If this is your first and only time to China, where should you go?

A twitter post responding to WildChina’s message prompted this blog piece. @Chinaandbeyond said:

I would trade Yunnan for Gansu or Sichuan, personally RT @WildChina: First and only time to China? This is The Trip: Chinese Treasures

Let me decipher this for those who don’t tweet: WildChina recommended a trip that goes to Beijing, Xi’an, Yunnan and Shanghai for those who are traveling to China for the First and only time. That link is a condensed link that goes to our website with the trip details.

Then @Chinaandbeyond account’s owner Ms. Jessica Marsden shared WildChina’s recommendation to her followers. And she also added her own commentary that she would trade Gansu or Sichuan for Yunnan.

What can I say? I am biased! I am from Yunnan, with a virtual identity called @yunnangirl! Everytime when a client calls me, I talk about Yunnan. That’s home to me. I can smell Yunnan if farmers burn the remaining rice stocks in their fields; I can hear Yunnan, even when I overhear visitors at the Smithsonian speak the local dialet; I can taste Yunnan, when I cut up mustard greens to make a jar of Yunnan Suancai pickles. It is in my blood.

And, I happen to be a lucky Wendy Perrin China Specialist, so I get to advise people who are interested in seeing China. Naturally, carrying the tradition of Yunnan hospitality, I want people to visit my home town, visit those villages where I grew up, and taste the spicy and sour cuisine, hike the mountains that I still dream about. More importantly, I want them to meet people of Yunnan.

How would I describe people of Yunnan? 纯朴,勤劳,善良。I am struggling with English equivalents here.  Down to earth – hard working – and kind. The word has a 纯朴 connotation of being on the simple side in Chinese. But, I don’t take offense at that.

People in Yunnan grow up land locked. Generations of locals from various ethnicity carve out their living in small patches of land in between mountains and rivers.  So, either they farm, bent over their knees in the watery rice paddy fields, or they tilt the corn and potato fields on the steep mountains sides. Life in Yunnan has always been hard. The only wealth accumulated there is from trading, with Tibet, with Myanmar, Laos, and Viet Nam. This goes back hundreds of year, and the horse caravan trails lay witness to that.

For some reason though, in places so poor, the locals learned to cook these incrediblely tasty meals. Since the province is tucked between Sichuan to the North, and Laos/Thailand to the South, its cuisine is a lovely blend of those two. Spicy, but not numbing; Sour but won’t quite make your mouth pucker. Fresh vegetable and wild mushroom are god-sent blessing.

Hospitality is another side of Yunnanese that I love. Just recently, I traveled to a small town in Henan Province as a guest of the local government. Upon checking in, the hotel staff said that my ID wasn’t enough but insisted on me identifying the organization that invited me. I didn’t get the full name right, and she wouldn’t check me in. This was 2010?? The concept of party/government affiliation trumping personal identity is still in practice in northern China.

While in Yunnan, they hear my dialect, they’ll watch my luggage for me while I go out to pay the taxi; they’ll fish out my luggage from the behind the conveyer belt so that I could put my tea needle in the checked luggage pieces. I talked about this in my earlier blog.

The local villagers in Yunnan still greet you with this, “ 吃了吗?来家里坐!“ “Have you eaten yet? Come visit my house!”

I know, sadly, Lijiang is changing. See our WildChina blog piece on this. That’s all the more reason to visit the hidden treasures of China before they disappear.

Travels that changed one’s life

I was munching on my chicken salad sandwich when my colleague popped into my office, “ Oh, sorry. Here you go. Conde Nast Traveler Magazine issue you’ve been waiting for!”.

I probably didn’t look my best in my small office in an old house on East West Highway.  At least, the munching image didn’t quite live up to the dream brought alive on the cover of the magazine:

“135 Travel Experts who can change your life (Trust Us!)

“FANTASTIC GETAWAYS! Living the Dream in Italy, India, Kenya, Eypt….”

I wiped away the crumbs, and turned the magazine to page 120.  Yes, there I was, for the first time, chosen by Conde Nast’s Wendy Perrin as one of the travel experts for China.

“Zhang wants to show you the “authentic China” beyond anything you’ll read about in guidebooks, and—as a Yunnan Province native, Harvard MBA, and former consultant for The Nature Conservancy—her vast Rolodex of in-country experts in nearly every field can make this happen…and get you farther off the beaten path than any other company can. Her cultural connections run deepest in Southwest China—Yunnan, Szechuan, and Guizhou provinces—where you might find yourself having tea with a practicing shaman, catching a private Naxi music concert at the home of the village head, or camping in luxury mobile tents on the Tibetan Plateau ”

This news reached me last week by email. So, the initial excitement has since settled, but never the less, the pride brought by this listing is still ringing.

