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Golden summer for China

BEIJING - Tiananmen Square is hardly a somber place these days. In its pre-Olympic glee, the square has sprouted a colorful topiary garden - there's a leafy Parthenon facade and a green tennis player, arched back to smash the ball across the net. Abloom with flowers and the linked Olympic rings, the garden draws clusters of chattering Chinese visitors. They snap photos of one another - imaginary racket swung back - in imitation of the topiary tennis player.

The Olympic party has already started here despite protests in some cities along the Olympic Torch relay, after China's quashing of riots in Tibet.

The official Chinese Olympic Web site makes no reference to those events. "One World, One Dream" is the theme for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, and in China, that could be read as "Our dream - to be a world player."

People are so eager to host the games that English classes are filled with retirees and students hoping to help the visitors. And once they've acquired any fluency, they don't hold back from trying out the language. It's charming. One morning at breakfast, when I thanked my waiter for a second cup of coffee, he responded: "It is no problem. It is not heavy," giving both of us a chuckle.

But back to Tiananmen Square. A jubilant spirit prevails in this huge square - once host to Chairman Mao Tse-tung's giant military displays, and, most famously in Western minds, the place in 1989 where protesters were mowed down by tanks.

Today, the square is parklike, with vendors selling treats and excited families visiting their capital city for the first time. Parents outfit children with Chinese flags and take their pictures. Tiny, withered-faced elders are held firmly at the elbow by adult children as they totter along, taking in the Great Hall and the giant photo of Chairman Mao that stares down from Tiananmen Gate.

As I absorbed this scene, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A smiling young couple gestured that they'd like to have a photo taken with me. Fortunately, I was prepared for such a request, because my tour group's guide, "Jason" Wong Zhe, had told us: "Help make their dream come true." A photo with a foreigner is a trophy, to be framed and hung in a prominent spot back home, where neighbors will marvel at it. So I posed, arms around my new Chinese friends.

The city bustles with "capitalism with a Chinese flavor," as the locals like to say. Young people are getting jobs, and making money generates excitement. Even grandmas have made a tidy sum of yuan in the robust Chinese stock market.

The Chinese are so enamored of their foray into the world of money that on first meeting, the standard conversation immediately progresses to "How much money do you make?" A popular saying goes, "The money - no funny. No funny - no honey."

With the changes, there's an optimism that's contagious. The people are friendly, funny, open and helpful. And the culture is changing faster than anyone can keep up with.

So yes, there are sites to visit: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Buddhist temples, and the vanishing neighborhood

, or alleys. But the Chinese people's friendliness and candor about their personal lives, plus a surprising sense of humor that jibes well with American humor, are what stay with me. During my three weeks in China, I heard about our guides' love lives, their parents' marriage battles, and a candid telling of what happened to their families during the Cultural Revolution.

Jason - guides take American names - was our group's constant companion during our trip here and to Xi'an, Chengdu, Lhasa, Hong Kong, and the Yangtze River, playing both educator and den mother. We also were guided by an expert in each city, and each of them answered our questions straightforwardly.

That candor, however, did not touch much on the dark side of today's China. Heavy censorship is in place, and very few Chinese are aware of issues. Lead paint in toys, tainted pharmaceuticals, protests in Tibet are barely on the radar screen. You need only watch the English-speaking evening newscasts, mostly a propagandist documentary about such topics as how Communist Party members work in internationally owned factories.

In fact, Chinese are scarcely aware of the noxious pollution they live in.

The smog wasn't too bad when we were in Beijing; we had planned our trip for late October because of lower pollution levels. But it hung in the air and was worse a few days later in the ancient city of Xi'an, where it was like a brown mist. Intelligent, aware Chinese people said, "Oh, no, this is haze. It is always hazy in Xi'an."

Even when we pointed down a long street and noted the brown cloud, the answer was, "That is haze."This was not disinformation - the "haze" has been there as long as anyone can remember, a byproduct of centuries of coal burning. with China's coal-burning home heating and energy production in place for centuries.

Visiting the Great Wall is a highlight. Our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel, takes its groups to a section of the wall, the Wild Great Wall of Badaling, that has not been rebuilt. It's just a half-hour drive from the touristy Badaling section of the wall, yet centuries away in the imagination.

The warm day had turned to churlish, dark clouds and a biting wind providing a backdrop for imagining the history. Built in the 15th century, the wall served as a lookout and rampart to combat marauding Mongol horsemen.

Another attraction, the Summer Palace, was the playground of Empress Dowager Cixi. There's a pretty lake and a large park, but the Summer Palace draws huge crowds, which means you'll be jostled at every turn.

The Forbidden City is a must-see. It once housed Ming and Qing emperors, and visiting it is less elbow-to-elbow because of its immensity. It has 999,999 rooms - an auspicious number to the Chinese - and its buildings and courtyards stretch as far as the eye can see, with ornate bridges, red columns, and brightly painted cornices under pagoda roofs. People were forbidden to enter this dwelling of the emperors for 500 years, hence the name.

How times have changed. As we stood on the steps of the building where the emperor determined whether a man could become a scholar, we watched a mother hold her baby while he urinated on the steps.

Many visitors express dismay over the loss of

- Chinese alleyway neighborhoods that have been leveled to make way for apartments and businesses. We were lucky - our Ning Xia Hotel sat on the edge of the Fensiting Hutong.

I walked out in the morning to watch a man sitting on the sidewalk with his treadle sewing machine, taking in repair work. In the afternoon, returning from tours, we picked up delicious cabbage-stuffed buns from a stall on the alley.

All the restaurants and shops were Chinese. The neighborhood was quite safe, watched over by volunteer guards wearing red armbands.

It was a fun ordering dinner from a menu printed in Chinese. My husband and I puzzled over it until a young woman noticed our confusion and came over to help. Her English was good enough to get us by, which is what we found throughout the country. Many Chinese speak a few words of English, and those who do try to help.

And there's always a feeling that you are welcomed.

One morning, we took a cab to the Temple of Heaven for the morning scene in the parklike setting. Hundreds of mostly middle-aged Chinese were cavorting like children - flying kites, playing racket games with little sacks, or dancing and swirling with colorful ribbons of fabric. One group practiced ballroom dancing to a tinny sound system.

It was a festive atmosphere, and no one minded that we took photos - some gestured for us to join them. They didn't need the Summer Games to embody the Olympic spirit.