Desert Leisure Games
A dirtbag has little money by definition, but at one point Rudy and myself literally had no money left. Our dirtbag oath of honour meant that money could come only from honorable sources – something running related or doing Chinese translations. We had plenty of offers to make easy cash teaching English, but we decided we would rather starve.
We urgently had to get into a race and do well enough to win some cash. Rudy, by now the master of dark art of finding websites of obscure races in the depth of Chinese Internet and getting us invited to them, eventually found one – in Xinjiang, close to the border with Kazakhstan. The race was part of something called Desert Leisure Games. We got invited.
According to the English-language information booklet sent to us, the glorious Desert Leisure Games comprised several sporting events. Apart from the straightforward basketball and 5-a-side football there was also something called a “self-driving competition” and a monumentally bizarre “international wood-pellet game”. The race distance was confidently stated as between 18 and 28km. Prize money was excellent – 20,000 yuan to the winner ( 2,556.44 EURO)
We landed in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumchi at midnight, exhausted and hungry. The race representatives picked us up in the airport and bundled us into a 4×4 while announcing that we had a 4-hour drive to race location but first we had would have to wait for another foreigner whose plane should be landing shortly. Rudy promptly curled up into a ball on the back seat and went into a coma.
We eventually got to the hotel at 7 in the morning, expecting to be given a key to a room so that we could finally get some sleep. Not so. We had to wait for the race registration to start in order to get our keys. After half an hour two stern middle-aged ladies with perms from the organizing committee (ladies, not perms) came down and set up shop in the lobby. We ran up to them saying that we were foreign competitors who urgently needed to go to bed to rest and demanded our keys. The ladies countered by demanding race insurance. We indignantly replied that we had none because nobody had informed us we should. This made the perms angry: arrogant foreigners showing lack of respect to proper procedure and figures of authority. They triumphantly declared that all the competitors must have insurance and that this matter can only be resolved by their boss who was still asleep. Luckily the boss soon appeared, calmed down the permed ladies and we finally got our keys.
Eastern Promises and Steven Seagal
Before the race I hypothesized that, with Kazakhstan being so close to Xinjiang, there might be a Kazakhstani team taking part – Desert Leisure Games were supposed to be “international”. Yet Rudy, whose knowledge of Kazakhstan was based primarily on the film “Borat”, was skeptical of Kazakhstani distance running pedigree. I turned out to be right, the race information booklet confirmed that there was indeed a team from Kazakhstan.
We were about to go for lunch when three westerners emerged from the hotel elevator. They were led by a fierce, stocky, Asian-looking man sporting a mane of dyed jet-black hair that tapered into a Steven Seagal-style ponytail. At close quarters I saw that the three westerners, obviously athletes, did not look or behave like typical westerners – their craggy Slavic faces seemed frozen into snarling expressions. Apart from Steven Seagal they were all ethnic Russians. The short, shaven headed muscular guy was snarling the most. I nudged Rudy and whispered: ‘Kazakhstanis’. Rudy looked a bit scared.
The Kazakhstanis looked us over and offered a minimal nod of acknowledgement. Steven Seagal marched up to the reception and started shouting at the staff about a problem with breakfast, translating the replies into Russian to the short, muscular snarling guy. The short muscular guy looked like a Russian mobster from a Hollywood film and so became Eastern Promises. (A 2007 film about Russian mafia in London.)
Eastern Promises listened to Steven Seagal ranting in dignified, snarling silence. They were accompanied by a young skinny dude, who was obviously the running protégé and an athletic, tough-looking girl who actually smiled at Rudy and tried out her English. Neither Eastern Promises nor Steven Seagal showed any enthusiasm for such frivolities.
“Your Iroquois won!” Eastern Promises said to me after I crossed the finishing line in 13th place, out of prize money and with my shoes full of sand. The race course, up and down massive sand dunes, turned out to be 21 kilometres. It took me a few seconds to figure out that in Russian a ‘mohawk’ is ‘iroquois’ and that therefore Rudy, who was sporting a mohawk hair-style at the time, won. Which meant that we had 20,000 yuan and could pay the rent.
