Warning to anyone planning a tour of China: Things have changed recently.
Ignore the dated guidebooks that tell you to bring T-shirts, cute postcards of your hometown and ball-point pens to distribute to the natives because tipping is forbidden. Tipping is no longer forbidden. In fact, it is almost required. Bring money.
Ignore the people who did the tour six years ago, as I did, and tell you there is no crime in China. There is now street crime, as there is everywhere else in the civilized world. Watch your wallets.
Ignore any information on prices more than a month old. Prices have doubled on silks, tripled on antiques and plummeted on cloisonne' and porcelain jewelry since 1979. Not only that, but there is a small black market, and with it there is corruption, bribery and a lot of fake Ming Dynasty pots.
In short, the magic hand of capitalism has been let loose in China and is working its usual complex miracle.
Do not misunderstand me. The world's most populous nation remains probably the most absorbing, thought-provoking and beautiful of tourist targets, and any visitor comes away moved and vastly richer for the trip. As a Chinese poster might exhort you, eagerly seize all opportunities to greet these foreign friends!
But for a rubbernecking tourist with no work-related reason to go, the China of early 1979 was a magical, somehow innocent place. We stared at a drably dressed sea of Chinese and they stared at us until a crowd gathered, everybody grinning and laughing. The weeds and dust in fabled palaces and monuments gave us shivers of discoverer's delight; the government "friendship stores" for foreigners were dim, smallish and very unsophisticated shops full of catch-your-breath bargains.
Tourists were so new then that all of us got spectacular service and absolutely wonderful food for the most part; the occasional disasters were adventurous exceptions that proved the rule.
Then the Chinese got to know us.
In retrospect, touring China in 1979 was like being carried around in a glass bubble, seeing and being seen but not touching. We were isolated from any reality of Chinese life by the language barrier and by the newness of a policy that had just begun to allow the Chinese to have contact with foreigners. The government-arranged tour schedule was packed and invincible, a polite but forced march from dawn to 10 p.m. punctuated with regular feedings. We were given the smiling, helpful yet somehow bemused treatment one gives a peevish, erratic old aunt who doesn't deserve her money.
In 1985, touring China is a contact sport. There are many more sites available, better hotels to stay in, more information in English, side trips that aren't in the guidebooks and much more access to the local population. There are independent backpackers now and even Chinese tourists.
But the China International Travel Service (CITS) still controls the average tourist group's itinerary with an iron hand, its attitude less bemused now than bureaucratically determined to extract as much foreign exchange as possible from the herds of visitors -- 1.3 million last year, according to the State Statistical Bureau -- that it moves around the country like so many cattle.
We were a group of 15 ordinary tourists on a routine 24-day tour of seven cities: Shanghai, Xi'an, Peking, Wuhan, a five-day boat trip up the Yangtze (not to be missed), Chongqing, Guilin and Guangzhou. When our plane leaving Shanghai was late, we spent nearly seven hours in the airport because local officials refused to allow an unprogrammed departure from the building.
In Peking, our departing flight was inexplicably moved forward eight hours, even though the group had not yet visited the Forbidden City, the key Peking tourist site. We asked the guide what would happen if we simply did not show up at the airport, and he said, "I will be in very serious trouble." We showed up.
To its credit, however, CITS never lost any luggage and always had buses, guides, hotel rooms and tickets ready for us, even adding a couple of extra site visits at our request. The guides were uniformly cheerful and informed, at least on the programmed sights.
Hardly anybody stares at tourists now in the big cities. Hordes of groups in fleets of buses turned up at each of our stops, to the point where we recognized one another. Several stops a day were at the government "friendship stores," where clerks now are mostly bored, the merchandise is repetitive and the bargains are almost gone.
But the streets are even more jammed and lively than they used to be, full now of the excess farm production -- from live eels and frogs to pigs and persimmons -- that the government decided in 1978 could be sold privately. The income has produced an incredible construction boom from village to skyscraper and a tidal wave of color and style, especially on young people.
Every city street seems to have half a dozen English students eager to practice their fractured pronunciation. Older men and women encountered in this way, asked about their jobs and their hopes, occasionally talked openly of frustration in trying to change their work assignments, move to another city, get further education, raise money to get married.
"I can't marry until I find housing for us," said one 28-year-old man on a Guilin street one evening. How will he go about that? "Perhaps I will grease the palm of the housing committee," he said, and smiled.
Greasing the palm is not new in China, of course, but talking about it with foreigners is. One of our group asked a local guide for help in finding a supply source for the metal windup toys that cost pennies in China but go for $15 to $20 in her U.S. boutique. Sure, he said, and added, "What is my cut?"
"What do you mean? Isn't this communist China?" she asked in amazement.
"Things have changed in the last two years," he replied.
Young people approached us on the street offering to change money, something unheard of a few years ago. Three of our group were hit by pickpockets on very crowded public buses in Xi'an one evening, losing a wallet, a camera and 80 yuan (about $25) in cash. Street hucksters sidled up to offer "very old, Ming dynasty" statuettes, pipes, carvings and jewelry in a secretive manner right out of a vaudeville show.
In short, the Chinese are not and never were selfless, smiling cardboard parrots of the government line, and regular visitors can now see proof of that. The Chinese in turn have gotten used to tourists and are trying to please and squeeze them at the same time.
This all may be a little sad for those who remember another, picture-book China, but that is simply nostalgia for a shattered myth. Today's visitor gets a view of China that is every bit as rewarding as it used to be and far more accessible, because it is more realistic. People encountered with all their warts always leave richer memories than plaster saints.