An outsider's look at culture

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2012, 12:00am


Running all year round in Beijing means enduring the bone-chilling cold of winter and sweltering through the intense heat of summer, but it is never a dull experience, offering free entertainment galore from the colourful cast of characters that populate the parks, and a backdrop that features 500-year-old imperial temples.

My local park, Ritan, where I grind out about 30 kilometres on most weeks, is one of the city's prettiest. The tree-lined walkways, carpeted with cherry blossoms in spring and golden leaves in autumn, lead towards the central Temple of the Sun altar, once used for sacrificial offerings by Ming dynasty emperors.

I don't run for history lessons, needless to say, but learning more about Beijing is one of the many factors that make venturing outside, in extreme temperatures, so worthwhile. Even in the depths of winter, when it can be minus 10 degrees Celsius for days on end, there is some form of entertainment.

Ritan Park always has a slightly off-key opera singer or two (Italian and Peking styles), old timers belting out stirring revolutionary-era odes, and smartly dressed couples waltzing gracefully to the sound of tinny ghetto blasters.

If I jog around the upper pagoda, there is usually a cluster of gnarly kite fliers launching their home-made contraptions. I have to take extra care not to be garotted by an unseen wire. The colourful fluttering of scores of kites high in the Beijing sky is a magical sight; picking them out individually requires intense visual concentration.

That's if you can see beyond your nose. No chance if it is one of those infamous, polluted days. On occasion the air is almost chewable, a dirty grey blanket that envelopes the city.

As often as not, I still head out, reasoning that running in the smog is preferable to plodding along on a gym treadmill, surrounded by people sweating, coughing, sneezing and spluttering. There is also the mental pain that comes from having to endure a backdrop of mindless drum 'n' bass or wittering television presenters.

The gym experience can be had in any city, any time, whereas a run in the park - any park - is a real chance for an education in Beijing culture, both old and new. It may be a vast place, home to 20 million people, but the central area is blessed with ample green spaces including the parkland around the Temple of Heaven, glorious Beihai Park with its central lake, and Yuyuantan Park towards the west.

Beijing also has a network of canals with adjoining footpaths, including one in the south that snakes around the suburbs and on to the Summer Palace. Once there, an admission ticket to the lakeside residence of the Empress Dowager allows visitors the chance to lope all the way around the magnificent lake.

At weekends, I like to head out to the woodland trails of the Olympic Forest Park, which was built in accordance with the government's pledge to make Beijing a cleaner and greener place if it won the right to host the Olympics.

Sadly, there are precious few races or fun runs in these spacious and scenic spots, even though the city has a solid core of amateur athletes, demonstrated by tens of thousands of people who do the annual marathon in October. The first time I lined up for the half-marathon, I was mildly surprised to find my start line neighbours puffing away on cigarettes, but not as shocked as the visiting foreign runners, who had expressions of incredulity at this breach of athletic etiquette.

The race begins in the heart of Tiananmen Square, with runners heading immediately north, towards the grand Forbidden City frontage, before veering off into suburbs that appear to have been selected for their blandness. Overzealous guards stop spectators getting too close to runners; the only encouragement is the odd shout of 'jia you!', meaning 'go, go!' Water stops are plentiful, but at the finish line the support system ends abruptly - no post-race banana or energy bar, no gathering spot to swap notes with fellow runners.

By contrast, there is a jaunty collegiate atmosphere for people who finish the annual 10-kilometre race organised by adventure sports brand The North Face at a lake out near the Great Wall but, again, little in the way of energy replenishment, apart from a Bimbo bread roll supplied by one of the sponsors. The focus at last year's race was on quantity rather than quality; a lack of marshals at strategic spots allowed unprincipled runners to make short cuts across the fields.

They are all minor niggles compared to my biggest gripe about the races held in China. Expatriates (including Hong Kong compatriots) pay a significantly higher entry fee than locals, a particularly egregious piece of discrimination that leaves a nasty taste.

But, on balance, I do try and focus on the many positives of running in Beijing, in particular the opportunity it affords to observe local culture and customs. The past month, viciously cold though it might have been, also offered the novel experience of running by (or across) frozen-over park lakes, not really an option during my many years living in Hong Kong.