Being up in the North of China it was with considerable excitement and gratitude that my hopes were confirmed when I found out we could visit the Great Wall at Badaling. It is indeed very steep and slippery, even in the dry – as Paul found out, apparently not the place to take brand new trail running shoes. Observing it in person from one of the high points really gives you an insight into just how magnificent and incalculably large it is. The terrain it traverses is incredibly varied and hilly, so pretty much the least practical and convenient for doing so. The raging enemy hordes it was built to resist must have been worth it though. I enjoyed numerous photos with fellow riders and associated crews, Chinese and Japanese tourists, small unknown children and Westerners in funny hats as we waited around for half an hour or so while people were grouped back into bunches 1 and 2, named after the three buses that we took on the way there from the hotel. Understandably, this took a while. More incongruous sign-enjoyment took place en route.
While my usual diet quite regularly involves stir fries, soups and other rice- and noodle-based themes, they aren’t generally what I have for breakfast, let alone three meals a day. In an effort to assist my gastrointestinal adaptation to the new regime, I carefully made a point of consuming largely just fruit and vegetables for the first few days. Whether it was bad luck or just inevitable anyway it wasn’t long before my internal musings became rumblings and then proceeded to externalise themselves through the night, much to the distaste of my sleep-deprived body. And I’m sure also the poor room service maid who came the next morning. I wasn’t the only person with such an affliction however, Lewis and Roeland were in even worse shape than me – Lewis in particular bearing very close resemblance the character Skeletor from Masters of the Universe due to the weight he lost, as you can see from this photo
We did eventually get to the race course to investigate what we had mostly all come for, but not before I had ridden into, and completely bowled over some sort of Police officer or security guard of some description. As we were rolling out of the entranceway to the hotel there were about 40 of us all heading into the bike lane to the right, and so as I negotiated the judder bars I followed the general flow with Paul in front of me, seeing him swerve to one side and duck under the shoulder of a man in uniform who hadn’t appeared to be there a split second before. Finding the man’s retreating form retreating towards me rather rapidly I had no way of stopping, so as he continued his rearward steps (away from the riders in front of him, presumably unaware that we were behind him) I found myself lining up with increasing accuracy squarely at his rump, or more likely where his rump would have been if he was a foot taller. I was bucked off to one side as he found himself (quite unexpectedly I gather, judging by his reaction) flung into the air a metre or two before him after a somewhat surprising joust to the back. The look of shock and horror on his face still troubles me now several weeks later, and the way he held his hands up as if pleading for some sort of explanation, or highlighting the grazing that they received. Other riders said later they thought that he was holding his hands up in a gesture of apology and supplication but I wasn’t convinced. He looked aggrieved. Rightly or wrongly I felt highly responsible for the incident, but wasn’t able to say much of any use to disarm the situation as the only Chinese I learned before coming was fairly elementary, and limited mainly to greetings and a few irrational comic gems. I considered my options, and when the most appropriate things I could come up with were “How old are you?” and “I love panda!” I figured it was better not to say anything at all. If you’re reading this buddy, I hope we can still be pandas together.
We were fortunate to be in Beijing (or about 60km from it) during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Not so much because it was a party that we didn’t have much to associate with (it mainly seemed to involve lighting lots of fireworks during the day, when they were particularly hard to see, and then leaving the night peacefully undisrupted) or because we were all given mooncakes (small pie-like creations with a gummy semi-sweet filling) but mainly because it was a holiday for everyone and they took the following day off too. This meant that people, and presumably factories, weren’t working and whether by design or coincidence, the air became extremely clear about the place. For the first time we could actually see the sun quite clearly in the sky and the stunning geography on the horizon became apparent. I was reminded of the beautiful southern hemisphere skies that it is easy to take for granted in New Zealand. This was even better though because it came without the 60kmph winds and ensuing requisite wind chill, which one also takes for granted as it turns out.
Our course reconnaissance in the days before the skies cleared had us expecting a super-slippery experience. The pattern of morning rain clearing into overcast and humid afternoons meant that while overall it was dry there were sneaky sections of residual but invisible greasiness. Something akin to mildew was present on the clay-base of one particular straight section, dislodging riders in a grand cacophony as they responded to the person they were following suddenly lying on the ground without, seemingly, having applied brakes or turned off a straight line. Sections of the loop were evidently created quite recently, and as a result were still very lumpy, energy-sapping and generally pretty infuriating to ride. As the holiday skies cleared and the large numbers of riders began to leave their mark on the ground it started to smooth out a little. It quickly became apparent that it was destined to be hot and clear, and combined with the flat nature of the parcours a tough fast race was always on the cards.
When the opportunity came up to visit Longqingxia, a scenic gorge only a short distance away, I sucked in my troubled insides and went out with some of the other Aussies, and Emirates Team “Jaunty” New Zealand.
We were treated to a ride up a series of escalators inside a dragon (possibly the 3rd biggest escalator dragon in the world) to take us up above the dam that has created an extensive lake beneath very precipitous and stunning cliffs. We enjoyed finding ourselves often looking in the opposite direction to almost everyone else aboard our guided tour boat, as we had notable features pointed out to us by the Chinese-speaking host.
There was bunjy-jumping to be enjoyed as well as a daring individual on a motorbike about 100m above us on a tightrope riding back and forth. He was counter-weighted by someone on a trapeze below the wire, but without any form of harness on his person it looked decidedly dodgy. He may have been doing some important work, but it looked rather pointless and dangerous from where we were.
Our descent back to where we entered Longqingxia involved a novel and high-speed method of travel that wouldn’t have been the same back home, where a helmet and other unnecessary safety precautions would have taken all the fun out of the danger:
I had a special surprise turn up for me that evening, courtesy of a number of very helpful people. Seeing our national championships were only a few weeks prior, I didn’t have long to get a custom NZ champ skinsuit designed and made before leaving for China. Luckily I happened to contact Champion System to enquire about it, and they were able to get it into the works and ready with a week or so to spare. Time was saved by sending it directly to an address in China rather than to NZ first (Winston Peters would have no use for it anyway) so I wasn’t the only one to get a surprise in the mail. When I gave the address of race organizer Yanxing Song as its destination within China, I assumed he would recall me having asked him it for this purpose. When I met him and we spoke about it, he said it had arrived at his office but that he thought it was a gift for him. I’m still not sure if he was serious, as he did seem to have a good sense of humour. He had it sent to the hotel and I was able to check it out:
Despite being kept awake at night by an ungrateful tummy, seeing the suit definitely gave me a renewed enthusiasm and motivation for the race. The course had been growing on me, and I was looking forward to getting stuck into what we had, at least in principle, all come to do.