China was never part of our plans. I had always preferred trips to the West, with the United States as a front-runner, and the concept of East to Sarah was more of the kind of paradisiacal destinations. Even so, a bit by chance, we decided to travel to Beijing in a matter of minutes. When we discovered a low price on a Lufthansa promotion and realized that, after all, the flight time wouldn't top ten hours, we immediately knew that there was no way to resist.
We were almost six months away from it, but the trip seduced us instantly. Today, five years later, we agree to say that it is a good thing that we did it even though it is not something we want to repeat - at least for now. A destiny that always seemed so distant as I was growing up, in a country that has only recently begun to open up to other cultures and to show its own, appeared more seductive than ever.
Born in 1985, I vaguely remember seeing pictures of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on television. Almost thirty years later, visiting the square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China and, of course, the Olympic complex was an opportunity we could not miss despite the big question mark we knew this trip would be.
All our choices were aimed at making our stay the best during those six days. We opted for a hotel in a shopping area very close to the Forbidden City to ensure that the meals and a good portion of the tourist plan would be easily made by foot.
Besides, there was an airport bus that stopped just across the street from the hotel. Given that none of us even scratched Mandarin beyond hello and thank you and that English is not widely spoken, we wanted to avoid problems that would be aggravated by communication at all costs.
The first adventure on a restaurant
The “Eastern jet lag” attacked us in a way we'd never experienced before. Since waking up at 4:30 in the morning more than ready for breakfast (and I rarely get up to eat when the meal is available until 10:00 a.m.) until having an insatiable appetite for dinner mid-afternoon, we went through it all. So, shortly after arrival we were looking for something to eat in the commercial area of Xidan, a few minutes walk from our hotel.
There were more Western fast-food solutions to which we are accustomed, but we wanted to try to find something more local. On an underground floor of a small shopping mall, we saw a counter with menus that looked great. The time had come for us to speak for the first time with Chinese off the beaten track. Fortunately, on the other side were two employees as adventurous as we were, who were delighted to communicate with strangers.
We ordered, with relative ease, the menu we wanted and paying was also not that hard. The worst came when one of the employees began gesturing toward us as if she suddenly did not want us there. She was making a cross with the index fingers in our direction as if she were pushing away vampires and we, completely lost, couldn't understand it. She repeated it once, twice, three times until a light shone in Sarah's brain.
“Ah! I've read about it! That means ten!" We realized she was telling us that the food would take about ten minutes to be ready. Conclusion? We waited without any problem and, when the food came, we were surprisedly pleased with most of it, except for a soup and something else in which only the smell was enough to drive us away.
On the way to the Forbidden City
It was our first stop. You can't miss it. When we chose the hotel we were already expecting that and, after the first breakfast, with the streets still deserted, we decided to walk that mile, mile and a half to the entrance near Tiananmen Square.
Those twenty minutes walking helped us realize, for the first time, the number of policemen in each block and to confirm that the maps can be quite deceivable. If in Boston, for example, everything seems to be a step away, in Beijing the smallest distance on the map is misleading.
Security is a key point in Tiananmen Square. Successive episodes of self-moaning in protest tightened checkpoints and it became mandatory to go through a metal detector when accessing the square and main entrance to the Forbidden City next to the Mao Tse-Tung Mausoleum.
When we arrived, there was already some movement of tourists but nothing too bad. The entry is done without any kind of problem and it does not take long to realize why they call it City. Between stairs to go up and down, access to temples, well-treated gardens, and historic trees, we finally realize that the space is much larger than we expected.
Here and there, we hear what the guides are saying but our walk continues. We stop at strategic places to take pictures or take advantage of the beauty that each corner of the Forbidden City offers us, but the historical part that comes in the guides is relegated to the background.
We walk through the Forbidden City to the exit on the other side and climb a few steps to take a new photo that offers us a different perspective of the Forbidden City, with the advantage of giving a context more appropriate to its dimension.
