Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Running in Shanghai

An essay I once wrote for a tourism book that never got published ...

It was about 4:30am on my first day living in Shanghai, and I had just woken up. The sky was still bright and red as the Shanghai sky is at night, without a trace of stars or the sun. I hadn't connected the internet yet in my apartment, thereby vanishing any chance to chat with friends and family I had recently left behind in the States, read the NYTimes online, or surf Facebook. The fridge was still empty, not even plugged in yet. I had no friends here, no family here, and unfortunately no DVDs yet to take their place. And work didn't start until nine. This was jetlag of the worst kind.

So that morning, instead of lying in that eerie hot-red darkness, I suited up in my favorite sweats from college, an old pair of Nike sneakers, and hit the streets.

Off I went, sprinting straight south on Jiaozhou Lu. Past the Jing'an Temple, and into a clearing just by Nanjing Xi Lu. In the plaza, beggars sat outside with their children, hopefully holding up cans for me to drop a few coins in. Beside them, sleepy, over-boozed couples poured out of the bar nearby that was still blasting hip-hop music into the early morning. Above me, wisps of white clouds raced by, straight west, and I decided to follow them to their source. I turned left on Nanjing Rd. and picked up the pace. The cool wind flowed straight into my lungs. I knew it wasn't clean, but this early in the morning when the cars and buses weren't out yet, the air felt refreshing and clear.

I kept running. On my left was the old Ritz Carlton, on my right was shop after shop of shoes, glasses, Zara, Chinese antiques, on my right was a Pearl Market, empty save for a few street sweepers and beggars asleep by the front gate. I bounded under a huge raised highway called Chengdu Lu, and just beyond it lay People's Square.

The sky was beginning to fade from red to grey, and although the sun wasn't up, I knew it was coming soon. I wanted to reach the Huangpu River before it did.
I sprinted through the Square, and straight onto the Nanjing Lu walking street.

Elderly women with fans were beginning to set up their radios, stretch, and stand in formation, preparing for their morning exercise. I weaved in and out of the different groups – one with red fans, another yellow, another holding fake swords instead. When the walking street ended, the sky was a much lighter shade of gray and time was obviously running out.

I continued to head east, dodging a couple cars that had just come out of hibernation, a few more street sweepers, and was now sandwiched between turn-of-the-century style brick buildings. Go go go! I thought to myself, I HAD to get there for the sunrise. The buildings were stacked so close to one another I could hardly see where I was going, how many more blocks I had to traverse before I reached the end.

And all of a sudden … BAM, I hit the end. A four-lane road with a big gate that kept pedestrians from ever crossing successfully. Shoot!

Desperate to get across the final street to the elevated Bund walking area, I turned left and searched for an underground tunnel. There it was! Boing boing boing down the stairs, across the tunnel, right back up, left right, zig zag around the various elderly exercisers making their way to the Bund as well, up another couple staircases and here, HERE I was.

I had made it, and the sun hadn't come up yet.

I stood there gasping for air, my lungs painfully filled with who-knows-what, heart thumping, calves screaming in pain. My whole body rocked with feeling, and as I moved beyond noticing what was paining me inside, I looked up, and displayed in front of me, just beyond the curved part of the river where barges chugged along lazily was the great, Jetson-like Pudong. A sliver of orange was becoming visible while those white clouds raced forward, straight at me. I watched in awe as the sun gradually made its way above each of the architecturally ridiculous buildings rising from the other side of the river. The sky slowly became brighter and brighter.

The honking behind me suddenly woke me from my trance, the morning traffic had begun. Around me, dozens of exercisers danced under the newly risen sun, waving their multicolored fans, brandishing their swords, banging drums, kicking their feet

Good morning Shanghai!

Fact File:

There are a bunch of great routes for the runner or walker in Shanghai. Beware, however, that traffic picks up at 7am, so getting up early or going out late at night are probably your best bets.

Two other of my favorite routes include:

1. Loops around Century Park – each loop is about 5k, the entry fee is 10rmb, and it's really pretty as long as you're not there at noon on a weekend when the crowds get pretty intense
2. Run from Hengshan Lu and Yan'an Lu to Xujiahui Park, run around the park, then weave your way around the neighborhoods there

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