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Originally published Thursday, August 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Appreciating a trip to the real Beijing

Don't get me wrong, I feel privileged to have seen what I've seen so far at these Olympics. Michael Phelps. Usain Bolt. Anna Cummins. Mary Whipple. Still, I've...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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BEIJING — Don't get me wrong, I feel privileged to have seen what I've seen so far at these Olympics.

Michael Phelps. Usain Bolt. Anna Cummins. Mary Whipple.

Still, I've felt as if I've been missing something.

I've seen the Beijing Olympics, but I hadn't really seen Beijing.

So Wednesday morning, I begged Times colleague Kristi Heim to pull me out of the vortex. She went to school here and speaks fluent Mandarin. I asked her to show me the real Beijing.

I wanted to see something older than Dara Torres. Some architecture that predated the Water Cube. A neighborhood built before our high-rise in the North Star media village.

I've seen Yao Ming, but I haven't seen anything from the Ming Dynasty. For a few hours I wanted to get out of the 21st century.

And Wednesday afternoon it happened. I was transported, from seeing almost no China to experiencing the very essence of China.

In the heart of Beijing, we went on a tour of an ancient neighborhood, a hutong. It is a maze of alleys, one-story brick homes and courtyards, huddled in the shadows of the glittering high rises of new Beijing.

Some of the alleys are as narrow as a yard wide. None are more than 5 yards wide. The hutong makes the streets of Venice look as broad as Broadway.

Because Kristi cut through the language barrier, we were invited into homes and onto the private courtyards that some single families have lived in for more than 200 years.

Almost as soon as we entered the hutong we stumble into a 54-room hostel (you can get a room here for $5 to $12 a night) and meet 20-year-old Zhang Guangrong, who works in Beijing's high-tech district.

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His family runs the hostel and he knows the complex system of alleys here, better than I know Queen Anne. He offers to show us everything and for the next three hours we are greeted and charmed by some of the warmest, most welcoming people on the globe.

This was the Ming I wanted to see.

We twist and turn through the alleys, down Gongzi Hutong, around the corner to Fenghou Hutong. Early, I come to the conclusion that if Zhang wasn't our guide, I'd be stuck in this ancient labyrinth for the rest of my life.

Chiles hang from walls, drying in the sun. A canopy of vines that shade courtyards is fat with squash and pomegranates. Stone sculptures of lions stand as protection on both sides of many of the houses' ancient, wooden doors.

It feels like an oasis here. The pace is much slower than anything I've seen in Beijing. You can almost feel your blood pressure dropping.

Even though some alleyways are crowded with residents walking or riding bikes, it is quiet in here. The hustle that is the new Beijing is muted.

The hutong is a mixture of yesterday and today. It is a trip back in time, but it remains a way of life for a substantial portion of Beijing's community now.

We meet an elderly woman, Song Zhilin, who immediately hits it off with Kristi. She waves us around a couple of corners, opens one of the large wooden doors and invites us into the courtyard of Ren Xue Shi.

The courtyard is unique and immaculate. It is beautiful and ancient.

A tree more than 300 years old grows in the middle and there are flowers, a cistern, even a small fish pond. This is the old world still thriving in the 21st century.

Before Mao, the hutong was a capitalist haven, but in 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, people including Ren's family lost their homes. They were allowed to continue living here, but the government forced them to accept other families, who coexisted in several of the buildings that compose their "house."

The home was returned to Ren's family in 1980.

"We were very lucky," Ren tells Kristi. "Nothing was destroyed."

Ren's wife asked us into her living room. We walk through the beaded doorway and sit on a pristine polished wooden sofa. The floors are polished tiles. You could eat off them. If my grandmother had been Chinese this is how her house would have looked.

Ren tells us stories about his family. His great grandfather was an officer in the Ching (1911-49) Dynasty. His wife shows us pictures from the family album.

We meet Li Tieniu, Song's husband, who was a bodyguard for former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Song takes Kristi's hand and leads us into their house and serves us warm water in tea cups.

Li pulls down a picture of Zhou that hangs above his bed. He also shows us pictures of him in his military uniform.

I never expected a tour this rich. We see only one group of tourists and they are being hustled though the narrow alleyways in fast-charging rickshaws. It makes us feel even more fortunate to have Zhang slowly walking us through.

The afternoon is fleeting and I have a date with Bolt, who has a date with immortality.

The Olympics are calling again. But at least now, thanks to Kristi and Zhang and the gracious families of this ancient neighborhood, I can say, I've seen more Ming than just Yao.

I've seen the real Beijing.

Steve Kelley: @seattletimes.com. Read his blog from China at www.seattletimes.com/Olympics

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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