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Copyright © Eric Stockley, 2007
Eight million bicycles in Beijing — plus two
By ERIC STOCKLEY SPECIAL TO FEELING FIT
Do a web search on the population of Beijing, the capitol of China, and estimates are between 15 and 18 million people. Search further and it is estimated that there are eight million bicyclists in Beijing. I don't know how accurate that estimation is, but I do know for sure that the number was raised by two on October 11, 2007 as John Kelly and I rented a "city bike" from our hotel and set off with our Bike China tour guide "Michael" to visit The Park of The Temple of Heaven. I thought the estimation of eight million bicyclists was a bit of an exaggeration until we got out into the traffic. Now, I feel eight million might be cutting them a bit short. Bicycles abound everywhere. In front of you, beside you, behind you, pulling out before you, even riding in the wrong direction towards you. And the bicycle is not just a one person vehicle in China, often there is a passenger sitting on the rear bicycle rack. I did see one husband peddling with his wife on the rear rack holding an infant and a toddler balanced on the handlebars. The extra baggage is not just limited to human forms, I saw bicycles loaded with bundles of corn stalks and other crops, tools and planks of wood, milk cartons tied together in the 100's heading for recycling. The bravest man of all was the guy who had welded some supports to the side of his bike and now made a living by delivering 25 ft long wooden telegraph poles. Don't ask me how he balanced, but he did. And if you have ever wondered how many refrigerators can be carried on a bicycle, the answer is three and - had I not seen it with my own eyes - I would never have believed it. The incredibly creative Chinese have made the bicycle a major part of their lives and economy, and I admired that.
The "parking lot" at the park of the Temple of Heaven is huge, probably the size of two football fields and not a car in site, it's strictly for bicycles. We arrived at around 10 am and the parking lot was less than half full but there were clearly well over a thousand bikes there. Michael told us that from 7-9 am the parking is packed, as many people want to get to the park early for the morning Tai Chi, low impact exercise routines. Within yards of entering the park we came upon a group of 30 or more women performing dance routines with a stick in one hand from which hung a long multi colored ribbon. Music blazed from a jam box and the group was lead by an instructor. The ladies progressed through a series of movements and gyrations exercising and stretching every muscle in the body. The goal was not the stretching, but more of a benefit from the pleasure they were having.
We moved on a little further and there was a group of similar size to the first group only this time it was men and women. Their movements were again choreographed by a leader using a jam box and their movements were similar to the first group's movements. The difference was that instead of a ribbon they had a paddle, similar to a ping-pong paddle with a ball the size of a tennis ball balancing on it. The goal here was to keep the ball on the bat while passing through the series of dance movements. Oh, did I mention they were also stretching and using most of the muscle in there bodies. Again, not that that was the goal; they were just having good old fashion fun. So much so that they loaned us the equipment and invited us to join in. John did quite well, as for my efforts-enough said.
Further down the path was the advanced class of "bat and ball" students. Dressed in colorful silk "pajamas", for lack of a better word, they moved dramatically through a series of Kung Fu style kicks and thrusts, all the time keeping the ball on the paddle, it was amazing. Men and women alike, their backs were soaked in sweat. Could this have been a heart strengthening aerobic exercise, or was it just people having fun and enjoying themselves? Judging by the smiles on their faces at the end of each successful routine I'm going with the "fun" theory and the benefits were coincidental.
Next we came upon many groups of people playing "Hacky Sack." Having a retinal disease this is not the game for me, so I bowed out. Michael and John on the other hand got straight in with a group and I have to say they did quite well. One thing that was becoming strikingly apparent was the willingness of the Chinese to share their equipment with strangers and invite others to join in the fun they were having.
From here we got down to looking at the shrines, and if you want to know more about them I suggest you do a web search or better yet go to China and see these wonders close up. These shrines are unbelievable in size and beauty. After seeing the sites and enjoying our second bowl of rice for the day, we set out to see the rest of the park before leaving.
We did not have to walk far before we heard the sound of more traditional Chinese music. We followed the sound and found dozens of men and women, of all ages, dancing with a fan in each hand. Michael told us that in the early morning there would have been hundreds of people exercising this way. We sat and watched and sure enough it was not long before John and I were wielding fans and joining in. You just don't realize how clumsy and awkwardly you move until it's too late. There we were for the whole of Beijing to laugh it, gesticulating away with our two fans. We looked like delusional fly swatters at a bee keeper's convention. Not only was "fan dancing" not easy, it soon got us out of breathe! We were going at it with the intensity of an Olympian rather than embracing it as a smooth flowing art form of movement and breathe control. If nothing else we kept our instructors amused and developed an admiration for their skill.
