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Flag-waving crowds line the streets and cheer in excitement beneath crystal clear summer skies as scores of bikes ridden by some of the world’s top cyclists flash past in one of Asia’s most gruelling and fiercely contested sporting events.
For 14 consecutive summers, Xining has hosted the Tour of Qinghai Lake – an elite cycling contest covering nearly 3,000 kilometres and passing through some of China’s most spectacular scenery, including the serene beauty of Qinghai Lake. In 2015, the competition was staged over 14 days from 5-18 July and attracted 22 teams and 154 riders battling it out for prize money and performance fees of more than $1 million.
The race follows a route through three provinces – Qinghai, Gangsu and Ningxia – and is the leading road cycling race in Asia. Past winners have come from the US, Croatia, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Iraq and Kazakhstan. Some of the world’s top cycling teams take part.
It is a truly international event and one of the ways in which Xining and Qinghai have promoted themselves as a top sporting and tourism destination not just for China but for competitors and visitors from around the world.
There is a distinctly festive atmosphere to the Tour of Qinghai Lake, organized by the Qinghai provincial government in association with the General Administration of Sport of China, and the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Since its launch in 2002 it has attracted interest from road cycling fans around the world because of its distinctive geographical features and the diverse range of cultures along the route. For Chinese fans, it has become a massively effective platform for promoting the sport within their country.
The features that make it so special for overseas riders are the extraordinary altitudes and the astonishing scenery along the route. Former competitors write with awe about the experience of taking part. Australian Jono Lovelock, from the Marco Polo Cycling Team, described it in an online blog as the “premier race” in the Asian road cycling calendar.
“It is at Qinghai Lake where the hardest, fastest and most painful racing takes place,” he wrote. “Teams spend large parts of their time and budgets getting prepared to assault the high altitude and come away with the spoils.” Describing the stages around Xining as relatively comfortable at an altitude of 2,200 metres, Lovelock says the route out to Qinghai Lake includes “brutal climbs that often just fall shy of 4,000 metres”. “We are talking serious altitude – ear-popping, headache-inducing heights that mean even when climbing at gradients of just 2-3%, your legs, lungs and in my case your lower lumbar all burn like never before,” he wrote.
For the world’s top cyclists, of course, those conditions are not a deterrent but a challenge and an opportunity to test their physical fitness to the limit. And the international coverage and video clips of the annual race have helped make the incredible scenery of Xining and Qinghai Lake known around the world.
Known throughout China as the ‘cool city’ for its climate and altitude, Xining welcomes 14 million domestic tourists a year but only around 50,000 foreign tourists. The success of the Tour of Qinghai Lake is beginning to even out the imbalance between foreign and domestic tourism.
One of the most striking architectural sights on the first day of the Tour of Qinghai Lake through Xining is the city’s ultra-modern sports centre, opened to promote healthy lifestyles with the best sporting facilities possible.
The centre – with a distinctive wall of brilliant silver hexagonal shapes – opened in October 2014. It has an indoor sports hall with 7,500 seats for badminton, basketball and table tennis, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, tennis courts, gymnastics area and a full-sized international standard football pitch with artificial turf – one of only two pitches of its kind in China, the other being in Ordos in Inner Mongolia.
It is a venue that seems to symbolize Xining’s modernity and ambition, and in July it hosted a special event – the Silk Road International Football Tournament 2015, which saw a Shanghai team square up against a team from Bishkek, the capital of China’s Central Asia neighbour Kyrgyzstan.
The players from both teams – who are used to playing at far lower altitudes – had to prepare carefully for the showdown at 2,250 metres above sea level, spectators said, and Shanghai emerged winners of the inaugural competition with a slender one-goal win.
“Both teams had something of a reaction to the altitude,” says former gymnast Guo Linsheng, the manager of the Xining sports centre. Guo, who moved to Xining from Beijing, appears to sympathize with the players and says they are not alone in struggling to adapt to the thinner air.
“Because of the high altitude, many people find they can’t do sports here,” he says. “At the same time, however, many competition athletes come here for high-altitude training so Xining does draw a lot of elite athletes such as runners preparing for demanding races.”
As he shows us around the facilities on a cloudy Monday afternoon when the majority of visitors are indulging in the less demanding sports of badminton and table tennis, Guo says: “When I first came here I felt very tired when I exercised. It’s normal when you are not used to living at high altitude. Now I am more used to it and in the summer I can walk 10km a day. In the winter, though, when the air is thinner, I can’t do it and I have to go shorter distances.”
The centre nevertheless encourages residents to do regular exercise. Banners around the complex tell them to exercise for a stronger body, to be healthy in middle age and reminds them that a healthy body is a happy body.
To encourage more people to take up sport, the centre offers 1,100 free hours a year of sports centre use to Xining residents – enough for around three hours’ exercise a day for every man, woman and child in the city.
The sports centre is some 8km from the city centre in an area of new and unfinished housing blocks but has become increasingly popular, Guo says. “Many people have two apartments – one in the city centre which they use during the week and one out here where they live at weekends.
“The air here is cleaner. Other people are choosing to live here because they find the environment is better. Also many younger people are choosing to live out here because apartments are less expensive than in the city centre. In the evenings we have a lot of young people here and we cooperate with schools to encourage young people to do more sport.”
Like the cyclists who travel from around the world to race across the province in one of the toughest sporting challenges on the planet, residents who take up sport and use the facilities provided for them will find that the gain is worth the pain.
As Tour of Qinghai Lake competitor Jono Lovelock concludes in his blog after recalling the agonies of competitive cycling at high altitude: “If you ever have the chance, go to Qinghai Lake. It really is breathtaking.”
Published in conjunction with Xining Municipal People’s Government