Day 1 of the Altay Expedition Adventure Race began with a performance during the opening ceremonies by a Mongolian throat singer. Mongolian singing, developed to travel across wide open spaces, specializes in overtones – the ability to produce two tones at once. It sounds like a human didgeridoo – vibrant, ringing and growling all at once. When the singer let loose, it sounded like the earth itself had opened up to let us hear its voice. He should have started the race instead of the air horn. But the air-horn it was, unleashing the racers onto the course and a three kilometre run to start the paddle.
The day was mostly spent on the turquoise water of the Kanasi lake and river, first kayaking 25 km and then switching to small rafts for a white-water section. Seagate emerged first from the paddle, confident and smooth, with Team 4 Sports from South Africa, a youth team, hot on their heels. Team 4 Sports consists of one stellar woman – Robyn Owen from South Africa, who has represented South Africa at the world championship level in canoeing, mountain running and adventure racing, and some nice dudes including her husband, who intend to follow her around the course. Obviously they are bringing some paddling strength to the table too, as a general admiration for Robyn still won’t get you within metres of Seagate.
Santiago (Santi) Lopez, race director of the Ecuadorean race Huairasinchi, was watching closely as racers strapped on their bike helmets and leapt into rafts that looked more like pool toys than rafting rafts. He had confessed to me the day before that he was extremely worried about the boats chosen by X-Trail for the rafting section. “These are not rafts! These are like…for putting beer in at the cottage!” Muttering and dour, he tested out the section in the little beer boats with three Chinese race staff members, submitting himself to the laughing and pointing of the Chinese raft guides at the rafting facility. Although the boat filled with so much water Santi began to “bail” by flicking water out of the boat with his paddle, they remained upright, and finished by high-fiveing with their paddles and slapping each other on the back, boisterous and elated. It looked like the rafting section was back on.
Once finished with the paddle, one of the race staff picked a large rock out of the water, and began to walk purposefully towards a colourful shape in the distance. It turned out to be an imposing Mongolian Shrine, with rocks at the base, large sticks wound with flapping, colourful rags, and some fur and a trident of sorts at the top. Our friend put his rock into the rock pile, and encouraged us to follow him as we circled the shrine three times, bowing at a certain spot. Eyes shining, he mimed horseback riding, waving one arm and shouting. He slapped his chest and proclaimed “Mongol!” Then he turned back into the modern day athletic gentlemen with the high cheekbones who was very helpful around the race course and would obviously make a great adventure racer.
Several teams did have some excitement in their rafts as Santi feared – the Brazilian team Nossa Vida flipped and came to shore looking as if they had quite a bad scare, and Team Adventuresport.pl, a polish team, hit a rock and apparently were thrown into the air like popcorn, scrambling to grab the raft and make their way to the shore.
Most of the inexperienced teams we encountered struggling to carry their rafts up a long, steep hill from the river to the TA, however, had much harsher words for the paddle than the rafting. The Aussie Battlers peered up at us from under the raft with a sheepish look, fully aware that they deserved a bad paddle (not having ever trained) but still weren’t happy about it. “God! Paddling! Just sitting for that long! Awful! We tried crossing our legs but it was so uncomfortable!” I joked with them that I wanted to be a “Battler” too, and one fired back immediately “not right now you don’t.” I later saw the same team member emerging with the team toilet paper roll in his hand from a very ill-advised spot for such business – he had elected to climb back down the steepest part of the slope to find a dense brushy patch for privacy. “Stinging nettles are out,” he noted. Singaporean team Little Red Dot had fun on the rafting section, but struggled to carry their boat up the hill – watching them let it fall repeatedly was a bit painful. Korean team K-ART emerged last, walking up with no raft as theirs had actually popped, but still in good spirits.
After seeing the last teams off the water, we wound our way to Hemu village through mountains with grassy foothills like worn green velvet, scattered rain clouds producing shafts of rainbows. I hoped that the teams were getting to see the same thing on their trek.