Tiananmen Square was already alive with pre-Olympic glee when I visited late last year. A colorful garden bloomed with flowering Olympic rings. A topiary of a tennis player in mid-serve drew chattering Chinese visitors.
A jubilant spirit prevails in this huge square — once host to Chairman Mao's giant military displays — and most famously in Western minds, the place in 1989 where protestors were run over by tanks.
Today, the square is parklike, with vendors selling treats. It is crowded by excited Chinese families visiting their capital city for the first time.
Parents outfit children with Chinese flags and take their pictures. Chinese elders totter along, held firmly at the elbow by their adult children, as the whole family cheerily heads for photos by the Great Hall and under a giant photo of Mao.
As I was absorbing this scene last fall, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A smiling young couple, using hand signals, gestured that they'd like to have a photo taken — with me in it.
Fortunately, our guide, "Jason" Wong Zhe, had explained to us the previous day that a photo with a foreigner is a trophy — to be framed and hung in a prominent spot back home.
So I posed, arms around my new Chinese "friends.''
Locals have been prepping in English classes all year in advance of next month's Olympic Games (Aug. 8-24); school children are ahead of the game, shouting, "Hello! How are you?" each time they spot a Westerner.
Our group of 16, traveling with Overseas Adventure Travel, had no occasion to miss children and grandchildren back home — the young Chinese not only appreciate older people, but seem drawn to them.
In English, a question about income
For Americans, it's difficult to understand that the bloody protests of 19 years ago are practically ancient history in Beijing. Today the city bustles with "capitalism with a Chinese flavor," as the locals like to say.
The Chinese are so enamored with their foray into the world of money that the standard conversation, when meeting one another for the first time, immediately progresses to, "How much money do you make?"
Whenever our guide was in the mood to tease, he would sidle up to one of us and say, "Anne, how much money do you make?"
Then he would laugh and add, "Never mind, it is just my culture."
With the past 15 or so years of changes in China, the people often exhibit an optimism that's contagious. Generally, the Chinese people are friendly, funny, open and helpful.
During my three-week visit, our guides in each city told us about their love lives, hilarious stories of their parents' marital battles — and, if we asked, the mainland China guides told us how families suffered during the brutal Cultural Revolution.
But the Chinese won't know what you're talking about if you bring up the issue of lead paint in exported toys, or even point out how polluted the skies are.
"It is haze," came the reply of one of our most well-educated guides in Xian. But brown choking air is not haze — unless you grew up with it, have seen nothing but brown air, and have been told that it was only haze.
Few Chinese have ever left China, so they have never seen a clear sky. Also, visitors need to get perspective by tuning into the English-speaking TV news channel — the propaganda reels right out.
News censorship is still a black mark for the government.
Atop the Great Wall
When touring anywhere in China, you are likely to find yourself trying to get a sense of the people and where the country is heading.
This surely was the case with our tour. Our ages ranged from late 50s to early 80s, so we had seen — from a distance — this massive nation open to Westerners during the Nixon administration. We had seen it make a slow right turn away from communism and into a hybrid of capitalism.
Thus, for those on our tour, historic sights took second fiddle to everyday life. For instance, the sight of 40 men hanging onto a massive sewer pipe as they eased it into a ditch was a remnant of the old ways — Chinese people as machines.
You might recall that image of manual labor when you visit the Great Wall. Luckily, our group was taken to an unreconstructed section, termed the Wild Great Wall of Badaling.
It's just a half-hour's drive from the touristy Badaling Great Wall, 40 miles northwest of Beijing, yet this other section is centuries away in the imagination. The wall was constructed in the 15th century as a barrier against the invading Mongols, who would sail whooping down the hillsides in their horse-mounted attacks.
For my group, it was an effort to climb the steep wooden steps, followed by more huffing up crumbling stone steps with sketchy footholds. But we could gaze at distant ridges and imagine horse-mounted Mongols . . .
The Forbidden City is a Beijing must-see. Home to emperors, it has 9,999 rooms — an auspicious number to the Chinese. Its buildings and courtyards stretch as far as the eye can see, with ornate bridges, red-painted columns and brightly painted cornices under pagoda roofs.
People had been forbidden to enter this dwelling of the emperors for 500 years, hence the name. Times have changed:
As we stood on the steps of the building where the all-powerful emperors sat in judgment over men applying to become scholars, a mother held her baby so that a slit opened in its overalls. Then the child peed upon the steps.
Throughout China, we saw moms doing the same drill. Diapers are not the norm here.
Beijing has no shortage of people, and the crowds are wearying. So is the pollution. Everyone in our group of 16 developed some respiratory complaint by the end of our second week. Olympic organizers and coaches are worried about what the dirty air will do to athletes, especially in the endurance events.
But the food was endlessly delicious. And our Beijing hotel, the Ning Xia, pleased us because of its location on the edge of the Fensiting Hutong. Hutongs are centuries-old alleyway neighborhoods, now rapidly being leveled for apartments and commercial structures.
"Our'' hutong neighborhood gave us a glimpse into Chinese life. I walked out in the morning to watch a man sitting in the alley with his treadle sewing machine, doing repairs. In the afternoon, returning from tours, we picked up delicious cabbage-stuffed buns from a vendor's window. The neighborhood was safe, guarded by red arm-banded volunteer guards.
One morning in Beijing, my husband and I took a cab to the Temple of Heaven — more to see the people than history.
Each morning, the grounds come alive with mostly retirees at play:
People fly kites, skillfully bat little sacks between small rackets, dance while twirling colorful ribboned fabric, move through a fitness course, play board games.
Since my trip, China has suffered a devastating earthquake and drawn international protests over its policies in Tibet.
But the Summer Games will go on next month, and the people of Beijing will host them well.
Anne Chalfant is the retired travel editor of the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times.