I visited Inner Mongolia at the end of July to participate in a Robotics competition.
Aside from the sleepless nights, team huddled together in a hotel room with the scent of soldering and endless talking until the words seem to get so muffled and lost, unable to understand anything and everything – realizing we take language for granted — it was beautiful. Waking up every single day to a beating sun that reminded one of home only to be swept with a foreign breeze that was far too cold to be named familiar.
It was only a short stay though in those moments, it felt strangely long. It was only a short stay and now I find myself begging to go back, even for just another day. It was quiet and serene and a mix of haste industrialization and the beaming nature. It was a blend of a city that I myself only saw a glimpse of – yet was begging to delve more into, again and again. I guess you could say that it was the thrill of travelling somewhere new after being chained to an endless amount of work and stress back at home. A week where I was relieved of my responsibilities, intentional or not (thank you Google for being blocked and giving me an excuse.)
This was my second international competition, and this time I didn’t come back empty-handed. I’ll delve more on that later. For now, here’s a short overview of the days, though the competition days may be somewhat of a blur since they were all quite similar. I delve somewhat in-depthly to the actual competitions that had occurred on each day – not just the sights I had seen, so be wary.
Our flight was early in the morning, with all the Philippine representatives on the same plane. From the very moment I stepped into the terminal, one could instantly recognize that the line for check-in was filled with people brimming to win, or simply to compete and learn. Some schools were flocked together, matching uniform and all. Everyone was tired and stressed; but we all were quite happy that when we arrived — we didn’t have to compete immediately, unlike my previous international competition in Korea where contest proper started a few hours after arrival.
Of course — we all arrived hours before check-in and when it was time to board the plane, the sunrise was beautiful. Watching the sky transform from a mesmerizing fusion of purple, orange, and pink before descending into light yellows and oranges made the lack of sleep and waking up at midnight entirely worth it. Also, the airport taught me that Starbucks’ spinach lasagna is pretty good too. Along with white hot chocolate. Maybe it was just because I was hungry, though.
As for the bad parts of travelling — Air China has some seriously strict luggage rules and we struggled with it. Moreso because I had to bring a robot, and a kit for the robot, and a billion batteries for it. Everything turned out fine though at first; aside from airline worries – the whole competition seemed seriously sketchy, as I highlighted in the post I made prior to leaving for the flight. The competition was actually just supposed to be for China and participants within, though they invited guest countries and all of them except the Philippines somehow backed out… Which actually sounds concerning now that I think about it, but it turned out great, really.
Flight time to China is about four to five hours, and miraculously I managed to sleep throughout all of it, never waking up or being disturbed. I even skipped out on the in-flight meal, which I didn’t really mind — I would actually prefer to do so. This was essentially my sleep for the day as I didn’t bother to rest early and wake up around midnight for the flight since I was just packing then, like the responsible person I am.
When we arrived it was the morning. I could barely connect with anyone from back since my VPN was failing me and the WiFi wasn’t very reliable. Thankfully, my other teammates were able to purchase pocket WiFi at the airport and gladly shared it with others. iMessage was practically the only thing that worked well then, and my only connection to friends and the terror of all the work that would be dumped on me when I return. The fact that I was practically worried and anxious about the workload I’d have when I return screams volumes about how arduous things can be, even for a person this young.
My worries were put at ease when after about two hours of navigating immigration and trying to direct confused parents, our bus arrived and we were set on a trip to Wulanchabu, Inner Mongolia which is estimated to be an about seven-hour bus ride from Beijing. Before our long trip, all of the buses reserved for the Philippine teams stopped at a restaurant not too far from the airport for lunch, with meals already set-up for us upon arrival. I feasted on rice and Peking duck, though we were given a ton of food that no table could finish. It was really nice of the Philippine organizers to do this for us, since for the rest of the trip we would be living on little stubs for cafeteria food.
