"There is no better way to get to know a place than by running it’s streets."

This past November, Caroline and I went to Beijing, China, on two week assignment for Local Adventurer, one of the top travel blogs in the world. Our mission was to experience, and report back about Traditional Chinese Medicine, using social media to share our adventures.

On the morning of November 28th, we got up at 3:45am in the morning to run. The taxi was scheduled to pick us up an hour and a half later to take us to the Asheville, North Carolina airport. Destination Beijing! We had a short flight to Chicago, a three hour layover there, and then another thirteen hour flight in order to get to the Chinese capital. Leading up to the trip I kept trying to imagine Beijing being a Chinese version of New York because it was the closest thing I had experienced to what I imagined Beijing would be like. Turns out, it’s nothing like New York. (If you’re rolling your eyes, good on ya, you’re ahead of me. I had no frame of reference for this trip.) I know now that Beijing is very much it’s own city and once I was there I realized, well of course it is. It’s halfway around the world, in a completely different country and has a history that is both rich and unique. Travel is good like that, isn’t it?

When the alarm went off, we were both up and moving. Caroline is not the kind of person that needs to be roused from bed; she is up, she is lacing her shoes, handing me a bit of dried mango and we are locking the door behind us, moving silently in tandem across the road. We’ve gotten in the habit of training together and it has been really nice to share this aspect of life with her, my favorite person in the world. We thought the workout might feel good in our bodies knowing that we had a lot of “hurry up and wait” ahead of us. We’d agreed on a route the night before and so we were able to move without talking. Alone with my pre-travel thoughts, I started doing a mental re-packing, hoping that if I forgot something it would occur to me before we left. Camera, tripod, journal, extra battery, check, check, check, check. We were headed to Beijing. Beijing!

The Forbidden City, Beijing.

"A day’s worth of travel later, we had arrived. Beijing is thirteen hours ahead of us."

Any tiredness we felt was surpassed by excitement at being in Beijing and being there together. No time to lose our work for Local Adventurer began with an exploratory run! Local Adventurer was started back in 2010 by Esther Fu, an incredibly talented photographer and writer. She brought her husband, Jacob, an equally talented social media influencer and creator, into the fold recently and it was he who I met while out west on the #FindYourPark expedition with the National Park Foundation. Caroline and I had done some work for them writing about Asheville but this was to be our first assignment for them while travelling and we wanted to do the very best job we could. I experienced several firsts those first three days in beijing: my first massage, my first Tai Chi session, first taste of Peking Duck and my first glimpse of the Great Wall.

The Great Wall at Badaling.

"Our first night in Beijing, the 11th largest city in the world, we went to bed pretty early."

At first light we were up and running. I looked at a map of the city before we left to try to get some sense of where we were headed but decided to keep it simple: a right out of the hostel, a left at the four way intersection (you’ll know it by the little red car on the corner that is buried under trash) and then another right onto the the main road. We’d stay on that until we got the mileage in that we wanted and then turn around and retrace our steps. Each day we explored a different section of the city, making sure to venture somewhere new each day, careful not to retrace our steps when possible, and always with an eye out for photo-ops.

"We were both unprepared for the stares."

I first thought that people staring at us had to do with the fact that I was running in shorts and the temps were in the low thirtees. (I don’t like tights, they feel too restrictive.) Or maybe that Caroline was one of the few Caucasian people that we saw. After a few days I realized it’s probably a combination of those two things plus the fact that there are so few runners working out on the streets of Beijing. For a city with as many people in it as Beijing, we only saw five people running the streets the entire time we were there! We’d heard about the pollution problem from various people and one friend even tried to convince us not to run but we were hell-bent on doing it anyway. Running is alive and well in Beijing but most people workout indoors on treadmills. We could hardly blame them after running through certain sections of the city that smelled so bad, so acidic, so devoid of oxygen that we gasped for air.


"We’d often run by a place and decide over coffee to try to find our way back to it."

The city filled my head with noises so loud that they drowned out my own thoughts. For a while I didn’t mind. It was nice to be distracted from the constant chatter within my own head, the nagging voice that kept asking “is that your mother, is that your father?” Of course it wasn’t, I was in Beijing and not Korea, but it was my first time visiting an Asian country and also the first time I had been surrounded by so many people that looked like me. I was adopted by two wonderful people that I am lucky to call Mom and Dad and who have more than provided for me in so many ways. So though nothing was lacking in my life, I couldn’t shake the feeling that at any moment I was going to be faced with my birth parent. Or parents. It was illogical but unshakeable. I was haunted by their invisible ghost.

"At some point, I stopped searching the faces of strangers and was able to fall into the familiar rhythm of travel and exploration."

I looked for beauty in unexpected places and tried to find the soul of the city and it’s people through my lens. It allowed me to be engaged with my environment but also removed enough so that I wasn’t walking around with my heart blown – open. My camera was a shield between the real word and the hard. And thankfully, so, because when I finally was able to see, really SEE the city, I realized it has a lot to offer. I guess you could say that I used my camera to help me process the experience.

My favorite part of this ancient city is found behind the neon storefronts, beneath the shadows of the high rise buildings that are popping up everywhere. You’re looking for the entrance to a hutong, a densly packed living-breathing organism that in itself can feel like a city within a city. During the mid-twentieth century many of the hutongs were demolished in favor of new roads and buildings. Nowadays, they’re being protected in an effort to preserve Chinese history. a narrow street lined with tuk-tuks and bicycles, maybe even a clothesline running the width of the alley that sags under the weight of yesterday’s drying wash. Now you are about to discover a part of the city that will expose you to every aspect of life from birth to death. In the morning, you will see people trudging sleepy-eyed to the public toilet, still clad in their pajamas, bucket in hand with last nights refuse sloshing around inside ready for dumping. As the sun comes up and starts to bathe the front door in first light, you will see the old people, swaddled in big blankets, being moved into the sun. Many of them are nodding and drooling, unable to interact with the loved ones who are so tenderly caring for them but this is the way it is done in here.


"Beijing will get into your nose, onto your skin and under your fingernails until you feel grimy and eager for a wash."

Urban Beijing will fill up the space between your ears with the noises of the street. It will make you acutely aware of your foreignness, but at the same time welcome you (and your money) with an aloof curiosity that at times feels like genuine warmth but at others will allow a little homesickness to creep in.

You can find several hutongs on a map or in a guidebook and head towards it, or you can just go for a walk and discover one on your own. If you allow yourself to get lost, just a little, you will discover a Beijing that will find it’s way into your heart.

This is the kind of place that could swallow you whole if you allowed it to. There are so many people here and they all move with purpose. It is clear that many of them are well-off but there is no avoiding the corner beggar whose eyes are milky blue and who shakes a tin cup at you, or the woman in the subway who lays prostrated before you. Do you step to the side to avoid trampling over her? Do you slow down and in that half-step take stock of your own life and dig into your pockets for change? Do you avert your eyes and keep walking, ignoring the human that is in front of you, too thinly clothed for comfort and harden yourself so as to not feel?

"By sunset each day we were exhausted but we forced ourselves to edit our photos, write in our journals and post content to social media."

We have chosen to live a creative life and have traded security for adventures. A cloudcover of thankfulness for this opportunity hovered just above the haze and pollution that covered the city most days. I feel stressed at not knowing when and where our next assignment will come from, but more than fulfilled by the nature of the work. I hope that over time I will harden to the uncertainty. Until then, I know one thing…that I have found, finally, the person that I want to adventure with, that I want to do this life with. She is the one.