It was exactly, almost to the date, 10 years ago that I started WildChina. At that time, I was a couple years out of business school, still owning a couple of black suits that I wore to glassy office buildings in Hong Kong, New York and Beijing. Still was quite used to flying business class.

Somehow, Travel changed my life. I took some time off McKinsey to travel around the world. Puff, 4 months was gone without a blink. I was sitting in the cabin of an oil tanker truck (only choice for a hitchhiker), rocking my way up to the Tibetan Plateau from Kashgar. We rocked and rocked, I fell asleep and woke up. Wow, a whole night was gone. The snow-covered landscape replaced the desert where we started. But the milestones said, 125 km!! A whole night, we covered 80 miles in distanced, but close to 15,000 feet in elevation.

My heart started to beat faster, breathing became more labored, the landscape increasingly looking austere and moonish. The Tibetan antelopes galloped in the distance. I started to cry, for no reason. One was just touched by being so close to pristine nature. I knew there were risks, for me, being the solo woman traveler on that route. But I knew I was one of the lucky few, who had the money, the time, and the right passport (Chinese) to travel to these remote corners of Tibet.

Sometimes, I, woke from sleep in that rocking truck, stared out the window, and asked myself, “What if the truck tumbled over the edge? Is there one thing I would regret for not doing?”

The answer came back loud and clear, “Building my own business”.  That was the beginning of WildChina.

Travel, somehow, has had magic powers over me. I met my husband hiking the sacred pilgrimage trail around Mt. Kawagebo in Yunnan, I took my wedding party to hike from Salween River to the Mekong.

Then travel helped to change other people’s lives.  Recently, two clients got married on a WildChina trip. Two clients got engaged on a WildChina trip. We’ve helped families retrace the Burma Road commemorating their father’s journey in WWII.

After all the years of traveling, I think I am starting to understand the magic of travels. Somehow, when one’s on the road, one’s attention is so outwardly focused, that all you notice are people and things around you. After the outward focus, the inward reflection of oneself is much gentler, and not so judgmental of whether my office is in an old house or a shishi building downtown, or whether my munching is embarrassing.

Travel elevates one above the daily routine, and allows one to see the beauty of other people’s daily routine. One of my favorite moment recently was jogging in front of Shangrila’s Songtsam Lodge, while watching the Tibetan farmers shepherding their cattle to the fields. I am sure they didn’t think of their life was poetic and charming, as it was just hard work. But as a traveler watching them, I was loving that moment. That’s the illusion of distance- distance of reality, distance of geography, and distance of time. That’s probably the art of travel.

Anyway, back to my sandwich. I didn’t think my munching a sandwich at desk was any bit poetic, but more embarrassing. But, I know, give it another 10 years, I will reflect back on this moment, as one of the defining moment of launching WildChina in America.

What do you do with the brick of tea?

You know what I am talking about! – That brick or disc of tea in the velvet box! What do you do with it?

A few years ago, we were living in LA. My dear father came from Yunnan to stay with us in America for the first time. He brought a few bricks of Yunnan Pu’er tea (普洱沱茶) as gifts for people. Literally, they look like a solid disc or brick that if you get wacked on the head, you’d bleed.

I held him back, telling him that Laowai (Chinese endearment for “foreigners”) really didn’t know how to appreciate tea, and they wouldn’t know what to do with the brick.  Finally, we were going to dinner at this famous screen playwright’s house for dinner, my dad insisted in bringing one brick and presented it to the writer. The writer was very polite and thanked my father. I never went back to ask what he did with it.

Let’s face it, the brick of tea is packed so dense, that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. It’s too big to boil as one serving of tea; it’s so hard that you need a hammer to break it; it makes a huge mess if you do that! So, all the bricks I have collected still mostly sit on my bookshelf, until yesterday.

A big background on Pu’er tea, this is one type of tea that Yunnan Province in Southwest China is known for. They brew into a strong dark brown colored tea. But, historically, this tea was always packed on horse backs and carried by caravan trademen over dare-devil terrain onto the Tibetan Plateau. There, they transfer into the famed Tibetan Yak Butter Tea.  Honestly, I prefer drinking Pu’er tea by itself without the yak butter part.  Nevermind my personal taste, Yak butter tea is an essential form of calorie for Tibetans. The transportation route became known as the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road. National Geographic magazine ran a beautiful article on this road, but I was hugely offended by the article left out Yunnan.

