Did you happen to notice a little item in the news the other day about travel? It said that 14 Chinese tourists had flown into Moscow for a two-week visit. It said that a month earlier a group of Soviet tourists had been in China.
I checked out that earlier visit. I found one reference in a news story from Peking which gave the number of Soviets visiting in China in early October at 20 , which could mean that Moscow is more eager to see what is going on in China than vice versa.
Add that our correspondent in Central Europe, Eric Bourne, reports that the Chinese have been busy renewing and upgrading their relations with Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany.
What interests me most about all this is that the Chinese were actively building up their ties with the ''satellite'' countries for six months before they reached the point of letting the 20 Soviet ''tourists'' come to China, and then sent their own 14 back to Moscow.
Mention of these travel notes has in each case carried the further fact that the recent tourist exchanges between China and the Soviet Union are the first such in ''two decades.''
I have not been able to find the date of the last tourist exchanges between Moscow and Peking, but we do know that the relationship between the two biggest communist countries went sour beginning in 1957 or '58. Moscow crushed independence in Hungary in November 1956. That sent a shock wave through other communist countries in Eastern Europe.
I went to Poland soon after and found Poles wishing they had gone to the aid of Hungary. They were emotionally ready then for what happened recently in the Solidarity movement. Defiance was in the air. Soviet troop movements in the direction of Warsaw were reported.
At the height of the crisis Chou En-lai, then deputy prime minister and foreign minister of China, made an unexpected appearance in Warsaw. In effect, he put a protective Chinese arm around Poland's shoulder. There were no more overt Soviet threats to Poland - at that time.
At the reception for Chou En-lai I met the Austrian ambassador. He was a veteran of the Austrian foreign service from pre-World War I. He knew his European history. He was in a state of suppressed excitement. ''Do you realize, '' he said, ''that this is the first time since Genghis Khan that China has played a role in the affairs of Europe.''
China did nothing to help the Poles during the Solidarity story. Its eyes had been turned to the Pacific and its new relations with the United States. It had not had effective relations with Moscow during those 20 years when tourists did not travel between Moscow and Peking. There was nothing it could do to help Poland.
But this spring China was once more taking an interest in what is going on along the rim of captive states which separates Moscow from Western Europe. And that in turn makes it all the more interesting that those little clumps of tourists have been exchanged between Peking and Moscow.
Moscow's Leonid F. Ilychev, a deputy foreign minister with a special assignment in relations with China, was in Peking in October. He arrived on Oct. 6. He left on Oct. 30. It was the longest and most relaxed in the series of talks he has conducted with the Chinese over the past two years. No substantial change in the position of the two sides was reported. The Chinese still insist on three conditions for a return to full ''normal'' relations with the Soviets. They want:
1. Unconditional withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
2. Withdrawal of all Soviet support from Vietnam's military intervention in Cambodia.
3. Reduction in the Soviet armed forces on the Chinese frontier.
Mr. Ilychev gave no ground on any of these, so far as we know. The Chinese did not abandon any part of their three positions. But when Mr. Ilychev took time out from talks for a scenic trip through the Yangtze River gorges, his opposite number, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, went along as host.
Also, it was agreed that they would meet again in March for another round in their dialogue.
The Chinese play a quiet and subtle diplomatic game.