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Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe _ the New Yorker

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4/16/2011 Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe : The… DEPT. O F TRA V EL TH E GRA ND TO UR Europe on fifteen hundred yuan a day. ax Eu ` m O r mn r APRIL 18, 2011 In general, one should steer clear of the local food, the Chinese tour guide advised his charges. Photographs by Seamus Murphy. or 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 newspape
  F DEPT. OF TRAVEL THE GRAND TOUR  Europe on fifteen hundred yuan a day. ax Eu`m Ormnr   APRIL 18, 2011 In general, one should steer clear of the local food, the Chinese tour guide advised his charges. Photographs by SeamusMurphy. or several millennia, ordinary people in China werediscouraged from venturing beyond the Middle Kingdom, but before the recent New Year’sholiday—the Year of the Rabbit began on February 3rd—local newspapers were dense withinternational travel ads. It felt as if everyone was getting away, and I decided to join them. When theChinese travel industry polls the public on its dream destinations, no place ranks higher thanEurope. 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: “BigPlazas, Big Windmills, Big Gorges” was a four-day bus tour that emphasized photogeniccountryside in the Netherlands and Luxembourg; “Visit the New and Yearn for the Past in EasternEurope” 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 theequivalent in yuan of about twenty-two hundred dollars. In addition, every Chinese member of thetour 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 wasthe 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 4/16/2011Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe : The……/110418fa_fact_osnos?…1/15  W 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 fromits 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 theinstructions suggested a history of unpleasant surprises: “Don’t travel with knockoffs of Europeangoods, because customs inspectors will seize them and penalize you.” There was an intense focuson staying safe in Europe. “You will see Gypsies begging beside the road, but do not give them anymoney. If they crowd around and ask to see your purse, yell for the guide.” Conversing withstrangers 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 putit in a new light, and I was oddly reassured to be travelling with three dozen others and a guide. Thenotes 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.”e landed in Frankfurt in heavy fog and gathered in the terminal for the first time as a fullgroup. We ranged in age from six-year-old Lü Keyi to his seventy-year-old grandfather, LiuGongsheng, 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 ahundred and fifty million and two hundred million people—that qualifies as the country’s middleclass: 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 mycompanions—the rare glimpse of a horse grazing in a French pasture the next day sent everyonescrambling for cameras—and yet they had only begun to be at home in the world. With fewexceptions, this was everybody’s first trip out of Asia.Li introduced me, the lone non-Chinese member of the group, and everyone offered a heartywelcome. Ten-year-old Liu Yifeng, who had a bowl cut and wore a black sweatshirt covered in whitestars, 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 bangsand a suggestion of whiskers on his upper lip. He introduced himself as Xu Nuo; in Chinese, thename means “promise,” which he liked to use as an English name. Promise was a freshman atShanghai Normal University, where he studied economics and shared two sets of bunk beds withthree roommates. His parents were seated across the aisle. I asked him why his family had chosento travel rather than visit relatives over the holiday. “That’s the tradition, but Chinese people aregetting wealthier,” he said. “Besides, we’re too busy to travel the rest of the year.” We spoke in 4/16/2011Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe : The……/110418fa_fact_osnos?…2/15  W 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 hewould 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 acalm, seasoned air. He often referred to himself in the third person—Guide Li—and he pridedhimself 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,” hesaid. “Let’s make the most of it.”He outlined the plan: we would be spending many hours on the bus, during which he woulddeliver lectures on history and culture, so as not to waste precious minutes at the sights, when wecould be taking photographs. He informed us that French scientists had determined that the optimallength of a tour guide’s lecture is seventy-five minutes. “Before Guide Li was aware of that, thelongest 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, whichmight balance the European infusion of bread and cheese into our diets. Since it was the New Year’sholiday, 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 superhumanswho 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 cardor 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, itappears 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 amoment.e never saw Luxembourg in the daylight. We were out of the Best Western by dawn and weresoon back on the Autobahn. Li asked us to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind, becausesome of his older travellers used to have a habit of hiding cash in the toilet tank or the ventilation 4/16/2011Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe : The……/110418fa_fact_osnos?…3/15  U ducts. “The worst case I’ve had was a guest who sewed money into the hem of the curtains,” he said.We headed for our first stop: the modest German city of Trier. Though it’s not quite a householdname for most first-time visitors to Europe, Trier has been unusually popular with Chinese touristsever since Communist Party delegations began arriving, decades ago, to see the birthplace of KarlMarx. My Chinese guidebook, written by a retired diplomat, said it once was described as theMecca of the Chinese people.We got off the bus onto a tidy side street lined with peaked-roofed, pastel-colored buildings.The cobblestones were silvery with rain, and Li donned a forest-green felt outback hat and pointedus ahead as he started at a brisk walk. We reached No. 10 Brückenstrasse, a handsome three-storywhite house with green shutters. “This is where Marx lived. Now it’s a museum,” Li said. We triedthe door, but it was locked. Things were slow in the winter, and the museum wouldn’t be open for another hour and a half, so we’d be experiencing Marx’s house only from the outside. (“The sooner we finish here, the sooner we get to Paris,” Li had said.) Beside the front door was a plaque withMarx’s leonine head in profile. The building next door was a fast-food restaurant called Dolce Vita.Li urged us to stay as long as we wanted, but he also suggested a stop at the supermarket on thecorner to buy fruit for the ride ahead. We milled around awkwardly in front of Marx’s house,snapping photographs and dodging cars, until one of the kids pleaded, “I want to go to thesupermarket,” and tugged his mother toward the bright storefront. I stood beside Wang Zhenyu, atall man in his fifties, and we looked up at Marx’s head. “Not many people in America know abouthim, right?” Wang asked.“More than you might think,” I said, and added that I’d expected to see more Chinese visitors.Wang laughed. “Young people no longer know anything about all that,” he said. Wang was thin andangular, with the bearing of a self-made man. He had grown up in the eastern commercial city of Wuxi and had been assigned the job of carpenter, until economic reforms took hold and he wentinto business for himself. He now ran a small clothing factory that specialized in the production of wash-and-wear men’s trousers. He didn’t speak English, but he’d wanted a catchy, internationalname for his company, so he’d called it Ge-rui-te, a made-up word formed by the Chinesecharacters that he thought sounded most like the English word “great.”Wang was an enthusiastic tourist. “I used to be so busy that now I want to travel,” he said. “Ialways had to buy land, build factories, fix up my house. But now my daughter’s grown and working.I only need to save up for the dowry, which is manageable.” I asked why he and his wife had chosenEurope. “Our thinking is, Go to the farthest places first, while we still have the energy,” he said.Wang and I were among the last to arrive at the supermarket. Our group had stayed at the ChineseMecca for eleven minutes.ntil recently, Chinese people had abundant reasons not to roam for pleasure. Travelling inancient China was arduous. As a proverb put it, “You can be comfortable at home for a 4/16/2011Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe : The……/110418fa_fact_osnos?…4/15
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