Soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is making his way through China for a preseason tour. ESPN's Marty Smith and Jonathan Whyley are chronicling the international sensation's trip overseas.
Saturday, July 22: The man of the hour
SHANGHAI -- The most famous athlete on the planet rises via elevator through the floor of a helipad, stationed atop the Shanghai Peninsula Hotel. Twenty burly men await. None smile. So it goes when your job is to protect Cristiano Ronaldo. All business. The largest man asks who we are. We tell him we're ESPN, the American sports television network. He grunts.
Ronaldo steps onto the roof, the last of a dozen folks to emerge from the elevator, savoring the final moments of precious shade before stepping out into the sun.
It is the first day of his weekend tour through China. He's in Shanghai today and part of Sunday morning, then heads to Beijing for Sunday evening and Monday morning.
He is incredibly famous. I knew this, certainly. Everyone does. But I had no personal context on the mayhem that follows him every day, everywhere, until now. It's bedlam. Always.
Awaiting Ronaldo on a helipad in Shangahi for his photo shoot
Beautiful Shanghai Skyline
His day begins with a photo shoot on that scorching hotel roof. The air temperature is upwards of 105 degrees, which we later learned was the hottest day recorded in Shanghai in 145 years. It's hot beyond description, and the air is soupy.
Ronaldo rolls with it, smiling for the camera while holding aloft his signature Nike cleats. He holds one, then two, high over his head and broad like eagle wings. He juggles a blaze orange soccer ball 14 floors above the ground, the stunning skyline on full majestic display behind him. It is truly a beautiful city.
I can't help but think how few people on Earth could so confidently keep that ball on this roof while kicking it skyward time and again. Most of us would present a health hazard.
The whole photo shoot takes roughly 15 minutes. From there he heads back down the elevator to us, in a room on the 12th floor, also overlooking the city.
Marty sits down with Ronaldo All Access in China
The air is anxious. There are at least 25 people milling about in this suite -- managers and agents and bodyguards and marketers and publicists. And four guys from America, here to show the world what this guy is about, to spend a weekend immersed in the Ronaldo Way.
You've heard of the Patriot Way back home. There's most certainly a Ronaldo Way. He works hard. He knows countless people rely on him. He knows a country rides on his back every day.
He's big on family and friends and futbol, which I appreciate. He loves talking about his kids and the perspective they inject into his crazy life. One minute you're the most famous athlete on Earth. The next you're changing a diaper. That's perspective. It makes him laugh out loud.
He's very confident and openly willing to admit his brilliance, albeit in a tone that somehow doesn't sound at all conceited. Discussing his talent and the fame it created, it's almost like he's discussing the sunrise. It's obviously brilliant. And it's there every single day. Just like that talent and that fame.
When he walks into the room, the boys and me are out on the veranda, waiting to begin the interview. It's hot, so I tell Ronaldo we're going to take it back inside. He loves the idea.
For the next 30 minutes, I learn much about the man. I tell him straight up: I care far more about the man than the soccer. Everybody sees the soccer. Few get to ask what makes him feel fulfilled.
We hit on all manner of topics, from fatherhood to fame to falsehoods. He respects his rivals like Lionel Messi and Neymar, and rest assured he lives to beat them. I'll leave you with that. The interview airs Aug. 2 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2. You'll want to see what he had to say, because I'm told he said some things he's never said publicly before.
Ronaldo and Marty in Shanghai
Ronaldo is on the house! His photo shoot on top of a building in Shanghai
And you'll want to see the hysteria for yourself. I was floored. At a Nike store appearance across town later in the evening, I met a young man from Niger who flew 20 hours just to see the man in person.
I saw a young woman faint at the mere sight of him. I don't know whether it was the sweltering heat that got to her, or his presence.
After our interview, we took a photograph together. Let me tell you, if you ever want to feel really inadequate, take a photograph with Cristiano Ronaldo.
On to Beijing. Hopefully I'll get to try to stop some penalty kicks or something.
