It was early in the morning, around quarter past six, but you could already tell it was going to be a hot day. The clouds (or smog) had pulled in overnight and it felt slightly humid. I stepped outside and looked around. The usual noises of motorised bikes and scooters was quieter, you could hear birds and insects, a lady walked a dog so hairy it must have been already boiling in its own skin even in the ‘cool’ temperatures and, dimly, I could hear a strain of music. I turned down the road at a trot, sidestepping woman and pooch, and made my way out of the narrow alleys towards the main road.
To my surprise, it seemed like half of Beijing was already up and going. I narrowly avoided being splashed with water by the gentleman using a bucket, board and rock to wash his underpants and had to swerve some elderly women walking slowly, singing to themselves. In the gym on the corner people were already sweating profusely over their games of ping pong and chess. The only thing that seemed more sedate was the traffic. Instead of motorcycles, a large group of men wearing dark blue shorts and grey shirts pounded down the pavement on the side paths. I jogged alongside them, staring back at their puzzled expressions, and finally overtook them as they seemed to be slowing down. Arriving at the gate of Jingshan park, however, I found a large group of people idly waiting: the park was not yet open. By the time I had continued to the corner to do a lap around the outside of the park, the group had caught up with me. This time I noticed that they were running pretty much in unison, that a man in the front was shouting, speeding the pace up and slowing it down in a kind of slow fartlek.
It was the Chinese Military. My initial suspicions hardened to complete belief when I turned the next corner and ran past a stationed guard- a branch’s headquarters. I guessed that I had stumbled past a complex similar to the stables in Hyde Park. Amusingly, although half of Beijing seemed out doing morning exercise, running seemed the least popular and at 181 cm tall, a good head above most of the people, I was attracting a fair amount of attention. My usual exercising beet-red face probably helped as well, made all the more flushed through my attempt to get away from the military formation by picking up the pace. It’s not that I didn’t like my new running buddies and all, I just was not a fan of the jogging fartlek- I was in no shape to partake.
Entering the park when I returned from my loop to find the gates open, I found an organised maze of paths and greenspace, with people hidden away in every corner. Behind one bush a lady was practicing the flute. The whack of a badminton game echoed near a temple. In front of a gate several people were doing tai chi and behind them, their groups almost merging into one, another group slowly danced. On the artificial hills I spotted people walking, shouting and hitting themselves as if in an eerie ritual. Others just bustled past, their morning commute made a little brighter by passing through the park.
I turned and made my way up the artificial hills, taking steps one by one and attempting to tell myself I could run up them, no problem. It was a problem, as my lack of breath quickly revealed and I suspected I was going a slightly purple tinge when I got to the top. It was worth the effort. Staring out towards the south in the early morning haze the entire Forbidden City was spread out before me. Roof tiles reflected in the light, and the haze of smog made it all seem slightly mystical. I caught my breath staring at the small paths and alleys, watching personnel and buses arrive at the back gate. We would go to the Forbidden City a few days later, but this was the view I found far more impressive, the golden glow and complex streets accompanied by a soundtrack of music, shouting, and chirping insects.
Do it yourself:
Jingshan Park is open to the public from 6.30 in the summer time. Arrive before 8 and you can avoid paying the 2 Yuan entry fee and see citizens getting ready for their day. Apparently it’s not unusual to be asked to join in dancing or tai-chi if you stand gawking for long enough. I highly recommend at least going for the view!