Before coming to China, my officemate warned me that 'Asian people don't exercise', and he said I probably wouldn't want to go running when in China. I sort of knew what he meant, as I went running in Japan and saw almost no other runners out. In Singapore it was similar. Still, though, I didn't feel that out of place running in those places. His comments also seemed strange because many of the Chinese-born Googlers are quite athletic. (As examples, I used to run fairly frequently with the same Chinese officemate and another Chinese coworker, and I regularly see a Chinese Googler running pack near campus who seem pretty intense.)
We only spent a few days in Beijing, and we were so busy that I didn't end up running at all. I think we saw one runner on the street. We later saw about 20 runners, but they were all in military uniforms and boots and were clearly doing some sort of training exercise. :-) I don't think I'd have wanted to run in Beijing anyway. My officemate warned me that the pollution and dust would be bad, and it was. Our noses regularly blew black mucous from the dust. The sun was out all the days we were there, but was obscured by a thick haze that left it barely viewable on all except for a single glorious day where Beijing suddenly seemed much nicer.
The air smelled thickly of what I now know/assume to be coal. We traveled to Ireland a few years ago. In Ireland in some parts of the country they burn peat in furnaces for heating. Peat is an early stage (not yet fossilized version) of coal. It's cut from decaying plant matter in bogs. When it's burnt it has a very distinct smell that I had never smelled before (but probably people from our parents' generation smelled all the time in American cities). Luckily, when I was running in Ireland I could run out of town and get out where the air was clear, but in China the smell of coal is everywhere, and it smells exactly like peat. I don't know why its thicker in China than in the US since we also generate the majority of our power from coal (seems like a number of reasons: coal plants located nearer town, people burning it in their personal furnaces in China, lack of scrubbers/de-pollutants on the power plants).
Between the lack of sunlight and the smell, it's pretty stifling of any desire to go running. We have stayed at low budget hostels. I'm told that if you stay at a fancy hotel, you can work out in the exercise room because inside nice buildings the air is always filtered.
I finally went running in the second stop of our journey, in Pingyao. I thought since Pingyao was a small town it would be less polluted than Beijing, but in retrospect that was probably a stupid assumption. In Pingyao most houses had a small pile of coal outside them that was fed into the furnace, so I should have realized that all of the houses burned coal for heat. Marisa and I had climbed up the city walls earlier, and it looked pretty, so I decided to go back to try to do the loop around the city, which was only about 4 miles. (On a side note, Marisa and I got into an argument because you have to pay to get onto the city walls, and you can only go up once per ticket. I wanted to go up a second time for my run, but the ticket office lady didn't speak English and simply couldn't understand that I'd want to buy a second ticket to be able to go on the city walls again. Since she wouldn't sell me a second ticket, I had proposed to Marisa that on my run I simply slip/sprint past the guard who wasn't paying much attention anyway, but this being the people's republic of china, Marisa thought that was a stupid thing for me to do. In the end I relented and said I'd only run on the walls if they'd let me pass, even though they'd see that my ticket was already punched. When I ran up in my running clothes, the woman looked confused but waived me through. Disaster/Imprisonment Averted.)
I had to run through the city about 0.4mi to get to the walls. Pingyao is extremely provincial. I'm not sure that *anyone* goes running in Pingyao, let alone a tall white guy in running shorts. It was about 45 degrees F, which is not extremely cold. In Illinois and New York, where real men fall off trees like crab apples, people go running in shorts well into the 30s. But people in China were shocked that I'd be wearing shorts in 45 degree whether (FYI 2 weeks later, we still have seen no one in China in shorts, even though in Chengdu and Lijiang it was near 60). Running through the city was pretty uncomfortable because everyone just stopped and gawked at me, and even yelled up the street to announce to their buddies that something special was coming up the street. It wasn't that bad, though, because we were already used to being the odd people out in China. I tried to reward their looks by running really really fast, so hopefully I was impressive. I outran all of the people on bicycles on the street and a couple guys on crappy motorbikes. (they drive slow in pingyao) At first I thought people were staring at my crotch; I still don't know for sure but I think they were gawking at my shorts and/or my white legs.
After getting up the wall it was an easy run for the first couple miles to about the halfway point. What I hadn't counted on, though, was that the smoke from Pingyao was much more intense on the walls. I speculate that it rises from the town and gets sorta trapped on the wall. In any case, by the time I got halfway around the wall, my throat was really itchy and my eyes were starting to burn. I did everything I could to only breathe through my nose but it was still pretty bad. I finished the circuit of the walls (4mi) and goaded myself into doing another half circuit because I partially got used to the smoke. I think later that day or the next I got chest pains of the sort I used to get when I was a kid and had asthma attacks. (I have weird asthma where I get piercing pains in my lungs when I breathe.)
Running in the rest of China has been pretty similar in terms of pollution. I ran in Xi'an and Chengdu, which are both fairly big cities. Big cities are always hard to run in, but China is especially crazy. Perhaps we will write a post later about the traffic. It is insane, but strangely enough that makes running more interesting because every step is like jumping a hurdle: Do I jump off that curb with my right leg so I can hop around the motorbike, and then spin off my left leg to dodge the gaggle of schoolchildren, or do I instead just try to jump over that barrier? It takes your mind off being tired and the crap going into your lungs. I've run in manhattan, singapore, tokyo, and touristey areas of SF, though, so none of the dodging of people is too different.
What's different and unfortunate about China, though, is there don't seem to be any uninterrupted pedestrian areas like you find in other places. Even in Japan and Singapore I was able to run along rivers that had pedestrian underpasses for major roads, but in Chinese cities I end up waiting 3 minutes for absurdly long lights to switch so I can cross. I compensated by running fartlek sprints after the waits at each intersection.
The final thing I was surprised by was how many comments I've gotten even in big cities where I'd think they see at least some runners. I wonder if people yell stuff at Chinese runners; they definitely yell, 'Hello!' at me. I've been good-humored about it, though, and have taken to replying with a friendly yell of 'Hello!' or 'Nihao!' (Chinese for 'Hello') back at them. I'm tentatively proud of my good humor in China because when jackasses make comments to me in the US I usually respond with the finger. I'm not sure if the Chinese are being jackasses or not, so it seems better to give them the benefit of doubt.
Our last stop in China is in a place in Yunan called Lijiang. This is the first place in China where we've seen gorgeous blue skies and sun. It's also at 7900 feet elevation (nearly 1.5mi), so it may well be above the smog layer that's everywhere else. I thought this was a small place, but I just read a little more about it and was shocked to discover that Lijiang has a population of more than 1 million people. That's small by China standards but is larger than San Francisco!