Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe
For several millennia, ordinary people in China were discouraged from venturing beyond the Middle Kingdom, but before the recent New Year’s holiday—the Year of the Rabbit began on February 3rd—local newspapers were dense with international travel ads. It felt as if everyone was getting away, and I decided to join them. When the Chinese travel industry polls the public on its dream destinations, no place ranks higher than Europe. China’s travel agents compete by carving out tours that conform less to Western notions of a grand tour than to the likes and dislikes of their customers. I scanned some deals online: “Big Plazas, Big Windmills, Big Gorges” was a four-day bus tour that emphasized photogenic countryside in the Netherlands and Luxembourg; “Visit the New and Yearn for the Past in Eastern Europe” had a certain Cold War charm, but I wasn’t sure I needed that in February.
I chose the “Classic European,” a popular bus tour that would traverse five countries in ten days. Payment was due up front. Airfare, hotels, meals, insurance, and assorted charges came to the equivalent in yuan of about twenty-two hundred dollars. In addition, every Chinese member of the tour was required to put up a bond amounting to seventy-six hundred dollars—more than two years’ salary for the average worker—to prevent anyone from disappearing before the flight home. I was the thirty-eighth and final member of the group. We would depart the next morning at dawn.
I was told to proceed to Door No. 25 of Terminal 2 at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, where I found a slim forty-three-year-old man in a gray tweed overcoat and rectangular glasses. He had floppy, parted hair, and introduced himself as Li Xingshun, our guide. To identify us in crowds, each of us received a canary-yellow lapel badge bearing a cartoon dragon with smoke curling from its nostrils, striding in hiking boots above our motto: “The Dragon Soars for Ten Thousand Li.” (A li is about a third of a mile.)
We settled into coach on an Air China non-stop flight to Frankfurt, and I opened a Chinese packet of “Outbound Group Advice,” which we’d been urged to read carefully. The specificity of the instructions suggested a history of unpleasant surprises: “Don’t travel with knockoffs of European goods, because customs inspectors will seize them and penalize you.” There was an intense focus on staying safe in Europe. “You will see Gypsies begging beside the road, but do not give them any money. If they crowd around and ask to see your purse, yell for the guide.” Conversing with strangers was discouraged. “If someone asks you to help take a photo of him, watch out: this is a prime opportunity for thieves.” I’d been in and out of Europe over the years, but the instructions put it in a new light, and I was oddly reassured to be travelling with three dozen others and a guide. The notes concluded with a piece of Confucius-style advice that framed our trip as a test of character: “He who can bear hardship should carry on.”
We landed in Frankfurt in heavy fog and gathered in the terminal for the first time as a full group. We ranged in age from six-year-old Lü Keyi to his seventy-year-old grandfather, Liu Gongsheng, a retired mining engineer, who was escorting his wife, Huang Xueqing, in her wheelchair. Just about everyone belonged to the sector of Chinese society—numbering between a hundred and fifty million and two hundred million people—that qualifies as the country’s middle class: a high-school science teacher, an interior decorator, a real-estate executive, a set designer for a television station, a gaggle of students. There was nothing of the countryside about my companions—the rare glimpse of a horse grazing in a French pasture the next day sent everyone scrambling for cameras—and yet they had only begun to be at home in the world. With few exceptions, this was everybody’s first trip out of Asia.
Li introduced me, the lone non-Chinese member of the group, and everyone offered a hearty welcome. Ten-year-old Liu Yifeng, who had a bowl cut and wore a black sweatshirt covered in white stars, smiled up at me and asked, “Do all foreigners have noses that big?”
We boarded a gold-colored coach, which shuddered to life. I took a window seat and was joined by a sturdy eighteen-year-old in a black puffy vest and wire-frame glasses. He had long, dark bangs and a suggestion of whiskers on his upper lip. He introduced himself as Xu Nuo; in Chinese, the name means “promise,” which he liked to use as an English name. Promise was a freshman at Shanghai Normal University, where he studied economics and shared two sets of bunk beds with three roommates. His parents were seated across the aisle. I asked him why his family had chosen to travel rather than visit relatives over the holiday. “That’s the tradition, but Chinese people are getting wealthier,” he said. “Besides, we’re too busy to travel the rest of the year.” We spoke in Chinese, but when he was surprised he’d say, “Oh, my Lady Gaga!,” an English expression he’d picked up at school.
In the front row of the bus, Li stood facing the group with a microphone in hand, a posture he would retain for most of our waking hours in the days ahead. In the life of a Chinese tourist, guides play an especially prominent role—translator, raconteur, and field marshal—and Li projected a calm, seasoned air. He often referred to himself in the third person—Guide Li—and he prided himself on efficiency. “Everyone, our watches should be synchronized,” he said. “It is now 7:16 P.M.” He implored us to be five minutes early for every departure. “We flew all the way here,” he said. “Let’s make the most of it.”
He outlined the plan: we would be spending many hours on the bus, during which he would deliver lectures on history and culture, so as not to waste precious minutes at the sights, when we could be taking photographs. He informed us that French scientists had determined that the optimal length of a tour guide’s lecture is seventy-five minutes. “Before Guide Li was aware of that, the longest speech I ever gave on a bus was four hours,” he added.
Li urged us to soak our feet in hot water before bed, to fight jet lag, and to eat extra fruit, which might balance the European infusion of bread and cheese into our diets. Since it was the New Year’s holiday, there would be many other Chinese visitors, and we must be vigilant not to board the wrong bus at rest stops. He introduced our driver, Petr Pícha, a phlegmatic former trucker and hockey player from the Czech Republic, who waved wearily to us from the well of the driver’s seat. (“For six or seven years, I drove Japanese tourists all the time,” he told me later. “Now it’s all Chinese.”) Li had something else to say about the schedule: “In China, we think of bus drivers as superhumans who can work twenty-four hours straight, no matter how late we want them to drive. But in Europe, unless there’s weather or traffic, they’re only allowed to drive for twelve hours!”
He explained that every driver carries a card that must be inserted into a slot in the dashboard; too many hours and the driver could be punished. “We might think you could just make a fake card or manipulate the records—no big deal,” Li said. “But, if you get caught, the fine starts at eighty-eight hundred euros, and they take away your license! That’s the way Europe is. On the surface, it appears to rely on everyone’s self-discipline, but behind it all there are strict laws.”
We were approaching the hotel—a Best Western in Luxembourg—but first Li briefed us on breakfast. A typical Chinese breakfast consists of a rich bowl of congee (a rice porridge), a deep-fried cruller, and, perhaps, a basket of pork buns. In Europe, he warned, tactfully, “Throughout our trip, breakfast will rarely be more than bread, cold ham, milk, and coffee.” The bus was silent for a moment.