The bus ride towards Inner Mongolia was amazing. As much as I would have loved to just doze off for the whole ride as I swore I would — I couldn’t help but keep my eyes glued to the window, viewing the wonderful landscapes and sceneries that seemed too picturesque, too serene and beautiful to be true. We even passed by the Great Wall of China! I would have loved to be able to see it up close and walk through it myself, but being half-awake on a highway and seeing a wonder of the world at one’s rightside window is something astonishing. Viewing all the greenery and mountains, watching rocky slopes transition to sandy overtures with patches of grass and windmills overtaking the fauna — I wanted to capture everything that I was seeing to look at, over and over again. I distinctly remember how long the wall stretched. It would fade off into the treetops and mountains before coming back moments later; you would think that being in a huge bus would render me unable to comprehend how vast and grand the wall is – though knowing that it took a long time to fully pass by made me realize how extravagant and inexplicably beautiful the creation is. Though of course, I would love to appreciate it by rushing through it, hands gracing age-old rock — but that’s for another day.
We probably left the restaurant at around 1 PM, and by the time we arrived at Inner Mongolia it was nearing 7:30 PM, though the sun hadn’t set, which was so unusual for everyone onboard the bus. Early sunsets and earlier sunrises are the usual back here, and stepping out to see that marmalade was only overtaking the skies at around eight truly made me realize the beauty of the world and that not everything can be found back at home. There is so much to see, so much to take in, so much to explore — even if it’s just the mere change of sunset hours.
The teammate I was sitting next to for the entirety of the trip remarked on how funny it was — I’d be dozing off, my head probably falling forwards and then jolting back upright every now and then, or mercilessly being lightly pounded on by the glass window. Whenever we’d pass by something really breathtaking — my eyes would suddenly open, my phone in hand springing into action as I filmed the outside world, barrier of a dirty bus window keeping me from air that I have never taken in before.
Though I swear, almost every single time the people on my side of the bus attempted to film or take pictures of the Great Wall, a long bus or truck would block our view. It was almost comedic, and all of my footage of the wall is cut off at the end by the untimely passing of a truck. I can’t help but to wonder though – some of them must drive by the same old highway everyday, it becoming old routine. Do they still glance at the world around them with awe, or has it faded away and dissipated into just a passing though — a usual for them, when so many are dying to be given the same view that they are enlightened to?
As said, the sun was beginning to set when we arrived at Wulanchabu. We first went to a school’s gymnasium in order to get our shirts and pamphlets with information regarding the event proper. Although I don’t have a picture of it at the moment, the shirt was really cute. The event logo looked somewhat like Teemo from League of Legends. Getting to stand and walk around and finally interact with people properly after being stuck on a seven-hour bus ride was a wonderful relief for my butt.
After lining up in the gymnasium with much confusion, we left to head towards the cafeteria as the sun finally disappeared from sight. I didn’t eat anything since I knew that once I finally got settled in the hotel room, I would be consuming a bunch of the food that we had packed up for the trip. (Instant noodles are a lifesaver.)
Our stay was at a five-star hotel named Howard Johnson. It was beaming and huge, and one could see that all the buildings around it were still in the process of construction. Stepping in at around 10 in the evening instantly changed the quiet solemnity of the plaza that it was located in as Philippine teams all around flooded the ground floor and the receptionist. It took almost an hour to get the rooms and all fixed, especially due to communication problems. The whole team wasn’t situated on the same floor as I had hoped, others were at the ending sixteenth floor while I was at the sixth, for instance. Despite that, the hotel was really lovely and most importantly — had pretty fast WiFi. Although everything was blocked I lived on iMessage and Reddit, spending most nights reading the SCP wiki which I had finally gotten into then. Some of us wandered to the hotel’s square within, and found lots of food stalls selling delicious food on skewers and sticks. The night scene was all centralized around here, and a bunch of tables filled the square amidst the man-made rivers and quaint wooden bridges that crossed over and small decorative tents. The aroma of alcohol flooded the air and probably tinged itself on our clothes if it could — proving its integrity over anything else.
After a while, we finally got our keys and the team split off into our own rooms. Mine was huge — and I hadn’t expected it to be that large, which was really welcome. I barely spent any time in it — though. It was mainly just for sleeping or showering, as I would join the team in our coach’s room to work together. The first night was no exception — rest was a long-gone hope as we began building, coding, disassembling and reassembling over and over until the night ticked on. 1 AM is when I clocked out and gave in to my desire to rest, despite the seven-hour chance to doze off. With a large bed to myself, a window overlooking the dark of the city yet not dark enough to see a clear night sky; it was time to explore more of Inner Mongolia the next day.
