Insider's guide to China and the Beijing Games

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Amid all those cliched stories about China and Beijing and the Olympics, it is refreshing to see one which is both insightful and funny.

Check out this guy Bob Kravitz at
for his coverage of the Olympics.

Tour reveals more about guide than Beijing

BEIJING I am walking toward the Forbidden City.

No, not Detroit.

"Would you like a tour?" a young man asks me just outside the East Gate.

He is 26 years old. His name is Li Wen. But he insists that I call him "Stone." Seriously, Stone. "Yes, I like Stone," he says, smiling. He tells me he saw it in an American movie. I'm thinking it sounds like a name from a 1970's porn flick. "Very strong name, Stone," he says.

Like so many millions of Chinese, he has come from the countryside, in his case Shandong Province, to seek work in this impossibly big city and send money to his parents. He is working now as a freelance tour guide. Eventually, he wants to own a camera shop.

In the new China, capitalism is what fuels the biggest dreams.

"My family, they are planters," he says. "Rice and corn. Where I come from, that's the real China. Very poor. We are still a developing country."

It's hard to imagine, looking around this sprawling megalopolis, which is basically 11/2 New Yorks. The skyline, on those rare days you can see it through the haze, is endless. Beijing makes Indianapolis look like a one-stoplight town.

The other China, Stone's China, seems like a very distant place that only exists in the imagination. But his is a common story, and it's one I want to hear as I agree to pay way too much (roughly $25) for a personal tour I can get for a quarter of the price on audiotape.

So we go inside, and it strikes me immediately that neither words nor snapshots do the Forbidden City justice. The gardens. The artisanship. The architecture. The grandiose enormity of it, the beauty of it.

Stone shows me around, and asks, "Do you know the last emperor, Puyi?"

Yes, the emperor, Polian. I know him.

"Not Napoleon . . . Puyi?"

It's true, 1.3 billion Chinese don't care about the Indianapolis Colts.

Before Stone concludes I'm a complete moron -- and the turista look, replete with fanny pack and The Masters 2001 hat, gives that distinct impression -- I tell Stone I saw the Bernardo Bertolucci film, "The Last Emperor."

He is impressed. Mildly. Then he goes on to tell me more about Puyi and Imperial China's various dynasties, none of them being the Patriots. I'm nodding my head enthusiastically, which is the international gesture for, "I can only understand one out of every seven words coming out of your mouth."

But he is giving this tour like it's the first tour he's ever given, and his English is a lot better than my Mandarin, and that commands my eternal respect and gratitude.

"Each emperor had 3,000 concubines," he says.

That, I understand.

And they say Wilt Chamberlain got around. Three-thousand concubines, and that was before the age of Viagra. I've heard "it's good to be the king," but being the emperor sounds like a lot more fun.

"You have concubines?" Stone asks me, laughing.

I tell him I'm married and my wife won't let me have a concubine.

At which point, he shoots me the international gesture for, "I can only understand one out of every seven words coming out of your mouth."

Suddenly, it strikes me how ridiculous it is that I'm rushing through the Forbidden City, taking in thousands of years of history in about 90 minutes, so I can cover diving.

Before heading to the Water Cube, though, there must be lunch and, as luck would have it, Stone knows a pretty good Chinese place around here. After three days of Power Bars and yogurt, this is a welcome culinary diversion.

A few items jump off the page: Braised duck tongue. Marinated beef bladder. It could be worse: There's a restaurant nearby that specializes in the most indelicate of all male-specific delicacies. Don't make me spell it out for you, OK?

I settle on the shrimp in mustard sauce with vegetables. Stone says he's not hungry, but he'll get something to drink.

He orders four beers. Seriously.

The good news is, after the second and third one, he opens up. Talks about his life. Talks about what happened in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Talks about how the rich people love the new China, but many of the poor people feel left behind and betrayed by what has happened to Mao's revolution. He's hard to understand sometimes -- we have that in common -- but he's open and passionate and enjoying the interaction as much as I am.

There will be other days and other competitions and other stars, even some who aren't named Michael Phelps. For one day, though, a 26-year-old go-getter who calls himself "Stone" is my Olympic headliner.
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