*May 18, 2013
Huangyaguan, China

At 6:30 in the morning, a brass band in uniform played "Jingle Bells" on repeat as I joined 2500 runners from all over the world in Yin & Yang square. My legs were still burning from the "inspection walk" two days ago, but that didn't stop me from arrogantly bolting up the three mile switch-back to the entrance of the Great Wall. Using the Boston Marathon course for training, I was sure I was ready for this; I found out later that going out this hard was not to my advantage. "5,164 Steps into History!" is the slogan for the race. Little did I know before inspection day that they were using the word "steps" loosely. Some stairs were so deep that I needed two steps to reach the next one, some were so steep that I needed to use my hands to climb over them, sometimes only my toes could grip the crumbling stones, and at other points the terrain looked more like a slide than a walking path. I leapt over two foot deep drainage ditches and clung to a rope acting as a handrail, the only thing that separated me from diving into the jungle below.  

And that was just the first five miles.

Once off the wall, the course seemed to be on a continuous incline; like the age old joke when your dad said he had to walk to and from school up hill both ways every day – this was just like that. We looped through the narrow village roads of waving children, begging for high fives. "Hello!" Hello!" They shouted, running alongside me until their parents yelled for their return. The course veered off the road to a rocky gravel path descending between rows of trees; I jumped over large rocks and piles of trash until I was back where I started – Yin & Yang Square.

That first 5 miles? Yeah time to do it, again, only backwards. Up the stone slide and the 5,164 "steps" until I reached the steep switchback, the downhill now violent torture; my knees threatening to explode with each step. Threats that never did become a reality. The finish line in sight, I sprinted to the tape and leaped into the air – the photographer captured me mid-flight as though I hadn't just finished the toughest race of my life. 

At the finish line everyone was dancing; the race was oddly sponsored by Subway – everyone was given a post-race meal including a 6" sub, bag of chips, and a pop.

May 22, 2013
Dunhuang, China

It's been pretty difficult to communicate here. The people are generally quite friendly, but English is rarely spoken, even within the big cities. I've gotten pretty good at playing charades, a lot of pointing and grand hand gestures. I tend to come pretty prepared; I print out maps and directions as well a phone numbers so I can communicate even though I don't know the language. 

However, none of this preparation matters if the language isn't in the Latin Alphabet.

I flew across the country from Xi'an to Dunhuang, assuming that once I landed I could hail a taxi or speak to someone at the information booth as to how I could get into town to the International Hostel. Seems simple enough. The airport, however, was a tiny building in the middle of nowhere, no cabs, no maps, no information booth. Only a couple of 16 passenger vans lined up out front. I pulled out my map and directions, soliciting assistance from the kindest looking person I could find. The first woman looked at the paper, then back at me and shook her head, shrugging her shoulders. She pulls on the sleeve of the man to her side and he tries with the same results. I can feel my face getting hot as I start to freak out. There are only about 20 people at this airport (that's closing for the day) and if I can't get a ride here I am beyond screwed. 

The woman yells something at the man sitting shotgun, beckoning him over with a downward flick of the wrist. He understands the word "hostel" and calls the phone number on my paper. They grab my bags, shove them in the back and point for me to get in. As the van takes off the man keeps looking back at me and calling more phone numbers. He clearly is not sure where to bring me but was kind enough to not leave me on the curb. 

After dropping everyone else off and I've almost run out of hope, I see the international hosteling symbol and let out a sigh of relief. THANK YOU! I grab my bags and enter the hostel only to realize I am not out of the woods yet; the reception staff does not speak English, either. I'm panicking because this is supposed to be the one place that I could count on to be able to communicate. People from all of the world trust Hosteling International no matter where they go. I handed over my passport to find, indeed I was in the right place. It seems that only Chinese tourists use this hostel; I throw my bag on my bunk and wonder aimlessly around the town (because they didn't have a map, either) until I came across a pizza and coffee shop called Oasis Cafe. I walked in to find the owner was an expat from the midwest who was willing to give me all the advice he had to navigating the area. He provided me with a map and a beer while I cried a little (because that's what I do, apparently) sobbing out my frustrating story. 

Once I was able to regain my composure he took me to the nearby Shāzhōu Night Market to try all of the local foods, Lánzhōu noodles, lamb skewers,  and apricot juice. The donkey meat was a little tough to swallow (literally).


* Here's a video someone else made about the course