The first day here wasn’t an extraordinary change of scenery. I felt less like a stranger and more like an old friend. It was like home, yet not quite. It was home with a different vibe, different cloud formations, different voices, everything odd that mended together. Homely because of the aggregation of nature and manmade beauty. How hands decided to piece these together, quickly formed in the span of a year or two, colors blending in with the nature that they had chosen to preserve instead of destruct. Months of preparation and breaking hands were placed at peace once the world around me faded into greenery and lush that I had never seen before. Most of my time would be spent in cramped rooms and stadiums where it would get dreadfully hard to breathe — but in that moment, earphones plugged in, sleepwalking in my own seat, rhythm and melody clashing with the wonders of gods that I have never seen — the trip was worth it, the fears were understood, and everything would come to place.
The desolate wasteland, high-rise buildings of sanctity attempting to gush and formulate a city when it would always be the grass and the breeze. The night sky and the strange sunsets that I would have given anything to just sit down and gaze at, sketching and piecing together the hues that would only appear on led-interlaced screens. Pictures that do no justice, memories begging not to wither. You were isolation and reawakening and invigorating a spirit of win and lose and fight all in one.
There was a single shuttle bus that operated every day of the competition that would bring us from the hotel towards the competition proper. That means the whole Philippine team would be situated together, cramped in a tiny bus with laptops and boxes filled with machinery and endless kits and wires scrambled on the quivering floor. The trip took place at the local stadium – huge and desolate, situated across another arena reminiscent of your usual huge baseball competition areas. The roads were brimming with flowers, yellow mainly overtaking any other colors. Buildings made of pastels and lights stood out against washed out grays; gardeners tended to flowers and it was so eerily strange — some places would be packed with people, others would be empty – like an apocalyptic wasteland or a Twilight Zone episode where everything is at a standstill and is a bit too perfect. It was hard to do anything but stare out the windows in the bus — talking would be rude and half of it would be struggling to not get shoved off.
Recalling the experiences from each day is honestly really hard — but this day definitely wasn’t one of the good ones. Upon arrival at the stadium, miscommunication had led to a lot of confusion and changes regarding the seating of our coaches and other supporters. I honestly don’t know why they had to implement this since in the following days, it didn’t seem to really matter and it’s not like the place was packed full of people but nevertheless – some started to get angry which was horribly rude of them, in honesty. It was worsened by the fact that it was the actual competitors who didn’t mind the adjustments, acknowledging that there would of course be lots of back-and-forth chatter. After a while we were able to escape everyone else and leave them to complain or so, while the team was entranced by the place and exhilarated to compete. Seeing that there wasn’t any other foreign competition aside from our country left us in high hopes that we could actually win something.
My events on the second day were called Robot in Movie and simply, Creative Category. The latter was moved to the following day which allowed me to devote all my time to the movie event. We were simply given a theme and had to of course — make a movie out of it. Unfortunately, the theme was far more specific than we were used to and upon looking around the arena we had realized that most if not all the local competitors were aware of the theme prior to the day itself. It was simple enough – a herd of sheep overtaking two wolves or vice-versa.
The event was in pairs of two and I was doing pretty well — dabbling in videos and such recently also gave me a boost in confidence regarding the event. Armed with a table the size of a school desk – which looking back, was most likely a school desk, two plastic chairs and the wooden floor beneath and behind us as well as crossing over to the blue-carpeted aisles, plastic parts and wires soon scattered itself over the floor. The battle for tape and scissors and colored paper remnants littering itself again and again — laptops overtaking tabletops, scissors, chatter, scissors, makeshift praise thinking that we were going to make it — I would have skipped out on lunch if they didn’t force us to go outside. Five hours to make a video is simply not enough, especially when your standards almost require you to make something more than just decent. I had to win. And I had to win far.
