Monday, July 8, 2013

Genghis Khan-ing That Place

We didn't imagine that we'd be like Genghis Khan in Inner Mongolia, casting destruction and havoc everywhere. But we did hope to conquer, at least, the modern-day equivalent of looting and pillaging: descending on the town of Xiwuqi -- a couple of hours from the not-so-big town of Xilinhot -- for the Genghis Khan Grasslands Extreme Marathon.

Let's just say we came, we saw, we were conquered.

Xiwuqi is a town that feels as if it wants to grow into its ambition: six-lane roads, fountains with interesting sculptures everywhere, but not enough people to actually people it, it feels. And foreigners walking around the town get treated like celebrities. "Hello! HELLO!" all the children yell, and then their parents tap your shoulder and ask to take your picture. It's charming the first hundred times, and then you try not to make eye contact. The grasslands outside Xiwuqi are beautiful: rolling green, dotted with farms that have yurts and brick barns. The sky is vast and blue, and the air smells like it should smell. Joanna said it smells like Athens.
Before the race, all smiles.

But the race was not what we expected. I chose the 10K, which was actually an 11.5K. At one point I had a semi-conversation with a guy who told me he was Mongolian, and then said his name. It sounded like he was clearing his throat, so I asked him again. He did it again, and I realized that was his name, in Mongolian. But we were running pals for a while until I realized I was alone in the middle of grasslands with a total stranger who could kill me and bury me before the next runner came along. So that's why I walked.
Me and my Mongolian running buddy

I told myself that I would just run what I wanted to run and walk the rest, and was doing that for much of the race until I was passed by a person who, how can I say this, was not in shape. Times ten. And I thought, "Oh no, you don't," and ran the rest of the race. I don't know why people (Bob) get the idea I'm competitive. I was about #19 in a field of maybe 30. Definitely did well in my age category.

Bob was just as triumphant, meaning he finished his first half-marathon. Jamie and Alison, friends from Beijing, also made it through what they said was a very tough half-marathon.
Alison finishes!

Jamie finishes!

Bob finishes!

And then we waited for Joanna and Christian, our marathoners, first-time marathoners, to finish. We waited. Four hours passed. Five hours. Six hours. The blazing Inner Mongolian sun started beating down on us, and Bob and I started imagining injuries.

Seven hours later the two of them dragged past the finish line. The trail was not well marked and they got lost. I have never seen two people look that tired. I was exhausted just waiting for them in the hot sun and trying not to imagine terrible things that could have happened. (What actually did happen -- such as facing down a ground-pawing, snorting bull on their path -- didn't even enter my mind.)

But they finally triumphed. They probably ran another 10K at least, which makes them EXTREME marathoners, in my mind. And someday I'll figure out how Joanna can be my daughter and still go through something like that without any temper tantrums.

Anyway, we next dragged out to the Mongolian Khan Village, a cheesy collection of concrete huts shaped like yurts, for the festive banquet dinner. Bottom line: the beer was scarce and warm at that, and the centerpiece of the dinner was an entire roasted sheep, who was paraded through the room triumphantly before pieces of him were slapped on our tables, looking very fatty and as unhappy as he was when he realized his fate was to be killed, roasted, and then ignored by some very tired runners who would have preferred pizza. I stuck to the steamed bread. Sometimes no taste is better than certain tastes. And when the music started, the room started to empty out.

It turned out that Mother Nature had a better show in mind. As we were staring at the roasted sheep, the rain had been coming down, and now it stopped, leaving a spectacular sunset and a double rainbow. I think that's double happiness to the Chinese.
The Mongolian Four
Mongolian rainbow


  1. Deb- I really like your article in The Atlantic.


  2. Hey, I'm on your blog! Thanks. I might repost on my blog (which has been collecting dust for about 7-8 months now....).

    It was a fun run, but difficult. Glad you guys were there!

  3. You're welcome to repost, Alison! It was fun, even with all the issues.