CHANGSHA, China – This may be hard to believe, but I travel in such a fast-moving, security-protected bubble – often a different city every day – with so much work to do that sometimes I arrive in a city that I know in name only. At such times, I learn where I’ll be sleeping after our entourage pulls up to the hotel; I’ll receive a room key without breaking stride, like a running back receiving a football from a quarterback, as we whisk into the elevator to our floor; and sometimes late at night or early in the morning, after a few dozen emails or a few hours sleep, I’ll take the time to draw the curtains of my room and peer into the darkness with one question in mind:Where am I?
This happened here. I opened the curtains at 5:30 a.m. at the Wanda Vista Hotel (I looked for the name on the hotel writing pad), room 2212, and I looked out at this south-central Chinese city in the Hunan Province with no idea of what I would see. I saw gray light, smog, the hints of a sunrise, and then a wide river right below -- the Xiang River, I would later learn, a branch of the Yangtze River. Most importantly, I could see a path that hugged the river: my running route.
I stepped outside to the heat. It was humid, over 85 degrees, but, within a couple of minutes, after reaching the tiled path, I knew this would be one of my best runs in months.
Everywhere: life. I saw old men in worn white tank-top undershirts on their brisk dawn walk. I saw fishermen with pails filed with water in anticipation of catches. I heard a man play a flute, beautifully. I ran past two middle-aged women, a boombox at their feet, as they hip-hopped to their daily aerobic routine.
The path was far from pristine, though not overly dirty or overly crowded, at least not by Chinese urban standards. It was full of Chinese people (no foreigners) who took no notice of me and who were immersed in their early morning workouts or work.
I found myself fascinated by them. One old man performed his tai chi movements, elegantly, soundlessly, on the grass. A cluster of people, at the bottom of a stairway next to the river, ran an informal fish market from their buckets full of foot-long silver-bellied fish that were alive, barely. An old man and a young girl ran slowly together, both smiling.
And then I heard a sharp sound – almost like gunshots. I picked up my pace toward an amphitheater-like structure with a large white roof and the sound grew louder and louder.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
I came to a wide pavilion and saw a group of six men dressed in loose fitting pants and T-shirts standing in a large circle. In their right arms, they held long whips. Ten feet in front of them were fat wooden tops. The men reached back and whipped the tops, spinning them round and round. The sounds echoed off the roof and off barges in the river. Crack! Crack! Crack!
I stood entranced. Sweat dripped from their faces. They watched their tops spin upright, calculating the timing of the next stroke that would hit the top precisely at the point that kept it spinning in place, not careening across the tiles or tipping on its side. They paced slowly in between their whippings, like indifferent cats in front of wounded prey. They were in no hurry. They just were.
I started heading back, wishing I could talk to them about this game or exercise that I had never seen. (I learned later on bing.com – China blocks google – that whipping stone tops is ancient Chinese activity, still practiced in some cities). I ran past people playing ping-pong, women in pajamas stretching, a man playing a Chinese string instrument called an echo.
When I got back to my room on the 22nd floor, I looked out again at the river and tiny figures below. I had started the morning just an hour before, with the mystery of opening the curtains, and now I knew so much more.