THE GREAT WALL MARATHON

Well just where would anyone get the crazy idea to run a marathon on the Great Wall of China ? I suppose it started when someone mentioned that someone else they knew had run the Montreal marathon the original version of which I had run about 6 or 7 times back in the 80's or half a lifetime ago. I was on the net looking at marathons and I came across something about the worlds most adventurous or exotic marathons one of which was the Great Wall marathon held near the town of Jixian China usually around may 19th every year. I came upon this around the end of February and realized that I would only have about two months to train for it. But what the hell at least I would have enough training to finish it if not with a very good time. So I started training in mid march and actually got up to 44 miles per week ...maybe a bit too fast as there seemed to be a bit of a revolt by my 63 year old body with pains and few minor injuries that I had to nurse quite carefully. Chondromalacia, calf strains and hip pains but I managed to get through it all in one piece. I booked my tour as most people from outside of China have to go through a tour group to get entry to the marathon. It was a 5 day tour but I took an extra day so I could see a bit more and we had a great little tour guide who took care of all our needs... an English major graduate named Guan Shengbo but whose english name was Miranda. The hardest part of this trip was probably going through customs and security at the various airports. In Toronto we had pre screening by american customs and security which was a complete and utter mad house...probably at least one thousand people in the security check area at one time with lines snaking back and forth. The flights were operated by Air Canada but owned by United if you can figure that one out. Anyway it was so tight as far as schedules that people were being pulled out of line by AC representatives because there was the chance they would miss their connections because of the backup at security.I just made it through but had about 15 minutes to get to my next flight which was already boarding. The same thing happened about 5 hours later in San Francisco but the line ups werent as bad. Then in China we had to go through customs again and it was another 30 minute delay. Finally I got out of there and got my ride to the Dongfang Hotel in downtown Beijing. Its sort of an interesting hotel with lots of history and an interesting little area around it composed of these very old tiny one storey houses with lots of little alleys or hutongs as they are called. Many of these old houses are being replaced by modern high rises and other hotels but there are still enough of them left to give one an idea of what most of Beijing once looked like.So like I said people live in these tiny little homes and many of them have little dogs and a few have cats and there are food vendors all over the place and great food and very cheap. So it is a laid back atmosphere and so calm considering the density of population but then the Chinese are like that...very calm about the whole thing even though they have never heard of standing in line like we do or even obeying the usual ettiquette of driving. Yet still they never seem to get angry or frustrated over it but instead just accept the jostling both on a personal level and while driving...whereas in North America there would be a million accidents and a million cases of road rage if we drove like they do.

Surprisingly I had very little jet lag when I arrived there but I suppose it was because I had slept well on the plane. I did sleep about 7 hours the first night but got up quite early around 3 oclock in the morning. But that was great because I then had time do lot of exploring that day. I did walk around the hotel and down some narrow alleys between the tiny homes which was quite interesting. But then I decided to take the 25 minute walk towards Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City which was quite easy to find as are most things in Beijing because it is nicely laid out all northsouth and eastwest like a city should be. There were a few other places like the national performing arts center... a big egglike structure to the east of Tiananmen Square...and the Hall of the People a large building with giant pillars in front.

There was also the National Museum of China but as there were probably over a thousand people waiting in line I skipped it for now. In Tiananmen Square there were thousands more people...and this was during a weekday in May... and all you could see were the tour guides with their flags over their heads and there were people from all over the world and everyone was taking pictures and it was a bit of organized chaos...and you could only love it that way as you felt not alone but in awe of the history of this place ... and the entrance to the Forbidden city was just a short ways off.

But first I went for a walk through Jingshan Park which is to the north of the forbidden city and it was quite nice with some nice gardens and you could see it was old like everything else in that area of Beijing.And the statue of Sun Yat sen was there at the entrance to the park.

And then I went into the Forbidden City which of course has been open to the public since 1925 but for foreigners probably since about 1975.All of the buildings are not open to the public as there is still quite a bit of renovation going on so mostly they let the tourists follow a linear path from start to finish and yet it still takes few hours to complete the walk. One can of course take pictures of the insides of the rooms but must stand at the 8 foot wide doors to do so. However in the end it is simply impossible to capture the grandeur of this place in photographs and you know without doubt that this place was built for an emperor. There are a great many heirlooms and antiquities which cannot be touched but only viewed at a distance. Gradually they will allow tourists to visit more and more buildings which of course will lengthen the tour to such an extent that perhaps it will no longer be possible to take it all in within one day. We shall see. But anyway we should all be glad that some of Maoís functionaries ...who wanted to raze this beautiful place ...did not succeed. And the craftsmenship of this place is like few others on this earth and now it is protected as a world heritage site. Well as I said it takes a few hours to go through and then when one comes out the other end one faces another park called Jongshan at the top of which up flights of stairs for about 400 feet is another temple which contains a giant Buddha all in gold. We were forbidden to take pictures of it so I didnt but there are some shots of it on the internet one of which is above. Anyway as you can see I did a lot of walking that first day in Beijing and then I walked back to the hotel but did manage to stop off at a McDonalds on the way and although I am not usually a big fan of theirs it did give one a sense of comfort in a way...if junk food can be comforting. That night we went to a Kung Fu exhibition at the Red Theatre...it was a nicely choreographed show about the history of Kung Fu and lasted about 2 hours. And then outside the theatre I was cajolled into taking a ride back to the hotel in this rikshaw bicycle apparatus which I didnt want to do but then gave in and was glad I did because the driver knew the city very well and took me through all these quaint little alleys called hutongs and tiny streets and the people were in their little houses and doing things they always do having dinner and sitting chatting and all and it was all friendly and I knew that it was a part of Beijingís history that would someday dissappear forever.