When we were forced out of the arena at around 12:30 PM, we simply climbed up the stairs to go to the spectator areas. At this point we were all lost in the elliptical runaround as the whole area was so unfamiliar to us — not realizing how we would memorize its tiles and patterns in the next few eventual days. The area was mostly empty and it was simply me and two other teammates gazing at the empty stadium – marshals and referees packing up water bottles and sticking phones into their backside pockets as they left for a good, long lunchbreak. I earnestly wonder how they felt about the foreigners just sitting up, improperly sticking their legs down to the next seat, staring at olympic symbols and the colors of red and yellow staining our vision. My mind couldn’t help but race, think about what I had to do, priorities, how to finish on time — and I never did.
Because God blesses us so much, we missed out on even submitting our entry. An hour before the deadline, the laptop that we were working on completely failed and lost all our footage. God also taught me to abandon Sony Vegas and instead use Adobe Premiere after this incident. I was as salty as one could be, and also very deserving of a new — not entirely horrible laptop to compensate for what happened.
The worst part was I knew that the incident was going to happen. However, I still awakened with the ever-aching hope to win something on this day. It was anger and bitter and people not realizing how grave the mistake was or how easily preventable it was, being a medley of it all. The horror was that I could have done so much and been even more, yet all work and effort — driven away, tossed out in a single move.
Clanging gold medals were awarded to people from my same school.
They made their video in fifteen minutes, right before the deadline.
The creative competition was moved to this day, and was my sole event which gave me confidence that I could manage time wisely enough to do this event properly. My two other teammates had other competitions scheduled for the afternoon yet errors and slip-ups such as not being on the list or simply forfeiting for the sake of focusing on the creative competition further strengthened my desire to give it my best.
We quickly began to realize that it seemed that everyone came with pre-prepared projects — when the rules clearly stated that the theme would be announced on the competition day. Everyone was decked out in tarpaulins plastered with not-very-good graphic design, another participating school hailing from the Philippines brought out an intricate rubbish sorting machine akin to a past project that our school had done as well – but much more improved and advanced. Today, we were sheathed and rained upon by probably a dozen illustration boards, a whole lot of pastel corrugated strips of paper, piles of massacred colored paper (in lieu of yesterday), and the combined force of about five kits of lego.
In all honesty, I still do not understand the premise of the competition. Our entry was again related to sheep and wolves, wherein we had to construct a fencing system for a farmer’s sheep in order to prevent members of the little herd from being captured and devoured by alien wolves. So one would assume that was the theme and we would have to construct the necessary robot and poster relating to that — but no, apparently the poster to be made in two hours fit under that theme, and for the robot you could do fuck all and it didn’t really matter. Which… does not make sense? But that’s fine since after toiling the whole day, not bothering to scout until the last hour since all of us were so riveted and hooked on our own work — we ended up winning a silver medal for our sad, yet peculiarly striking display.
We were all fleshed out hopes and prayers. Salvaging what we were in remnants to be scored down in fliers and forgotten newspaper ads.
Defying all odds, we composed heights through toppling plastic chairs on garnished tables – laptops rushing through 4 by 6’s to die out in corners; built for the purpose of side-glances. Illustration boards patted down with watercolors seeping through — our poster submitted hours earlier, rushed and seemingly absorbent of god-knows-all at heights of what felt like a thousand GSM nowhere to be found. Within the hushed and confused whispers of judges, clipboards held together by exclusions and slip-bys, laughs and chatter from voices that I would never hear again — my teammates kept telling me that there was hope. That there was no way we would walk home empty-handed with the execution that we had pulled off, rushed or otherwise – the golden laptop gleamed and was taken off its plastic pedestals as ours breaths anchored downward to the tune of metalwork screeching through the floor.
I promptly remember that upon returning on this day, we discovered a Chinese buffet located in the opposite side of the hotel. After what was probably more than an hour of figuring out how to order; we were served what others would argue as the best meal on the trip — which I found pretty pleasant. At times I couldn’t bare to stand the people around me and the comments that would intentionally be thrown at me – demanding sorry becoming an overreaction. I didn’t mind, though.
The next day was going to be pretty hectic, so we all repeated the same routine; jumping forward with a few more hours of sacrifice. I hadn’t really bothered to prepare though. Foggy remembrances of slippers skidding on polished tile to fetch chopsticks, fragments and little outlines of illustration boards wrapped together to be brought in for another day — rebuilding something that I probably should have not. I gave in a long time before everyone else did — not forgetting that everyday I opted out of the breakfast buffet in order to get an additional half hour of sleep; it was still so relaxing to get more rest, especially in the midst of all the schoolwork that rendered me null of sleep anyways — at least with this chance, I would be able to add in a couple more hours before I reawaken to door knocks and not the welcoming of the sun into the sixth floor hotel room.
Passing thoughts began to ring me by — for how long would I enjoy the luxuries of staying in another country — breathing the air, seeing the array of bugs left in the nighttime plaza, deterring us all from walks. Walking past the lobby which will eventually fade into oblivion – yet frigidly stays firm in my current frame of mind. I should not grow warm and at ease with the short-lived atmosphere to come. My mind began to settle on the fact that this trip – as strenous it may seem, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was no guarantee but an even higher chance of my family or me myself, never returning to Inner Mongolia despite all the glorified praise and tourist timeline spots. I was content with the thought of leaving, yet still could not bare for it to happen – or for it to occur soon.
This day was definitely my most stressful due to the simultaneous events occurring. We normally weren’t allowed to have two events on the same day but for us, they event organizers made an exception.
So, while running over to the opposite side of the stadium to test a robot and test it myself for a line tracing challenge which sounds as basic as it could be — you literally just follow a black line. On a pure white field. And you have to do it fast, and sometimes there are obstacles and other things that you have to do but this competition was pretty much just following a black line with no other obstructions – making it a near-inane competition of celerity. Darting back to where my little table was located I’d meet with my partner who in actuality, spent most of the time building our robot and leaving no time to actually program it to make it do what it was supposed to do, which was a shame. This competition was another pair one entitled Mission Challenge — practically the ‘anything goes’ competition wherein they also give you – on-the-spot, a task to perform in which you would only have then to start doing everything, of course. At least this competition was fair.
Disqualification hit us in the first round as we tried to find a loophole in the rules to let us use a remote controller. Apparently despite not being explicitly stated that is indeed not allowed. We couldn’t argue for it either, so we just continued working. Or rather, my partner did since he didn’t give me any time to – letting me focus on my other occurring event.
For line tracing, I ran over there more frequently and hadn’t really changed anything after several test runs. My only real preparation was setting up the same program that consisted of four blocks (thanks to amazing drag-and-drop programming that we are forced to use with lego, if it were in the equivalent of an actual coding language it would probably equate to about six lines of code) and changing two values. I ran whatever felt right and just rolled with it, and after looking at clipboards whilst fearing for the worst and internally hoping for the best – I managed to secure a tentative third place on the first round of this competition, though I was far behind the second and first who were using a completely different technique. Our score difference was probably about twenty seconds. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing that there were only two of them with identical designs and programs – what have you. At least I had a place.
Undeterred by the lack of calm and pulsating feelings that ran throughout – the long, two-hour break I had this day was lovely. In between a haze of stress and doubt, I took a lone walk accompanied by people who followed far behind around the whole stadium. I had realized how desolated the place seemed to be – how the loneliness it gave off was a sort of beautiful one. Wherein people would tell you that they prefer being alone but are never quite lonely; I felt that in the city that presented itself before my eyes it kissed the lonely out of loneliness and traced beauty into isolation.
The clouds were also mesmerizingly beautiful, towering into amalgamations greater than I would ever see back at home — painting portraits in the unfettered yet clandestine skylines. How I longed to sit under the cosmos, or lie down and bask in all there was. It’s always a different perspective when your marker is pinned down in a strange place in the world — take it all in before you’re sent back to your ingress. I honestly didn’t mind just staying in the city of Wulanchabu and not roaming around to Beijing (as we did fail to explore) or other areas; the nature that soared over industrialized lanes and terraces reminded me that we can exist in harmony if we choose to do so.
This much needed break gave me a chance to traverse the areas that I had only seen through bus windows and blurry photos. Perhaps it was just a few rounds circling a stadium; but it was more than enough to give me a sense of the feelings that I immersed myself in through this trip. Beauty in isolation — essentially.
