So if you decide to go to Inner Mongolia and run a marathon, my only piece of advice is to leave on Sunday morning with the rest of the crowd. I stayed a few extra days to explore the town, bond with noodle shop owners and take advantage of the hotel’s free Internet access.

The challenges arose when it was time to get back to the airport in Xilinhot. The day before I left I went to the non-English speaking front desk. They connected me to the Nordic way’s Chinese liaison (who was already back in Beijing). She assured me that a bus would pick me up the next at a five in the morning so I could catch my morning flight. Yeah right.

Bus-less at 5:30 the next morning I decided to take matters into my own hands. I knew there was a long-distance bus to the big city but odds were that it would not be leaving in the next twenty minutes. Not wanting to waste precious time on a bus that probably wasn’t going to work anyways; I threw some money at the problem and hailed a cab.

My conversation with the cabbie went like this:

Me: “Xilinhot”

Him: “Xilinhot?”

Me: “Xilinhot!”

Him: “Xilinhot?”  

After about five minutes of that we finally reached this:

Him: “Ahhh! Xilinhot!!! Okay.” He stretched his arms wide to indicate that it was far away. Yeah, thanks buddy. I know.

Then the negotiations started. We finally settled on 400 RMB ($60) for the three hour trip. It was a mild rip off as I’d been on a nine hour jaunt through the countryside the day before for the same price, but whatever. Desperation is a bad place to be bargaining from. And it was cheaper than missing both my flights. Luckily my cab driver was a good man and did not pull over in the middle of nowhere to demand more money.

Once in Xilinhot the cabbie had no idea where the airport was, a problem he solved by shouting direction requests at motorcycle riders while waiting at red lights. Good thing Mongolian men don’t have an aversion to asking for directions. We pulled up the airport thirty minutes before take-off, as the plane was boarding. Luckily this was more than enough time to navigate the airport which had all of three terminals.

My flights to Beijing and Hangzhou were blissfully uneventful. I was picked up by two Chinese student-teachers who would be working at the New Oriental School. They took me to the main offices where I was greeted by a frazzled man. I recognized the look in his eyes – it’s the same one my school office manager in Las Vegas got when six teachers called out sick and no subs were showing up. I brace myself.

“Hi. You are Jennifer? This will be your classroom. Just for tomorrow. You teach from 2:00 to 3:00, okay?” The guy says in lieu of an introduction.

“Okay,” I reply, trying not to roll my eyes as he explained that this was NOT summer camp I’d signed up to teach (“just a little extra”), he’d find a textbook for me, and I’d have to take a taxi from my residence. The next day I dutifully prepare my lesson (sans textbook), show up to my class, and teach for an hour. As I’m preparing to leave a Chinese teacher informs me that I actually have to teach these kids until 5:30. And I had to come back tomorrow at 1:30.  

Welcome to the New Oriental School.

Oh, and my residence? Here it is:

During the bus ride from Xilinhot to Xiwuqi I earnestly took pictures of all the yurts along the side of the road, thinking that they were rare sightings. Oh no. There are yurts all over Inner Mongolia. There are…

Tourist yurts


Luxury tourist yurts


Motorcycle storage yurts


Big yurts next to little yurts

Yurts for fancy restaurant dining


Yurts for simple restaurant cooking


Yurts for sheep herders


Yurts with plaster covering


Yurts sewn with sheep skin


Yurt-to-be

A phone conversation with my mom a few months ago:

Her: “Where did you find out about this race? Are you sure it’s legitimate?”  

Me: “Some website. And no, but I’m going anyways.”

Her: “O-kay-ee”

 A conversation with a bank manager soon afterwards:

 Her: “Are you sure about this company? Because once we transfer the money, it’s gone.”

Me : “Um, kinda. Transfer away.”

Jeez people, have a little faith!

The Genghis Khan Grasslands Extreme Marathon in Xiwuqi, Inner Mongolia, China is indeed legitimate. Not that this is the best word to describe it though. Adjectives like awesome, breath-taking, gorgeous, fascinating, well-marked, and fun come a little closer to describe the coolest thing I’ve done in China.

The excitement was palpable from the Friday morning flight from Beijing to Xilinhot, as a decidedly in-shape and western looking crowd boarded the flight. An hour later we were bumping along a dirt potholely road through the grasslands. Next to us was a brand-new almost-finished road, so the four-hour ride should be smoother and faster next year.

 After checking into the race motel we headed out to the main tourist attraction for some archery, Mongolian horse riding, yurt viewing, and a dinner banquet.

 

In addition to the marathon, half marathon and 10K race, the Genghis Khan event also includes a three day bike ride. The Day 1 finish and awards ceremony took place at this touristy yurt village as well.

 

Dinner was interesting. Most pre-race dinners feature plates of spaghetti, an inspirational talk, and everyone leaving by seven to rest up for the big race. Not here.

 

Despite the fact that I consumed more beer then water the night before, I woke up ready to run, figuring I was one step ahead of everyone that had shots of baijiu. Myself and about 50 or so other runners (half and full marathoners all started together) took off from the cultural square into the grasslands.  

Like Gengis Khan crushed China, the Mongolian landscape crushed my hopes for a sub two hour ½ marathon. The first 15K of green foothills was gorgeous, but tough. The real killer was the last 5K into the wind and through town. It was business as usual in the streets of Xiwuqi as runners shared the streets with cars, trucks, bikes and pedestrians. This type of finish kinda kills end-of-the-race adrenaline.  

Luckily (for me) no other female ½ marathoners finished in less than two hours either, which was how, despite my disappointing time of 2:20, I ended up here:

 

Race times aside, it was a great time. As usual, the event was made better by the people you meet. Congratulations on a successful race to…

  • Barbara, the New Yorker who has run a race on every continent (yes, Antarctica has a marathon).
  • The American-Chinese couple working on racing in every Chinese province.
  • Michele, an American student in Beijing, completing her first ½ marathon.
  • Aly, the gregarious 3rd place marathon runner and her entourage. And the other Allie who zoomed ahead of me at the 10K mark to win 2nd place in the ½.
  • Tina, who I followed for most of the race.  
  • The whole team of runners from Malaysia, some of whom have run 45+ marathons.
  • Florence from Singapore, my roommate.  
  • The other Jenn who won the full marathon (however her prize money was not equal to the winners of the male marathon…)
  • The always smiling FK (sorry I don’t know how to spell your name!) and his wife, the 2nd place marathon finisher.
  • Sue, who ran the full marathon and then commissioned a taxi to drive us around the countryside the next day. Thanks Sue!

Now…onto the next race. I’m going to break two hours this year! I’m thinking October 1st in Orlando, land of no hills. Anyone with me?