Over the past six years, I've been away almost more than I've been home. Chasing the World Cup and my Olympic dream often necessitated living out of a duffel bag. Yet despite my extensive travel schedule I had never been to Asia. This year I decided it was time for that to change.
When you think of Asia you most likely do not think of it as a nordic skiing hotbed. Yet if you pulled out a map and located the next two Olympic venues, you'd notice something funny.
The 2018 and 2022 games are a relative stone's throw away from each other in Asia. Two years from now winter sport athletes will converge in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and four years later they'll head to Beijing, China — yes, you read that right, Beijing, home of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Needless to say, the combination of the upcoming Olympics, China's prominence in international news and my appetite for adventure sent me to the 2016 Tour de Ski China.
The Tour de Ski China consisted of five races at three venues and competitors from nine countries — China, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Finland, Canada, the United States and Venezuela.
The first stop on the Tour was the city of Yanji, which was oddly reminiscent of Sochi, Russia. The hotel and surrounding area was 80 percent new, 10 percent active construction zone and 10 percent dilapidated. The five-minute walk from the hotel to the race venue featured piles of garbage, old tires and pyramids of black coal, ripe for burning in the conveniently located power plant with fumes that wafted over to the gravel pit-turned-skate sprint course. At the race venue were Chinese soldiers handing out Red Bull, drones flying five feet overhead during the races and horse-drawn sled rides.
Yanji is 20 kilometers from the North Korean border and we missed the supposed hydrogen bomb by a mere 72 hours. All of the schools in Yanji were evacuated due to "seismic activity," we later read in the English version of the China Daily newspaper.
The highlight of the second venue, Changchun, was most definitely the Chinese Vassaloppet, a long-distance classic ski marathon inspired by the original event in Sweden. While the Swedish version trumps in participation, the Chinese prevail in grandeur and jaw-dropping awe.
Magnificent snow sculptures, some as tall as five-story buildings, lined the race stadium. It was difficult to maintain composure and focus when double-poling past fire-breathing monkeys, lines of elephants and a dove with a wingspan equal to half of a football field.
The sculptures were carved to perfection and when asked for a design, one of the workers pulled a crumpled napkin from his back pocket. I've been to Olympic stadiums and raced marathons around the world and believe me, this one was one to write home about.
Our final race venue necessitated a 17-hour bus ride from Changchun to Xiwuqi in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, just south of the country of Mongolia. Most of the land we traveled through was arid and flat but I was pleasantly surprised to see at least three solid hours of wind turbines generating some of the energy for 1.3 billion Chinese.
Xiwuqi hosted the final two races of the tour, including a sprint race where I literally wore my warm-up pants over my race suit because it was minus-15 and windy.
While the ski races were a blast, the real highlight was the camel races. I felt as if I had stepped into a National Geographic photo shoot with locals dressed head-to-toe in bright colors. The camels were covered in thick coats of fur and looked very regal, yet were very wild. We watched relay races that included passing a spear from one teammate to the next. We even saw a man get bucked off a camel as if it were a rodeo. Of course I had to try too.
The excitement didn't end with the completion of the races. We hung around Beijing to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Although Beijing's horrendous air quality made international news over Christmas, we had crystal-clear weather for both occasions. Time after time we were told how incredibly lucky we were.
The Tour de Ski China was a complete blast. I continue to be amazed by the opportunities my sport of cross-country skiing grants me. Now that I've finally been to Asia, I'm curious to watch China build their cross-country program for Pyeongchang, Beijing and beyond.
Luckily my visa is good for 10 years, so where there's a will, there is a way.
Holly Brooks is a two-time Olympian from Anchorage who last month completed the Tour de Ski China with APU Nordic Ski Center teammate Lauren Fritz. Brooks finished fourth overall and Fritz finished seventh overall.