This is what 48-hours in Beijing and Hong Kong looks like with Olympic medalist, Nastia Liukin

You may have heard of Nastia Liukin. Okay, odds are if you pay any attention to the Olympics, you know exactly who we’re talking about. She’s a five-time Olympic Medalist who, even after her mega gymnastics career, is finding that mentoring girls through her new app called Grander (a community for the next generation of female athletes) and sharing her adventures around the world have led to a new calling in her life. And she’s just getting started.

We spoke with Nastia on a recent trip to China on what it meant to her to win gold at Beijing 2008, and about how she’s now traveling the world all whilst maintaining a healthy (and balanced) lifestyle.

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First off, welcome home! You traveled with us to Hong Kong and Beijing earlier this year to commemorate your Olympic Gold at Beijing ten years ago. How was your trip?

It was truly everything that we wanted it to be. I think in the past, I’ve always wanted to go out on my own and explore, so it’s definitely the first time that I worked with someone else to do it this way. Being able to learn from somebody that just knew so much about the culture of the country and the food and the local people and I truly got a better experience and got to see more than I would have on my own.

That is so good to hear, and it was really apparent that you had such a great time with the guides. A true, first-hand local experience with each of them.

Yeah, both of the guides were incredible. It was so awesome to hear from a local perspective on their life in the city – and that’s really what I missed when I was training and competing. I was in these amazing countries that I never got to see the cities first hand, so something that I’ve always said is that I wanted to do was go back to Beijing and visit Hong Kong for the first time to actually explore the culture firsthand.

The Great Wall of China is incredible, and getting to see it from a first hand perspective, from a local guide who grew up nearby was really valuable. You can’t find that kind of insight on Instagram!

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You also visited the bird’s nest to see your name engraved outside of the arena. Did it bring back any feelings that you had there ten years ago?

I’ve seen pictures of that wall and people have told me about it but seeing it first-hand made it feel real. It was just so special to me. It literally felt like I was going back in time 10 years and was still right there. As we were driving up to it, I remembered the road that we literally went down every single day for almost a month while training, and it was the same emotions and those feelings of excitement, nerves, anxiety, and I got to feel it all over again, so it was really, really cool.

That’s really amazing and such a rush of all these different emotions, too.

Yeah, and to be honest, I didn’t know I would feel that again. Because you know it has been ten years and my life is so different and I don’t do gymnastics every day anymore so I didn’t know how it would feel. I knew I would be excited but I didn’t know this was exactly how I would feel.

Of course, it really makes you step back and realize how much work you put into getting to that moment. And now you have the time to appreciate all that work now.

I’ll be forever proud, but it’s not something that I think about all the time. Being able to be back there and seeing your name engraved on this wall – it’s part of history and it’s forever and that was so special.

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That’s very special. You were talking about The Great Wall too and watching your live video when you were standing on the wall, there were only two other people with you. How did that happen?

Yeah, we went super early and our guide brought us to this specific area that was less known and not as crowded and we were completely shocked by how empty it was!

A lot goes back to the guide, her expertise, and her experience in doing this for a living. She knew exactly the time and the place to go. We also got super lucky with the weather- I can’t tell you how many people messaged me saying, “how did you get such a good picture?!” and it’s because there was not a cloud in the sky –it was so clear!

Oh yeah, the photos that were absolutely incredible. You look out and it’s just lush greenery surrounding the wall with not one person in the background.

Oh I know, and literally that’s not photoshopped.

Were you shocked by any of the food that you tried in Hong Kong?

Yes, we had fish balls, which I’m not sure I’m a fan of. I will always try things and that’s kind of what I loved about that part of it. It was really cool to be able to try more of the local food and even though it wasn’t necessarily wasn’t my favorite,  I’ve always been open to trying local things.

So, what exactly is a fish ball.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure. From what I remember it was fish meat that was kind of like a meatball and then deep-fried but it was… very fishy. They had different spices with it, so you could get it spicy, extra hot, etc.

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Definitely. I think you were much braver than we would have been.

Yeah, I was a little hesitant. I took a bite and I said, “I’m glad I tried this, but it isn’t for me”. So, there were a few things where I put a check mark by it and moved on.

Walking around Hong Kong and Beijing, what stood out to you about the culture of each?

This is exactly why I wanted to come back – when we were at the Olympics it felt like we were at Disney World. It was so perfect and everything was so organized, it was almost like we were living in this fake world. To be honest, you didn’t even know where you were – from the village, to the arena, to the cafeteria you couldn’t really sense or feel the local culture.

Because now Beijing is such a special place for me and will forever be, I wanted to really feel and understand what real culture and what the real city was because I didn’t get a chance to do that when I was I was competing.

Did anything surprise you?

In Hong Kong, we actually took public transportation. We were so shocked at how clean and how nice everything was. Living in New York you think of the subways and not necessarily of them being clean and nice, so I think that was a pleasant surprise.

Oh, for sure. And really, anything is better than the New York subway system.

Yeah, you’re right. The tube in London is another public transit system that is so nice. Basically everywhere but New York!

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You did do a lot of research on what you wanted to see and visit while you were in China. How do you stay organized with everything that you see on the internet or social media?

Especially on a big trip like this, trying to stay organized and making a collection or a photo album or just jot things down on my notes in my phone – I try to do everything on my phone because I know that’s going to be with me. I would love to say that I write things down, but then I never know which notebook I wrote it down in or where I wrote it so I definitely think your phone is a safe place. Even taking screenshots whether its food, fashion, travel, workouts, and restaurants to try so that I have them for later.

With China behind you, what’s on your travel bucket list for this year?

I really want to go to Iceland, Greece, Spain and Bali.

Oooh – Bali is a good choice. It’s absolutely stunning!

Yeah, one of my friends and teammates visited 5 or so years ago and said you have to go. She actually went by herself and said she was so afraid to go by herself. Afterward, she said that traveling solo was the greatest thing that she did, “being able to reset and take time for myself was the best”.

What’s the number one thing that you never leave out of your carry on?

Definitely my makeup and my skincare products – everything that is travel sized obviously and one change of clothes in case your bags get lost and a blanket. I always travel with my own blanket. It’s just a sense of comfort and home – LA to NYC, cross country, and any flights outside of the country I always have it.