I like to run.
It wasn’t always this way. Eight or nine years ago I was a lot heavier, and regular exercise wasn’t really part of my routine. My girlfriend was significantly fitter and more energetic, and she took me on as something of a restoration project. It must have worked out, because she married me.
As part of my physical reformation I discovered the joys of running. I was living in Singapore at the time, which is hot and humid, but otherwise a lovely city for runners. It has hundreds of kilometers of quiet, tree-lined streets, big parks, clear air and even trails through the tropical forest that surrounds the reservoirs in the middle of the island.
I’ve always been a solitary runner. I like to set my own pace and direction and allow my mind to wander, and I find that’s harder to do when I run with other people. In Singapore I learned that running alone made me feel closer to the city and the pulse of local life because I paid attention to what I saw. I sometimes ran in the morning, but by far my favorite time to run was dusk, when the heat of the day started to fade and local life spilled into the streets and void-decks of the public housing blocks.
From my little house in the expatriate haven of Holland Village I ran through the old public housing areas of Tiong Bahru, Queensway and Tanglin Halt, where the food centers and wet markets would be coming to life with the dinner rush. I ran the wide expanse of Holland Road and Napier Road, past the looming American embassy and through the far more inviting botanical gardens. I ran the quiet lanes of Bishopsgate or around Coronation Road and gazed in wonder at the sprawling mansions of Asian tycoons.
And then I moved to Beijing.
In Beijing, running outdoors is not enjoyable. On the rare days when the air is not abrasive the ramshackle sidewalks, impersonal boulevards and crush of pedestrians all serve to discourage. In summer the air is at its worst. In winter the icy, desiccating wind strips the lungs and burns the skin.
So I ran on a treadmill in the gym. Running on a treadmill is the dullest recreational activity on earth. For sheer, painful tedium it ranks somewhere between hand-sorting lint and watching water evaporate. Television monitors help, but something about them dispels the seductive trance that is so vital to a satisfying run. Real scenery slipping by doesn’t have the same effect.
Nevertheless, you do what you must. Over two and a half years I turned hundreds of kilometers of treadmill belt beneath my feet, and hated every last numbing centimeter of it.
Then I moved to Shanghai.
I didn’t want to leave Beijing, and it was only grudgingly that I packed bags, cats and wife and decamped the capital for the delta. But I’ve discovered that Shanghai has its compensations. One of them is that I can once again run outdoors.
I’ve described Shanghai to friends –somewhat unfairly– as three nice neighborhoods surrounded by Wuhan. Fortunately, I live in one of those nice neighborhoods, in heart of Shanghai’s congenial French Concession. Here the streets are of a human scale, lined with shade trees, and edged with broad, roomy sidewalks. The intimacy is inviting to a runner in the way that Beijing’s sprawling avenues are not.
Even better, Shanghai’s air is drawn from an entirely different planet than the Venusian miasma that shrouds Beijing. It’s a planet where air is still transparent and cotton-ball clouds sometimes drift by on southerly breezes. In Shanghai bad air days stand in contrast to good air days. In Beijing it’s the other way round.
And so I’ve been running outdoors again, reveling in my liberation from the tyranny of the treadmill. I started timidly, staying on the familiar streets and lanes within a few blocks of home. As time has gone by, however, I’ve become bolder, and pushed farther into the depths of the city.
I still like to run at dusk when, as in Singapore, Shanghai’s local life spills out onto the streets. But in Shanghai different rules apply, and they are not quite as forgiving of the runner’s trance as Singapore was.
For one thing, the sidewalks are much more crowded, as befits a city with five times as many residents as Singapore. So are the roads and bike lanes, where bicycles, electric scooters, goods-tricycles, wheelbarrows and pedestrians all compete for space. I find myself adopting the approach of an NFL halfback: Bob, weave, break for the hole before it closes. Blind corners, alleyway gates and crosswalks are all places for extra vigilance. I also spend a lot of time weaving back and forth between sidewalks and bicycle lanes, bypassing the spots where the sidewalk is simply impassable.
That happens a lot. Shanghai’s sidewalks support not only more pedestrians than Singapore’s, but also all the myriad fragments of Chinese commerce and life that cannot be contained within walls. The sidewalks are al fresco dining areas for neighborhood restaurants, extra workshop space for local businesses, and public parks. I find myself threading around men grinding metal, noodle stalls, xiangqi games, and ranks of aunties and uncles fanning themselves in lawn-chairs. But these scenes are the life of the city, and running past them and through them reminds of why the treadmill was so tedious.
As I’ve become more comfortable I’ve been running further afield. If you want to know what it would be like to live in a society where everyone else knew you were slightly crazy, put on running gear and jog through a deeply local neighborhood in a Chinese city.
In the French Concession, which is awash in expatriates and tourists, locals have developed a certain blasé attitude toward the idiosyncrasies of foreigners. But there is plenty of Shanghai where a pale, sweaty man pounding by in a singlet with glazed eyes is still an oddity. I’ve been greeted with curious stares (not just from children who haven’t learned to suppress their gawping instinct) murmured asides and occasional outright laughter. But it has never been ill-humored.
