August 05, 2008

Beijing: Olympic-size smog

Enough has been written and broadcast about Beijing's horrid pollution and its impact on the upcoming Olympics to make you choke. It'll be interesting to see how athletes competing in outdoor events -- especially the marathoners, who'll spend an average two and a half hours at intense exertion levels plowing through the noxious soup -- will fare. I don't know how they'll cope. I know I wouldn't -- indeed, didn't -- run in Beijing.

When I travel, one of my favorite activities is a 6 AM run through new territory. I use the run as a reconniassance mission, scoping out streets, sights, neighborhoods, parks, rivers, trails, markets to visit later, sans sneakers and iPod. Not in Beijing. (This photo shows the Forbidden City on, I swear, the clearest, "sunniest" day of my stay.)

When I'd awake in Beijing and look out my hotel window, I often couldn't tell if it were pre- or post-dawn. Had the sun risen, or was it still the tail end of night? The sky was always too dense and gray to tell. I saw only one outdoor runner during my week in the capital, and when I looked down at him from my window perch in the Trader's Hotel, two words popped into my head: death wish.

I took my Beijing exercise at a health club in a hotel next to mine. My Trader's room rate included a daily pass. There weren't many people using the treadmills at that club. Instead, they were doing low impact things like lounging in hot tubs and steam rooms.

I remember walking into a dark, scent-filled area off the ladies' locker room and finding a half-dozen startling beautiful Chinese women arranged, naked, across vibrating massage chairs. They were all tall, slim and elegant with flawless skin and silken hair, quite unlike the average Chinese woman you'd meet on the street. Kept women? High-priced call girls? I eased my clothed, short and not too elegant self into an empty massage chair in a pitch black corner and watched them chat and luxuriate in the buff. Weird but fascinating end to my workout.

Well, here's to the athletes. Good luck to all. Don't forget your inhalers.