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.
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.
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!
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/
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
At 1 am Beijing time, I received this email below from my colleague Sunshine. I am used to his quick email responses to my last detailed request for a flight or a trip proposal at those ungodly hours. This is one of the hardest working staff in WildChina’s Beijing office, and I often have to prod him to go to bed.
I just have NEVER seen him being so emotional.
Here it is:
“Last evening, we went to visit Yubeng primary school in the upper Yubeng village, and sat down for a chat with the only teacher there, a Han Chinese girl from Hebei, who settled in Yubeng four years ago, now looks and acts like a local Tibetan, even her temperament.
It gradually got dark, and so enjoyable just staring at the flaming stove, drinking the ginger tea. Imagine the life of a girl who volunteers to teach in a remote Tibetan village, something I know I will never do in my life, then me, busy with work and life every day, like a clockwork rabbit, never stop, I have to say I got somehow touched, life can be so amazing and unique, here and this moment, really want to do something to help, no big promise, but something practical.
So I readily promised when she mentioned she would like to have some books about stones and plants, then she can tell the kids what the plant or stone is when they see it. I will buy the related books when get back to Beijing, welcome to join in. And if WildChina wants, can also have a WildChina library there, she refused TNC’s request of putting up the TNC exhibition there, but I guess she will be happy to offer one room for the library.
Reading his email, I could practically see the flames, smell the wood burning. Yubeng is a magical paradise, hidden in the valley of Mt. Kawagebo in Northwest Yunnan. (太子雪山)。 That’s where I took Ed Norton and Ann McBride of the Nature Conservancy to visit in 1999. Beautiful October day, on those trails, we discussed the possible name for this business I planned to start – Wild World? No, Wild Asia? No? WildChina? Yes. I wanted to build a WildChina that is dedicated to showcasing the wilder parts of China in a sustainable way.
It’s now been 10 years; I am glad WildChina’s staff still finds magic in that valley. It’s about time WildChina does something to give back to the local villagers. A few books and a library is the least we can do.
AS I was wrapping up my day before the snow hit DC, an email popped onto my screen:
“I have made a gift of $3000 to the Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan program in honor of Wild China. I am so happy to know about this area of China. A magical place that needs and deserves protection. Kristine”
This is the most significant Christmas present I have received from a WildChina client. Kristine just won my respect and heart for donating the refund I gave her for a less than perfect trip to China.
This was Kristine’s first email to me after her trip:
“We loved the route and the scenery of Yunnan and the support staff (cook and driver) were fantastic. However…. Xiao (one of the guide) was very good about talking with Nico in Mandarin. However the first two days on the trail he was talking on his cell phone constantly which interfered with the serenity of the hiking and hampered chances for me to see birds (which he knew was an important objective for me). At the second campsite we were joined by two other large groups. It turned out that one group was guided by Xiao’s brother, and the other group had trekked with Xiao before and had been outfitted by him for this trip. From that point on, we could not seem to escape from these two large and noisy groups. They began hiking at the same time, stopped for lunch in the same places, camped in the same areas and clearly wanted to chat with Xiao on the trail. The noise and the size of the group significantly detracted from our enjoyment of the trekking and any opportunities to see birds along the way. This did not meet my expectation of a private trek and Xiao was clearly splitting his attention between the groups.”
There was more…
The email simply broke my heart. How, could this ever be possible? Generally, when clients seek me out to send me an email, I am used to reading the ones piling praises on our guides and staff. They make me happy, and remind me again and again why I am in service industry and not in fund management as most of my HBS classmates are. I just love the human contact and love the smiles we bring to clients. Also, negative on this trial? I could never have imagined that. I took my whole wedding party on this hike from the Salween Valley to the Mekong valley and it was the last frontier of China. Xiao was the best local villager I could find. How did this all change? But, I was in no position to defend WildChina but to apologize:
I am terribly sorry that you had such a negative experience, and I am sorry that our guides were not as considerate or professional as you expected. Let me investigate on this further and I’ll get back to you on this specifically. If I may, let me tell you a story about Xiao.
I personally insisted for the team to bring Xiao onto your trip, because I remember the first day when I met him. I went to his village with my backpack (after days of travel on the road, not 10 hours), and simply asked around a group of villagers if any of them would be interested in a job of guiding me through the mountain ranges across to the other side. Nobody except Xiao raised his hand. I don’t think any other traveler went to the village with such a strange request before. At that time, the village didn’t have electricity, and xiao’s house was dark and small. He had a bright and sincere smile, so I hired him on the spot. He guided me through the mountains for 4 days, and was the most attentive helper I could ever find.
Following that journey, I decided that it was such a wonderful experience, I took my own wedding party there, and xiao couldn’t be more attentive, and so were our Tibetan guides and chef. Xiao was so entrepreneurial that he called me up afterwards to see if I would invest in him to build a lodge. He had to make the call from the village pay phone, since he didn’t have one in his house. I appreciated his entrepreneurial spirit, and gave him the money. For me, it was a simple way to give back to the community, and if he could succeed, great, if not, I tried.
To help him develop a sense of customer service quality, I sent two American interns there over the next two years to work with him, helping him develop menus, helping him purchase sheets and mattresses and set up the first computer. