Lately, I’ve taken to running. Not for fun, though, nor for the exercise benefits. I’ve started running, and by ‘lately’ I mean late, because I’m signed up for the so-called “Great Wall” marathon in May, and I’ve got a little over two months to prepare.
Distance running (to me, anything more than 13.1 miles) is a pain. It takes up a big chunk of the day, is pretty boring, and negatively impacts other aspects of fitness. It’s not a good use of my time. But the marathon in May, conducted along an eastern portion of the (albeit heavily reconstructed) Great Wall, seems like it’ll be a pretty fun challenge, and a good excuse to go see that little part of China.
And my recent training has brought other benefits. I’ve seen far more of Hangzhou than I ever would’ve in the course of walking and biking my way on various errands. When I started a couple weeks ago, I utilized the paths along the city’s remaining network of old canals to avoid most crosswalks and the manslaughtering drivers that stalk them. Following these old waterways, sometimes peacefully shrouded from the city by drooping willow boughs and the soft mist of lingering car exhaust, I was able to cover a lot of the city and explore some out-of-the-way neighborhoods. But it was all flat, and the marathon in May will be a heavy-footed slog up thousands of stone steps in the mountains outside Beijing.
So I turned to the hills. Hangzhou is actually enclosed on three sides by low mountains, which means I should be able to piece together one uninterrupted loop, scaling successive ridgelines in an orbit around the West Lake until I arrive back at my starting point. The hills are crisscrossed with innumerable little stone paths leading to little temples, caves, lake vistas, and a few villages; it should just be a matter of linking them all up into a continuous, demanding, fantastically scenic whole.
The problem is, despite the fact that somebody, at some point, deemed it worthwhile to organize a massive series of labor projects that hauled thousands of heavy flat-cut stones up these mountains to make these paths, they never thought it worthwhile afterwards to then put these paths on a map. So to set out along these paths is to venture into the unknown. On a quiet weekday, once alone inside the maze of woods and hills, one finds mysteries at every turn: ruins of a destroyed temple, faded Buddha rock carvings, a hidden housing development accessible only by tunnel (that last one’s a whole other story). Occasionally at trail forks there are little wood-carved maps, but each one, like a sphinx waiting for you along the path, only presents new riddles. Built by mischievous forest elves, or just somebody equally terrible at both cartography and woodcarving, these crude maps are remarkable for often not even including the path by which you just arrived. In the middle of the forest, without other points of reference, they seem a deliberate attempt to dispel whatever remains of your sense of direction. It’s best not to linger.
But stay on the right path. Deep within these lovely woods, one senses vague dangers. Signs along the way:
“Beware Wild Boars.”
“Military zone. Strictly forbidden to enter.”
“Police are watching this area.”
With no GPS device or topo map, my training runs are a sequence of exploratory as well as physical progressions. With a master plan in mind (see below), every time I run I push forward a little the boundaries of the known world, allowing me to run a little farther the next time. I run the segments I’ve already pieced together, then arrive at a point where I don’t know how to get up the next ridge. This is because I suddenly face three paths going in all the wrong directions, or just one clearly wrong path–and I’m already on it. So I match up the terrain around me my with mental map of the area, pick a (new) direction, and see where I end up.
On good days, I clamber for a long ways up rocky steps and find myself exactly where I wanted, atop the correct ridgeline, on a good path, certain of where to go from here. A new segment added to the run. Other days, though, the promising-looking stone staircase I’ve picked begins to narrow… the stones looser… the path turns to dirt… and then suddenly there they are, all around me:
Chinese graves, placed secretly back in these hills by pious sons or daughters who couldn’t afford an outrageously expensive plot in the city graveyard, and didn’t want to anger their deceased parents’ spirits by having their bodies cremated. Their locations here result from certain fengshui geomantic calculations as well as perhaps the more worldly imperative of evading the authorities. In a culture of filial piety so strong as to require the worship of one’s dead ancestors, burial is a big deal in China. The Communists, being more focused on the living, have tried hard to limit the massive consumption of wood (coffins) and arable land (tombs) for these practices, alternately encouraging or requiring cremation. But old beliefs die hard. Almost all the tombs I find have the year of the person’s death written on them; the vast majority are 1995 or later. Hidden high up in the cold, misty forests back here, occasionally a tomb will show signs of recent tending–a couple of soggy oranges, placed in offering to the hungry dead, shining brightly among the dull brown leaves.
The paths that lead to graves don’t continue. When I arrive among the dead up here I know I will not be continuing to the next ridgeline today. In the damp, still silence, I make mental note of which decisions, paths and turns I chose that brought me to this point. I make estimations on how to go farther next time. Then with sore legs I begin the winding backtrack down to the noise and bustle of the city below.