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.”
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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.