by Martin Dugard
I grew up with a great fear of China. My dad was an Air Force pilot, and the People's Republic was the great Communist bastion that wanted to kill him. The global politics of the matter were more complicated than that, of course, but not through the eyes of a 10-year-old.
Almost 35 years have passed. My dad has a new job now, and the Chinese are about as Communist these days as Bill Gates. So, running the early morning streets of Beijing, the fear of being sold into a white slave ring or held as a political prisoner is irrational. The fear is strong, nonetheless, and I am 10 again, running with eyes in the back of my head, sure that the people who wanted a piece of my dad want me, too.
It should not be so. Dawn in Beijing is as close to peaceful as this frantic capital gets. This is a time of no cars, bikes or buses; no pedestrians. Beijing is usually crowded beyond compare, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, sidewalks filled with men and women and children blurring into streets layered with taxi cabs going nowhere and everywhere.
When I ran the same route at dusk last night, I took a wrong turn and ended up in an open-air market. People were everywhere, so many that I had to wade through at a polite walk. In the smoky blend of cooking oil, fried entrails, freshly butchered pigs and geese and an overwhelming wave of humanity, I felt safe, for some reason. I felt a community, a mutual humanness there that I never expected to find in China. Still...all those people.
Running is about jogging slowly as much as about shaking out the stride to see if your legs feel like coming out to play. Movement, however, is paramount, and pressing through a crowd is frustrating when you crave it.
In the morning, old men practice tai-chi. Women sweep the streets with handmade brooms. I see another runner, but he is like me: Western. We wave.
At Tiennanmen Square, a policeman stops me. Nothing verbal, just an outstretched palm clothed in a white glove, shoved hard in my sternum. A crowd of Chinese has been stopped, too, so I am not being singled out, despite what my paranoia tells me.
The sound of orders being barked, heavy boots marching in step and, from the dark red walls of the Forbidden City, a goose-stepping color guard carrying chrome-plated AK-47s marches our way.
They pass through a corridor of police and continue across the street into Tiananmen Square. At the base of a large flagpole, the color guard unfolds a massive flag. Then, as the Chinese national anthem is piped across the massive plaza, the flag is raised. As if someone had turned on a switch, Beijing comes to life. The streets become busy - sidewalks, too.
If my trip to China had stopped in Beijing, that political moment would be the centerpiece. I would remember the nation as a crowded, polluted place, reeking of diesel and cigarette smoke; a nation driven by manual labor, where smog and people make running anytime after the flag ceremony foolish. But not all China is like Beijing, and running in China is not a matter of simple stereotypes.
Consider Dali, a hamlet on the western fringe of the country. Dali has been sacked a dozen times in the past two centuries, and has gained a bit of cultural openness as a result. It is an artisan's town, famed for marble. It is also a tourist's town, with Western coffee shops and Internet access and hordes of Germans and Brits wearing backpacks and new Ex Oficio clothing. Rice paddies line the roads, though a run nearby isn't recommended. The drivers are manic and the air reeks of "night soil," the human waste used to fertilize the crops.
Slip away from the city. Climb the mountains overlooking Lake Er-hai (where "James Bond Island" lies in the center, with its monstrous golden Buddha and casino with the leaking roof and refrigerators that only manage to keep everything lukewarm). Run the serpentine granite trail along the valley rim, where a wrong step means a thousand-foot fall. Stop to admire the plunging valleys and spidery waterfalls, and Er-Hai so far below. Plunge your head in a cold stream and freeze your temples so deeply you can feel your core temperature plummet, and know this water is literally as pure as the driven snow.
Run the red-clay paths on the opposite side of the lake. The dirt gets slick as black ice after a rain, but your reward for following the main trail will be local villages unchanged since the days of Marco Polo. Chickens and geese and black sheep wander unmolested past brick buildings cobbled without mortar. Children who've never seen a GameBoy hide behind corners, too shy to approach.
Stay at the Asia Star in Dali, where the breakfast special is rice with fiery red pepper sauce topped by cold fried eggs. The coffee isn't coffee, so stick with tea. Breakfast begins at 6 a.m., and the lobby lights are not turned on until then, making pre-dawn a perfect time for reading or journaling or stretching on the black-and-white-speckled marble floors of each landing.
The best real coffee in town is served at Cafe du Jack, an Internet cafe in the old city. Jack sleeps in the shop and doesn't get up until 10, especially when the beer flows freely the night before. But for the equivalent of a dollar you'll get that coffee and a half-hour to check your e-mail.
I prefer Dali to Xichang - a horrible place for runners, where big spiderwebs overhang the forest trails - or crowded Beijing. But, as a runner, my favorite city in China is not one of her oldest, but her newest: Hong Kong.
I didn't want to like running in Hong Kong. It is New York with an Asian bent, frantic and unwashed. The people are authentic, uncensored. It is a sliver of a city, straddling the harbor. Towering green mountains looming behind seem prepared to push all of Hong Kong into her busy waterfront.
I last ran there two months ago. It was dawn. I'd just come from a week in Dali and was happy to be in a city that served a decent hamburger once again. I ran along the waterfront, past the new convention center and the White Star ferry that takes you to busy Kowloon for just a dime (no visit to HK is complete without riding the ferry).
The air smells of pavement after a rain, salt water, tropical moisture. The harbor is green and choppy, tankers and freighters and cruise liners slipping through as if orchestrated. I slip down the steps of an empty quay for a moment of privacy, then stay awhile, soaking in the wonder of a big city awakening.
I can understand why the British became so attached to Hong Kong. It was about commerce and colonial muscle-flexing, sure, but Hong Kong is a city of mystique. The seductiveness is brazen - a metaphorical shoulder strap dropped, and still the visitor wants to see more.
Then it's left, up into the green hills. Imagine New York inside a rainforest, and you have the hills of Hong Kong. Once you climb the steep paths and jog onto the well-groomed but close-canopied trails, it's as if the city never existed. The air is jungle heavy, and sweat streams from my forehead in fat drops. A sudden rainstorm cleans all that off, but soaks to the skin.
Rain in Hong Kong is a violent affair, an act of nature begging for the unwary idiot to open something as flimsy as an umbrella. Better to get wet and wait for the rain to pass. When it's over, the sweat returns and, were it not for the squishing in my shoes, I would never know the rain had come at all.
The streets of Hong Kong are a tangle, and keeping your bearings isn't as easy as following a north-south bent. Roads go sideways, dead-end, turn circles, play with your head, until you finally end up somewhere you recognize - back at the ferry (like I did) or at the zoo (where I planned to go but lost my way).
An hour after sunrise, the tattoo parlors are open and the smell of cooking oil is strong. I shelter back at my hotel and swim in the tenth-floor pool, thinking of taking another trip across into Kowloon for a hamburger at the Hard Rock, then taking the airport express train out of town.
I want to see more. This is not the China of my youth.