This was a unique opportunity – when it was announced the ARWS was looking at accepting China’s Xtrail Expedition Altay into their fold, it was under the provision of a successful demonstration race.
The demonstration race was to be in a remote part of China in 3 months (where on earth is Altay and Lake Kanas anyway?!).
At just $450ea. with little hesitation/checking with work, I sourced team mates via Tiger Adventure. The bonus was $600US paid in local Yuan to each competitor (paid to race?! I’m definitely in!!!).
So I was in as team with XPD teammate Dave, his Oz based Italian friend Eugenio and AR friend Christine – meaning we were racing in the premier mixed category and a good bunch including 2 people I knew and was very happy to race with.
Preparation started, and confusion reigned supreme as language barriers made it difficult to know what we needed/could/should take including our own climbing gear (usually supplied by safety contractors running the ropes).
A friend and fellow racer Todd, asked the Race Director what sort of kayaks we would have – the replied photo was a magnificent yellow beast which Todd surmised as the first result of a google image search for ‘kayak’! (Turned out China was a lot more prepared for us than we thought – we got the magnificent yellow beasts).
One of the major considerations was the weather, temperatures that seemed to be swinging to very cold to a quite nice 15-20deg. which is perfect for AR. The reality turned out to be pretty much just really cold, all the time.
In the days prior to the race start, the mass of athletes from Australia rendezvoused in Guangzhou (for a Customs lithium battery battle/hot-potato shuffle between teams) where we (and all 30 teams) conveniently found out that Eugenio was fluent in Mandarin – bonus! We then met 90% of the other racers at Urumqi before our organisers-provided flight to Altay. Chatting to one team during our 10hr Uruqi wait, the captain surmised it was OK his girlfriend raced in another team against him because they work together… Later I asked what they did for work – oh, full time adventure racers. Right well that’s international racing for you! (Later identified as Team Haglofs, no ordinary team.. Finished 3rd).
Hours in Urumqi waiting for our flight to Altay turned into an overnight stay and hotels rooms were arranged. I spent the night in a room with a strangely named guy ‘Silver’ who wore his PFD wherever he went (Later identified as an Estonian team member, no ordinary guy.. Finished 4th).
Arriving to Altay in the morning the air was fresh and it was what was to become a familiar camera & checkpoint laden bus ride through China’s Western territory that had been in lock-down since 2009.
The host hotel (like the town itself) was stone chalet “Alps of China” style outside with a confusion of rooms, features and build quality inside. It looked A+ from the outside and in the foyer though. Nearby was a shot-in-the-arm of local culture in the form of a Yurt city which we stumbled around talking to the Kazak Muslims with Eugenio’s translating – this was a part of the world like nothing else.
The usual race scurry to shops and preparation was underway, and after many meals of the same buffet, we had had our official race photo’s, packed our boxes (unsupported race, for access at later stages) and setup bikes, then it was time to get the show on the road.
The Prologue & Race
A for-fun dance for the media prior to the actual race start. Confused tourists restrained to timber decks looked on in amusement and envy as we ran, paddled, and ran again in and around Lake Kanas, of which we had special government permission to enter the usually rigid limits.
This is where I should add, THIS PLACE IS STUNNING!!!! See for yourself:
7-blade carbon fibre 4k drones flew above lit like buzzing christmas trees as we hopped about rocks for photo’s and skimmed stones. We just wanted to have fun before it all got serious and it was pretty amazing to be a part of this race, in this part of the world, with some amazing world-class teams. Drenched in sponsor Red Bull’s syrup, we triumphantly returned to HQ to prepare for the big day.
The Actual Race
Leg 1 – Trek: 53kms
Another nervous drive to a magnificently electric atmosphere – a stage was set, Minister for this, Government official of that; anyone important spoke between traditional dances and last-minute rummaging as teams readied themselves.
As team #2 we were at the front, then ‘bang!’.. Race start.
Soon after it turned out that Christine’s Icelandic Ultra just a few weeks before would catch up with her, and a minor but frustrating respiratory issue kicked in and stayed with her for the rest of the race.
It was a slow hike carrying Christine’s pack up a very steep mountain to the high point pagoda for CP1 – a (bus) tourist-laden boardwalk affair, and it almost felt like an Amazing Race checkpoint where race officials stood around waiting for you to punch in among a swarming crowd of onlookers.
Then it went bush, and with a couple of other teams including Aussies Mont & fellow Tigers, we scrambled to find the best route, sometimes with wins, sometimes with losses. At one point we studied the map a good 10 mins before walking 5m forward to see the checkpoint around the corner of some trees. Bugger! But, that’s AR for you.
The scenery was exceptional; tall birch trees, open grassy farm plains, snow-capped ridgeline, and dense old timber forests which had yet to meet humans. Each day we pinched ourselves at what was around us.
Later the day it got very hot and we walked down a dusty road in the middle of nowhere – it felt special and unique to be so remote! Except for that hummm? A few seconds later a camera drone pops out to follow us, controlled by a speck of a man crouched on a distant hillside .. So, maybe not that remote!
We tracked along through ever-changing scenery, with manned checkpoint officials giving us race place and time updates. Very handy to know where the competition is..!
As it started to get dark (sunrise 9am, sunset 4pm) we found some wild horses and came across a very Mongolian family who had a spread of sweet bread, tea and other delights for racers as they passed.
After a succession of photos we continued on, soon finding a couple of teams at the kayak transition. The launch point was beautiful, the hills framing the backdrop would again be our next trek leg.
Day 1 – Leg 2 – Sunset Kayak: 34kms
We quickly made it onto the water as the light of the day faded, and did a little kayak test – all seemed OK.
But too far from transition we found out it wasn’t OK.. Yes these kayaks were nice and new, but they did not go straight!!! We found that out at the prologue and thought we had now picked a winner for our 9 hour stint through the night, but instead the night air was constantly broken by yelps of “harder on right!” and “right only!!”. Check the tracking for a zig-zag route if you don’t believe me ?.
Night descended quickly and that cold we read about prior to the race also descended. By time we had reached the most extreme end of Lake Kanas where a lonely man sat with a flashlight, it was really cold. The guy was all rugged up and there I was sitting still in my running shorts under the skirt of the boat, hands freezing! Whilst stopping to punch the CP I attempted to get some of the pooling water off the skirt and instead managed to channel it down the inside of the skirt so it could nestle in my seat to freeze my lower members and keep them in water for the next 2 hours – great.
Pushing off it was a sleepy paddle to the next CP which required us to run up a little embankment. It was really, really cold and around 12am there was so much reluctance.
The final CP/TA was soon in the distance as a flashing light, it looked so close! It still took over an hour to cover the distance which always looked maybe a few hundred of meters away.
Finishing the kayak it was a struggle up the hill carrying/dropping the kayaks for eternity until the TA was in sight, lit by some car headlights.
A quick and reluctant strip down and change into everything we had (have I mentioned it was cold yet?), and it was off passing through the prologue start point, before a long winding dirt road climb.
Day 1 – Leg 3 – Night Trek: 47kms
The hillclimb seemed to go forever and being somewhere around 2am it was extremely difficult (despite not being technically hard) as it just never ended. Through some bush we popped out onto a highly exposed barren rocky hilltop for the next CP – finally.
At this point an Italian team joined us for a trek back down the other side as the sun rose, eventually winding our way into a magnificently wide gorge with a torrent of crystal clean water below, above was us on a side track full of adventurous Chinese campers in the opposite direction making their way with guides and donkeys.
It was hot and dry and dusty, but the wind a little chilly, so the challenge was to manage all the elements before a descent down to the local town which looked like it was a set for a movie with its authentic country-style collection of timber buildings.
Now somewhere around 2-3pm it was a fun street rogaine to the “challenge” of noodle making and the 2hr compulsory stop.
Unfortunately flies, people, and uncomfortable surroundings made it hard to sleep but a rest was better than nothing.
We soon pushed on to TA 3km away to setup the bikes and start out first MTB leg.
Day 2 – Leg 4 – Sunset Bike: 96kms
It was very exciting to be on the bikes and the last light disappeared as we made our way down some dirt lanes. One lane ended at a short 5m jab 45% climb which then flattened out to 44% for another 2 hours of hike-a-bike. Eugenio even took his shoes off it was so hard to get grip. We made it to the top CP and were told this is where the magnificent promo photo’s were taken of undulating hills and valleys – except it was pitch black.
The drop back down was a long crisscross of animal tracks – here in part excitement of MTB/downhill and a speed too fast for an endurance race, I clipped a tuft of grass and was launched through the air landing heavily bike and bag contents emptied on top of me. Luckily only a sore finger and endless blood the damage. Note to self after that; take it a bit more easy to go the distance!
Dave’s nav was terrific at this point where we caught some teams that also struggled, as a light rain started around 10/11pm.
A hut CP at the top of another high point saw it absolutely full of teams sleeping and a dozen bikes against the hut outside.
Cold and wet we decided to push on as we were not all that tired; perhaps that choice would catch up with us later. The track down (and up/down) was a single truck road with a significant side drop off and the rain was very heavy now – torrents of water washed down the track which turned into a 4hr descent on rocks the size of shoes. Maintain some speed or bump-and-fall were the options. We probably all experienced both, including a puncture for me – changing in the rain was something new to try sans-shelter with fingers so cold and barely able to work.
At some point night turned to day as the morning rain eased to steady, and we continued with me on nav along the rocky track up yet more climbs before an amazing downhill run to the flat where it was a muddy slog.
From no where photographers appeared through the drizzle to snap these gems:
Now drenched for 12 hours we continued through the sloshly “dry arid fields” of the promotional material.
The grind set in and it was up/down through towns and along unsealed roads for another 4 hours in drizzle until we reached a TA.. Excitement !!
Day 2 – Leg 5 – Afternoon Trek/Abseil: 5kms
This TA was a loop out and back to a ropes course/abseil, and after a 5k trek the organisers hooked us up to descend down a small outcrop.
Day 2 – Leg 6 – Afternoon bike: 59kms
Pushing off on the MTB again we battled it out with a local team for a while – the small girl in their team looked hunched over at 10/10ths with flat pedals and all, chasing down her own team leader who was a very fit and lean guy.
Navigation became tricky, with a 1:100,000 scale and 40m intervals the mountains had to be significant to be marked on the map so it was a distant range on the left that was our only bearing, while tracks in front of us crisscrossed towards where we were meant to be going.
Luck of daylight on this leg (despite several nav stops), meant we hit all the CP’s quickly, once again in battle with the local team coming off the open plains through some tiny villages.. Where the Italians also appeared in front of us.
The 3 teams now engaged in a nav and pace battle that turned the race into an actual race, it was fun to push harder for a little while.
All 3 teams sped to the second-to last-checkpoint by a creek where we decided to move on quickly to take an advantage.
Then our advantage disappeared, perhaps the lack of sleep is to blame.
Following what we thought was the course, an official car waved us back saying we weren’t allowed where we were… We tracked back finding another team also confused. Returning to the last CP 10mins later, a random guy with flashing head torch started waving us up the creek – which was definitely not the indicated route on the map – but we took his advice assuming he had seen other racers doing the same.
The creek turned into a gorge, which due to the contour interval looked nothing like the map, and in fact the indicated map path wove across either side of the gorge which was actually impossible – the drop off on the sides was some 20m!! Frantically dangerous, cycling over rough terrain 1-2m from a cliff edge.
In an out of the gorge dragging bikes past small mountains (still not on the map due to their small height), our tired minds were confused and after seeing other teams also poking around, we returned some 5 hours later to our last known position, the CP near the creek.
A confusing conversation ensued which included the manned CP organiser calling the Race Director who said the cut off time was 3hrs earlier than the race book and that many teams were confused like us and the next CP wasn’t where it was on the map.
He ended up agreeing we had the right cutoff time but told us to go south and re-route via the road.
Well, that made us feel frustrated for our 5 hours lost but satisfied, just disappointment post-race seeing the tracking that we were clearly turned around just short of the gorge CP that many others found.
Another puncture and much confusing village navigation to the highway, we tracked along finding the road towards the finish. The long long roads were sleep inducing and we all swerved all over the place as 3am trucks barrelled past.
After several hours there was just one final long hill and 5km descend to the finish, when in front of us Eugenio had just one micro nap too long – in the blink of an eye he swerved right, colliding front-on to the guard rail, and like something out of the movies, continued his momentum flipping the bike and himself propelled 2m high through the air and landing heavily into the ditch on the side of the road. We feared the worst but miraculously he was intact with minor bike damage. Wow. That was really close.
Despite the injection of adrenaline we still staggered to the finish a few kilometres later, ~5am, 68 hours since starting (now Day 3).
Wew! And what a race! It was a effort of cold and wet persistence, but it was just the most amazing and varied place to see and with race legs that were a balance of a challenge and suitable length that engaged us really well.
It was now time to sleep..
Day 1 Video:
Day 2 Video: