The Big Row in China

12th – 19th August 2019

Free trip to China where the only catch is you have to do a bit of rowing? Yes please.

After a week of training and a painfully long flight we arrived in the city of Xi’an, the home of the World Rowing University Regatta and the 3rd Xi’an Kunming Lake International Famous Universities Rowing Regatta (quite the mouthful, I know). Despite being the third such regatta, it was the first one to which women had been invited. Overall there were around 20 men’s teams (including Oxford’s lightweight men) and 10 women’s teams. A number of these teams were from China, but there were also many international teams including boats from Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Nottingham, Amsterdam, Milan, Frankfurt, Zurich and St Petersburg.

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At the airport we were greeted by our Chinese helpers (who were lovely) and many, many cameras (which were much less lovely after an eleven hour flight). The many cameras stuck around all week but I think I eventually learnt to embrace them (ish). We were also greeted by the incredible heat and I think everyone was suddenly a little bit apprehensive about how we were going to race when we couldn’t even walk more than a few metres without sweat dripping down our backs.

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Once at the hotel, Fiona and I, who learnt to row together at Corpus four years ago, remarked how incredibly surreal everything was, and how bizarre it was that we had somehow made it from our beginnings at Corpus to, well, this. That mood pretty much summed up the week. The hotel was amazing, especially considering that all 30 teams rowing at the regatta were being put up there by the sponsors. The food was great and I particularly enjoyed the variations on ‘fried item filled with red bean paste’ that were presented for desert. The best thing about the food however was undoubtedly the labelling of dishes, which ranged from inaccurate to downright hilarious. Personal favourites were ‘Shredded cabbage shredded shred’, ‘Auspicious elements’ and (best of all) ‘The cod discharge’.

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China_7On the morning of the first day, Leah, Katherine and I went on a visit to a local school. Walking in we were treated to displays of work by the students which showed the students to be incredibly talented. Once in the school hall we listened to a number of speeches, made doubly dull by the fact that they were line by line translated into Chinese/English (depending on the original language). Sir Redgrave (as director of Chinese rowing or something) did also make a speech which was, of course, pretty damn cool – he definitely got the biggest round of applause. We were also treated to performances by students, including some traditional dancing and a Chinese-Western fusion band. After the formalities in the hall we took part in a cultural exchange activity where we painted masks. My skills were sadly lacking so to save you having to see that monstrosity, I have instead included a picture of OUL’s efforts. My favourite part of the morning came as we were leaving the school and a boy came up to me and told me how he really likes the Beatles before serenading me with one of their songs.

In the afternoon we attended a press conference. This was a truly surreal experience as we arrived to a professional set-up including UN-style personal translators. Highlights of this (which were few and far between given we were subjected to basically the same speeches we had heard that morning) included one of the German teams answering a question on how they had prepared for the weather by saying they had erged in a sauna. I believed them. Turns out I should not have believed them.

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Between the press conference and the opening party, which was being held that evening, we headed to a local supermarket. This was much more of an adventure than it sounds. Lightweights enjoy a supermarket trip at the best of times but the intrigue of not knowing what anything was really added a new dimension to the fun. Oh, and fun fact, you can buy a ‘live’ tortoise from such a supermarket for only 15.80 Yuan (equivalent of less than £2).

The party was quite fun, with food and alcohol which, as a large group of rowers, we fairly quickly demolished. When the wine had run dry, we headed back to the hotel, where we asked our helpers where we might go to get a drink. After they suggested Starbucks we realised there had been a slight miscommunication. They seemed shocked that we would want to drink before a big match which really highlighted a cultural difference (or maybe just highlighted that we weren’t very invested in this competition). However, they kindly took us to a supermarket where we picked up rice wine (delicious) and snake skin (apparently not so delicious).

China_14China_13Training began the next day at Kunming Lake. The lake was beautiful, and was certainly not just the hotter version of Dorney Lake I had been expecting. Each team had their own tent equipped with chairs and a table, a water fan, a water dispenser and a cooler. On this first day we managed to spend the entire day at the lake, to spend less than an hour on the water. This meant most of our time was spent trying and failing to keep cool, a task not helped by the fact we were invited to the opening ceremony, an event where we were forced to listen to the same set of speeches for a third time, but this time stood in the blaring sun. We were however introduced to our boat – a heavyweight men’s boat with no wiring – which added a nice extra challenge to the racing.

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I hadn’t been expecting much from our racing, and so was extremely pleasantly surprised when the time trial results came out and we found ourselves in third! With our confidence somewhat bolstered, we went on to win one heat, come second in a second heat and the semi-final, ultimately earning a bronze in the final. After our third place finish we immediately went to the medal ceremony where we had more cameras focussed on us than seemed reasonable. It was very, very surreal (there’s that word again) but at this point, we all agreed the training was well worth it for the incredibly hefty medals and the prize money we walked away with.

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Aside from the rowing and publicity events we did have some time for sight-seeing and general fun and relaxation. After the time trials a few of us decided to head down to the hotel pool for a nice gentle swim. However on arrival to the pool we realised we had entered a warzone. With Amsterdam at one end and Milan at the other, projectile floats were being hurtled across the pool with full force. We joined the lightweight men who were pressed against one of the long edges of the pool, out of harm’s way. Eventually the boys gave up their game, leaving us free to finally enjoy the pool.

The afternoon of our heats, we went to see the Terracotta Warriors. For some reason I had been expecting three or four twenty foot high statues. The reality was actually much more impressive and we were lucky enough to have had a tour arranged for us, including a personal guide on hand to answer our questions and supply many interesting facts about the warriors. I can only imagine how eerie the scene would have been without the hundreds and hundreds of people there (apparently this was a quiet day) and how incredible it would have been to discover the first one given the immense detail which gave them a really life-like quality.

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On the afternoon following the finals, we finally successfully headed into the old town in the centre of Xi’an. (Our first attempt had led to a 1.5 hour walk in circles before deciding it was late, we were tired and it was probably best to get a taxi home). We walked around the wall surrounding the old city and saw the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The most interesting part was definitely visiting the markets. This was bustling with life with narrow winding alleys filled with glittering trinkets and wider streets lined with food stalls featuring all sorts of exotic-looking delights.

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The final night we celebrated in true rowing style, in a club filled with our competitors. I had a really good time, and particularly enjoyed my time soaring above the crowd on one of the men’s shoulders. It was a great atmosphere to round off the trip.

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Race report by Katie Hurt

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