Ronaldo has a lot of fans in China!
Saturday, July 22: Touring the Great Wall
BEIJING -- The Great Wall of China is among the world's most recognized landmarks. I'd only ever seen it in pictures, and figured it would stay that way my whole life. I never imagined I'd walk on it, live it, run my fingers along its ancient striations and ornate ivory trappings.
But today I did. It was a humbling experience, difficult to describe. Being there, you're forced to stop and consider that more than 1 million people combined to build it. And that many of them died.
A brief look at the Great Wall of China, with some commentary. Humbling, man.
You consider that it is more than 13,000 miles long. And you stop and stare. You just blankly stare, awestruck. It takes a long time to get up there. It's a lofty and lengthy uphill climb to a cable car, like one you'd ride at a ski resort. And then you go up and up and up to the wall. And you climb some more.
Friday, July 21: Awaiting Ronaldo's arrival
SHANGHAI -- My very first thought upon arriving in China on Friday was, wow, Shanghai is a long way from Pearisburg, Virginia. It feels like one street corner here has as many people as my entire hometown.
The flight from Los Angeles took 13 hours. I slept for four, and spent the other nine watching "I Saw The Light" (the Hank Williams film), "Hacksaw Ridge" and a documentary on Cristiano Ronaldo.
Shanghai, China. 8pm. Beautiful.
He's the reason we're here, after all. We'll spend the weekend with the world's most famous athlete as he tours Shanghai and Beijing. Forget the soccer. I'm impressed by the man. I can't wait to learn more from and about him.
Women in Shanghai carry umbrellas to keep the sun at bay. I'm jealous. I want one. I need it. It is upwards of 100 degrees by breakfast, some of the hottest days on record in the past decade.
Men rest on rickety wooden chairs in the shade, watching countless commuters pass by on mopeds. These bikes are piled with coolers full of goods strapped down by a spider web of bungee cords. The air is thick.
I hit a snafu quickly. At Starbucks.
I order coffee for the crew. They had no drink carriers, so I stack all four drinks on top one another, and take off towards the hotel. The locals looked perplexed. I would have, too.
It's not much cooler at night. The rooftop perch on the Bund Shanghai metro station at dusk is a carnival, swarming with people and bursting with city noise. As darkness falls at 8 p.m., the city across the river explodes in brilliant light display worthy of Times Square.
Marty Smith in Shanghai at night Celebrations abound
The Shanghai Tower. The second tallest building on Earth. 128 stories. It's twisting architecture stretches all the way to the Heavens.
The Shanghai Tower (the second-tallest building on the planet at 128 stories and more than 2,000 feet) welcomes onlookers, its twisting architecture spiraling into the clouds. Its neighbor, the Shanghai World Financial Center, is the world's ninth-tallest building.
Both are commanding presences on the Shanghai skyline.
The Shanghai tower is TALL
Monument of People's Heroes in Shanghai. Very tall memorial, honoring Chinese war heroes.
The entire panorama reflects off the Huangpu River, waving in the wake of a steady stream of boats carrying tourists, locals and even some wedding parties up and down the water.
Down the way (at the north end of the river) stands the Monument to the People's Heroes, a memorial honoring Chinese war veterans. It stands 80 feet tall, and its base spirals downward. The entire base is filled with folks taking selfies.
Street food in Shanghai
Later, the Chang Li -- a road which I'm told is the last of its kind -- offers authentic Chinese foods and bustling street nightlife. We order some dumplings to eat along the way. They are scalding -- so hot, in fact, that my cameraman, Sam, burns a sizable blister onto his index finger when dumpling juice runs down his hand.
He'll need that finger. It turns his camera on.
The Chinese people are very welcoming. They enjoy trading information regarding our respective customs.
They ask us for photographs. They don't know who we are, but we figure it's polite to oblige.
I cannot imagine what the response will be when Ronaldo arrives.
I expect sheer bedlam.