hen I recently took up running as a hobby to get myself fit and healthy in Beijing, I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much or that it would allow me to see a different side of China – one I wouldn’t ordinarily see on my daily commute.
I still recall my first run – it was a bitterly cold early morning one February. I ran through the hutongs to the Lama Temple, the scent of incense reaching my nostrils as I turned down an alley next to it. As I ran onto the main road I quickly remembered my dislike of busy paths and so took the next turning. I found myself in a hutong that I had never set foot in during the four years I’d lived in the neighborhood. I ran past locals doing their fruit and vegetable shopping, and vendors selling congee and steamed buns. China in the early morning, despite the freezing cold, is abuzz with activity, not like back home in the UK where the streets are quiet until 8 or 9am. I was hooked.
Running at different times of the day I get the opportunity to witness various aspects of urban life in Beijing. When I run along the waterway to the north of the second ring road in the early morning I hear a cacophony of saxophones as I pass locals practising their instruments. Every time I wonder why they group together and practise near one another despite all playing individually.
The other feature of an early morning run is seeing gentlemen take their birds out to the parks in cages. As they walk with the birds they swing the cages, which are covered. I suppose it mimics being on a branch in the wind. Then at the parks they hang up the cages up and uncover them. I get to see lots of different cages all being hung up on neighboring trees so that the birds can sing to one another, I suppose. The owners of the birds then sit and talk, smoke or play chess. While normally I would have still been in bed.
If running later in the day I pass men fishing in the waters. They rarely catch anything but it’s a peaceful area to while away the day. As light gives way to dusk the dog walkers come out in force. Despite a ban on large dogs within the fourth ring road, I frequently run past huskies and even the odd Tibetan mastiff. I wonder how the owners evade the licensing restrictions. As evening falls in the parks the dancing troupes begin to rehearse. The paths get busier as people go for a stroll after work.
I was initially unsure of running later in the evening – in some countries running along darkened paths at night would not be sensible. In China however I feel completely safe. I’m surprised at the number of people who are also out walking or jogging late in the evening. Just like anywhere else, people must work different shifts so that an 11pm run is perfectly normal.
As a foreigner jogging I feel like the people I happen across along my route are always surprised to see me. Yet I feel like I’m somehow more accepted when jogging. I get the feeling people see me less as an outsider as I’m doing something that is just a normal part of urban life. I have friendly chats with my neighbors whilst I’m outside stretching before a run, as the activity gives us something extra to talk about. Out on the road I’m always curious about the other joggers that I pass. Some wear all the latest gear and lap you two, three times as you run around the park. Other runners seem to be ordinary people that are interested in getting fit but can’t afford special sports clothing so they run in whatever they have. Once a fellow runner came up beside me as I was crossing a road and started chatting in perfect English. It turned out he had run marathons in different countries and had lived in New York for a time.
I enjoy watching the passing of the seasons whilst I’m out. In the middle of March the buds begin to appear on some of the trees along the river, followed very soon after the blossoming of the magnolia trees. Come April the sumptuous cherry, apricot, peach and crab apple blossoms begin to bloom. As the weather warms we get a few weeks of the dreaded poplar fluff, which itself makes jogging beautiful as in places it looks like it’s snowing.
Once all the leaves have come out I come to appreciate just how many parks and green spaces there are for locals to enjoy in Beijing. Jogging really makes me see a different side of the city – I now feel I know the city so much better and feel a part of its fabric much more than before.