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.

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. Deals like “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.

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.

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