Aug 22, 2012
It’s an understatement to say that my life changed when I moved to China four years ago. The food was different; the tools to eat the food were different, the words didn’t make any sense, the traffic didn’t make any sense. This paled into insignificance however compared to the alterations I had to make in terms of my hobbies and leisure time activities.
As a child I’d spent almost every waking moment (when not in school) outside; up trees and mountains, on swings, bikes, skateboards, surfing in the sea, and floating down rivers. In the summers prior to my emigration to China I’d been a windsurf and sailing instructor in France – I’d gone from spending eight hours a day in an Alpine lake teaching kids the intricacies of wind and waves and balance; where the idea of a perfect day off included hiking up a nearby mountain or jumping off the mountains with parasails, to arriving in this city (Suzhou) where my time was consumed teaching in a sweaty, chalk-filled classroom on Ganjiang Xi Lu and spending time with friends who’s hobbies included shopping, eating or surfing the internet. Now, while these activities are all well and good (I enjoy a good dinner just like the next man), it was a world away from the active lifestyle I was used to.
In the early days I would try and persuade my new friends to join me on a bike ride or a hike or, heaven forbid, a dip in a pool, but these invitations would invariably be met with a surprised and pitying laugh; the implication of which was that I had somehow lost my grip on reality; that the idea of going swimming in winter, for example, was tantamount to committing yourself to an untimely, watery grave.
I am happy to announce however, that this kind of reaction - thanks in part, I guess, to a successful Olympic Games in Beijing or possibly to my increasingly adventurous circle of friends here in Suzhou - is wholly a thing of the past. This has been proved to me on a number of occasions, but none more so than last weekend when one of my students invited me to join him and his fearless eight-year-old daughter for an afternoon of indoor climbing and bouldering at the Dushu Lake Sports Center (独墅湖高教区翠薇街独墅湖体育中心二楼)!
Climbing is by no means an alien activity here in China. A couple of years ago, my journey to and from work would lead me past the SND Carrefour and I would sit on the bus and stare up at the extensive climbing wall stretching halfway down its eastern side, the only users of which I ever saw was a posse of stuffed mannequins (complete with protective helmet) who’d been placed in positions of implausible agility to attract visitors to the store. In other parts of China – Guangxi for example – climbing is an integral part of the tourism industry and it is as natural to the scene in that part of the world as the Karst Mountains that you clamber all over. On the other end of the spectrum, China is home to the most important climbing mecca in the world: Everest.
Back in Suzhou however, the crew at Dushu lake, headed up by champion climber Sam Liu (刘常忠) have established not only a decent space for practicing the sport (it has only just re-opened after a month of remodelling and renovation), but also an ever expanding community of people who want to make the most of their time off. Here at the climbing center people can come and take part in something which, despite being ever so slightly unconventional, is nevertheless, an excellent form of exercise. In the clubs own words: “Climbing increases overall concentration, body awareness and strength in mind and body!”
It was fantastic to see the place full of people enjoying their Sunday afternoon scrambling up the walls, abseiling down from a balcony or trying to make it to the other end of an extended slack line without wobbling onto the floor – in short, they were trying something new, something different. We all know that variety is the spice of life and their enthusiasm for this ‘new’ sport was infectious. As for me… each time I come across something here in Suzhou which comes close to the life I had back in Europe, be that climbing, cycling, or something as mundane as a piece of quality cheese or a cup of coffee, the chances of me leaving this fine city get smaller and smaller.
See you on the wall!