24 October, 2014

Marathon Training Interruptus & my Great Wall adventure

     Most sane people don't deliberately insert a two-week break in their marathon training programs; certainly not without expecting some tears come race day. But if this hiatus comes early enough in the plan perhaps it is not the end of the world - especially if it takes you to the ends of your world.
     I needed to be in Beijing for a couple of weeks over July and August to supervise an animated co-production with a partner university. Our generous hosts ensured we were ushered around to some classic city sites and our small crew of student interns had the times of our lives. But Beijing's notorious smog meant that my running gear remained stowed for the most part, the Air Quality Index seemingly always hovering between 180-300. Besides a brief blue-sky window of opportunity one day when I snuck in a few short kilometers around the campus, the sum total of my workouts was confined to elbowing aside elders gumming up the stairs to the emperors' Summer Palace, pedaling around Kunming Lake aboard a paddle-boat that felt tethered to the dock, and wandering the endless hallways in the capital city's warren of subway lines.
Beijing - time to lay low
Meanwhile, back at the ranch in lucky old Canada...
      I was, in the words of a desperate billiards player, due for a run (pun not intended, but apt).
     As if someone heard me, the following day we were shuttled 120 kms NE of Beijing to Gubei – a picturesque town that developers term 'The Water City' but displaced residents know better as 'The Site Where Graft and Secret Consortiums Uprooted Our Families.' This is a gateway to Simatai, one of the more rugged segments of China's Great Wall. We arrived at the outskirts of the village mid-morning expecting the usual throngs of tourists and instead found ourselves in a ghost town; a beautiful, newly-built replica of Ming dynasty architecture that was largely uninhabited. Store fronts were still being cleared of building debris, wire pigtails sprouted from the walls of freshly-hewn stone. Vines obediently wound their way up to the first of many looms waiting to train their paths, while everywhere signs were still being screwed onto posts. Our accidental timing put us in a trough ahead of the waves of humanity that soon would crest this village's meandering walkways. For now, though, we had this amazing, silent space all to ourselves.
     Always in the distance, through the day's hot haze, we could see the Great Wall's iconic watchtowers taking form as we walked closer. The ragged path they traced along the ridge top seemed to get steeper and more unlikely by the minute. One could not help but think, How? Even more to the point: Why?! In deference to those in our party who were disinclined to inclines, we took the cable car that rose halfway up the massive ridge to the north. Once there, an empty trail snaked its way up to the eighth of a dozen or so watchtowers. As a group we weren't fast, but I mentally checked off hill work on my list of overdue workouts.
     The wall itself was, of course, amazing – something everyone should experience if they ever get the chance. This region's vistas, clouded by Beijing's residual smog, were layered with rugged edges like dragon's teeth. The wall's undulations made California's Marin County fire roads look like a kiddie ride; were I part of a Mongolian horde looking up at these sheer man-made cliffs, I would definitely throw in the towel and head back for a home-cooked meal. 
        Pillage and plunder was the last thing on my mind as I doffed my hiking clothes (run shorts underneath!) and with a quick salute to my students I launched myself eastward, rising further still into the hazy sky. As soon as I passed through the first watchtower I was suddenly, absolutely alone, not a soul in sight anywhere... so of course I kept running! The centuries-old cobbles kept my attention for the most part, but as I slowed on some of the steeper sections (onto all fours on one set of stairs) I could look out at the vistas and marvel at their natural beauty and at the sheer audacity behind this ribbon of rocks and bricks I was using. 
      Here I was stretching my legs on one of the most stunning. iconic pathways the world has ever known, and for this brief time I had it all to myself. Or so I thought. 
Just as I came to the 12th watchtower, I saw that the far doorway was barricaded, signs up warning of dangers ahead. I had reached the end of the line, beyond which the famous Heavenly Ladder, Sky Bridge, and Fairy Tower snaked their way precipitously higher. 
Hikers more intrepid than me have perished beyond here, so the gummint said No more!
Just as I reached the barricade, thinking I would rest a minute in my solitude, taking in this profound communion between nature and human history, a man's voice not more than a metre behind me called for me to stop. I wheeled around, my spiritual reverie shattered, and saw a soldier squatting behind an archway. He apparently was stationed here to prevent people like me from going further - if we had plans to do so. Which I didn't.
Judging by both of our reactions, neither expected the other – him because I ran up, on silent shoes, likely not panting quite as much as some of the tourists he so rarely sees, and me because, well, I thought I was having a Private Bloody Moment To Myself. Skipping anything intelligent, I blurted out in my finest King's English, Oh... hi!, turned on my heels, and headed back to the rest of the world. On the plus side, I see it as good that I surprised him – he had no chance to pick up the Kalashnikov that apparently more than one trekker has seen soldiers brandishing at this lofty cul de sac. That would be something: Sorry sir, I am obliged to shoot you if you insist on going further. We do not want you to risk hurting yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Although the air condition in Beijing is not as good as Canada, it is still my favorite city in China. Because compared with other cities, Beijing has more typical historic spots.
    : )