The last group we met each held a neon green parasol with silver decorations in their hands. Following the music and the instructors voice they moved gracefully through a series of movements, opening, twirling and closing the parasols in unison. Fun or exercise? You decide. Once again, we were invited to join in but after the fan dancing fiasco we both knew the parasol skills were way beyond us.
Not everyone in the park was there for physical activities. Some were there for socialization and fun via card games, checkers, chess, mahjong and groups of women gathered just to share time while knitting.
And so we left the park and a day of wonderful memories and newfound respect for the Chinese and their attitude toward health. However, the day was not over and now we had to find our bicycles amongst thousands, and that's another story.
On the ride back to the hotel we passed what looked like a children's play area. Knowing that I was interested in looking at public health, Michael had brought us to what I nicknamed a "Chinese Health Club". It was not for children at all, it was a government built park with exercise machinery for adults. Having owned a health club in my younger days and competing as a professional body builder in the 1970's, I feel I have an informed opinion on exercise equipment and I have to say the recreational area was very well done. All the equipment used the operators' body weight for resistance, so there was no changing plates and getting fingers caught in the weights and pulleys. The equipment was divided to address each body part, i.e. legs, waist, back, arms etc. Each exercise area had several machines with intensity to suite the athlete and the more senior participants as well. I was in awe and had to try every machine. Everywhere I went someone was enthusiastic to show me how to use the equipment. They got quite a kick out of instructing this "mid 50's white boy with a shaved head". Then I came to the stretching section and was put to shame by persons 20-30 years my senior with the flexibility of a newborn. I-on the other hand-had problems touching my toes, which they found greatly amusing. I have promised myself to do better at this starting (as always) in the New Year.
One section of the park was dedicated to ping-pong and let me tell you, its serious business in China. Throughout the day we had been invited to join in every activity but not so at the ping-pong table. It was clearly out of limit for strangers. Opponents viewed each other menacingly across the table; there was no small talk, and no smiling. It was "Ping Pong to The Death". I somehow got the feeling that money was changing hands based on the outcomes of the games, but that's pure speculation. Even as a spectator you sensed an unwritten rule not to talk or cause any form of distraction to the players. Make no mistake about it; the Chinese take their ping-pong to heart.
So where am I going with all this? Well apart from the fact that John, Michael and I had a memorable day there is a lesson to be learned. Throughout the day we did not observe one, not one, morbidly obese person and in fact we saw few if any overweight people. Admittedly the low fat, low meat, high complex carbohydrate diet with very little sugars contributed to this. But one can not ignore the fact that eight million people riding bicycles daily has to contribute to the lack of obesity. Plus having a culture that enjoys engaging in free physical activity on a regular basis has to be a major contributor.
I have been back in America three weeks and I'm already sick of hearing on the news what an overweight society we have become and how obesity is increasing the risk of certain diseases. For as long as we continue driving our cars, even to the shortest of distances, sitting in front of the television, the computer, or a Game Boy and consuming high fat and high sugar foods we, as a society, will be overweight. We are burning up fewer calories than we are in taking, it's not rocket science, and that's why we are overweight.
We have everything we need to reverse this trend right here in Charlotte County. We have wonderful parks and recreational facilities scattered throughout the county. Some of these parks and facilities even have exercise equipment (similar to the street side "Chinese Health Club"), swimming pools and even Frisbee golf. We have hundreds of miles of paths to walk, bike or in-line skate on. What about the beaches? I can not think of anything better than an early morning or sunset walk, jog, or run on the beach. And guess what? Most of it is FREE. We even have an air-conditioned indoor mall for your walking pleasure to avoid the hot, humid summer days. I guess the bottom line is that it all comes down to personal choice and motivation. If you are happy with your weight and appearance, then believe me I'm happy for you. If you are not and you want to change things take a lesson from the Chinese. Find an activity, or better yet a selection of activities, that YOU ENJOY DOING, and do them regularly. Start having FUN and forget about the notion of exercising for a change and just get active. The way I look at it........Eight Million Bicycles in Beijing, they have to be doing something right or they would have quit by now. The active lifestyle and low fat diet of the Chinese clearly works for them and it can work for us too, if we let it.
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