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.
I just did an interview by email with Chris Horton. His questions brought back so much nice memories of Yunnan. Thought I’d share them here. Chris just published it on gokunming.com. A nicely edited version here: http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1573/interview_mei_zhang.
1. Where in Dali did you grow up? What are some of your strongest memories of that time of your life?
I grew up in Dali until I was 9. That’s when my family moved to Kunming. My memories of that time that keep coming back are many. We used to go to a hot spring for baths near Xiaguan. There are always camellia blooming, and we’d climb the mountain behind the hot spring to pick big white flowers (Rhododendrons as I learned later). There were so many of those white flowers that we’d cook them for dinner! I remember people in Dali loved flowers, there are wild jasmines and other fragrant flowers for sale in the market all the time. Talking about market, that’s my favorite. Many different ethnic people would also come to the market, the Yis or Bais, wearing beautiful clothes, selling fresh vegetables and eggs. I still come back to Yunnan to search for those moments. (By the way, thank you for asking this question, it brought back so much nice memory)
2. What was the chain of events that led you from Dali to Harvard?
If this didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t have believed events like this would ever happen. So my Dad, who was a worker building the hydropower station in Xiaguan, decided that the best thing he could do for me and my brothers was to give us the best education possible. He moved us to Kunming for better education. When I was testing for high school, he made me apply to the Foreign Languages school affiliated to Yunnan University, hoping that if I couldn’t get into college, at least I’d have some English to be a secretary. I got it, but I cried and cried, believing that he robbed me of the opportunity to become Madam. Currie of China. After that, I got into Yunnan University, studying English and Law. I started taking part time jobs as an interpreter since college to pay for school. Then one day, at an usual official banquet hosted by Yunnan Government for Krung Thai Bank from Thailand, my life changed. The president of the bank decided to give a spontaneous speech. None of the government interpreters were willing to go up to the stage with him, as there was no preparation, no script. They all recommend that I go up onto the stage, as I was the youngest interpreter with nothing to lose. So, I did. After that, the officials from the Bank invited me to sit at their table, and offered me a scholarship I couldn’t resist. The rest is history.
3. What was the inspiration behind founding Wild China in 2000?
See here: http://www.wildchina.com/application/assets/img/press/pdfs/World-of-Chinese—See-a-Different-China.pdf
4. What are the most surprising or amazing places you’ve discovered in China since then?
There are many, so I’ll just pick a few from memory. I remember seeing the villages near the Yellow Mountains for the first time. I was struck by how beautiful the traditional architecture was, and how much history the places endured, and how sad the current state was – all adults gone to work in the city as migrant workers, with only grandparents and kids left in the village. Guizhou Province also struck me an unbelievable place. It’s also in the Southwest of China, but incredibly poor and lack of development. In a way, it reminds me of the Yunnan I grew up with. Rice terraced fields with ethnic hamlets scattered here and there. Traditional lifestyle that’s so beautiful and the hardship so challenging. That’s the China I knew and loved.
5. What notable changes have you seen in China’s travel industry since 2000?
The extraordinary growth of domestic travelers spurred incredible growth in the travel industry. There have been some great advances, for example, I just visited Heshun village near Tengchong in Yunnan. I have to give the development company a lot of credit and respect. I think they did an amazing job keeping the beauty of the place while making it accessible to the general public. The landscaping is beautiful and tastefully done, and the written materials are interesting and well done. There are more and more lodges and hotels that are also tastefully done around the country. These are all great. But, I feel sorry for sites and places that are too quickly run over by tourist crowds. Lijiang old town is a prime example.
6. How often does Yunnan figure into your clients’ travel plans? What are the most popular destinations?
Very often. It’s one of our top destinations. Before I traveled the world, I thought I was just biased because I was from Yunnan. Now that I have been to Mt. Everest, South Africa, Italy, Peru, you name it, I know Yunnan IS one of the most extraordinary destinations in the world!
7. What are your favorite places in Yunnan?
My favorites are: Cizhong in Diqing, I find the catholic Tibetan cultures fascinating; Shaxi Jianchuan Grottoes, I loved the long history behind the whole Tea and Horse caravan road; Tengchong and Gaoligong Mountain, I love the incredible bio diversity there and the WWII history. I just hiked across Gaoligong from Baoshan to Tengchong last week, and thought it’s one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever had. After the hike, I called Gaoligong Nature Reserve, and told them that I’d sponsor them in publishing a birding book! Look for it, it’s coming out next year.
