Liu Hong, 28, is on her third attempt in front of the video camera. This time her appearance is a success, and she is practically euphoric as she records her little introduction: "Today, finally, our great journey through beautiful Europe begins," she says, pressing her right hand to her heart. "Eleven countries in 14 days." The way she says it, it sounds more like a promise than a threat.
The 30 other Chinese in her group are standing around taking pictures and videotaping. Like Liu, they all wear yellow stickers that identify them as part of the "Flying Dragon on a 10,000-mile Journey." They are so trigger-happy with their cameras that one would think that they had already reached their goal, the Far West. In fact, they are still waiting for their flight at Beijing Airport.
The hectic marathon tour that will take them across Europe -- from Frankfurt to Rome, then Amsterdam and, finally, Paris -- hasn't even begun yet. It will be another day and a half before the group touches down at Frankfurt Airport on their Sri Lankan Airlines flight. Flying via Bangkok and Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, is cheaper than a direct flight -- which would cost as much as the entire trip. The Chinese are paying about €1,000 apiece, which includes transportation, overnight stays in double rooms and meals.
It takes an ordinary Chinese factory worker about a year to earn €1,000. Even for Liu Hong, a successful TV presenter, it's a lot of money. She is traveling alone to keep expenses down, leaving her husband and two-year-old son at home.
Not for Fun
But this European road trip is not for fun and games, not even a vacation. In fact, it's more of an educational tour -- practically a research trip or expedition. Liu Hong and her group represent the vanguard of a nascent Chinese tourism business.
Their goal is to absorb as much as possible, as quickly as possible, about these peculiar Europeans. There is one thing, above all, that the members of Operation "Flying Dragon" want to take home from their journey -- the ability to enjoy life. They've already mastered the art of making money, but spending it is a different talent altogether.
The group encounters Germans -- tanned from their vacations on Sri Lanka -- on the flight from Colombo to Frankfurt. The global village is already a reality in economy class, where all package tourists are the same, a fact some Europeans aren't quite ready to accept.
"A Chinese group? I'd rather sit next to a bunch of kids!" says one irate German annoyed by the chattering Chinese on his flight. This is about as close as these Chinese tourists will come to their research subjects. Close, face-to-face contact with other people is risky, demanding and time-consuming.
The group already begins isolating itself from its German surroundings on the bus ride to a hotel near Frankfurt Airport. The next morning, a Sunday, official Zu Fazheng, 58, gets up at 6 a.m. to explore his surroundings with his SLR camera. But aside from a few houses with closed shutters, he finds little worth photographing.
Photographic documentation is almost as important on this expedition as collecting brand-name consumer products, the group's show-and-tell exhibits for the folks back home. When their flight lands early in the morning at Frankfurt Airport, the Chinese quickly converge on the one souvenir shop open at this early hour. They are interested in anything people at home see as quality German craftsmanship, especially knives and scissors from Solingen.
Party official Zu acquires a potato peeler. Within an hour, the group has checked Frankfurt off its to-do list. Travel guide Luo Zonghao, 48, urges his charges to pack up and move on. "Lai, Lai" -- "Let's go" -- he tells them.
Every minute counts. At noon they make a short stop in Stuttgart, the home of Daimler and Bosch, as Luo explains. This group is less interested in the country's regions than in its brand names.
German companies have been generous in helping China industrialize. Everyone on the bus is grateful, of course. They like the Germans for this reason, unlike the Americans, who are constantly applying trade pressure, as 50-year-old Cheng Xisheng, a financial official, says complainingly. Meanwhile the group's bus races to the next stop, Innsbruck.
'Italians Are Lazy'
In Innsbruck, there's just enough time for a group photo in front of the city's prime attraction, the "Goldenes Dachl" (Golden Roof) before the Chinese head up into the Alps. They'll be spending their first night at 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) above sea level, in a ski hotel run by the Holub family, who are already looking forward to greeting their exotic guests. Ski resorts are increasingly seeing Chinese tour groups head up their mountains, providing welcome income in the off-season.
"They're nice people," says Inge Holub. In fact, the habits of the Chinese make them especially welcome to hoteliers. They check out early in the morning and sprint through breakfast, unlike the 80 Indians currently staying at the hotel -- as evidenced by the frequency with which Holub tells them, in his best attempt at English, "Zett iss not korrekt."
Faster than the Indians
It attests to the globalization of the tourism business that the Chinese run into the Indians again later in the afternoon -- on St. Mark's Square in Venice. Of course, the go-ahead Chinese got there first. By the time the Indians arrived, the Chinese tourists had already toured the watery city by gondola, eaten a meal and taken snapshots of everything worth photographing.
The next day takes the Chinese to Florence and then to Rome, where the group, as always, spends the night in a hotel outside the city. Outlying hotels are cheaper, and by staying there, tour director Luo reduces the risk of a member of his group sneaking away at night and staying in the country as an illegal immigrant.
Luo's worries are not unfounded. Indeed, many Chinese tourists decided to stay behind in Italy last year. As a precaution against such defections, the Chinese are required to pay the tour company a €6,000 security deposit before starting their journey, which they are refunded upon their return to China. At the end of the trip, many are even required to appear in person at the Italian embassy in Beijing to prove that they have in fact returned to China.
The tourists in Luo's group are all too affluent to be interested in defecting. Nevertheless, everyone on the bus quickly realizes why poorer Chinese could see the country as a place where they stand a realistic chance of giving the locals a run for their money and earning hard currency.
All the same, they quickly check Italy off their mental travel itinerary, turned off by the unpleasant stench rising from Venice's canals and the garbage piled up along the streets in Rome. They have come armed with prejudices and quickly feel vindicated. "Italians are lazy," says administrative official Zhang Jingfen sternly.
