Kunming locals love to wryly say that the “mountains are high and the emperor is far away”, explaining the often devious and alternative history of their city. Sure, some say our world is now flat, and that China is flat and better connected, meaning Kunming now submits (usually) to Beijing’s watch. But, regardless of how flat Thomas Friedman thinks China is, the mountains and elevation have done a great job of keeping China’s pollution away from this six million person city in China’s Southwest.
Not facing the pollution that inhibits most running in Chinese cities, I spent 5 months running outside (and a mile high!) in Kunming. The traffic, however, posed a problem that even the mountains couldn’t keep away. I started my afternoon run how I did many in Kunming- slipping into the Moped lane. True to congestion in China, the sidewalks are impossible to run on (and nearly so just to walk on). Weaving around and with the slew of mopeds, I received the usual funny stares and laughs.
Then the run picked up. A flashy black and neon green moped sped up next to me, and a young driver, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, gave me a wink. I assumed my usual weaving. He began weaving. I picked up the pace, he picked it up more. I dipped off onto a side street. He slipped onto the side street. For twenty minutes we “raced” through Kunming’s busiest streets and quietest back alleys. As our race ended, he asked me a few questions in Chinese/English (where are you from, etc.), gave me a cigarette, and continued on his drive.
And there I stood. Realizing I was lost in Kunming and wearing only a pair of short shorts, and a singlet, I gazed down at my cigarette- my race medal? I stashed it behind my ear and decided to keep the run alive and slowly tried to find my way… and then I saw it. A track. … and a fence. Deciding a fence shouldn’t keep me from such a unique treasure in China, I hopped onto the other side. Ahhhh. The relief and meditative peace of mind treasured by track runners soon took me over. Twilight approached and I completed my first four, five, six laps.
And then, indiscernible Chinese yelling filled the air and I saw flashlights and a car on the other side of the fence. No cherries and berries but I made out what seemed to be the figure of a Chinese police officer. And so I ran. Down the track. Faster. Over the fence. And just kept running. “Woah woah woah, I just ran from the police, the CHINESE police, the CHINESE AUTHORITARIAN police, what if they catch me? I have no identification. They don’t still have re-education camps? Right?” So I ran faster, and faster, dodging through alleys and side streets as much as possible.
Eventually my pace settled down. I began to take note of my situation and pondered whether it was actually the police (or was it a security guard, or some old man who wanted to say hi?). Regardless, I was really lost. And it was dark. And I just had short shorts, a singlet and that cigarette, somehow still tucked away behind my ear and hair. And then it clicked. “TAXI!!” In nervous Chinese, I explained I had only one cigarette as fare and I was a lost foreigner and hey, my shorts don’t even reach my middle thighs. For whatever reason, maybe out of amusement, the taxi driver agreed. Soon I was back in my old, decrepit Chinese dorm room, showering, eating fried veggie-noodles, and soaking in the best tempo workout of my life.