A blonde running through city streets wearing a strappy top and shorts is a rare sight in China. So, when my running shoes hit Nanjing Road in Shanghai at 5:30 am, my knees felt a bit shaky. I squared my shoulders and headed straight to The Bund, Shanghai’s famous riverfront, hoping to blend in with a stream of Chinese runners. The runners were there; some were even wearing strappy tops. My nervous jitters relaxed into an easy stride, and for the next six miles I was entertained by sights that were far more conspicuous than me. Early mornings in Shanghai were full of fun surprises.
My father, my son and I had strolled along The Bund the night before among thousands of Chinese tourists in town to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. Roads were gridlocked and crosswalks so crowded that dozens of traffic police were stressed by trying to keep it all under control. The shrill of police whistles echoed in my memory, as I crossed the now-empty Zhongshan Road.
Because of those crowds, I expected The Bund to be trashed, but it was incredibly immaculate. A few sweepers with long bristled street brooms pushed around the tiny bits of remaining debris. The skyscrapers of Pudong, across the river, poked up through a broken veil of low clouds. My eyes stung – I was running in smog. Maybe someday China will pay as much meticulous attention to keeping its air as clean as their popular tourist sites.
At least fifteen kites – raptors, snakes and dragons – flew high over the European colonial bank buildings along Zhongshan Road. I traced the kite strings to the ground and found them connected to hand-cranked reels held by mature Chinese men. A steady breeze off the river provided easy kite launches – nobody was running Charlie Brown style with an erratic kite trailing behind them. Companions helped each other’s kites stay untangled, as the breeze lifted them toward the sky.
An amplified voice yanked my attention away from the kites to a grassy area where a half-dozen women performed synchronized calisthenics. The harsh sounding instruction clashed with the peaceful ambiance of the riverside, but strangely it seemed to suit the exercise routine.
Further north on The Bund, a group of men and women dressed in martial arts outfits were lunging, turning and bracing for attack. I gave them a wide berth and cruised around the Monument for the People’s Heroes where I spotted a trio of men, arms crossed, perched on the balls of their feet on a concrete retaining wall. Their heels were dropped to stretch their calves and their feet were practically folded against their shins as they engaged in casual conversation. There are many benefits of calf flexibility; the primary one became clear to me later that day, when I was faced with negotiating a Chinese hole-in-the-floor public toilet.
I left the north end of the Bund and veered upstream along the Suzhou River to a less touristy part of Shanghai. Street cleaners had yet to tackle this part of town. The sour aroma of rotting garbage assaulted my nose and my shoes peeled off sticky brown spots on the pavement. The few solo walkers I encountered seemed engaged in meditative movement rather than a brisk aerobic workout.
One steady walker coming toward me suddenly kicked forward overhead. He did it in a snap, without interrupting his stride. Not sure exactly what happened, I focused on him, without blinking, in case he did it again. Whoop! Up flew his other leg to a height that would tear every one of my hamstrings. The kicker locked eyes with me, and his expression never changed – not the tiniest twitch appeared on his face. I wanted to acknowledge his super power with an enthusiastic thumbs-up but it didn’t seem appropriate. We passed each other in silence.
I saw people gazing over the river and slapping their arms, or standing motionless in Tai Chi poses. In a moment of familiarity, three Chinese runners waved and smiled at me as they passed in the opposite direction – the bond between runners knows no international boundary.
My route stayed close to the Suzhou River, weaving through strip parks and following frontage roads. A half-dozen bridges forced me to cope with a variety of obstacles – cross traffic, stairs up and over, paths underneath, and detours around on-ramps.
At one intersection, I waited for a green light and gasped as I watched bicycles and cars casually run the red to weave through the cross traffic. After I stood for what felt like an eternity, it dawned on me that the light might never change. With a surge of adrenaline, I made a serpentine dash across the intersection dodging bicycles, cars and buses. When I reached the other side, my heart pounding, I noticed four local policemen watching me.
I had just risked getting in trouble with Chinese police and being hauled off to a Chinese hospital. The haze had infiltrated my brain.
Business signage along the Suzhou River was all in Chinese characters, unlike the English translated signs on the Bund. Motorized scooters bearing loads of fresh produce and odd items – a kitchen chair, for example – skirted past me. Massive mangled knots of electrical wiring clung to the sides of buildings. Wires that stretched across the narrow side streets were loaded with bedding and trousers hung out to dry.
I summoned my courage to take a few turns away from the river in search of the Jade Buddha Temple. People watched me run by on the sidewalks, but nobody said a word. I had experienced disconcerting catcalls when running in other countries, but the Chinese were always respectful.
Unfortunately, the Jade Buddha was hidden behind high walls, and the temple wasn’t open yet. My disappointment, along with the oppressive muggy air trapped within city streets, wilted my disposition; seeing the giant Buddha carved from jade was supposed to be the highlight of my morning. I turned around.
I retraced my steps past the high kicker and the slappers, zigzagged through the life-threatening intersection, swung by the calf-stretching perch, and zipped past the calisthenics workout. I paused on The Bund to cool down and watch the kite flyers.
The Pudong skyline, across the river, was packed with impressive modern architecture. Standing out most were the twisted glass Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower, and the Shanghai World Financial Center that sports an aperture at its top like that of a bottle opener. At night, the skyline sparkles with color and graphic light shows climb the tall buildings. Incredibly, the entire group of skyscrapers sits on what used to be farmland in 1980. Shanghai’s astronomical growth at 10 percent per year has made it the world’s largest city.
I turned around to go back to my hotel and faced a group of girls five feet away from me with at least four cameras aimed at me. They giggled and continued to film me, even though we made eye contact. My delusion of blending in on The Bund dissolved and I became acutely aware of my sweaty clothes clinging to my body. I wondered if the girls ever noticed the kites.