The Tour of Qinghai Lake. It’s pronounced Ching-high by the way. Western rules like U’s following Q’s and those Q’s making a sharp KW sound don’t apply here. It is this lack of Western norms that the mention of Qinghai sends a shiver down rider’s spines. I’ve heard the stories. Food poisoning. High altitude. Spectators walking out in front of a charging peloton. Freezing rain and howling winds during 240 kilometer/150 mile stages. Temperature swings from freezing to boiling. 14 days of racing in deepest, darkest China. They say after finishing this race, you are one of two things: on the best form of your life or out for the rest of the year. It is in this brutal gauntlet that one overarching rule becomes unambiguous. Expect the unexpected.
I came to Xining 4 days ago for a pre-race training camp that doubles as a chance to acclimatize to the thinner air. It was dark when I landed. The drive began on a deserted highway that didn’t even boast street lamps or lane markings. The black sky highlighted even blacker mountains. It was the arrival I had anticipated to this race. Until the city came into view. To be honest, I wasn’t even expecting a city and yet here one sprawled. Towers clustered together in groups with elevated highways connecting them. Bright colored lights overpowered street lamps giving a mini Times Square impression. This was not the Qinghai I was expecting.
Over the last 4 days, Xining surprised me. This ‘small’ city of 2 million is clean. Trash and recycling bins are everywhere. Hot trash smells were minimal. I even found a supermarket with fish packed on ice, dried fruits and nuts in neat packaging on clean displays. Even the meat section didn’t reek. And then this afternoon, we met a woman in our apartment’s elevator who spoke to us in broken English. When she heard we are in China for the Tour of Qinghai Lake, she asked for our apartment number. 20 minutes later she returned with 4 watermelons for us!
Don’t worry though, many times it was obvious I was back in China. There were 11 of us in a two bedroom apartment, 7 from my team and 4 from our Chinese counterpart called Attaque Gusto Elite. The bunk beds didn’t have mattresses. Instead, we slept on blankets on top of wood slats. Loud, drawn out car horns would wake us up at 6 in the morning followed by fireworks 30 minutes later. Once ordering lunch took me 15 minutes because people were lining up to take photos with us. We ate at the same underground, cafeteria style, place. Same food too, fried noodles. Each time we stepped inside, talking would stop and eyes would follow us in long, unabashed stares. A few times we ate next to a group of Buddhist monks. “You’d think we were the ones wearing the funny clothes” Mario observed from the gawking. I don’t think they get many westerners coming into this place. It’s far from touristy.
But that is the big advantage I’ve enjoyed in China while riding for Attaque Gusto. Lu is Taiwanese, speaks Chinese and English and the ATGE boys are locals. Lu translates the menu so we can vary the day’s fried noodles with chicken, veggies, beef, or pork. The ATGE guys would dart off and come back with yogurts, fried cakes, or steamed buns. It doesn’t seem like much but it creates familiarity with the food. That familiarity makes it easier to be in China. In two weeks time on the race’s rest day, a familiar food will be medicine for the mind and body.
On one of our final nights in Xining, the ATGE team took us to eat at a Shabu-shabu restaurant. Shabu-shabu is a Japanese style meal where thin sliced meats and vegetables cook in a pot of boiling water in front of each eater.
I’m not sure if they have these restaurants wherever you, the reader, might hail from, but if fishing around a boiling pot of water with chopsticks for a lost piece of meat, while someone else goes to town on a cucumber after accepting a hot chili dare, sounds like a good time to you, Shabu-Shabu is your next culinary adventure. As we walked home I almost felt comfortable here. Xining has been good to us and a small part of me will miss being the white celebrity in the underground cafeteria.