Getting Away to It All: Xuanwu Lake’s vibrant paths demand another lap

(Map Magazine, 10/07)

Last year, I was fortunate enough to live and work just a few minutes walk from Xuanwu Lake and its (mostly) surrounding free park and walkway. This proximity allowed me to continue my long held running habit, albeit in an environment that, while relatively quiet and relaxed, bore little resemblance to what I was accustomed to, and made Xuanwu so much more than a place to exercise.

My first few runs around Xuanwu were inspiring but a bit stressful. It was an unquestionably beautiful spot, its combination of history and nature seeming to place it a world apart from the city outside. There’s the old city wall to the south creating so imposing a barrier to modernity, the respectfully maintained flowers and trees in its shadow, the southern temples rising above it like sentinels, and Purple Mountain above even that, barely visual through the haze like a dreamt idea of a mountain. I remember coming through the park’s south gate and, seeing it all for the first time, looking back at the guard next to me uncertainly, as if to say, “Is this okay? Can I be here?” This place couldn’t be public or free, I reasoned. So I was happy to see him stare at his shoes and smoke his cigarette, completely disinterested in me.

Yet the park was often much more crowded than I was used to. Back home, I ran as much to find solitude as to stay in shape, and there were a number of parks where I could reliably blend into the environment, finding relatively few people from whom I was mostly indistinguishable. At Xuanwu, I seemed to be a magnet for attention. Sure I looked silly in my running shorts and hat, but did people have to stare so much? And why were cars and mopeds allowed on the path?

Once I learned to dodge the cars and ignore the stares and giggles at Xuanwu, I better appreciated its unique features. More than just a beautiful place, the park was a world in itself, a gathering of terrific sights, sounds and smells, a sort of public square where people of all ages and backgrounds came.

It was a gathering place for the religious, whose incense and chanting would reach me as I ran past Jiming Temple just outside the south gate. For the elderly, it was a place to exercise and relax, such as for the women practicing Tai Chi on the park’s lakeside spaces, waving to me between songs playing on their vintage tape recorder. Opposite them, I’d often see an older, shirtless man straddling a tree inside the park, punching its trunk with the sides of his arms. Without exception, he would turn and grunt at me as I ran passed.

For the young, it was romantic. In the spring, I’d see countless couples posing for their wedding photos along the park’s finest stretch near the wall to the south, the grooms looking slightly bewildered in their borrowed tuxedos, the brides’ eagerly racing from one location to the next, lifting their gowns just enough to reveal tennis shoes underneath.

Scores of other couples were never far away, snuggling on a lakeside bench, in a swan shaped boat or hammock. In warmer weather, they grew bolder and more obvious, setting up tents for a conjugal getaway, about as private an arrangement as many could find in the world’s most populous country. I considered Xuanwu as having perhaps been the inspiration, photographic background and now consummation setting for countless relationships, a sort of matrimonial giving tree.

For athletes, it was a training ground, a place where some of the country’s best came last fall in preparation for the national games. I’d often encounter them running along the lake, looking at turns terrified and terrifically confident, but always physically impressive. I’d smile at them and sometimes offer a “Jia You!,” which was usually answered with embarrassed smiles.

For the fishermen sitting along the banks to the west, it was a source of food and relaxation. It seemed to me they were rarely rewarded for their patience. Solitude was its own reward, I hoped.

Xuanwu was also a place of work for many, such as the vendors selling tea, binoculars, chicken in a bag, or apples on a stick along the north side. For children, it was a place of excitement and strangeness, such as for the boy who, walking hand in hand with his father, stared un-self consciously at the foreigner running by, building up the confidence to send a “Jia You!” in his direction. I smiled and forgot for a few moments whatever pain was in my legs and lungs.

Reaching the small walking bridge that signaled my halfway point, I turned around to repeat the path back home. Walking for a minute, I took in the entire park, all of its people and places, and started again, glad to do it all over.

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