Another thing that Rudy won was the respect of the snarling Kazakhstanis who were now willing to talk and were even smiling. On the bus back to the hotel I found out that the young protégé had a 64-minute half marathon (he finished seventh) and that Eastern Promises was a distance coach of some renown who used to run for the Soviet Union in his day.
Steven Seagal was a fixer and a translator. Half Kazakh- half Russian, he had been working on sports exchanges between Kazakhstan and China for more than 20 years. He spoke fluent Chinese of the kind that can only be learnt through living and working (and drinking) in China. He was a ball of energy, had an intimidating stare, and did not mince his words. I asked him how old he was. “I am 64.” he replied proudly. “I can still down a bottle of vodka on my own. Serves me well at business dinners with the Chinese, you know what they are like, always trying to get you hammered. They drink themselves half to death trying to keep up with me. Funny, really’. He then took out his iPad and showed me photos of Hong Kong Disneyland that he had been to recently: “This place is amazing! Pure quality. You should go.”
Eastern Promises was not very impressed with Disneyland. On the bus to Urumchi we were talking about running, doping and the recent London Olympics. The discussion got heated. “I know you are British, he said, but you are a Russian by blood, so please tell me that you don’t think that Paula Radcliffe is not doping! How else can a woman run a 2:15 marathon? Sorry for being honest, I really don’t want to offend you, but all those gold medals in the Olympics in London, out of nowhere! And then the British have the nerve to get all moral about doping. Trust me, I have been around, I know how it all works!” he said, smiling at my western naiveté.
“There is good seafood here, in Urumchi” Steven Seagal interjected. “We are going to a seafood buffet this evening, you are invited’.
Steven Seagal led us to the seafood restaurant, storming down the street ahead of us. We hobbled and limped behind, our legs sore after running through soft sand. Suddenly Seagal stopped: “Where is your Iroquois?”. “Rudy? He is not coming, he went to get some noodles for himself”. I replied. Seagal was shocked.
“What?! You did not invite him? What’s wrong with you?” he bellowed. “I did not know you also invited him’.” I meekly protested. “Of course, we bloody did, how could I just invite you only?” He looked outraged and a little disgusted. “What the hell will he think of us now?! What sort of impression of Russians will he have now?! Call him immediately, apologize and get him here”. I duly obeyed.
Rudy was already back in his hotel room with a plate of noodles, basking in the glow of his win. He had no desire to hang out with the scary, snarling, monolingual Kazakhstanis. I relayed this information to Seagal (in a more diplomatic form) but it did not go down well. “It’s your fault! He will now think we are some kind of stingy assholes. That’s not the proper way to do things.” He was genuinely puzzled: “You westerners are such cold people. Us, Russians, would never drop their buddy like that.”
While consuming mountains of seafood, it soon came to hard liquor and toasts. “To the Queen of England”- Eastern Promises declared, raising his glass. “You respect the Queen, right?” I assured him that I did and that Her Majesty on her part had nothing but respect and admiration for the Russian and Kazakhstani people. “To the Queen, then!” – said Eastern Promises and downed a massive glass of baijiu (Chinese vodka).
I then got chatting to the girl who previously stayed out of the discussions. “She is a famous athlete in Kazakhstan! She won silver in the Olympics in biathlon!” the now very tipsy Eastern Promises interrupted. ‘President Nazarbayev knows her personally. He gave her an apartment, you know”. “Two apartments, actually” interjected the biathlon girl, shyly but with pride. “Oh yes”, Eastern Promises chuckled. “At one reception Nazarbayev was chatting to her, asked her where she lived, and then shouted at his ministers – just give the girl an apartment, would you? Come to think of it, give her two! – You should have seen how they got on their mobiles and stared scurrying around. Let’s drink to President Nazarbayev!”
READ MORE : DirtBag Diaries – Part 1