As my time working in China is drawing to a close, I am becoming reflective on different aspects of my life in China. One thing which I’ve done a lot of is running in China. It is a great way to be out and see the sights and sounds that many tourists miss – such as the local street markets – but it is not for the faint of heart as it is easy to get lost and in some places the pollution is such that one would be mad to do so.
Here are my favorite and least favorite experiences when it comes to running in China.
Best City: Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province
Located in the south of Jiangxi province, central China, Ganzhou was the end of one of my expressway projects (the Ruijin-Ganzhou expressway). A city of some 0.5a million inhabitants, it was relatively small by Chinese standards.
I always stayed at the Gandian Hotel, in the centre of town. I had a couple of running routes, but they always involved water since Ganzhou was at the confluence of two rivers. Rivers are always the best place to go running in China since they have the promise of relatively fresh air. A nice plus to the river in Ganzhou was the presence of a 1000 year old wall with a riverside promenade at its base.
I would always try and be out before 06:00 and head down the main road, turning right down the hill, and through the gate to the promenade. Turning left would take me up to the tower and the confluence, where the vessel shown to the right was installed, or turn right down towards the bridge of boats spanning the river. One time I took my assistant Mariana and as we jogged across the boat bridge in the fog photographers took our picture, asking for several repeat runs by this attractive western female who spoke Chinese!
For long runs I would take a different route, following the smaller river inland. The promenade was less continuous, but it was possible to run along the roads by the river. One of the old city gates was there. It was also possible to connect with the city wall itself and run along the top, but the rough stones created a potential for slipping and injury.
Ganzhou also was unique in China insofar as I saw a great many people running in the city. Far more than cities that were several times its size.
Best City Honourable Mention: Wuhan, Hubei Province
How can the city where I spent the most time – both working and running – not get an honourable mention? All right, there may be some six million inhabitants and the city can have moderate pollution, but it has a great park down at the Yangtze River which more than makes up for it.
My route was to run from the Shangri-La Hotel down to the river front park, and then go up and down the park depending upon the length of the run. Since the traffic was heavy by the time I finished (meaning lots of pollution), I would always take cab money and ride home in a taxi. I’d give them a good tip as the car was often slightly damp.
It was 3 km from the hotel to the river, along a concrete pavement so it was hard on the knees. Early morning there would not be much traffic, mainly street sweepers and taxi washers, so I could run on the road. Once through the gates at the park it was another world. Relatively fresh air and people enjoying their morning exercise. Not many runners, but lots of aerobics, kite flyers, tai chi and walkers. Also fishermen offering their catches, but I would not want to drink anything from the Yangtze!
Saturday or Sunday mornings were the best since there were families with children everywhere. Kite flying is a particularly popular pastime and there were many vendors selling kites in all shapes, sizes and colours. The photos below show some of their wares.
It is amazing to see what a good kite flyer can do. Some kites were replicas of eagles and in the hands of a skilled operator they hovered, dived, pulled up and simulate real birds. Others would run out a long line with over 100 small kites, floating up into the sky almost out of sight.
Another popular pastime was rollerblading. Not the usual skate up-and-down the road variety, but one showing skills and maneuverability. A series of cups were set upside down on the pavement, about 0.5 metres apart. The skaters would then go through them, turning backwards, spinning around, etc. at all times trying not to knock over the cups. There are some very skillful skaters about!
When I first arrived in Wuhan the park between the two major bridges was about 80% complete. By the time I finished some four years later it extended about 2 km past the westernmost bridge.
The best aspects to the park were: (i) the breeze off the Yangtze, and (ii) the lack of vehicles. If you were there too late in the morning it became very congested with people so running was a challenge, but there was a lot to see. Take your camera if you can.
Getting Lost: Shiyan, Hubei Province
Shiyan is an industrial city in the north-west of Hubei Province. It was the start of my Shiman Highway Project. There were no parks or places to escape the pollution of the city, which was moderate even early in the morning, although the large sewer/river outside our hotel was an option I sometimes used as it was about 30 m wide with a channel in the middle for the flow.
In many cities my approach was to get a feel from the town from a map and then to go exploring. On one morning run I found myself heading in what felt like a circular direction. I recalled a major road around the town so I figured that I was on it and kept on going. The problem was that nothing looked familiar, so I continued in the hope that I would find somewhere that I recognized. After one hour I decided that it was time to give up, only to find that I had forgotten to bring my taxi money! So this meant a one hour run back to the hotel. Ho hum.
When I got to the hotel I found out that had I gone five minutes further I would have done a full circle and been back on the same road as my hotel! At least I now had a good one hour circular run for next time …
Urumqi in Xinjiang province gets an honourable mention. The city is elongated and the major roads have many twists and turns. On one run I took a wrong turn and got hopelessly lost. Rather than take a taxi I would run a kilometre or so in different directions and hope to sight something. I finally saw the large buildings of town and ended up on the general area where I was staying. My salvation was seeing some middle school students walking to their school which was near my hotel. That gave me the general direction and I made it home.
Getting Injured: Guangzhou, Guangdong Province
I have been very fortunate not to get injured on my runs in China. I’ve dodged bicycles, buses, taxis, and trucks; seen off some not too friendly dogs; navigated my way through minefields of who knows what on the roads, but my luck ran out one night in Guangzhou.
Normally, I do my runs in the mornings but this mission had been particularly frenetic so I had not been able to exercise. I resolved to remedy this one evening so after work I donned my shoes and headed out.
The White Swan Hotel where I stayed was adjacent to the Pearl River so I headed up the river along the sidewalk. Although it was a river run, it was pretty grim with lots of people and pollution. Still, even if my lungs were getting a bit too many pollutants into them, it was nice to be out.
I decided to try the other side of the river in the hope of finding fresher air. Unfortunately, when I ran from the bridge across the road I misjudged the height of the kerb in the poor light and hit it a full bore with my left foot.
I knew something was wrong by the level of pain that I had. This was not a stubbing of the toe. When I got to the light I saw that it was bleeding and the front of my shoe was now red. Blast. I walked back to the hotel and it was not a pretty sight. The toe would not bend properly due to the swelling and I’d lose the toenail. The latter is an inconvenience I’m used to as a runner. I couldn’t run for several weeks, and then only lightly, so I focused on swimming more than running.
I probably should have had the toe x-rayed but didn’t have a chance and by the time I finished my mission six weeks later the pain was minimal so I just ignored it. Better not to know …
Worst Cities: Tie – Beijing/Taiyuan Shanxi Province
This is a tie, as these two cities are the only places in China where I have never run outside. While some people are dismissive of the concerns over the air quality for the Olympics, they have reason to be concerned. It can be very, very grim, especially in winter. Taiyuan, in a coal producing area, is even worse. In 2000 it was rated the most polluted city in the world. In both places I spend a lot of time on the treadmill. The Sofitel Wanda hotel in Beijing is a particularly nice place to run on the treadmill, as the each have their own TVs built into the treadmill. I don’t like the Bluetooth wireless headphones (in one three hour run I replaced four of them!).