Thursday, July 24, 2014

Photo blog: Running in Hong Kong


HONG KONG – This is an incredible place to run and to discover the island's vast network of trails. But my best running tip here came over a beer. This beer:

My friend and colleague Nicolas and I had discovered an outside Beer Fest one weekend afternoon on a side street in this densely urban place.
To give you an idea:

We zeroed in on two booths that served craft beers, one from England, the other from Scotland. It was early in the afternoon, and we ended up staying for a couple of hours, talking with several 20-somethings who had gone to college in the US or Canada and decided to settle here to do business. They were full of ideas on how to make money – as they worked a couple of jobs at the same time.
Hours later, after dinner, we stopped by again, found the same two booths and had a beer – a black IPA called Libertine Black Ale, brewed by BrewDog from Scotland. It was delicious.

We started talking with two guys; one asked if I were a runner and that led to a discussion of all the runs we had been doing in Hong Kong, where we've been staying on weekends during a three-week tour of Asia.
One fantastic run was high above the city. It was on a paved trail that had several panoramic views at eye level of the top floors of skyscrapers. Like this:
Or this:

One of guys, whose name was Gary, an investor who splits his time between New York and Hong Kong, said there was an even better run.  He scribbled down some path names, warned that part of it was straight up, but encouraged me to do it.
The next morning, I went.

I went up and up and up – so steep that it hurt my calves. So I walked, up and up. At the top, I found a trail through a forest of small trees and ran up some more. At the peak, I could see the other side of the island, and then the strangest thing happened: a cooling headwind. Hong Kong is hot and humid during summer, and it was the first – and only – bit of natural coolness.  I ran down the other side of the mountain and found my way back to the hotel – nearly a 90 minute run in the heat. I felt energized, though, after finding a glimpse of a rural oasis in a packed city, all thanks to a kind stranger over a black IPA. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

In China: What is behind the curtains?

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 – 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.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Along the Great Wall: Have a Tsingtao!

ON THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA – It’s been a long dream of mine to see the Great Wall of China, the 5,500-mile long structure that runs from east to west of the country. With the luck of good airport connections and a travel companion, my friend Ed, who speaks Mandarin and had agreed to be a tour guide, it finally happened -- late on a Sunday to a section of the wall in Mutianyu, about 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing.
A friend, Liz, had just run the Great Wall Marathon and she had described the race as incredibly hard because of the Wall’s steep slopes. I had looked at her puzzled – my image was of a mostly flat Wall.

But when we arrived at the Wall earlier this week, taking a two-person chairlift from Mutianyu village to the Wall, I saw she was not only correct, but had underplayed the steep pitch. I had put on my running clothes and shoes in an airport bathroom stall (a first) and was ready to run the Wall (thinking it would be great to put in a few miles), but after the first 200 yards I was huffing and puffing.
In this section, the mostly granite structure, which was built in the 6th century and rebuilt in the 16th, consisted of a series of up and down sections so steep that it would be dangerous to run the downhills and exhausting to run the uphills.

Still, I gave it a go – a run-walk (mostly a walk) for 15 minutes or so.
We had arrived around 5 p.m. and most of the tourists were gone, and there was even a hint of a cool breeze. At first, it seemed just as I had seen in photographs in a National Geographic magazine. The Wall snaked over hilltops, zigged and zagged, going on and on, as far as you could see. It seemed an incomprehensible feat from the Middle Ages.

Up close, the experience, though, the 21st century had crept in.

I ran past a group of French tourists in their early 20s, their faces red from exertion, all lighting up cigarettes.
I ran past young Chinese couples dressed in latest fashions giggling as they took selfies.

And on the top of one long uphill, I ran past a Chinese vendor who saw the sweat dipping off my brow and shouted out, “Have a Tsingtao! Ice cold! It gives you energy!”
I smiled. Enticing, I thought. I kept going, second-guessing my decision – drinking a cold beer might have given me a lift – but I kept moving until my lungs could power me no more. I turned around and through the haze (likely smog from greater Beijing) looked out at the Wall’s crown on the hills to the north. An opaque sun was barely visible. It was a privilege to stand there and see, as millions of people had before me, a wonder of the world. Not even the haze diminished it.