I remember scouring through Couchsurfing profiles of people living in Lisbon and passing someone whose current mission was to “Live in the present. Find a way to live in New York.” and then further down in her profile, I read, “Remembering that you are going to die eventually is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” First off, how inspiring, and secondly, how bold is it to say something a bit morbid in a profile where you’re easily being judged? Now that is someone I wanted to meet.
This person was Qianru.
We met up at a smoothie place off of Praça dos Camões – well, after a big texting fiasco of meeting up at the wrong Praça (plaza) and wondering where the other was. We originally met up just to hang out, but then when I heard her story, I knew I wanted viewers and readers to hear it and have proof that there are tons of people living abroad and traveling and doing what we’re doing…but with different careers and life paths.
Hometown: Chengdu, China
Lisbon Neighborhood: Baixa
What you do in life: Grad school student on exchange in Lisbon
You’ve lived in China, the UK, Australia, Poland, France, Macau, Southeast Asia, and Portugal. Please explain.
I guess I have always been very curious about the world. I was born and raised in China and went to England to study – that was actually the first time I went abroad. After the exchange & traveling experience in the UK came my “global moving project.” I took a gap year and went to Southeast Asia – lived most of that year in Thailand, fell in love with all these amazing islands, the food, and all the hospitable people. After that, I went to the US for a short time, then I started my master study in Sydney, Australia. As always, I was restless, so I chose to go on exchange in Europe, first to Warsaw, Poland, then here to Lisbon, Portugal. During the winter holiday, I moved to Paris and took a French class there. But I spent most of my time mostly getting lost around Paris.
For me, traveling and meeting new people is an addiction; it’s a little bit like being in love, because all your senses are enlarged – suddenly your world is wide open to more new perspectives and possibilities. You are constantly learning, and can’t take anything for granted.
How’d you end up in Lisbon?
It was all because of Macau. I was traveling in Macau during my gap year. I stayed there for quite a while, and kept going back for the second, third, and fourth time. I liked that city a lot. Macau used to be the colony of Portugal until 1999. I was not attracted by the Vegas-style side of Macau, but the side where colonial Portuguese culture sets up a cozy and exotic atmosphere. I loved the food, the architecture, and the Portuguese people I met there, and so I thought why not go to Portugal? So here I am.
How do you always find a place to stay?
I’ve almost never stayed in hotels. Right now, I live with another Norwegian guy. I found my apartment on a website called Uniplaces. It’s a website that provides nice and central rooms, especially for students and young people.
What specifically strikes you about Lisbon?
There are so many beautiful, free beaches not far from Lisbon, that only take about 20-30 mins by train, such as Carcavelos and Cascais – they are both reachable within 30 mins by train from Cais do Sodré train station. In summertime, the weather of Lisbon is literally flawless. I’d go to the beach almost every weekend with my friends, just lying on the beach, reading a book, listening to some music, checking out all the beautiful people getting tan or doing nothing at all. It would be a perfect Sunday in Lisbon.
There is one seafood restaurant on Rua do Loreto called Sea Me -it’s a little bit pricy, but also one of the best seafood places in town. As a Chinese, I can’t live without Asian food, and surprisingly, there are some authentic “illegal” Chinese restaurants in Martim Moniz area. They don’t have a business license, and they are literally located in some Chinese families’ homes. It is not easy to find them since there are no signs or names, and they are hidden in normal residential buildings.
Bars and Nightlife
The nightlife in Lisbon is fascinating too. My favorite bars are Park and Pensão Amor. Park is located above a parking lot (where the name came from) in Bairro Alto area, where all the cheap bars and pubs are. It is a rooftop bar where you can overlook the breathtaking view of the city. You can go there earlier to catch some spectacular sunset and enjoy a nice mojito. Pensão Amor is located near Cais do Sodre and used to be a brothel, and now it’s one of the most popular bars on Pink Street (a street full of bars). Inside, there is even a bookshop that sells erotic books and a spot where a fortune teller is reading tarot cards.
What do your friends and family think of you traveling and living all other the world?
My parents are still worried about me; whose aren’t? However, they are very supportive; I feel extremely lucky to have them as my parents. They wish I would go back to China soon or someday, settle down and, according to them, start something “real.” Some of my friends think my experience is so cool and so surreal, whereas some criticize the way I travel, especially when they know I hitch hike and CouchSurf. I understand why they would think in this way. It is also difficult to explain to them how amazing hitchhiking and CouchSurfing can be, because they have never stepped out of their comfort zone. I have been doing this for years – nothing really bad has happened to me, hopefully never will. I think the most important thing is to be cautious and careful while always stay positive and open-minded.
Okay, so is the pastel de Belém really the best? Where else should someone get a pastel de nata?
Personally, I think they are same. There is also one shop near Praça dos Camões where you can find good pastel de nata.
What Portuguese food or drink should someone order when coming here?
Grilled codfish and chicken, seafood rice, and green wine (only in Portugal) – which is my new favorite kind of wine. It only costs less than €4 a bottle in supermarkets!
What don’t you like about Lisbon?
It’s very hard to get things done here. Portuguese people are also famous for being late, so Portuguese time is always half hour late than scheduled time.
Have you taken a day trip to Sintra, Cascais, or Estoril…or somewhere else? What do you recommend?
Sintra is totally worth going – it’s like a fairy land with dreamy castles and gardens. Cascais is also a must-go. Nice beach, hot surfers, good restaurants.
Finally, what would you say to people who feel stuck or who are “planning to travel one day?”
I would say “Just pack your stuff and step out!” There are always many reasons not to do something, I have heard so many reasons, “I don’t have enough money” “I don’t have enough time” “I don’t have someone else to travel with” “It’s too dangerous” “It’s too far” “I don’t speak the language”
Traveling is not about the money, you are not on “vacation.” Do not just stay in a hotel – hotels are all the same in every country! Why would you fly to another country and stay in a hotel? Go out and get to know local cultures and local people. See how other people are living their lives. Don’t wait until you have “time” and “money,” because that day will never come. Someday we are all going to die; It’s not me trying to be negative, but rather, I am trying to be positive by reminding you this. Do what your gut tells you to do.
To follow more of Qianru, check out her Instagram (@sharonsight)
[In our “Locals of” series, we will be highlighting locals of each city we travel to. Go figure. These aren’t just randos walking down the street; they’re people we have personally connected with and vouch for in terms of knowing how to do their city right. They’ve got some juicy deets that might just change the way you see their cities and we want to share them with you.]