It isn't as if there are no foul odors or unsightly garbage in China, but these things are evidence of the poverty the People's Republic is seeking to leave behind. Besides, no one in China would think of throwing out tires and plastic bottles the way the Italians do. "We would collect and recycle these things," says tour director Luo, and the bus laughs.
Just Like Home
Soon the bus has arrived at St. Peter's Cathedral, where the members of this expedition feel pretty much at home -- because to visit the church they are forced to behave in much the same way they would at home when visiting Chairman Mao's mausoleum in Beijing. But the pushy Italians aren't nearly as well mannered and respectful. As if to symbolize their growing ability to throw their weight around in the world economy, the Chinese jostle with the best of them.
In St. Peter's Cathedral, Zhang Jingfen, the administrative official, is mainly interested in finding a good spot where she can pose for a photo. She finds it in front of the steps to St. Peter's grave, where she pushes aside two female American tourists, class enemies to boot, and poses in her pink tracksuit. She raises her hand triumphantly -- Zhang Jingfen, victorious in the struggle against the church and capitalism.
Their collective assault on the bastion of Catholicism has left the tourists from the world's biggest communist country exhausted. Back on the bus, the members of the tour group promptly sink into a half-hour nap -- a rare treat. Time is valuable and those who spend it sleeping are likely to miss out on something.
To make up for lost time, the group quickly heads for Pisa to photograph its famous leaning tower, which -- lucky for the Chinese -- is floodlit. It isn't until 1 a.m. that they arrive at their hotel in Bologna for a few hours sleep, before moving on to the tiny Alpine principality of Liechtenstein.
Rolf, the Belgian bus driver, is the only reason the Chinese even make the occasional pit stop on their marathon tour of the Old World. They are dumbfounded by the fact that he is required by law to take breaks, and that the 63-year-old Belgian makes five times as much as the highest-ranking financial official in their group. For his part Rafu -- the Chinese take on Rolf -- can hardly believe his eyes when he sees how readily his passengers from the Far East spend their money.
A Broken Dream
In Lucerne, they don't have any time to see the famous Chapel Bridge -- but they do have time for shopping. Liu buys a diamond-studded Omega watch for €3,700. Another passenger does one better, spending €5,000 on a "Laolishi" -- a Rolex. A perfect copy would cost her €30 in China. But the Chinese are intend on showing off their new wealth, so the Rolex has to be authentic, preferably with a gold armband.
This is globalization with an ironic twist. After fueling their rise to wealth and power with counterfeit versions of Western merchandise, the Chinese are now spending the profits on the originals.
Every famous brand-name luxury item catches the eye of these Asian students of capitalism: leather Gucci bags, Belgian chocolates, Chanel perfume. Shopping sprees in luxury boutiques are the high point of the trip in almost every city along the way. In Paris they even go shopping in a department store that belongs to a fellow Chinese -- Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing.
There is one main reason why the tourists have so much money for shopping: They spend almost nothing on anything else. The group breaks the journey at rest stops to use the toilets and stock up on free hot water. They all have their own thermos bottles with them; the tea leaves to go with the water have been brought from China.
Government official Li Xiwen, 58, would even prefer to boil up his own instant noodles at rest stops, but tour director Luo forbids it. "What will the foreigners think of the Chinese if we sit on the corner and slurp our noodles? We will lose face!"
Broadening the Mind
Luo, originally from Taiwan, has been living on the Chinese mainland for the past five years. He studied tourism in school, but most of the time he comes across like a teacher on a class trip. Like other Taiwanese who are helping modernize China with their expertise, Luo believes it is his mission to educate. His goal, on this trip, is to familiarize his clients with Western manners and behavioral rules.
This is a delicate task that requires tact and sensitivity on his part. It isn't until the bus reaches Switzerland, just as the Chinese are admiring the pristine Alpine scenery, that Luo takes the opportunity to deliver his lecture.
The Swiss are a few steps ahead of the Chinese when it comes to cleanliness, he says. For example, the Swiss have a hard time understanding the Chinese habit of constantly blowing their noses loudly. "They ask me if everyone in my group is chronically ill," says Luo. His pupils take the hint.
They behave until they reach Paris, eager to benefit from the learning experience they've come to Europe to get. They diligently take notes when Luo discusses the history and day-to-day lives of Europeans, knowing that they'll use the information to shape their own futures.
"We've spent the last 20 years worrying about filling our stomachs," says Li Jiangang, a 38-year-old engineer who manages a hydroelectric power plant in Ganzu Province. "But now we can think about how to improve our quality of life."
This is one of the reasons the Chinese are doing their utmost to absorb every aspect of European progress they see flashing by the tinted windows of their bus. The People's Republic, they reason, can certainly learn a lot from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where they witness an astonishingly green and well-tended environment. Everyone on the bus agrees, although the people living in these countries make a somewhat lethargic impression on the Chinese.
And what about Amsterdam, which seems almost overrun with dark-skinned immigrants and where half-naked prostitutes advertise their charms behind red-lit windows? The Dutch metropolis definitely has too much "luan" -- chaos -- for the Chinese, and they're happy to leave the city in the evening and head to Belgium and on to their last stop, Paris. But the French capital turns out to be the biggest disappointment of Operation Far West.
When she was a young girl, Liu learned to admire the French as a people worth emulating, because of their polish and elegance. But now, as she stands on the Champs-Élysées with her video camera, she sees them as nothing but ordinary, jostling city dwellers, many of them out of shape and poorly dressed. Bits of paper and plastic bags float around on the street. "My dream has been destroyed," she says.
For these Chinese, France has clearly seen better days. According to Liu there is little left to learn here, at least for young people. She is eager to return to the place that she thinks has a bright future -- China. Operation Flying Dragon has been a success.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan