For my last day in Beijing, I was committed to break out of the pull of isolation and channel my inner extrovert. As my eyes flew open at 4am in the morning, it looked like I would have plenty of time to do it. I was hopeful that perhaps the winds had kicked up and the pollution that sits above the city had somewhat dissipated. No such luck. The sky still had that milky white hue and there was no way to distinguish a cloud from toxic haze. I was determined to run one more time in a desperate attempt to find an endorphin intervention, and I thought if I went early, I could avoid the weekend crowds. I’ve mentioned before, runners are a rarity in Beijing, despite being a former site for the Summer Olympics. The overwhelming number of cars, rickshaws and safe crosswalks may be a determining factor.
I may have mentioned that the hotel we were booked at was not accustomed to having foreign guests. It was the hotel that the Communist Party uses for delegates that come to the Great Hall of the People for conferences, etc. There was not a concierge, and most amenities didn’t work or no one knew how to access them; amenities like the fitness center, pool, air conditioning, room service, etc. There was a government official posted at each door who clearly didn’t know what to think of me. I decided to make a bit of a game out of it, by waving to them as I started my run, or giving them a thumbs up when I finished. My goal was to at least make eye contact and have them crack a smile. I think I may have elicited a smirk, at best.
I decided to be reasonable and only run 5K (3 miles) because who knows what I was breathing in and how I would pay for it somewhere down the line. I headed toward the NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) which is a giant titanium egg-shaped building floating on a lake. It is where I have spent all my time in conference on this trip. It features a walkway around the perimeter of the building and I figured there would be less need to dodge cars and rickshaws. I began around the inner perimeter and I was surprised at the number of people already out. There were tourists lining up for the Forbidden City, elderly couples taking constitutional walks, families on holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival, and one middle age runner: me. After completing one lap around the inner ring of the NCPA, I turned around and took the cut-off path to follow the outer ring. I noticed that there were several people walking their dogs as well and it was clear there were no leash laws needed here, but the dogs seemed to be nonplussed by the other dogs. That is until I rounded the first corner.
I think there is something about fast moving objects that stimulate the attack cortex in a dog’s brain. A group of people were walking their dogs, I guess they would be called dogs, but they were miniature versions of a bulldog, shiatsu, and other small terrier looking things. All of a sudden, I had five or six teeny-weeny dogs barking and swarming around my ankles. I froze. I had a simultaneous fear of stepping and maiming one of the creatures and being eaten alive by these piranha-like canines. I thought if I stopped, they would see me less as a threat. Wrong. I found myself swarmed by their ferocious snapping teeth as their owners looked on, not sure what had gotten into their otherwise precious puppies. This was clearly not working. I looked imploringly at their owners and they just shrugged and smiled. I decided to attempt to outrun the pack, after all my legs were a lot longer than theirs. I outdistanced all but one intrepid soul channeling his inner wolf: the miniature bulldog. He finally gave up when he started snorting and wheezing. I think the pollution finally got to him. I could hear the uproar of laughter as I pulled away. Bruce Springsteen was singing “American Fool” on my iPod as I found solace in the fact that I had become the bright light today to the Chinese dog walkers. I finished my run with my ankles intact, took a quick shower and went down for the community breakfast. I joined a table of my opera colleagues from Poland and we shared stories of translation and cultural missteps. Humility is a universal bond.
Somehow I managed to flag a cab down and my boss met me after chastising the hotel staff on his misadventures with his faulty air conditioning thermostat. We traveled 30 minutes to an area called District 798. It is a former warehouse and factory area that visual artists have claimed along with enterprising tea houses and boutiques. Gallery after gallery is open featuring original contemporary works from local artists, international artists, and Pan-Asian artists. There was an irreverent, risk-taking feeling that hadn’t been apparent anywhere else we had been. It was a breath of fresh air so to speak. No illusion, no control, and definitely a sense of humor. We ran into colleagues from Munich and Vienna, nothing we planned, but fun all the same to see a familiar set of faces in a city of 21 million people.
After an easy cab ride back, we prepared for our private business meeting at the NCPA. I took the lead. Negotiating through a translator is a difficult task. It’s like working through a marriage counselor to see if there is a relationship there, and if there is, determining whether it is worth investing in. I can’t help wonder how much gets lost in the translation. After an hour and a half, we felt we had some next step possibilities that would justify our trip. I stayed focused and engaged and the dialogue at least indicated progress. I returned to our Great Hall of the People Hotel and reminded myself that sometimes I focus on all the things nipping at my heels, when all I really need to do is to step out of the fray and change direction. Take that, you miniature bulldog.
© Kelly Tweeddale