Additionally, the break made me realize how integral architecture and engineering is when it comes to our surroundings. Undeniably, perhaps I am so confounded since I’m not used to seeing wonderful works in unnatural states — undisturbed from the rush of crowds and people, completely placid and at ease. Strolling instinctively for every reason and none at the same time below a sky that I would never see again. My eyes set on the smallest of things that I would have never have stopped to appreciate if I were in a different frame of mind. Perspectives shifting towards creases and chasms in hidden walls uncovering cryptic and eerily melancholic buildings in shadows — looking more at the building frames and cranes that were more in number than people. The only sign of human footprints being the piles of dirt and gravel that they’ve been trying to mold. It’s only when I am a witness to the in-progress state of manufacturing and human handicraft that I stand to be bewildered and forever amused by it.
Steering away from everything else: with all the grass and hilly roads, flowerbeds and caving trees that I had passed by; everything about how fast we have progressed, how far we have made it – how we arose from dust and rocks and clumsy firepits to massive skyscrapers, human toil manifesting and evincing itself in wheels screeching through concrete, scaffolds and paper flyers. Maybe I am lauding the outdoors and the earth itself so much, but the trip has made me realize how I scarcely ever even look up to the sky. Being surrounded by infinite escapes and tracts of fauna with sunlight beaming and breezes whisking the earth away, silent voices that congregate when needed, the strangeness of misunderstandings and the power of language and human communication; and how truly magnificent it is to be alone, in a sense — these all have animated something within me that I can’t quite name. A mix of wanderlust, disbelief, passion – a spark that shows that the world is not all that I had deemed it out to be from the slums of my suburb-ruled life. There is more to the sunset than when I stare at it from beneath the grilles of a window or the cold, water-seeped cracks of a ruining terrace.
Out of a two hour break, I probably spent just under an hour roaming around. Though amidst all the constant rush to go to the hotel and gain a few minutes of rest on a comforting bed after endless hours of back-breaking pain and sleep-deprivation piling on weariness – only to eat food and march straight down to a hotel room — it was a constant routine that I was honestly growing tired of. But walking under the rhythmic pat of the sun against my cap was like an endless sleep – a lull through the whispers of the wind and quiescence for the mind.
When the break ended it was a shift back into the realm of reality. We rushed things but did not quite rush them well enough – staying late for the challenge only to fail and not do anything worth of a medal – or an award, you know – the actual goal — with amazing time management that entailed me only about twenty minutes to program something through a vicious trial-and-error method.
As for my solo contest, the exquisite trials of making a robot follow a line very speedily in a zoom zoom manner — didn’t go as well either. I wasn’t zoom enough, and I honestly didn’t know my score for the first round of the two and saw that in the final second one — I was beaten by quite a few people. People from the same school reassured me that I managed a time of about 48 seconds back in the first round; which I clearly didn’t manage to improve on in my final try. The not as reassuring part consisted of them arguing on whether it was 48 or 58 seconds. I walked out and finished thinking that I wouldn’t be going anywhere – but I did try, and that was enough for me.
Although in honesty, ‘trying’ in this competition would be better defined as: “I literally built this the night before and my program is much more simple than everyone else’s and somehow it works better I am so sorry.” With the incident that occurred in day one it seemed that minimal work and simple effort was the key to actually performing well, which I did in a way – being the best from my school. Though minimal effort isn’t always a good thing. The real lesson here is that I was taught that putting too much thought or complexity into things that can be rendered as simple may become a negative thing.
When you have to make zoomy line following things, don’t make insane algorithms or piles of if-else statements.
This night, we rushed to a Korean barbecue restaurant located at the hotel and set on feasting through marbled strips of beef – the best that I’ve ever had in a KBBQ restaurant, in all honesty. It was delicious and I slammed it down along with two bowls of rice; my favorite meal this trip — though I do feel bad that we didn’t get to enjoy dishes that were a bit more local. Nevertheless, it was sort of like a reward for the past three days of work and suffering.
This was my final day for competing, and I slept soundly yet of course — late in order to catch up with what was happening back at home.
Day five to six in the next post.
If you missed out on the full Inner Mongolia travel video, click here.