Top 5 things to avoid when planning a China trip

There are some activities that seem to enter all itineraries going to China, and they can sound so appealing, but they really shouldn’t be for you, if you are reading my blog posts.

1. Cloisonné Factory: The itinerary often says that one can observe the skilled artisan create intricate designs. It’s usually on the way to the Great Wall. It is true? Yes, for about 5% of the time there. More importantly, this is a tourist destination shop that pays the tour guide and driver commissions. Usually, the guide and driver can obtain from 30% to 50% of what you paid in the shop, and this is their salary. The guide and drivers don’t usually get paid a wage for their time, so you can understand the pressure they are under. If you don’t buy, they would have worked for free that day. Imagine the service you’ll get the next day.

2. Jade factory visit: This is often in Xi’an and lots of other places around China too. This is again a commissioned shop. Again, your guides and drivers in Xi’an depend on this shop for their living.

3. Carpet factory visit: There is one famous one in Shanghai. Don’t think I need to repeat myself. That said, there are some workshops run by NGOs in Tibet, and those are real places you can actually see the workers stitching the carpet. Knowing that money there goes to support local schools or NGOs, I would encourage those rather than the ones in Shanghai.

4. Silk factory visit: There is one in Suzhou. To be fair, it was kind of interesting; I personally went there and bought a silk blanket and a mao jacket. But, remember I went there as a travel agent, so I could negotiate without tour guide commissions. I wouldn’t imagine going there as a tourist.

5. Yangtze River Cruise: I personally would not recommend it. It’s really not very interesting and you are just on a boat with tons of other western tourists for 3 days eating buffet good. That was a fine option when china was less accessible before, but nowadays, there are so many wonderful places to visit, fine restaurants to dine in. Particularly, for anyone looking to experience a country, rather than tour a country, the cruise is a hard place to experience China. There are generally no shorter options either. So, if I had 14 days to spend on one China trip, I would not spend 20% of that time on the cruise.

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Mr. tour guide, would you leave me alone please?

My husband and I arrive at Setti Fatma, got out of the car, and were immediately approached by Mohamed, a 20ish year old young man hankering for a job as our tour guide. We planed to hike up the mountain to visit the famous 7 waterfalls in the High Atlas mountains, and thought it might be nice to have a guide along. So we asked him how much he would charge to guide us.

“As you like! No fixed price. If you like my service you pay me, if not, no obligation.” Said Mohamed, sounding like any of the other sneaky offers we got off street corner in Marrakech.

“又来了! (Oh, please, not again!)” My husband and I both complained in Chinese. Yes, this line has been wearing us down throughout our journey in Morocco. We are not big tour joiners, so have decided to take it easy and navigate on our own. But, everywhere we went, be it looking for a restaurant, or a market, there always seemed to be some youth hanging around the street corner, ready to guide you astray and charge you a few dirams for his “service”. We were tired of these guides. It is at moments like this that I wonder, if individual travelers to China are subject to this experience. I don’t know since I am Chinese and speak the language.

“Tell us how much you’d like to charge, otherwise, we wouldn’t consider a guide.” We told Mohamed.

“ok, if you like my service, 100 to 150 DM (roughly US$15-20) per hour from each of you. If you don’t like my service, nothing.”

We took off, he followed us. My husband and I were tired of this type of haggling. We sort of agreed to the deal without talking about it further.

The trail started across the little river and wound upward quickly. There were quaint little restaurants and shops along the way. The shop owners approached us, but Mohamed quickly signaled to them that we were just at the beginning of the hike. So, the shop owners left us alone.

“hmm, there is benefit to having a guide. At least that fends off more business propositions.” We actually started to enjoy a hassle-free walk.

Quickly, we came to a slight traffic jam on the trail. The couple ahead of us were having a hard time climbing one rock face, as there were few places one could rest the foot on or hold onto. Their guide was at the top of the rock face, stretching his arms down as far as he could, trying to help the travelers to climb. But, they couldn’t even reach his hand.

All of a sudden, to my surprise, Mohamed leapt ahead, put one of his knees against the rock face, stretched his arm out to the hikers ahead of us. He explained carefully, that the hiker was to step his left foot on part of the rock, and right foot on his knee, make a move to step on another part of the rock, so on and so on. Magically, the couple got up the rock face after a few attempts. We followed suit quickly, with the help of Mohamed and the other guide on top of the rock working as a team.

All of a sudden, I felt truly grateful for having hired Mohamed as our guide. The wariness of being haggled at the beginning of the hike disappeared completely. We continued on to talk about his family. We learned that he grew up in this village of 40 families, and that he has 3 sisters, 2 of whom are his age and married, and the littlest is school in school. So so and so on. We truly felt like we got to know him, this wonderful person as he was!

He continued to perform as one of the top outdoor guides I’ve worked with. Telling us what the next section of the trail maybe like. Stopping to give me a hand when the slope became too steep or the rock in the creek unsteady. At a later point, he took our backpack, and carried it from there on!

I couldn’t stop wondering if we just got lucky, or there could be a system for wonderful local guides like him to make a decent living without having to go through the initial haggling that completely didn’t show how wonderful a guide he was. In countries like Morocco, travelers are so frequently approached and offered all kinds of services, and at a lot of times, these offers were truly vile. How to sift through all the sand for the gold to shine?

I do not know the answer. We all seem to resort back to the old word of mouth network, or the new like twitter and blog. But, when will those network influence a little village like his or mine back in China? For one thing, I wish I got his cell phone.

Short of that, I do want to recommend the lovely B&B we stayed at: Maison Mnabha It’s owned and run by Peter and Lawrence, two English gentlemen. Extremely friendly and helpful. Great food too. I couldn’t have had such a wonderful time in Morocco if I didn’t find a home at Maison Mnabha.

What’s so Wild about WildChina?

At Pure Life Experience luxury travel tradeshow in Marrakech, Morocco, I met about 60 travel agents and tour operators from around the world. The most asked question was “So, tell me what’s so wild about WildChina?”

Here’s my answer for the record: By naming it “wild”, I want to push the boundary of people’s imagination of China, both in the sense of nature and culture.

China has so much to beyond Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, and even in those familiar sites, there is so much more to explore in depth, that I don’t think current travel industry’s done a fair job at promoting the country’s deeper beauty. I want WildChina to make some contribution in bringing China’s inner beauty to the world.

Typically in the past, when travelers go to China, and there were variations of the standard route: Beijing-Xi’an-Yantze River cruise-Guilin-Shanghai. That’s about it. In these sites, guests get to bused out with crowds of other travelers to visit Badaling Great Wall, stop at commission driven shops, forced to buy those kitsch trinkets, and to eat those bland buffet food. I just don’t want WildChina guests to be subject to that at all!

For me, who has grown up in Yunnan Province in Southwest China, there are lots to be explored in places that are not on the tourist map. In the villages like Shaxi near Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan, you visit the local family, join them for a lovely Bai meal in the courtyard, then watch a casual village concert performed by village elders. That’s the way I used to know Yunnan, and that’s the way I want my guests to experience China. I cannot quite pin point these tiny little villages on the map, and I can’t really tell you which tourists sites featured in the guide books you might visit. All I can say is I can take you to experience the China I grew up knowing. Regardless of where you go, the most important aspect about traveling is getting to know the people there. One of the best compliments I got from some clients was that they really felt like they got to know some Chinese people as everyday individuals with their joys and personalities, not as a collective “Chinese”.

Now back in familiar sites like Beijing and Shanghai. Same thing, I want my guests to experience life the way it is. One of my personal favorite thing to do when living in Beijing is getting up early to go for a jog in Ritan Park, where tons of Beijing ren’r do their morning Taichi, or sing at the top of their voice to exercise their lungs. So, I want my guests to have the same – a morning of Taichi with a master in the park. Obviously, there are a lot one can do, but getting to know the Chinese way of life is a big part of our experience.

Then, there are the nature reserves that people don’t even know about. Why did I take my 8 month old baby to travel to Changqing Nature Reserve last august? I admire the conservation work the Chinese rangers are doing on a daily basis. The director of the nature reserve has a sincere desire to see what is possible to build a sustainable ecotourism practice so that they can spread the word about their conservation work. So, I spend time to get to know them, and spend time to work with the nature reserve staff. In due time, we’ll be able to launch a sustainable eco-walk into the nature reserve, as what we’ve achieved with Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan.

So that’s what I am talking about. WildChina is all about helping our guests to experience China differently.

Top 5 places in China you have to see, even in Winter

Just received a call from Jim from Colorado, a potential traveler of WildChina, and this was what he said: “Hi, some friends recommended you. So, I am calling because I want to go to China in mid December. First time. I don’t know where to start.”

I am sure Jim is not alone, wanting to explore this vast country, but not sure where to start. He has about 14 days, and probably won’t make another trip out to China in the near future. So, I tried to introduce to him the places that he absolutely cannot miss. Here are my picks:

