Taiqi lesson and fan making, are they tourist traps?

I saw a client email to my staff another day, requesting a series of changes to the itineraries we proposed. The clients email reads:

  1. There is a scheduled visit to the Temple of Heaven in the morning of the 3rd day, and it says learning Taiqi from a master. Please delete that, we are not interested in activities contrived for tourists
  2. There is a visit to a sturgeon farm in Yichang while I only want to go see the 3 gorges, and have no interest in sturgeons.
  3. Day 16 is a visit to Fuli. Fan making is of limited interest to us. What makes this an interesting place to visit?

As I read along, I knew we found the ideal clients – they are engaged, well traveled, and want to make sure they see the authentic China. Yet, I cringed, knowing very well that if my staff followed the email instruction to delete these activities, the clients will miss out exactly what they were seeking- the real china experience.  So I hopped on the phone.

Clients told me that they were seeking a couple of things: a/ a basic understanding of the history of China, b/contrast of the developed and developing parts of China to understand its diversity, c/ exposure to traditional China that’s unspoiled.

Why would WildChina staff arrange the guests to go to Temple of Heaven early in the morning to learn Taiqi? I remember the days when I lived in Beijing, one of my favorite activities is to go to Ritan Park at 6 am, and simply observe the Beijing residents do their morning exercises. Some would sing at the top of their lungs, some do fan dances, some would throw their bodies against a tree, some do Taiqi. It’s simply the best time to people watch and connect.

I went back to the park again with my 1 year old daughter strapped on my back in a carrier. Those old ladies in the park would walk up to me, grab my daughter’s thigh, and ask me in amazement? “孩子怎么这么胖?喂什么了?就喝你的奶呀?” (How can the baby be so fat? What do you feed her? She just drinks your milk?” I’ll save you the answer here, but the point is, these parks in the morning are the real china, fresh from a full nights sleep, people connect as real people, with little inhabitation or consideration of “cultural differences”.

Now the sturgeon farm near the Three Gorges. I was delighted to know when my staff first added this visit to the itinerary. My distaste for the Yangtze Cruise is well known at WildChina. I even spoke about this at the New York Times Travel Show earlier this year. There are better places to see the Yangtze River, but it’s most interesting to understand the environmental and economic challenges brought about by the dam. Visiting a sturgeon farm, for me, is a time when I get to meet the local entrepreneur to understand how their way of living changed because of the dam. When did they start the business, who do they sell to? How has that changed with the dam? To understand the real China, one has to get to these places that are off travel industry route to find out.

Now onto Fuli village near Guilin. The potential clients have never heard about this village, it’s not in tourist guidebooks, as most tourists on the Li River Cruise would bypass the village. That’s a blessing for the villagers, who still live a very traditional agrarian lifestyle, while hand make Chinese paper fans as a side business. Seeing how the local artisans carefully paint those fans is almost a Zen moment for me.

I remember when I was little, people told me that westerners pay more for hand-made things and less for machine-made things. I couldn’t understand why, because I was eager to trade in the cotton-soled shoes (棉底布鞋) that my grandma made under a dim light for a pair of pink plastic sandals! Now, I am willing to pay whatever to have one more pair of her 布鞋,if she were still around.

Strange how time changes, and how I long for the China I grew up with.

Using iPad in China

I eagerly embraced iPad 3G, hoping to shed the weight of my laptop when traveling to China. Sadly, my conclusion is, iPad doesn’t quite replace my laptop, maybe because I haven’t done enough to unleash its power.

1. High Roaming charges does not justify turning on the 3G data roaming. I alread travel with an iphone, for which I was paying $50/month for 50MB of data roaming, and this was sufficient to address my basic email needs. So I decided not to turn on Data roaming for the ipad. Now, Ipad all come unlocked, so there maybe a cheaper local solution. In China, you can buy a cheap 3G phone card for $30 and have it cut to fit into the ipad.  There are professionals at stores like Guomei Electronics who can help cut the phone card for free.

2. Without data roaming, the wireless function is not as easy to use even in 5 star hotels. I tried a few, and surprisingly, the best place to use my ipad is at Songsam Lodge in Shangrila, Yunnan. From all 25 rooms of the lodge, you can get strong wireless signal. One morning, after my jog at an altitude of 10,000 ft, I came back and pleasantly found out I was able to make a SKYPE call to the US from my ipad!

Then I upgraded to try out the Songtsam Retreat, which is under the Accor Hotels. The rooms are beautifully done, but each room comes with only a cable for Ethernet connection. I quickly moved back downhill to Songsam Lodge for the wireless.

Then I tested a series of Chinese five star hotels in Baoshan and Tengchong. Guanfang Hotels are luxuriously furnished that I couldn’t believe they were located in these remote unknown towns in Yunnan. However, they both came with Ethernet connection, and no wireless. (can’t believe they don’t have a website either).

Hotel G in Beijing is the latest designer boutique hotel. Wireless is offered in every room, but my Ipad could not pick up the signal, and after 20 minutes I gave up.

Regent Hotel in Beijing is one of the hidden secrets of Beijing. Great location, the biggest gym among Beijing hotels, and yet fairly affordable prices. There is wireless in the lobby as well as the executive lounge. But, again, I couldn’t make it work either on my iphone or my ipad. There is one release of liability page the ipad keeps pulling up, but couldn’t bypass it to access the free wireless internet. As I was about to give up, they called in an IT specialist to help me. He inputted the IP address on my ipad, and voila, there it is.

3. Multimedia functions not tested. If anyone’s taking large files of photos and videos, test the capabilities of downloading your stuff onto your Ipad at home. It’s a more universal rather than China specific issue, which I didn’t test.

Overall, I’d say the best part of using an ipad in China is the “WOW” effect of using an ipad in public. Other than that, unless I figure out to fit a local 3G sim card in the ipad, I won’t travel with it again to China.