Being famous at Summer Palace
What do two Portuguese do in Beijing? The same as millions of Chinese do every year, coming from every corner of the country that is rapidly approaching 1.5 billion people.
Why does it matter? To realize that in spite of the Portuguese, French, English, Americans, and other Europeans, the largest fringe of tourists in Beijing, whatever attraction we're talking about, will always be Chinese. More: it will always be Chinese who have no contact with Westerners.
Once again, Sarah had already read about it and shared it with me. It is very common to have Western tourists approached by Chinese ones to take a photograph. If someone is blonde and very tall, the requests increase exponentially. We are not blondes. We don't even reach six feet. We thought we were not going to experience it, and we had forgotten all about it, but suddenly, for a few hours at the Summer Palace, everything changed.
Speaking English or Mandarin doesn't matter. They approach us with a shyness that is almost contagious, tell us "picture" and point to both of us. It happens one, two, three times. And it's never just them. Nearby, discreetly, the whole family is listening, embarrassed, waiting to know if they will be able to do get close. We never refuse it. We find it amusing. We say to each other that maybe we'll feature on their family photography shelf forever. A family who is going to look at that photograph they took and think about that couple whom they knew nothing about but happened to meet one morning at the Summer Palace. It was all because of the curiosity to see someone so strange and with traits they had never, or rarely, seen before.
The Summer Palace is exactly what the name indicates: the place where the emperors moved during the hottest season of the year. The point of greatest attraction is the Longevity Hill, bathed by Kunming Lake, and that's where we head to on foot and climb steps after steps, after steps.
The view is invigorating. It is also there that I realize the happy, tired and contemplative look that a Chinese man has, by my side, at the top. To this day it remains one of my favorite photos.
The place where Bolt and Phelps' myths were born
Sport is part of our lives and the trip to Beijing could not be any different. We tried, unsuccessfully, to go see a Beijing Guoan football game (we were assured at the hotel that the tickets were sold out), and we knew that no matter where we were, we were going to visit the Olympic Complex, which hosted the Games in 2008.
The Olympic footprints are still very present on public transportation. It is great to be able to get on the subway and see perfectly the evolution of our journey and where we have to leave. The station is still a bit far but walking, for us, is never a big problem.
The Olympic Stadium (Bird's Nest) and the complex where the swimming took place (Water Cube) are side-by-side. It is impossible to be in that place and not feel that much of the history of world sport was made there, within a radius of half a mile. Usain Bolt showed himself to the world definitely - with a bang! - while Michael Phelps fulfilled the design of beating the record with eight gold medals in a single edition.
We sat on a bench overlooking the lake next to the Bird's Nest to rest and remembered some stories of how we had lived that 2008 summer. I was working with no days-off on a sports newspaper, Sarah was still in high school. There were many late nights without sleep and controversy with the Portuguese delegation.
There, with the Bird's Nest in the background, we did a photographic series imitating references from 2008. We were Usain Bolt, we were Marco Fortes (a Portuguese shot putter who jokingly said the morning session was too early and that he was better off in bed), we were Nelson Évora winning a gold medal, the only one of Portugal in that edition, in the triple jump
Marriages at the Temple of Heaven
One of our last stops in Beijing included a visit to the Temple of Heaven. The logic is very similar to that of the Summer Palace but here we were not asked to take pictures. More than a tourist stop for the Chinese themselves, it is an area where the Pekinese go to enjoy a good afternoon.
There are many photoshoots of newlyweds and, at least in the first week of April 2013, not too many people. The landscapes are beautiful, begging for good photos and we almost forget the polluted environment of downtown Beijing, which was one of our biggest concerns before and during the trip.
It is much worse in the summer, and in April the levels weren't that bad. We felt no need to take any special precautions but realized, at the end of the day, when we were blowing our noses, we had black nostrils because of the quality of the air - or lack of it.
Surely, our trip to Beijing could not have been completed without a visit to one of the sectors of the Great Wall of China, but this was such a special adventure that it deserves its own text.
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