Part of this is, of course, in my imagination. Wondering what people are thinking of me is part of the game of passing the time on a long run. That sinewy old man might have been a teenager during the privations of the post-war years. Is he bemused at the thought of someone working off “excess calories”? Is the young woman with the chubby son pointing me out to him because he’ll be amused, or because she wants him inspired to exercise?
One route I’ve been enjoying lately goes from my home, near where the old Xiangyang Market used to be, all the way along Fuxing Road to the Huangpu River and then back. It’s a good hour of running, plus ten minutes on the footbridge at the turnaround near the river, watching boats go by. I did it yesterday.
The first part of the run is pure French Concession. The street is narrow and tree lined, the atmosphere congenial. The sidewalk is lined with restaurants and boutiques, with a wide bike lane I can run in. Traffic is moderate and slow. This is the comfortable warm-up.
The elevated Chongqing Road, about a third of the way to the river, marks a distinct change in atmosphere. The street becomes down-market, with shabby storefronts occupying the first floor of tumbledown, two-story blocks. But near Huangpi Road, in the corona of Xintiandi, luxury apartments still rise on the north side.
Slowly this stretch gives way to a more commercial district. There is the excavation for new subway stops, more stoplights, and wide cross-streets bustling with traffic. Fuxing Road widens into six lanes. The traffic that was one-way closer to home now runs both directions. There are large restaurants, office blocks, and the unmistakable chandeliers and mirrors of a large KTV center.
I’m well settled into my groove at this point, looking for things that interest me. The road is still wide and traffic fast moving. I spend most of my time hugging the curb in a wide bike lane, separated from the main road by a reassuring concrete median. I end up behind a thin workman on his bike. He is wearing an old denim jacket liberally splashed with paint. He has one cigarette tucked behind each ear. His equally paint-splashed companion slowly passes me, pulling even long enough to look me up and down, before edging in front.
Closer to the river Fuxing Road cuts through Shanghai’s ramshackle old town. Tar-paper second stories, rusting sheet-metal, bird-cages, and alleyways that wind past wet markets and apartment complexes that have missed out on Shanghai’s elevation into the glamorous face of the new China. There are more curious stares here, but it’s still congenial.
The sidewalk has become one long stretch of urban life, an extended front-yard for the residents of the old city. The throng makes the sidewalk impassible at speed and I am relegated to the bike lane. A small, white dog trots in front of me, heading for the road. As I pass I can hear a woman calling out to it anxiously. I glance over my shoulder to see the dog heading into the road. One car brakes sharply to avoid it, but I can see what is coming. I like animals too much to watch, so I look away. I hear an unmistakable hollow bang. Another look over my shoulder and I see an inert, white lump in the road. The car hasn’t stopped. I wonder if I should go back to the treadmill.
Then the character of the city changes again. The cars have all entered the tunnel under the Huangpu River and the street, though still wide, is quiet. The scruffy old town has given way to the glamorous apartment blocks and office developments that line the river. But it feels deserted. The buildings are too new to have tenants. This is the ghost of what Shanghai wants to be.
The footbridge at Zhongshan Road rises ahead. It’s my turnaround point. I run up the ramp of the bridge and stop at the top, as I always do, to watch the boat traffic on the river. Two buxom foreign women are taking each other’s photos with the river as a backdrop. A Chinese worker in a white singlet and shorts approaches me. He tells me I must have a very healthy heart. I thank him and ask if he thinks what I’m doing is strange. It’s a leading question. “Oh, yes, very strange,” he obligingly answers. “We Chinese would ride a bike.”
A little more chit chat. He gazes for a moment at the buxom tourists. “Are they Americans too?” he asks, perhaps wondering if we’re all a little funny in the head. I venture that they’re European. He purses his lips thoughtfully, and then shuffles along to the ferry terminal.
The sun is getting low and the clouds are turning orange, so I turn around and head back west towards home. I pass the place where the dog was struck. It’s gone now, borne off to whatever rituals of mourning attend small dogs in Shanghai. I’m getting tired, less concerned with observing life and more focused on making it home before it gets too dark. But I still take some time to appreciate the colors of sunset.
I cross Chongqing road again. When I cross it I am back in my own neighborhood, and on the home stretch. There are foreigners around again. Two white men come toward me on a scooter. One stretches out his hand as they pass and I slap him a vigorous high-five. I have no idea who they are, but my palm stings satisfyingly for two blocks.
My legs are weary and my feet are beginning to drag. It’s getting harder to duck and weave around the inevitable obstacles. I’m lazier about looking into blind driveways and alleys before I dart in front of them. Fatigue is danger if you’re running in a Chinese metropolis, and it would be good to be home. Familiar cross streets that mark out the final kilometer: Sinan, Ruijin, Maoming, Shaanxi, Jiashan. I cheer myself past them until I finally arrive safely in the courtyard of my apartment complex.
An hour well spent. Every run in Shanghai is a journey.