Next morning we left beijing and drove to Jixian in Tianjin county to stay for two nights at the Hotel Yutang before the marathon.

There was not a lot to see in the city in Jixian although it is one of the developing centers of China and is where many Chinese retire to being a quite nice place with friendly people. And it was on this day that we did the prerequisite walk of the section of the wall we would be running on in two days. It is quite the piece of engineering when you realize it was contructed over 1500 year ago. Now there are several parts to the wall which were constructed at various times and they are not all connected but we saw only about a 2 kilometer stretch which we were to run on and it was quite rough with jagged footpaths and a great variation in step size both height and width so one had to be quite careful running along this section of wall. Those who did the marathon would run this section twice but in opposite directions. It was quite an experience and quite a marathon and one which many people would not conquer. It was in fact the the most trying physical event of my life. Then we returned to the hotel and well the next day was a free day and I think some people took a tour but I generally stayed around the hotel or walked around the town a bit. So the Great Wall Marathon was held the next day May 19th and there were over 2000 runners in the various races from 5k to the marathon which would start at about 7:30 AM. It was a hot and humid day and I will never forget it. I have never drank so much water even in other marathons and at the 15k mark I could feel that I was depleted already of electrolytes...but I perservered for another 27k simply on experience and determination. Unfortunately training in 40-50 degree weather for a meager 2 months was not proper training for running this marathon in humid 80 degree weather. And of course the finish for the course involved climbing a series of steps which seemed never to end...in fact I think I cursed the builders and their families and grandparents for every step I had to climb. It was sheer murder and people were having to stop every few steps and rest before continuing on. But we did and then at last had a 3 mile downhill on the way to the finish which I crossed in 6:40 or more than double the time for most marathons I had run before. But then I hadnt run a marathon in over 20 years so maybe that had something to do with it. Anyway the deed was done and we had some lunch and then got on the buses to take us back to Beijing where I fell asleep pretty fast.

But next morning I was up at around 4:30 AM and went out to explore the neighborhood again take a few more pics and have a bite to eat from a food vendor... nice and cheap of course and great freshly made food at about 90 cents for a fried pork taco.

And then we got ready for a last tour before leaving Beijing. It started with the Beijing Zoo which is the oldest zoo in China but we did not really see much beyond the Panda exhibit which I think had five Pandas one of which LeLe was very very old probably over 50. I dont know if that is good or bad I mean being in a zoo for 50 years ...but Iím sure the panda would have a few things to say if she could talk. So we left the zoo after seeing the pandas and headed for the Pearl Market the biggest of its kind in China. And it was sort of funny... like here comes another busload of tourist kind of thing and of course we were given the usual spiel on how to tell the real thing from the fakes and they explained about the colors and about freshwater versus saltwater pearls ... and then they tried their damndest to sell us all pearls. Which worked for me as I bought a necklace and ring to take back for my mother...I figured it was better than a t shirt.

Well after we finally got all of the women out of there we went straight to the Summer Palace which has a great history and was first begun around 1750 with the first gardens being built and which is composed mainly of whats called Longevity Hill where most of the buildings are located...and Kunming Lake right in front of the palace which is a good size lake and which is manmade ...the soil fom which was used to form Longevity Hill. All of this of course is a World Heritage site. There are many buildings on this site such as the opera house built by the Emperor Tongzhi for his mother the Dowager Empress Cixi who was a concubine of his father the Emperor Xianfeng. Actually it was she who ruled China firstly because Tongzhi was just a boy of six when his father died and he did not gain personal rule until shortly before his own death at 18 due to smallpox. Afterwards Cixi managed to put her nephew on the throne although she retained influence over the control of China.

And another interesting artifact is the marble boat of the Qianlong Emperor which was first erected in 1755 and was symbolic of the Emperor and the Empire and hence the reason it is made of marble...so that it would be indestructable in the belief that if it was destroyed the empire would fall. Now of course these are just two stories of the incredible history of this place over the past 250 years and it is really spectacular even with the throngs of people...there is still a serenity here which I suppose comes from the influence of the large lake in front of it. Well that was it after spending several hours at this place and then everyone piled onto the large dragonboat for the ride back to the main entrance and then back to the hotel.

The next day I was up early once again and went for a last walk around the neighborhood and took a few more pics And then it was off to the Beijing Capital International Airport which is quite huge about 2 miles long with trains that take you from one end to the other.Apparently it is the second biggest in the world next to Dubaiís. But I hear that they are now constructing another air terminal which is even bigger than this one. I will say one thing about it and that is how easy it is to get around and with the layout of the place its near impossible to get lost.

And then for the long 15 hour trip back to Montreal via Chicago. It was a real smooth trip and well worth the money.

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