BEIJING, April 7 -- For 60 years, home has been a vague concept to Lei Guodian, a 90-year-old war veteran who has slept rough and begged for income in cities across China after an unfortunate chain of events.
On Saturday, thanks to a charity initiative inspired by a Xinhua feature, his dream of returning to his hometown finally came true. His story has been a long and sad one, but with a result to warm hearts as China comes to the end of its Tomb-sweeping Day holiday, an occasion for honoring ancestors.
Lei was born in the early 1920s in a small village in Luohe City of central China's Henan Province. After his parents died, he turned to his elder sister in Henan's Nanyang City, where he joined an independent regiment of the communist army.
The teenager wound up fighting in provinces in southern China in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), and then the War of Liberation (1945-1949).
After the wars, he made a living as a manual laborer. Yet his wife's death in 1954 inspired Lei to leave home and begin work in a number of northern cities. One day, while working in Jilin, he was crippled in a work accident and kicked out by his boss.
Drifting from city to city, he lost not only contact with his family but also all his identity documents, so that nowhere would give him asylum.
In 2009, the handicapped veteran arrived in Beijing. In the daytime, leaning on a crutch, he begged around Beijing West Railway Station. His daily income varied between 30 yuan (4.8 U.S. dollars) and three yuan.
When night fell, Lei initially slept in a nearby underpass nearby before later finding himself a shelter in a wooden shack of less than 3 square meters, which cost him 200 yuan (32 U.S. dollars) a month.
It had no water, electricity or toilet. It was so cold on windy nights that he couldn't fall asleep, and the roof leaked whenever it rained.
Lei's fate was changed thanks to a feature story about the homeless in Beijing West Railway Station released by Xinhua News Agency on Sept. 23 last year. The article drew the attention of many readers, among them Sun Chunlong, chairman of the Longyue Charity Foundation -- a charitable organization for Chinese veterans.
Founded in 2011, Longyue works to bail veterans out of poverty, to bring them home and call for respect for these "national heroes." Sadly, many of them are stranded far from home and suffer from disability due to the war. Some were even wrongly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Due to reliable evidence lost during and after the war, it often takes years before they are officially identified by the government and can receive social relief. "But time is ticking out. Last year, 89 veterans we knew passed away," said Li Na of Longyue Charity Foundation.
By the end of 2013, the foundation had raised a fund of 2 million yuan (321,800 U.S. dollars), covering over 1,500 veterans.
After a week's investigation to verify the identity of Lei Guodian, Longyue decided to sponsor his journey home.
After months of work, the police of Lei Guodian's home county of Linying, working with volunteers and Longyue, nailed down Lei's permanent residency status, a nursing home to take him in, train tickets and arrangements for his journey home.
On Thursday afternoon, Lei begged near Beijing West Railway Station one last time. It was a windy day. Lei couldn't keep his eyes open for dust swirling in the air. A young man walked by, squatted down and put some money into the empty bowl.
"Good luck!" said the young man, putting a stone on the money for fear it would be blown away.
"There are always kind people," said Lei. It's his favorite line.
Lei bid goodbye to his "neighbors" -- mostly street peddlers and beggars like him -- on Friday, the day before leaving.
Zhou Dequan, a young man who volunteered to accompany Lei on his journey home, helped him pack up in the afternoon. Volunteers bought Lei a suitcase and two backpacks, but Zhou found the old man's belongings in the shack to be too few to fill them.
Dressed new clothes brought to him by volunteers, Lei walked into Beijing West Railway Station on his crutches on Saturday afternoon. After all these years wandering around the station, this time, rather than being a beggar, he was a real passenger, with a ticket home in his pocket.
As the high-speed train started at 3:37 p.m., Lei looked out of the window, waved farewell to the volunteers seeing him off on the platform, and bid adieu to the capital city he had dwelled in but never belonged to.
During his home-bound journey, Lei kept looking around in curiosity, for it was the fist time he had traveled on a high-speed train.
"Nervous? No, I'm getting home. Why should I be nervous?" said the old man, who hadn't set foot in his hometown for over half a century.
"I don't quite remember what it was like," he added with a sigh.
But when the train arrived at its terminal station of Luohe four hours later, Lei, supported by Zhou, got off as fast as he could manage.
Holding a banner that read "Welcome Home," local volunteers had been waiting at the exit for a while. As Lei arrived, a little boy presented the celebrity-for-a-day with another banner that read "Salute to a veteran." Learning what the hubbub was about, other passengers stopped to applaud.
"Thank you! Thank you!" cried Lei, making a military salute, his eyes glistening with tears.
Volunteers then helped him move into a public nursing home in Taichen Town, about 10 km from the village where Lei was born. He was to share a double room of 20 square meters and a television with his roommate. In the room, he owns a cabinet, a chair and a bed with brand new sheets, pillows and a quilt.
"The bed is bigger than the shack I used to live in," said Lei.
Local police registered the nursing home as a permanent residence for the ID-less veteran, who hadn't been registered throughout his drifting decades, so that he could re-submit an ID card, and apply for the basic living allowance from the government.
"I haven't seen the booklet for so many years," said Lei, his hands trembling, upon being handed the new household register by a policeman.
Next, Lei went to a barbershop to have his beard of 10 cm shaven off. "I wore a beard because I wanted to look older and beg for more money. Now in the nursing home nobody wears one, and I want to be like them," he explained.
"I'm lucky enough to be able to get home," he said. "But what about the others like me?"
"There are also many other veterans like old Lei," confirmed Zhou Dequan, who was glad to see his volunteer task done but sad to find another 90-year-old impoverished veteran just after leaving him. (Liu Shilei, Ding Yun and Ma Yichong contributed to this story)