Wherever I travel, I make a point of going running at least once. Running, I’ve found, is a great way to explore a new city or region at random. You are experiencing a place at a pace fast enough to keep moving, to see a diversity of neighborhoods and sights and people, yet slow enough to truly see the things you are passing by. You experience the sensation of actual travel through a place, rather than the more familiar feeling of passing through a city or a landscape at a pace too fast to truly take in what you are seeing, a pace at which the world beyond your plate-glass car or train or bus window becomes a blur of sameness, a world of interchangeable landscapes, an Anyplace in the best American tradition.
Running slows the pace of travel, and consequently allows you to see things you wouldn’t have even considered seeing (and, as such, things you wouldn’t have even imagined possible). On a recent run through a rural area outside Shangri-La (formerly known as Zhongdian, formerly formerly known as Jiantang, itself an approximation of the original Tibetan name of Gyelthang), I passed slowly through a small village, pace slowed even further by the 3,300-meter altitude, women passing by, backs loaded with massive casks of water and oil; men sitting in courtyards idly drinking beers and playing with dogs, or else killing pigs, staining the frozen ground a dark ochre. I passed massive Tibetan mastiffs, trained to attack strangers, straining at their hitching posts, muzzles trained towards me, barking wildly; young children, unconcerned by the dogs but certainly concerned by the strangely-garbed foreign runner passing through their midst, staring wide-eyed and frightened and shrieking with confusion and running to the mastiff-guarded safety of their homes.
Passing out of town, I ascended a gradual hill into the grasslands, passing grazing yaks and puzzled herders. The grasslands look tempting and, given the openness, there’s no danger in getting lost, so I strike out off the road into the vast greygreen expanse stretching up to the mountains, mottled purpled forests reaching up to vast white snowfields looming above. Yaks scatter in all directions as I run through a herd; one doesn’t move. It’s a recent death; the body lies frozen, adhered to the grassland, and I wonder why the massive flesh-loaded carcass hasn’t been already scavenged for food, whether by birds or by humans. An opportunity seemingly wasted. Or maybe the yak was so recently dead that it has yet to be found. Or possibly it is diseased.
These are the kinds of things you see when running. Places you never thought of going. Young and old, life and death, the details of everyday existence, the banalities which in a sense seem pointless to seek out, yet in another are the things of most worth, the trivialities which together make up our lives.
Running also creates another level of observation and experience: the experience of those watching the runner as he travels through a place. This seems especially true in western China, where I am currently living and where running is at best a pastime of harmless crazies and at worst an indicator of an individual requiring immediate sequestration from society, whether that means institutionalizing them or (horror!) exiling them from the truly civilized Middle Kingdom into the barbaric lands beyond. While running in western China, I have seen the following reactions from passerby:
-Smiling, snickering, glaring in utter loathing, laughing uncontrollably, spontaneous hiccuping, frowning in disapproval, yelling (ranging from “HELLOOO!” to “YOU SMELL AWFUL! to simply “FOREIGNER!”), throwing beer cans and other detritus out of car windows (though, to be fair, this seems to be the country’s national pastime), impromptu racing, staring in petrified fear, staring in consternation, staring just for the purpose of staring itself, and even crying, a reaction usually (but not exclusively) confined to small children.
Usually, all on the same run. Which only impresses the utter diversity and incomprehensibility and chaos (which seems to be the most fitting word) of life in general, and of the experience (and experiencing) of the runner.
Which, to go back to where I started, is why I go running wherever I travel. I’m not out to seek any ‘authentic’ experience, for that can only be sought and proclaimed by those discerning authenticity-seekers themselves. And discerning I’m not in this respect; my experience is my own authentic one, as well as my only possible one, and everyone else’s own experience is their own authenticity, whatever that means. I’m only out running in order to see life, in as many of its banalities and quirks and strangely spectacular details as possible.