  1. Beijing. You just cannot go to China without going to Beijing, even if it’s winter. It’s the capital, and you have to go there to see the iconic Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The Great Wall is long, but most people only visit the most popular sections of the wall, so at these tourist places, there are maybe 6 million visitors a year. It can get crowded. So, if you want to see the real wall and get to meet some of the villagers who live by the wall, then take a car and driver to go to some of the sections further out of town. Spend a day, walking and really experience the wall.  Then you’ll want a good half day the next day for the forbidden city.  This is where a lot of your impressions of China will become reality. The guide can tell you stories behind the dragon and phoenix, and bring history to live to you. Then, you’ll want to wander around the old part of Beijing. This is like the old town of Marrakesh, where people live along narrow alleyways. Kids still run around the courtyard houses.  3rd day, you can visit the temple of heaven or some markets, before taking a flight to Xi’an.
  2. Xi’an is where the famous terra cotta soldiers are. China’s first emperor Qin Shuihuang had all these terra cotta soldiers built to guard him in after life.  There are thousands of pieces to see, and they really are stunning when you see them in person. Other than that, there are some other activities you might want to experience. Farmers’ painting is famous, also calligraphy. Easily, you can spend 2 days in total here.
  3. Then you will want to take a 2 hour flight to Southwest China to Yunnan Province. To me, this is home, but also it gives the largest contrast to Beijing and Xi’an, so that you really get to see the diversity of Chinese culture. It’s located on the eastern extension of the Himalayas. It’s a combination of high elevation and low latitude, resulting in a very pleasant winter. During winter time the average temperature in Lijiang (one of the major tourist destinations in Yunnan) is in the 50s during the day. So, quite pleasant. Lijiang is a UNESCO world culture heritage site, and is a must visit.
  4. Also in Dali (another town in Yunnan), 5 hours drive north of Lijiang is Shangrila, a Tibetan area. If you don’t have time to do a dedicated trip to Tibet, Shangrila is an absolute must see. It’s higher in elevation, around 10,000feet. So, it is cold, but worth it, since you definitely don’t want to be here in Summer, when millions of Chinese tourists also visit this place.
  5. My favorite stop is Shanghai. The best place to exit China. Particularly, after spending 5 days covering Lijiang and Shangrila, Shanghai is a whole world away. The Bund, the sky scrapers really tell you why all the multinational companies are relocating their headquarters from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

This is my list of top 5 places in China.

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What’s similar between a Chinese a funeral and a wedding

” We sat around the table on stools, lunching on simple foods, stir-fried greens, meats and rice. Nainai had her bowl as well – placed by one of her grandsons at the foot of her coffin. There a wick, in peanut oil, had burned for the past three days.

It is an eerie and poignant feeling to eat with a coffin at one’s back, a last supper with the dead, but it made sense. So much of my Chinese family’s world revolves around the dinner table and Nainai was such a grand cook, what better way to see her from this world to the next than with a meal?”

These were words written by my husband in 2003 documenting the passing of my 84 year old grandma in China. Strangely enough, all memories came back last night, when a close friend of mine lost her mother yesterday at age 99. We did exactly the same thing, we gathered, a small group of friends, each of us brought food. We sat around, ate, and drank some fine French wine, talked about our earliest memories of our own mothers. Frequently, there would be a phone call of condolence that broke the pace, then we all returned to the topic, then we drifted away to talk about Kate Blanchard’s performance at the Kennedy Center and babies. We talked about how miracles happened that on that same day, my 1 year old baby looked at me in the eye, and called me “Mama” for the first time. We simply had a good time.

I wondered if we should feel guilty for having a good time when someone just died? Then I decided, no! It was the right thing to do, to celebrate the passing of a beautiful life one year short of a century. And that is ok with Chinese culture, and that’s alright by me.

I learned when Grandma passed away. There are two most important celebrations in Chinese life – the red celebration and the white celebration. The red one is the wedding and the white one is the funeral for people who lived longer than 80 years. The commonality of the two? – family and friends gathering around lots of good food and good wine! The only difference is in color. A Chinese bride wears all red, and everything is decorated red, as red color will fend off any evil spirits. (I know, I know, all the young Chinese brides today wear white. don’t get me started on the diminishing Chinese cultural traditions!) A white funeral is celebrating the end of long life, a person leaves the world in white, as pure as he or she entered the world.

In the end, both weddings and funerals celebrate the glory of life.

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Top places to visit if you travel to China for Modern Art

Had some Chinese friends over for dinner over the weekend, we were all lamenting the fact that we missed out buying a piece of Zhang Xiaogang’s portrait of a Chinese family. For those of us from the late 60s or 70s, the portraits remind us of the family photo albums we all had. Yes, those straight colored Mao’s jacket on Dad, and those pigtails we used to sport. One has to travel to China, and maybe find villages to go back in time to understand what those pictures meant to us.

Short of that, I can list my favorite places to shop (window shop) for modern art:

Shanghai: Moganshan 50, a trendy art district. Visit Shanghart, Eastlink, Island 6 galleries. Also, MOCA Museum, and Shanghai Art Museum are not to be missed.

Beijing: Dashanzi Contemporary Art District (aka 798). An old factory that was turned into an artists’ colony. Visit Xindong Cheng, Long March, etc.

Also Beijing: Cao Chang Di art district, a newer art gallery area close to 798. Visit Pekin Fine Arts, Urs Meile, Three Shadows, China Archives and Warehouse.

After these visits, you can consider going to Dali in Yunnan Province, to visit those working in private villas by Lake Erhai.

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