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Kristi Heim: The World in China

Seattle Times reporter Kristi Heim explores a changing China on the world stage.

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August 21, 2008 12:20 AM

Lost in the heart of China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Outside National Stadium, I met a man from Reno who brought his 79-year-old father to the Olympics. He said one day his father was on the subway by himself when he struck up a conversation with a local Chinese man. This total stranger then spent the whole day guiding the guy's dad through Beijing, visiting museums and even paying for his lunch.

Yesterday Steve Kelley and I got lost in a hutong, one of Beijing's famously narrow alleys winding through a warren of ancient single-story houses. Turned out to be one of the best moments of the trip, as Steve writes in his column today. We were adopted by a couple in their 80s, invited inside family homes and shown wedding pictures, and introduced to one of Zhou Enlai's security guards.

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It started when the hutong we were following dead-ended at the Qianjin Guesthouse. Zhang Guangrong, the 20-year-old son of the proprietor, offered to help us find our destination, but we decided it was more interesting to explore the hutongs with him. This is one of last remaining parts of the original city that hasn't been demolished and replaced by skyscrapers. I had written about the pre-Olympics construction boom displacing old neighborhoods and their cultural heritage. Residents said this neighborhood isn't entirely safe from destruction, either. Meanwhile it's an oasis of calm and quiet, with pomegranate trees, red peppers drying in the sun, ancient doorways protected by stone lions, and elderly people out for a stroll.

One of them was Song Zhilin, who saw us and piped up "welcome," in English. I started chatting with her and she offered to let us take a look at traditional "siheyuan" or four-sided courtyards in the area. I heard her tell Zhang that her husband, Li Tieniu, 87, had worked for Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. She led us through her neighbors' courtyards, one beautifully preserved for more than a century that housed four generations of the Ren family.

At last we stopped at her own house, just two small and dark rooms. Above the bed were various framed black and white photographs, and Li proudly took down one of himself in the military in the 1940s, and another of Zhou Enlai. Though the couple's house was modest, Li was happy to have Americans in it. After all, the man he so admired helped make such an exchange possible. Far from the fanfare of the Olympics, here was the real heart of China we were lucky enough not to miss.

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