People from Yunnan still prefer to store tea in the same condensed brick form. In fact, it is said that the older the tea, the more valuable it is. So, many collectors are in search for decade old tea. There are tea connoisseurs in China, as there are wine connoisseurs in the west.

Back in May, I walked into a tiny tea store in Heshun Old town in Tengchong, Yunnan. A young tea salesman told me that I needed a 解茶针,(needle for separating the tea). I had no idea that special equipment was available to do this job. He also explained that the tea brick was pressed together one layer at a time. So, adjust natural tendency to break off a chunk, one should carefully peel layers of tea horizontally.

I took the needle as a treasure and tucked into my purse. Hello?? How stupid is that!! I was caught at the airport security in Tengchong. To my amazement, the airport staff saw it on the imaging screen, and said, “Take the TEA NEEDLE out! It has to go in checked luggage. “Oh, no!” I groaned, knowing very well that I’d loose the needle, as no one had ever bothered to retrieve my check luggage for something like this.

Well, I was in for a surprise. People there knew that I couldn’t do anything with the tea if I didn’t have the proper instrument. So, they found my luggage, and now I have the tea needle in DC!

With tool in hand, I gave it a try yesterday, and was delighted with the result- now in a glass jar for future use. My son was busy playing with my iphone next to me. I tried to explain to him what I was doing, telling him about tea from mom’s hometown.  He simply ignored me. Never mind.

If anyone’s listening, WildChina’s tea journey with Jeff Fuchs is worth the experience.

Is it OK to call your travel agent at 3:30am?

“Absolutely NO.” is my immediate answer.  But, we just did.

A travel agent called WildChina’s US at 3:30pm EDT, which makes it exactly 3:30am in the middle of the night in Beijing, to tell us that her client just notified her that her flight from Guilin to Beijing was delayed from midnight, and now she’d be arriving at 5am in Beijing.

Could WildChina make sure someone’s picking her up at that early hour?

My colleague and I looked at each other, and answered her firmly, “YES.”  Because that traveler is a WildChina client, and there is no way that we are leaving our travelers stranded at the airport after a full night’s delays to wait another 3 hours before their car ride comes.

But, to make it happen, there is no option but to call our Beijing office colleagues. To our happy relief, the staff picked up the phone, and said that she had been monitoring the flights and have adjusted the pick ups already. Clients are to be picked up at 5am!

When I heard this, I couldn’t help but feel myself getting emotional from this. How often in the corporate world, do you find a staff more dedicated to clients than the staff of WildChina?

If anyone called me at 3:30am, I’d be really mad!! By the way, my father and husband included. They know to avoid calling after 10pm my time. But this? A phone call from an overseas office in the middle of the night about a car pick up for somebody you’ve never met? She took it with such grace and professionalism! Her name is Maya Ren.

I guess I got emotional, particularly because the day before another WildChina staff found out that there was misunderstanding about the deadline of a VIP travel proposal. It was due on Wednesday US time. She found out at 10pm Beijing time Wednesday evening – that means, unless she pulls the all-nighter, there was no way she’d be able to deliver. I was almost ready to call the client and tell them to wait another day, but she and her teammate told me to wait. They would work on it then, and sleep the next day.

At 2am Beijing time, 2pm on Wednesday afternoon in New York, the beautiful proposal arrived in client’s email box! Their names are Amy Sun and Sunshine Shang.

I was rendered speechless by the amazing commitment from the WildChina team in Beijing. Thank you!

Wedding Hike

For those of us with cross-border marriages, it often involves two weddings to cater to family and friends on each side. We had gotten married a year earlier in the States, but my grandma wouldn’t take the paper issued by some foreign government as my marriage certificate. It had to be done properly. Her granddaughter had to be married out respectably.

So it’s time to plan a wedding in Yunnan. The logistical challenges of organizing a wedding are many. Starting from the simple most, flowers and wines. I have always had a preference for a western floral arrangement rather than a rigid Chinese bouquet, same with wines. I’ll pick a glass of red wine over Maotai (the fancy Chinese white spirit).  So I ended up cutting out pictures from wedding magazines, and taking them to the flower market to find a talented florist to do them. Fortunately, Kunming is China’s cut flower center.

Then it’s the wines. It’s no longer an issue today, as  you can find many western wines in Chinese supermarkets. But back then, the only wine import channels was 5 star hotels. So that’s what I did.

The most fun part was designing activities so that my Chinese relatives and our western friends could mingle. We decided to invite our wedding party on a 9 day journey from theSalween River valley across the snow mountains to the Mekong River valley.  My husband’s best man probably didn’t quite expect the hike to be so rigorous at such high altitude (10,000 ft), so he didn’t waste his precious hours to prepare for it.  He eventually make it up the mountain top with the help of two Tibetan guide and a donkey.

This wedding hike was the first trip organized under WildChina’s brand name. The images from this adventure accompanied me through the first year of WildChina’s creation, as sales aid. It is now one of WildChina’s signature adventure travel to China product: Hiking the 19th Century French Explorer’s Route. It launched our local Tibetan guide into a successful lodge business in Dimaluo village near one of the most beautiful Catholic Tibetan Churches.

The wedding after the hike was probably the best party in my life. Also made my grandma happy.

Nowadays, I go back to Harvard Business Every year to discuss the case study on WildChina, and they ask me if I had any advice for future entrepreneurs. I always say, “Leverage whatever you can, your friends and family as your first clients, and your own wedding as your first product!”

Proof? WildChina now helps other people with their weddings at the beautiful Aman at the Summer Palace! This photo at the top is from a beautiful couple who are WildChina clients.  For more of their photos visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30359491@N08/sets/72157624138596972/

Why Chinese love Obedient children?

A very happy client of WildChina sent in a quick note to thank us “I just wanted to let you both know we are having a great trip here in China. It is a beautiful country with incredible sights and history. All of the people we have met have been wonderful! And your guides have all been terrific. Thanks for setting everything up!”. A bit background, this is one couple traveling with more than a dozen kids – a feat that I can only admire!

Then came my staff’s response. “ Guess not easy for you to manage all the kids, but heard from our guides, the kids are quite obedient and sensible…” I am not sure how our clients would react to this, as I knew my colleague only meant it as a compliment, without realizing there is a different connotation in English.

The word “obedient” was “ 乖” (pronounced as Guai) on my colleague’s mind. 乖 is translated as “obedient” according to google. But the truth is, there is no word in English that expresses what “Guai” means. This is one of the few cultural incidences that made translation impossible.

In Chinese families, kids are praised if they behave well, i.e. listens to parents and elders, does what he or she is told to do, does not challenge authority, or creates mischief. Adults would say, “孩子真乖,听话”. (you are Guai and listened well.” So, this is praise simply on the child’s behavior, as a compliment. There is a general social acceptance that adults’ words are to be heeded and respected.

But in English environment, we still want the kids to listen, but there isn’t such a praise word for obedient behavior. Usually, if my son did his homework by himself without me prodding, I’d say “Good Job.” When he doesn’t listen to me, I count “1, 2, 3” and then “Time out”. “Guai” concept simply doesn’t exist, as sometimes, kids being naughty and breaking rules is viewed as “entrepreneurial” potential. It’s true, I am sure Mark Zuckerberg, founder of facebook wasn’t a “Guai” child.

At the same time, the word “Obidient” often has a negative connotation on both the parents and the kids. It comes across as the children being overly pressured to follow rules, and the parents overly managing their children.

Hope our clients didn’t take this as an offence.

The New Karate Kid film shows some beautiful parts of China

The movie critics don’t seem to think that highly of the new Karate Kid film, but I had a great time watching it with my 7-year-old son. It’s one of the few kid movies that I sat through without falling asleep in the middle, and unfortunately it wasn’t the case with the fantastic Toy Story 3!

Here are my reasons for liking it.

Most importantly, I just LOVED the scenery shots. The kid practices his kicks at the Great Wall, visits the Forbidden City, and traveled by train to Guilin to climb to the top of Wudang Mountain. All of these shots are simply beautiful!

Wudangshan is the Daoist Mountain where Mr. Han (the Kungfu Shifu) took him to reach the sacred water source.  The Daoists practicing  meditation or Kungfu scenes are Hollywood stage setups, but they are beautiful and at times, when traveling in China, you can find truly spiritual moments as such when visiting these sacred mountains.

One of my favorite Daoist Mountains to visit is called Weishan in Dali, Yunnan. It’s much smaller in scale, and very little visited as Daoism isn’t gaining many followers these years. But, the Daoist temples scattered on the mountain offer a peaceful respite from the noises of Chinese towns. One of my favorite things to do is to hike to the highest temple, and drink tea with the only resident Daoist, who grows all his own fresh produce at the temple. The tea costs RMB 1 (equivalent of 15 Cents) but tastes pure and sweet after a good hike getting there.

