Here, taking a break is a walk in the park

Times Staff Writer

For 25 years, I’ve been a faithful, if sluggish, runner. I’ve wound my way through the Latin Quarter of Paris before dawn, slogged along the ice-rutted sidewalks of Moscow’s winter, watched dolphins play in the Pacific Ocean off L.A.

So I shrugged off the world-class pollution and heat of Beijing and, for a few weeks, headed most mornings to Ritan Park, 50 or so carefully tended acres huddled near the city center amid Russian cargo businesses, embassies, restaurants and bars. The reward? An especially sweet slice of summer life.

I got to know the routines and to recognize the regulars -- the small group of young men who jogged each morning in black slacks and white dress shirts, and then could be seen in those same clothes lined up at attention in the courtyard of the park-side restaurant where they worked.

The man who steered his souped-up, motorized wheelchair with bicycle handlebars (apparently not in violation of the no-bicycle rule).

I even accepted an invitation to join a group of women in their 50s and 60s who practice traditional ethnic dances at 8 each morning. Yes, they laughed, perhaps as much at my clunky running shoes as at my attempts to manipulate a borrowed fan. But their corrections to my many errors were kind, and their disappointment genuine when I said goodbye.


“If you are happy, you won’t get sick,” said Han Meng Yin, a retired saleswoman. “Dancing gives me energy.”

She and the other women met dancing and have become friends. They spend time together shopping, visiting museums or discussing the stock market.

“If we have problems, we help each other,” she said. “It’s like a big family, and we are all like sisters.”

The women meet at the south gate to the park where, even on a steamy day when the pollution looked as thick as a Maine fog, at least a couple hundred bicycles were parked.

In every clearing, people danced, did all manner of martial arts, played badminton or croquet, sat and fanned themselves against the heat, pushed strollers and wheelchairs. Lovely golden dragonflies dive-bombed around them. Old men carried small wooden cages, giving their pet birds an outing too.

Young uniformed men from a nearby barracks frequently came to drill in the big open plaza around the sacrificial altar to the sun built in 1530.

One morning their shouts could be heard all over as they held relay races. Nearby, in the small pavilion originally intended for preparing the animals for sacrifice, a group of people sang and played traditional instruments.

As the sounds of a lone saxophone playing the march from “Aida” drifted away, a woman’s soprano scales grew louder. A large group of men and women, songbooks in hand, performed “Edelweiss” for themselves and anyone who stopped by. On another day, they were accompanied by a cellist.

A little farther on, every morning, 20 or so couples danced ballroom style to such tunes as “Home on the Range.”

At night and on weekends, everyone uses Ritan Park, listening to music at the Stone Boat bar, having fun at a very basic children’s amusement park with its “bounce bed,” strolling, kissing, exercising.

One afternoon, a dozen children with crackers for bait caught goldfish in a heavily stocked, none-too-clean-looking little pond. They got their catch bagged in plastic bags, and odds seemed poor that their fish would live long. For those with a little more to spend, metal remote-control boats are available for rent.

But in the early mornings, Ritan Park belongs mostly to retired people -- men in their cotton shoes, shirts rolled up under armpits, exposing their bellies; women in slacks or skirts, some with capes fashioned to cover their arms against the sun.

There’s serious fishing, in a lotus pond bursting with big pink flowers. A sign says it will cost about 50 cents a pound for the various types of carp apparently living in the pond. If you catch nothing, you cannot be charged more than $1.35.

Perhaps the most popular spot is the exercise park, a tiled area full of blue-and-yellow-painted metal equipment for all manner of stretching and pushing and lifting -- plus badminton and table tennis.

Most mornings, you can find Li Lei there wearing a singlet and running shorts. Though he runs at least a couple of laps around the park and then spends time in the fitness park, exercise is only one reason he comes.

“At home, I am lonely because my children work,” said Li, 65. “It’s a great way to exercise and make friends. Sometimes I don’t even know their names. But I recognize everyone here.”

Around him, women stood on a disc a few inches off the ground and twisted at the hips in a staid imitation of Chubby Checker. Others bent backward, supported by a metal arc, until their heads nearly touched the ground.

In a city where spitting and smoking are the norm, Ritan Park is a little respite, though neither habit is entirely absent.

Even 78-year-old Zhang Bao Hua lighted up as he talked about the importance of exercise -- not coincidentally enhanced by playing jian zi, a game similar to Hacky Sack but played with weighted feather-topped gizmos, which Zhang sells for about 65 cents apiece.

“Any physical problems -- you’ll get rid of them. It’s the best,” he said as he demonstrated with an impressively high kick. In fact, he appeared to be in great shape: shirtless and nary a bit of fat to pinch, muscular arms and a huge grin.

“Bring some back with you. Only China has it,” Zhang said. My sons, I told him, were already a step ahead of him, having bought some on their own foray into Ritan Park.

Zhang’s comments suggested Beijing’s gargantuan effort to promote Olympic Games that are still a year away was having its intended effect.

“2008 is about to come, so the entire country is exercising, getting fit,” he said. “Exercise is good for the country and good for the individual.”

It was working for me. On my third or fourth lap, when I’d normally be huffing and grimacing, I found myself nodding in greeting to those I saw every morning.

And I realized I was smiling.

Times staff writer Cathy Yan contributed to this report.