Altitude. Heat. Humidity. Pollution!

Over the last three weeks I have been in China. Where in China you might wonder? How about Beijing, Dunhuang, Lanzhou, Xining, Xi’an and Shenzhen? And yes, it was frantic three week trip to visit all of those cities!

The first stop was the capital. Like every Westerner that visits China, I too saw The Great Wall, The Imperial Palace, The Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square! My hotel was in-fact very close to the Forbidden City and I found a nice 5 km loop to go for a run. Running three loops was a good start to the day. However, I tried this run next day after visiting attractions. Big mistake!

The temperature late in the day was almost 30C. The air was also heavily polluted. After my run I coughed and spluttered for 20 minutes… no wonder they call it the “Beijing Cough”! The pollution hit 194 AQI. That’s 21 times worse than what I’m used to!

Fortunately I recovered from the ordeal and went to Dunhuang, a city famous for the Mogao Grottos, Crescent Lake, and The Whistling Sand Dunes! I too saw these attractions. I also went for a run in Dunhuang. This was the first time that I had ran at altitude (1200m) and 25C+ heat! No problems.

We then travelled to Lanzhou to visit some of my father’s friends. Lanzhou is not known for attractions but infamously known for once being China’s most polluted city. Fortunately, Lanzhou has since changed and is no longer as polluted as it once was. Running along the walkway by the Yellow river ended up being a trip highlight! A lot of locals are there too, walking, whip cracking, playing with diablos or just dancing! Oh and Lanzhou is one mile above sea level!

The next two stops involved even greater heights. Although we were not there for long, I was dead set on running at Qinghai Lake. At 3200m above sea level, this is in high altitude training territory. Despite gradually building up to this altitude over several days, I had a slight headache while at Qinghai. But it was now or never! The first kilometer of the run felt odd. The air was noticeably thinner as was the cool temperature. However, each stride became harder and harder. Soon my legs were completely dead and called it quits after a mere 4km!

Humbled by the high altitude experience, we headed back to Xining. At 2200m above sea level, my run in Xining was fine albeit slower than my usual pace. I enjoyed the cool climate and the much cleaner air!

Next we headed to Xi’an, one of the great ancient capitals of China. And just like the other thousands of tourists, I too visited Xi’an to see the Terracotta Army! Another interesting relic of the past is the 15m high, 14km perimeter long city wall! A perfect place for a run? Although the air was not smelly like it was in Beijing it was visibly polluted. I ended up doing two laps of the city wall on a day that was warm (23C), hazy and heavily polluted (174 AQI). I think I also got Bronchitis from this run. Was it worth it? Ask me after I recover from it! Cough splutter cough…

Finally the last city we visited was Shenzhen. Known as the “Sillicon Valley of Hardware”, 90% of the world’s electronics are made in Shenzhen! There are literally five story buildings packed to the rafters that just sell USB cables for iPhones! In order to preserve my lungs from the polluted air I decided to run at night, where it is usually cooler (low 30C!) and less polluted (<100 AQI). One night it was 33C. Suffice to say when I got back from my run, my tshirt was drenched in sweat!

Altitude, heat, and humidity! Whether you are after altitude training (right up to crazy 2+ mile high runs!) or just curious to see if you can handle running in the mid thirties with high humidity, China has a city for all environments.

Runner be warned! Many cities in China are badly polluted, as I’m sure you already know. So caveat emptor, if you’re in one of China’s large, polluted cities, choose another sport!