Now when it comes to logistics, I would NEVER recommend anyone to travel from Beijing, by train to Guilin, to climb Wudang Moutain though. So, please don’t follow Mr. Han on this route. Wudang Mountain is 800 miles south of Beijing, and Guilin (where the lovely Karst hills rise out of Li River) is another 800 miles further to the south.  It would be a ridiculous detour, but it works in a movie.

So, walk in knowing it’s Hollywood, and enjoy the stunning scenery.

Another reason for liking it is the reality of China that’s portrayed in the film. Mei Ying (the Karate Kid’s love interest) and her family provide a small window into the life of an upper middle class family in China. Usually, it’s a small family of 3 people, mom, dad and the only child. The well-off Chinese families are buying up luxury cars like Audi or BMW, the successful mom and dad are very well dressed. The pressure on the only child is intense, piano lessons and violin practices everyday. The movie hasn’t quite shown the intense pressure for testing into colleges but that would have distracted the spotlight on the Karate kid.

All in all, I find it entertaining, and absolutely worth watching for those considering visiting China.  WildChina offers a good family trip to China that incorporates Kungfu and some of the classic sites like the Great Wall and Forbidden City.

Lonely Planet China guide is good looking with mediocre content

I was very impressed by the beginning of the Lonely Planet China Guide book. “the Best of China” page offered a quick summary of the classic highlights of the country that one should never miss – The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, etc. The photos are beautiful. I also liked the section that introduced the writers, bringing a human face to advice they are dispensing.  Then the Rural China, Eat China, Hike China and Red China pages all offered some interesting sites, and are very helpful for those who want to venture off the Yangtze Cruise to experience the real China.

But, to me, it also demonstrated the lack of access due to language constraint. For example, the Hike China section is a bit limited. Having hiked most of the trails listed in that section, I beg to differ. For example, the Yubeng hike aka. Pilgramage trail to Mt. Kawagebo is among the most breathtaking and spiritual hike. WildChina team members first hiked in this area in the late 90s, and only now that trail is gaining some awareness among Chinese speakers. Not sure if the guide books’ outdated or the writer didn’t know about it. Either way, I think there could be a better guide on hiking ops in China.

Then I went straight for the section on lodging (called “Sleeping” in the guidebook) in Beijing. It is unfortunately written by a backpacker who is too well versed in adjectives such as “top notch”, “Elegance”, “gorgeous” “stunning”, “impressive”, “outstanding”, “splendid”, “enticing”.. I’ll save you the rest, but seriously, these words all appeared in 3 paragraph describing St. Regis, Grand Hyatt, and China World Hotel. You can basically randomly re-allocate these words, and the information you are getting won’t change a bit.

Obviously, the writer hasn’t stayed in any of these places.  I wish there is a bit more details like, The Made In China restaurant in the Grand Hyatt serves the best “Begger’s Chicken” and is one of the most interesting Chinese restaurants to dine in because of the open kitchen layout. You get to see the chefs tossing the greens in a wok alight with fire!  By the way, I think the Frommers Guide does a much better job with restaurants recommendations. Also, for families traveling with children, the China World Hotel Service Apartments offer the best option- with large rooms, ensuite kitchen, etc.

Also, among the top notch, I’d add the Opposite House for its zen like design and personal service. Not to mention the beautiful Aman at the Summer Palace. These are the more boutique hotels that really make Beijng an interesting destination to stay.

What got me most is the section on “Beijing for Children”. I have a feeling that the authors didn’t really travel to Beijing with kids. The hardest thing I found upon arriving in Beijing is how to kill the early morning hours due to jet lag. Two very important things for me: breakfast at 金湖茶餐厅 (GL Cafe Restaurant),and morning walks in Ritan Park. The Café is a 24hr Hong Kong style restaurant, very helpful at 4am when there is no other place to eat, and the kids are crying! They have branch locations next to the St. Regis and the China World. Hotel. And they have high chairs. Ritan Park is a major source of entertainment as it opens at 6am for the morning exercises- an entertaining place for the kids to watch others play badminton, or do taiqi. Maybe that’s me, but I need to have the jetlag bunch taken care off before I could think of ice skating in Beijing. A good source, follow @BeijingWithKids on twitter.