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.