Applause, cheers and an announcer’s voice on a loudspeaker greeted me as I strode triumphantly into Yin and Yang Square. Behind me was a punishingly steep section of the Great Wall in northern Tianjin Province. Photographers were on hand to capture my grand entrance and had been placed strategically along the Wall to record key moments of my journey. Ok, fine, the applause and photographers weren’t all for me, but when I completed the 10 kilometre race up and down 2,582 steps on the historic, magnificent Great Wall of China, I felt like a pretty big deal.
The day before, I dined with my hotshot endurance athlete friends on expertly roasted Peking duck in an old Beijing neighborhood. Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant is a small 10-top hidden in a back alley of Qianmen, but those in the know have been following the painted ducks on the hutong walls to its hidden entrance for decades. Heads of state and foreign dignitaries (no doubt still licking the glistening, deep brown duck skin taste off their lips) greet you in the narrow hallway as you enter. A quick perusal of the photographs reveals that Al Gore, Angela Merkel and Geoff Hoon were among the previous satisfied customers.
We lingered over lunch but couldn’t hide from our adoring fans forever; they quickly caught up with us on a stroll through the city’s most famous square. The Beijing Tourism Administration’s statistics show that international tourism has been on the rise since the 2008 Olympic Games. Even still, more than 90% of tourists in Beijing are from within China. So it makes sense that a couple of white girls in Tiananmen Square would attract attention. I expected a few polite stares or shy smiles from country folk visiting the big city for the first time. What we experienced, however, was much more intrusive. I didn’t mind posing with a few people, flashing the “V for victory” and smiling in someone’s future Facebook profile pic, but it became a bit uncomfortable when a man pushed his telephoto lens into my face for multiple close-ups.
A few days later, I continued my celebrity-style tour of Beijing from the comfort of a sidecar attached to a vintage 1930’s motorbike. Oversized Prada sunglasses kept the dust out of my eyes as we buzzed north to the avant guard “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium. I took note of the buildings with VIP-worthy rooftop bars as we drove east to the iconic “Big Pants” CCTV building in the central business district. My orange scarf flew like flames behind my head as we scooted south to Panjiayuan flea market and west to the Back Lake hutongs. Unfortunately I wasn’t wearing the scarf over my hair à la Grace Kelly, but rather wrapped around my face to limit the amount of gritty pollution I was ingesting. For a thrill we even drove briefly into the Forbidden City; the cops look the other way when there’s a celebrity on board.
Alas, a return trip to the Forbidden City sans motorbike entourage quickly burst my celebrity fantasy bubble. It seems an actual VIP was visiting on the same day and as a consequence Chinese soldiers swarmed the site, cordoning off sections of the grounds and rudely herding all of the ordinary tourists into a tiny courtyard. While waiting for the VIP and his party to finish their tour, the courtyard became increasingly crowded and stiflingly hot. In contrast to the day before, the pollution had miraculously lifted. The sky was cloudless, the sun merciless. All around me, tiny Chinese people opened their umbrellas in an attempt to block out the sun’s rays and nearly poked my eyes out in the process. Clearly my celebrity mystique had worn off. The soldiers released us from the courtyard just in time to avert a full-blown claustrophobic panic attack freak out.
The only way to regain my composure was to indulge in a medicinal four-course celebrity-worthy prix fixe lunch at Maison Boulud. Mere moments after being seated in this upscale but comfortable establishment on the grounds of the former US Embassy I was sipping chilled rosé wine and enjoying the royal treatment. At the end of the meal they brought me a basket of warm, powdered sugar-dusted petites madeleines on the house and my transformation from sweaty tourist back to Beijing celebrity was complete.