Thursday, December 13, 2012

In dark, in light snow, a run in Stockholm

                STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Windows of time are precious on these trips. They happen usually at the ends of days, well after dark or before dawn. Here, in Sweden, in blustery mid-December, running in daylight was unlikely to happen no matter the schedule: It’s dark for more than 18 hours every day; the sun sets about 2:30 p.m.

                So when we checked into our hotel at 5 p.m., with a few free hours ahead, the first thing I did was unpack my running shoes and winter gear and asked the hotel clerk for a route.  He kindly gave me a map and showed me the way to run onto one of the city’s many islands, connected by bridges to the mainland.

                As I prepared to go, a few colleagues in the lobby asked why I would bother. Two days earlier, nearly two feet of snow dropped on Stockholm, and what was left was four to six inches of mushed-up semi-packed snow, the kind where you slide back half a step with every stride. “Wouldn’t you get as much exercise if you just walked a few blocks?” one person asked.

                Actually, no. The hotel was near the sea, and so I ran to it, and then kept the sea on my right (a variation of the Vermonter advice of not getting lost in the woods: Keep the river on your right). It was below freezing, a light snow was falling, and many people were walking along the path under street lights. There were a few runners and even a biker, who kept a certain pace in order not to topple.

                I was thrilled to be in Stockholm, running in snow on snow, and stealing a view of the city in my window of time. I turned right on a bridge that crossed a canal, and then, less than a mile from the city center, found myself running alone on a snowy sidewalk.

                It felt like I was back in a small New England town – the snow lightly falling, street lamps illuminating the snowflakes, emptiness ahead, silence, Christmas lights on houses, candles lighting windows, shadows of figures moving from room to room. I passed a young couple walking home. In their wake, they were tugging a bundled-up one- or two-year-old in a red sled. The bearded man and long-haired woman talked excitedly; the child in a snowsuit in back sat mute, eyes wide looking at me. I blurred past her, waving but getting no reply.  

                I ran on a plowed path in a city park lined with tall trees (the benches had humps of snow, no one had sat on them since the storm); to a ferry landing, where a sign said a ferry arrived every 24 minutes to take people somewhere in Stockholm; and then back toward my hotel.

                One trick in running in a foreign place is not only to find a route, but also to find the route home. So when I left my hotel, I looked around and found my landmark: a billboard advertising “Dirty Dancing.” It was in pink neon. On the return, I could see it from a quarter-mile away, and I shuffled to the hotel, Dirty Dancing a hot-pink beacon.  

I checked my watch: just 35 minutes. But it seemed like I had escaped for hours and had entered a hushed Nordic world during the Christmas month. My cheeks were cold. My hat was white. I stretched next to my hotel door, and I felt the tightness ease from my calves. It felt good to run in the dark, in cold, in Stockholm.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Under a full moon, a run to Tiananmen Square

               BEIJING – I didn’t expect to run here. I expected the smog to make running counterproductive. I expected work schedules wouldn’t allow it. And I expected that I wouldn’t be interested – not in an intensely urban, polluted city.

                I was wrong on all accounts. As I set out one morning late last week at 6 a.m., the air was cold and clear. It was so clear that I looked up and saw a full moon.

                The moon would lead me, I thought. Where? How about Tiananmen Square, the third largest city square in the world and infamous as the site where the government violently quashed the pro-democracy movement in 1989, some 23 years ago.

I started down a sidewalk illuminated by street lights and right away I saw a highway sign: Tiananmen Square 4.5 kilometers. Doable, I thought – as long as I didn’t get lost.

The temperature was 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind blew at my back – a worrisome sign because it meant I’d be running into it on my return. But I was so excited about the thought of running in Beijing, running to Tiananmen Square, just running in general, that I blocked it out.

Other obstacles, though, appeared quickly. I immediately came upon major intersections; I learned that cars turn right on red here, along with multiple motorcycles and bicycles outfitted with tiny motors. I stepped out at one intersection and one of the swift soundless bicycles almost ran over my toes, causing me to leap back. One lesson learned in Beijing traffic: don’t depend on your ears. Three kilometers into the run, the wide sidewalk became full of large groups who wore red hats and carried red flags. Was I running into a demonstration of sorts? Why were so many walking in the cold in the dark?

I kept going, dodging the groups, trying not to trip, watching out for the bicycles, all under the full moon, which was sinking lower, still bright. And then I arrived at the Square, the sidewalk opening up to a walking boulevard, with Tiananmen to left.

The Square is treeless, a vast expanse of stone. It sits between two ancient, massive gates: the Tiananmen to the north and the Qianmen to the south, and alongside it are the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. I ran up to a giant portrait of Mao.

Traffic from the highway blocked my way to the Square. I asked two Chinese military guards for directions, using various types of pantomime, but they shyly turned away. I was the only Westerner in sight – the only runner as well – and so I had to find my own way. It wasn’t hard. Just a block away was an underground tunnel and the Chinese wearing red hats were all going that way.

After the tunnel, I crossed a smaller road to get to the Square, where I ran to a large group of people who were standing in front of a line of soldiers. Others were running toward us. I asked several people if they spoke English and found none. What was going on?

A police car with a loudspeaker approached. It said something in Chinese and then followed in English: “Welcome to the national flag-raising ceremony,” it said. “Please stand back. Do not push. Stay calm.”

Alongside more than 1,000 Chinese people, I had arrived in time to watch the country’s official raising of the flag, which I later found out happens every morning at sunrise. I had to get going, though. It was almost 7 a.m., and my first meeting started at 8.

So I retraced my steps, crossing the road, taking the tunnel, and then running back along the sidewalk. The sinking moon was at my back, the sky ahead turned orange, and I felt warm and excited. I had run to Tiananmen Square. I picked up the pace.