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Beauty and the Tour Bus

By Nicola Cameron

In order to cover the race, the international race directors (Louise and Santi), James the photographer, and myself (Nicky the writer), have been driving back and forth on the most immaculate piece of pavement.  As a Canadian, I’m used to roads that seize and buckle in the winter, opening potholes and cracks and require constant patching and re-paving.  Even though the Altay region has an average temperature of -24C in January, the road is as pristine as if it was just paved yesterday.  It’s representative of the smooth and powerful insertion of the Chinese government presence in the area.  The lengthy highway winds its way in and around traditional mongol summer camps, up and down mountains, with police stops every few kilometres, in order to bring Chinese tourists in a steady stream of tour busses to the designated tourist stops, and only to those tourist stops. It is a testament to X-Trail’s significant connections and the weeks of negotiating and heavy drinking with local government officials on the part of Louise and X-Trail staff that racers are allowed to gallivant all over the green hills – without even running through a metal detector at any point.

While the front teams – Seagate, Silva, Estonian Ace Adventure, Bones and Columbia Vida Raid, faced a thunder and lightning storm high on the mountains during the 49 km trek stage, the later teams gushed over the beauty. Youth Ecuadorean team Terra Aventora said it was the most beautiful trek they had ever seen – high praise from athletes used to the mountains of Ecuador. Terra Aventora is so far winning awards for happiest team, last seen  striding along on a wave of determined good humour, sharing snacks. Louise noted how energizing the presence of the youth teams is, as they accept the bumps and scrapes that come with new adventures.  The Korean team K’Art had a raft that sprung a leak and emerged from a 6 km walk at the end of the raft, last in the pack and still smiling.  Polish team Adventuresport.pl was spotted sharing cookies one of the team member’s mom.  That’s not to say an adventure race is all mom’s cookies for anyone. Koala Bear Hunters described their enthusiasm at the start of the trekking section: “We were so pumped from the rafting, and then the trek was so beautiful – we were on this high. Then it… well, it got really dark, and cold, and it was really long, you know? Then there was this huge swamp.”  The Aussie Battlers were moving as if they were covered in tissue paper and couldn’t rip it – it was painfully obvious that every muscle hurt.

The Chinese team Expedition Experience (not a youth team) shared their feelings about the trek with typical Chinese directness: “No, no, we did not enjoy that. No. Terrible.  For us – for it was long.  15 hrs. Too long.”  Expedition Experience changed clothes efficiently at the TA, displaying heavily muscled legs and keen focus. Though trailing near the back of the pack, I could see them being much closer to mid-pack at their next race – and better after that.

The Sneaky Weasels (or, as Santi calls them, the Sneaky Weaslies), meanwhile were possibly suffering from youthful hubris.  After nipping around the heels of the top 5 for most the race, one team-mate succumbed to dehydration.  We’ve been told the other three are continuing on un-ranked, but that has not been confirmed. “That’s the only thing that’ll stop a Kiwi, you know” said an Australian spectator. “Dehydration and heat stroke. They’ll beat us at anything but they can’t handle the heat.”  The highs during the middle of the day are 29 – 30C, but carrying 4 – 5 litres of water for the 200 km bike is not appealing, especially if you’re moving fast.

If the Weasels had been just a bit sneakier, they might have stopped at one of the yurts on the route.  The yurts that dot the landscape are the most amazing hidden jewels – mostly identical from the outside, made with a heavy white fabric occasionally decorated with flags or designs on the fabric, inside they can be a sumptuous living room of colourful rugs, a grocery store, or even a bar.  Had the weasels stuck their heads in, the famously hospitable mongols would most likely have either offered them tea or directed them to water.

The race car I was travelling stopped to take pictures of camels and was treated to a milky tea that smelled like livestock and a variety of mysterious snacks made largely of milk. The camels in the region have shaggy hair that seems to be permanently moulting, as well as humps that are so high they seem on the verge of toppling off.  The camel-herder we saw pulled large hanks of hair off in his hands, demonstrating to us that it made clothing that offered superior protection from the elements. For those teams that did see yurts, I hope they stopped to say hi.

After the beauty of the mountain region, the changing landscape on the descent to the desert must have been a reality check as a hard, hot, rocky 200 km bike leg replaced the mountain vistas. The landscape featured crumbling rock hills with no trees, reminiscent of images of hills in Pakistan or Afghanistan.  Certainly the discovery that due to flooding, a detour of an extra 40 km (minimum), AFTER 200 km, was necessary brought the race into sharp focus.

After a frustrating final 40 kms (or more for those teams that got lost), teams were greeted by what is now known as “The Worst TA in AR History.”  Set alongside the only lake in the area, the TA was manned by what looked like ninjas – TA staff with buffs pulled up so far to their eyes only a slit showed.  Our driver got out of the car to sign us in and began leaping and twirling and slapping.  BUGS.  As we waited for teams, with midge-like creatures swirling around our faces and expertly finding their way into our clothes to deliver intimate bites around our waistbands, we compared the TA other contenders for worst TA in history: the site on western Australia, woken into a raging bug paradise by unexpectedly warm weather?  The mud-pit in Ecuador?  A member of Columbia Vida Raid, his latin good looks obscured by the buff he had pulled up over his eyes, clinched the new name by proclaiming it “worst than Pantanal” – the adventure racing world championships held in, essentially, the worst swamp in Brazil.

Seagate looked stiff and sore; Silva looked sleepy and extremely irritable; the Estonians were grim and muttered among themselves about one member needing medical help, refusing to clarify when asked about the conversation. Spanish team Columbia Vida Raid seemed to have tension with American English-speaker Julia, their last-minute replacement for Barbara Bomfim, one of the team’s usual roster of Spanish-speaking superstar ladies. Vida Raid was travelling alongside Team Bones for much of the bike in what seems like a tense back and forth for 4th place, describing having left Bones after both teams stopped for food at a market.  Bones seemed to be struggling with navigation during the detour and are sure to be in low spirits after losing their fourth place position to Vida Raid – and potentially Bivouac Inov-8, who are closing in on them as this is written.  At two days into the race, and teams paddle off one by one under the rising moon and a cloud of bugs, it’s easy to predict a certain amount of sh*t hitting the fan.

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