The Venerable Master Xuanzang
The race concept is based on the journey of a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who, fifteen centuries ago, travelled through the wilderness of the Gobi, in the modern day Gansu Province and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions of Western China, through Central Asia and then to India. The Chinese name of this race can be translated as “Xuanzang’s Route – Eight Hundred Li of Sand”.
Xuanzang’s memories of his seventeen-year journey are told in the classic of Chinese literature – Great Tang Records of the Western Regions, which became probably the world’s first travel bestseller. The purpose of his trip to India was to bring the original Buddhist sutras back to China, and translate them properly into Chinese, as the translations available in China at that time failed to meet Xuanzang’s expectations.
This is how Xuanzang describes the area where the race is now held: “For eight hundred li, there is nothing but barren sand and dry river beds; at night stars shine like fires lit by devils…there is not enough water to nourish even a single blade of grass, one looks for birds in the sky and beasts on land, but finds none”.
The journey took 17 years, and upon his return, Xuanzang rejected honour and fame and spent his time in seclusion, translating the Buddhist sutras that he had brought from his epic journey.
This region, arid and barren as it might seem, was in fact thriving during the Silk Road Era. This area was the edge of the Chinese world, part of the so called Gansu Corridor, a gap between the sands of the Gobi proper to the North and the mountains of Tibet to the South, through which all the caravans travelling along the Silk Road passed.
The Chinese established their hold on the area as early as during the Western Han Dynasty, more than 2000 years ago, and the region thrived until the Tang Dynasty, around 1500 years ago. Garrison towns were plentiful here, some very wealthy from the trade, and the soldiers stationed here guarded the Gansu Corridor, the vital gateway against the raids of nomads. In Chinese history this region abounds in myth and legend, as great battles were fought here against the Huns and then against the Tibetan Empire.
This region is famous for its ruins from those eras and the runners have a priviledge to run and camp in this otherwise closed, protected area, next to millennia old beacon towers and ruins of whole cities. These are some of the ruins along the Ultra Gobi course.
The Finisher Medal – Tiger Tally
The participants of the 2016 Ultra Gobi will receive an unusual gift before the race starts – one half of a small statuette of a tiger lying prone. The second half of the tiger is given to the runner after the successful completion of the 400 kilometers.
The tiger statuette is known as tiger tally (虎符) . These were used in ancient China for the dual purpose of identification and representation of authority, usually given to high ranking military officers.
A commander in a frontier region, such as the Gobi, might leave half of his tiger tally behind in a fortress, and then, when sending the garrison at the fortress an order, he would also send the matching half of his tally to confirm that the orders are his.
The act of leaving half of your tally behind before setting on a journey stands for leaving a retainer, a pledge that you shall be back. When you are back from your quest, the two halves of your tally are matched, confirming your safe return.
During the Tang dynasty this practice was used in the Chinese garrisons scattered across the Gobi, and we decided, almost a millennium and a half later, to bring the tiger tally back, to honour the finishers of Ultra Gobi.
Tiger Tally – the finisher’s medal. One half of it. The runners get the second half if they complete the race.
Champion, runner-up and third place titles
The champion of Ultra Gobi is crowned Guanjun Marshal 冠军大将军, which literally means “Champion Marshal” and was a special title awarded to the great commander Marshal Huo Oubing (140 – 117 BC) for his courage and victories against the Huns in this very area.
The runner up of Ultra Gobi becomes a Cheji Marshal 车骑大将军, which literally means “Chariot and Cavalry Marshal “ and this was a rank given to the chief commander of chariots and cavalry troops.
The third place finisher is given the title of Zhengjun Marshal 镇军大将军, which is translated as “righteous marshall” and implies that the officer given this rank combines charisma and exceptional leadership.
Race finishers outside the top there places become Fubo Generals 伏波将军, which means “General Who Can Calm the Sea”, a title awarded to military commanders who keep the country peaceful and prosperous, keeping the enemy at bay.