8. Wild China has carved out a niche for itself as a provider of sustainable and socially responsible tourism in China for foreigners, do you see these concepts ever becoming important to the domestic tourism market?
Absolutely, we want to get involved in the domestic tourism market as well, but we have a wait a little bit for the demand to build up more. In the meantime, we are speaking at different forums etc to influence Chinese travelers.
9. Spending much of your time between Beijing and the US, you’re usually far away from Yunnan… what Yunnan dishes do you miss the most?
actually make it to Yunnan a lot! At least twice a year, and spending some solid time in the mountains. Yunnan Rice Noodles (mixian) is probably the one dish I miss most. I am a good cook, so can fabricate most items including suancai (pickled greens) myself, but the noodle is beyond me.
These days, I seem to be doing a lot of traveling and a lot of talking. The traveling unfortunately does not take me to the mom and pop pickle store in Dali or breathtaking valley in Shangrila, but rather New York or Boston. The talking is less about traveling to China, more about why choosing travel as a profession. People tend to be very curious after they learned that I have a Harvard MBA and used to work for McKinsey as a management consultant.
Just last week, I took our young intern, Sammie, in the DC office along to Boston, because I was the guest speaker in the Harvard Business School classroom, where the MBA students were to beat up the WildChina case, and Sammie was eager to see what a famed MBA class looked like. I don’t know what she got out of the classroom, but I got something out of the journey.
I pre-warned Sammie that I traveled light, a carryon suitcase and a purse. No checked luggage. She came prepared. Well done, I thought, till we got to the security line. I breezed through the detector and was putting on my boots at the other end. Two people cut in front of Sammie, while she was busy removing her metal bracelets, belts, laptop, digital camera… She was obviously getting frazzled. I smiled at her, and told her she should watch “Up In the Air”. George Clooney’ Ryan definitely got the airport system worked out, and that comes with repetition.
The Blue line subway station at the airport didn’t seem anything new to Sammie. She was used to subways rides in Beijing, where she studied at one of the top universities. “Downtown Crossing” stop was an eye opener, “ WOW, 美国的地铁怎么那么破呀?´ (Wow, How can American subways look so shitty!) Yes, the walls were dirty and covered with dust accumulated over the years, the lighting dim, and there was a musician playing guitar in a corner. Her shock was well justified, who’d have expected to see subways of this condition in America, after riding the brand new lines in Beijing. The subways stations in Beijing all sport bright lighting, with colorful ads for the newest model of cell phone and nike shoes.
“Mei jie (sister Mei, that’s how she calls me), you walk so fast, you do this all the time? Is this what an entrepreneur does?”
I told her that the English word of “Entrepreneur” glorified my job. Entrepreneur is often translated into Chinese as 创业者，or企业家，but the version I like best is 个体户-single-unit-entity which sounds like GE-TI-HU. GE-TI-HU often reminds me the dumpling vendor in the old alley way not far from my apartment in Beijing. It was a husband and wife stall. They got up at 4am to start making the fresh dumplings for the day by hand. The first clients would arrive around 6:30am, and the last ones left around 8 or 9pm at night. They mixed their own dough, cleaned all the tables, and washed all the dishes themselves. And they made a grand total of RMB 3000/month, about $350 in those days. They had a baby and thought they had the best lives, compared to their relatives back at home in the villages near Shanghai. I went back to look for them again last year, they were gone. Where their stall was is now the construction site of a new apartment building. I just hope they have a similar stall in other parts of Beijing, or back home.
On the trip, I told Sammie that my job is, “搞业务的” – Sales or Business Development in English. A long time ago, I never really understand what 搞业务的means in Chinese. Often, it conjures up the image of a young male in cheap suits, holding a fake leather case, handing out business cards with a huge smile on his face. After years of airport travel, subway rides, and rental car rides, I finally came to terms with this title for myself. Yes, 我是搞业务的。 I am a sales person, because I am proud of what I am selling – a different experience in China. www.wildchina.com
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 www.maisonmnabha.com. 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.