Thursday, October 22, 2009

Race Report: More surprises in Yuxi

Part II:

Nordic Ways sold us a seamless travel package for 2,250 yuan (US$330) for each rider, including two nights in a hotel, breakfast, dinner and shuttle bus transport to and from the hotel. We just had to pay for our own airfare to Yunnan's provincial capital of Kunming, about an hour's drive from Yuxi.

We arrived at the airport in the early afternoon, and a tour bus was waiting for us. We spent about an hour waiting some other riders who never arrived. The cargo compartment beneath the bus didn’t have enough room for all our bike boxes, so we had to load them on the bus and pile them up in the back of the vehicle. It would have been an ugly scene if the driver had to slam on the brakes. There would have been an avalanche of bike cases burying or beheading all the riders in the rear half of the bus. But safety never comes first in China.

Two friends who arrived in Kunming on an evening flight were held up for a couple hours while the bus waited for another cyclist whose flight from Hong Kong was delayed. The riders decided to make good use of the time, unpack their bikes from their travel cases and start the arduous task of rebuilding the machines in the parking lot. They had to constantly fend of an elderly woman who was scavenging for recyclable materials and kept trying to take things out of their boxes.

Before I travel in China, I usually research my destination. I at least crack open my Lonely Planet travel guide to see what kind of outdated information it has about my destination. But this time, I didn't bother to because I felt like I had a good mental picture of Yuxi: a sleepy town on a lake with a couple of resorts. Besides, Lonely Planet didn't even bother to profile the town, as I learned after I got home.

I was surprised when Yuxi turned out to be a bustling city of 2 million people with fastfood joints like McDonald's and KFC. The city even had a Wal Mart store. Cities like Yuxi have become the hot new markets for global retailers. Most of them have a sturdy foot hold in major markets like Beijing and Shanghai. The expansion is going on in the second- and third-tier cities.

The cyclists were put up in the Red Pagoda Hotel, owned by a famous tobacco company of the same name. The staff were friendly but the rooms smelled like wet ashtrays and the carpet had cigarette burns. The view from my fifth floor room included huge metal water storage tanks and a dirty swimming pool drained of its water.

We got right to the most-dreaded task: unpacking and building up the bikes. I live in fear that I’m going to discover that something is missing or broken when I open my box. Fortunately, everything was OK and fitting together without problems.

Once the bikes were ready, we set out to recon the first few kilometers of the race course. We were dismayed that most of the start was uphill – long hills. Something we weren’t ready for.

The night before the race, we were loaded on buses and taken to a restaurant for some of the best banquet food I've ever had in China. Ten of us gathered around a round table that was quickly crowded with 14 dishes: slice beef, peppery chicken, fish over spicy noodles, peanuts with dried shrimp, stir-fried mushrooms, eggplant smothered in chili sauce. It was all washed down with soda and the local beer – a watery lager.

After dinner, we were bused to the opening ceremony in the town square, where local Communist Party and city officials gave longwinded speeches over public address systems that left our ears ringing. The event wrapped up with a series of dance routines from Yunnan's colorful ethnic minority groups. One performance seemed to be a seduction dance with men trying to put donut-shaped cushions over the heads of lovely women with pointy beehive hairdos. The symbolism wasn't lost on us.

The next morning, about 120 cyclists lined up for the 175 kilometer race around Fuxian Lake, and about 110 others raced in a shorter 78.8 kilometer competition. The organizers had said they would round up about 1,000 locals to join the race. They also said their would be no effort to segregate the serious cyclists from the masses. Whoever got to the starting area first got to keep the position. This worried us.

But the newby masses never showed up, and we rode off safely without any pileups. But just after the gun went off, one of the strongest riders in our group noticed his front tubular was leaking, and he had to stop for six minutes to fix the flat. When he tried to rejoin the race, a policeman misdirected him and he ended up riding around the city aimlessly asking people for directions before he got another flat and abandoned the race.
Next: Finally, the race

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