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Beijing Dispatch: Glimpses of the Real China

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Driven from my bed by jet lag, I took to the streets for a jog at 5 a.m. on my first morning in the Shunyi district of Beijing, expecting the streets to be all but empty. To my surprise, folks were out in abundance -- taking solo walks, playing the Chinese street chess game of xiangqi, exercising on public gym equipment that was installed directly into the sidewalk, doing tai chi in large groups, and sitting on benches talking. All of this was well underway by the time I hit the street at 5:05 a.m.

As I ventured into a riverside park, people taking walks swung their arms in the air to stretch, and most surprisingly let out regular bellows into the air. The first time I heard one of these powerful yells, I spun around expecting to fish someone out of the river -- but I found only an elderly gentleman taking an easy stroll, punctuated at regular intervals by a resounding shout.

beijing forbidden cityIt was an unexpected glimpse of everyday life in China, far from the international bustle of the Olympics in Beijing. As a photographer/journalist covering the rowing events, I can safely say my experience was not that of a "normal" traveler to China. Accredited members of the media were whisked through special lines at the airport, had 24-hour access to the Olympic transport system (including Olympics-only taxis in many locations), and (as I discovered later) got discounts and free entry in the unlikeliest of places merely by wearing their accreditation.

However, the rowing events I was covering were usually some distance from the central location of the Games, in the Shunyi district of greater Beijing, and there I had a unique perspective on the daily lives of a small portion of the Chinese population. To say that any one place completely captures "the real China" is an absurdity; the country is too vast and is home to too many diverse peoples for any single location to stake a claim this bold. But in Shunyi, I got a partial but very real glimpse of life in China, at least as it is lived in the far outer rings of Beijing where urban living eventually and inevitably cedes to the rural life led by most Chinese.

Shunyi
My stay in the Shunyi Hotel put me right in the Shunyi downtown, which looked a little like the Canal Street or 14th Street areas of New York City -- a little dusty, heavy on small appliance and service economy storefronts and the like -- until you walked a block from the center of town. There you could turn down a dark but bustling alleyway that quickly revealed a full-blown covered market that went on for three city blocks, with every conceivable daily staple being loaded into carts, rickshaws and wagons, or onto the backs of donkeys.

As is my custom, I explored the area on daily morning runs, starting as early as the aforementioned 5 a.m. run on my first day there, thanks to some formidable jet lag (the time difference from the East Coast of the United States is exactly 12 hours, so you are completely upside down for at least the first several days of your trip).

chinese childOn my second day's run, I ventured further afield, running 35 minutes out along a new river path. At first the park offered sculptures and temple-like piers; soon I was running alongside small enclosed villages of wooden shacks. Next came rows of corrugated steel garages, and finally, one half-hour out, I was in the country. And I mean the country -- after I crossed over a small bridge to the other side of the river, I found myself in the middle of a herd of sheep; one of the bigger rams rammed right into me as he made his way among the others.

No one seemed to mind. The shepherd kept cracking a noisy whip in the air to keep the sheep's attention, folks riding their bikes into town threaded through the herd just as I had, and the sheep themselves were completely unfazed by the strangers among them. From Canal Street to village shacks and finally to rural China in 70 minutes roundtrip; every step was a surprise.

As my runs eased later into the morning, with a more civilized 6 a.m. start, I encountered a daily phenomenon right out of an Orwell novel. At precisely 6:30 a.m., the streets were filled with the sounds of exotic bells ringing, but these were not coming from a temple or church -- they were coming from giant speakers rigged at the top of each street pole in Shunyi. When the bells ended, the voices of a man and a woman alternated in a coolly paced fashion for 40 minutes. Upon inquiry, I learned that these were considered something like "pep talks": exhortations to put the country first, to display to the visiting world that Chinese were of "one mind and one heart" and the like. Not being able to understand a word of the exchange didn't make it any less chilling to be fed what was most likely pure propaganda each morning just after sun-up.

With the rowing events taking place in the afternoon and my various efforts filling up a 16- to 18-hour day, such was my routine until after the events ended. Each morning run proved to be as interesting as the last, and I became part of the morning tapestry as well. Little kids with their mothers would stare at me as I went huffing past, and when I smiled or waved, the entire street broke out in laughter. In the end, it was impossible to figure out if I was checking out Shunyi, or if Shunyi was checking out me.

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