I soon found myself dodging electric scooters as I ran under low-hanging branches, each one bound to scalp me if I didn't move my head toward the openings. After a 1/2 mile or so, this side street gave way to a large thoroughfare that boasted newly constructed high-rise buildings and apartment complexes sprawling out for miles before me. With a mixed urban and rural density of about 10,000 people/sq. mile in this city, it's roads like these that usually play host to a cacophony of noise and clamor every hour of every day. But, today was a bit different as it was an early morning following China's Mid-Autumn Festival so some people still had vacation. This area of the city, like many others, is still under heavy development. Once I reached the area of 3rd Ring Road, I made yet another right-hand turn on to Round Branch Ave (translation mine!), where quietness and a surprising lack of souls out and about surprised me. Though there are a lot of other places to explore, I may come back here often to enjoy some 'peace and solitude!'
As I ran by the masses of concrete and steel, and remembered similar complexes all across southwest China, I found myself thinking about the well-known quote from Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." China must have this film on continual re-run in all their urban planning offices, for if one could add up the number of uninhabited apartments in China, it'd likely surpass the total number in all of America. I heard from one friend that China wants to lure 250 million more "nong ren" to urban areas by 2025 or thereabouts. That's one mass exodus from the farm, but providing jobs for all those so-called 'unskilled' workers has proven to be a problem in China where an annual growth percentage of 9% is needed just to employ those entering the workforce. But cities are where the Promised Land--not of milk and honey, but of money and Mercedes--looms large, or where at least respectable schools and the chance for upward mobility can be more than a wistful dream.
Summer has officially made it's exit til 2014, but as Chengdu lies in a basin at just over 1200', humidity and plain old hot weather are regular attendees. It's taken me several visits to China before I felt comfortable running in what I'd term normal running clothes. In summer, that includes 5 things--2 pairs of 2 items on my feet and a pair of shorts. But as I ran through throngs of people awaiting buses and taxis and others lounging on motorbikes and mounds of newspapers, and then jumped over dogs and side-stepped toddlers who, bless their hearts, are learning well from their parents how not to pay attention to oncoming traffic of all sorts, it occurred to me that running for pleasure's sake is a fairly foreign concept here. Now smoking and mah-jong--those are household activities. Or badminton and tai-chi--those are oft-seen activities in the parks here. But distance running for the sheer enjoyment of it (okay, I'll grant to you that China is actually host to 32 marathons a year, however, none within 150 miles of here) is an uphill battle. Awareness of air pollution, food safety and the need for adequate employment have become part of everyday conversations, and perhaps the benefits of physical exercise, even if only of temporal benefit, will soon be touted.
If you've ever traveled to Asia--specifically China, in my experience--perhaps you felt like everyone was staring at you. I've met a few Chinese folks who said they only see 1-2 white people/year, and a few teenage girls requested to take a photo of me as I was the first white person they'd seen, and that was in 2011! While these stories occurred as I was simply in plain dress, I need not inform you that I gain a few more curious spectators when running. But, to offset a few thousand curious bystanders, I'd like to share two other occurrences yesterday in which my unusual presence was noticed. One spandex-clad cyclist, as he sped past me, throw out an enthusiastic "props" wave as he made a 'gun' with his fingers! Then as I was enjoying a yak meat and potato pot pie dish late that evening, a man at the neighboring table looked my way, pointed at me, his eyes, then outside, and finally mimicked the running motion with his arms. It took him repeating this series of gestures before I realized he was conveying to me: "Yeah, you're the foreigner I saw running through my neighborhood the other day!"
As I was mid-stream in writing this sentence, I decided to check on an expat (ex-patriate; aka foreigners who've moved here) forum for any replies to my inquiry for a training partner. I had one reply, and it turned out to be another American who not only has run a dozen marathons, is interested in training together, but also is co-owner of the first Western-owned bicycle shop (happens to be a fixed gear shop) in Chengdu. So, while car ownership doubled from 1995-2005 and the bike population declined 35% in that period, at least the biking scene is re-emerging in this land among the young and hip teens. Perhaps running won't be too far behind, though if it happens I'd have to call it a running boom, much like America had in the '60's, as I don't think it's ever been popular here.
There came a point in my run when it was decision time. Do I continue running down Round Branch Ave. til I see a road I recognize and hope that it takes me back to my neighborhood? Or do I play it safe and do an out-and-back route, the only foolproof way to not get lost (as I'd only made 2 turns at this point to get me to mile 4)? I decided to chance it and keep running til I saw a road name that was familiar. I came up to an intersection that had a name similar to the one I live on. As I ran across metal grates of a construction site before long-jumping over a 6" deep puddle, my hope was that this road connected to the road I lived on somewhat soon. As I ran further, "Hongpailou Lu" appeared on a sign overhead and I remembered back to a supermarket encounter with another foreign couple who told me that this road was home to a bigger market where I could find baking ingredients. Their description of its location and the mental map I made in my head suggested that I could make yet another right on this road and it'd lead me back home. I ran for a while til I happened upon another big intersection...
Perhaps you've read that hikers lost in the woods will, in all likelihood, end up walking in a large circle. Well, I'm here to confirm that this is, indeed, true even in the city! You may have counted how many right turns I made up to this point, and it was apparently enough to lead me back to those same metal grates and the same puddle I jumped over! The saving grace here was that I just did a loop and now knew where I was! I reverted back to fail-safe option 1 and headed back in the direction from whence I came. West I went on Round Branch Ave, then I hit the little road with the low-hanging branches, and finally popped out on to 1st Ring Road. I darted past the Muslim noodle shop selling their $1.60 bowls of hand-pulled homemade noodles, danced my way through traff across the street, accrued a few more stares, jumped over one more dog (okay, I made that up) and then I arrived at home, ready to explore a few more streets another day.