussed out all the snags. The organisation was really great.

Driving into the country side of rural China was like driving from Dar es Salaam towards rural Tanzania. The same kind of poverty was evident and agriculture is similarly practiced on every available piece of open area, from village sidewalks to vast open fields. Agriculture accounts for 70% of China’s economy.

We were welcomed by the race directors in the Yin Yang Square, the start and finish venue of the race. We received a thorough race briefing, after which we were taken for a compulsory tour of the 3 km section of the Great Wall that we would run on on the day of the race, and had a little taste of the 2550 steps we would be doing TWICE on race day. It was a glorious experience to see, experience and be ON the Great Wall of China, one of the world's most iconic landmarks. What a moment! And of course pure and utter terror set in.... for merely walking on that Wall was TOUGH! The steps are steep and unrelenting, and almost never is there a few meters of flat surface on the wall itself. By the time we descended the notorious 'goat's track' (a 1 km section of almost vertical steps) towards the square, my legs were shaking. Afterwards during lunch in the square people had the chance to de-register from the full marathon to the half, and I suspect a lot of the original 900 marathoners did so. A total of 2500 runners were registered across the full marathon, half and 8.5 km fun run.

Race briefing in Yin Yang Square.


Race route inspection of the Wall section.


Lunch was a very welcome, comforting, huge roast beef sub from Subway, which was the first official meal I ate in China other than my packed snacks and bananas. Let's just say I was careful...

Upon ariving at our Yuyang Hotel in Jixian I discovered that my suitcase wouldn't open. It was the second time that that happened to our 'life-time guaranteed' suitcase, the previous time being upon our arrival in Switzerland last year. Never of course would it happen upon arrival at home. So with lots of sign language and gestures I had summonsed the hotel maintenance team with the correct tools to open the lock, i.e. break it off. After a lot of Chinese and zero English I understood that they would be willing the break the lock, but not for free. I thus gently pointed towards the screwdriver in the toolbox, and in 2 seconds I flipped the lock clean off the offending suitcase. I was clearly admired by my Chinese maintenance crew and proceeded to enjoy my local Chinese beer.

Three hotel maintenance guys trying to figure out how to open my broken lock.

The next day, Friday, I took a voluntary trip to a local market and then to one of the Chinese emperor's place of burial, which was very impressive and awe inspiring.  Had I known that we would be out until 16h00 I may have reconsidered, but I had a feeling that I would have slept most the day had I stayed at the hotel and would not be able to sleep the night before the race. So I was glad I went.

Very busy Chinese local market.

Tour of the last Ming (or Ching?) Emperor's tomb.



We were treated to a very interesting lunch, if I can put it mildly. Upon entering the dining room I had to request a window be opened to allow me to stay within the very confined space alongside very suspicious looking and smelling dishes. Lunches in China takes place in smaller, more personal rooms within a larger restaurant, where parties are seated around a round table with a lazy susan in the middle of the table. Dishes are served in a staggered fashion for about an hour. Within the first 30 minutes of this particular lunch I only braved the cocktail tomatoes. Then arrived the rice and I half thought about dishing me a small heap in order to appear more social. After another 20 minutes arrived a dish that resembled a chicken stew, so I had a little of that. By the time I finished my 50 grams of food somebody discovered a chicken head among the deep-fried chicken strips, still with the tongue intact, half-hidden behind the giant chicken foot that stuck out. Needless to say I was relieved of an appetite for the remainder of that day. By that time I was accustomed to the local Chinese beer and since beer was free and we had to pay for bottled water, we did what any group of international travelling athletes would do and ordered another round.

Interesting lunch options....


I was really tired by the time we got back to the hotel, my calves still very tight and sore from the walk on the wall the day before. After I packed and prepared all my gear for the race I went to bed around 7 pm, a huge ball of tightly strung nerves.

To be continued...

2 comments:

  1. Og, wat 'n heerlike ervaring, Saar! Kan nie wag vir die volgende hoofstuk nie! xxxx

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow, baie cool!!! Alles van die beste!!

    ReplyDelete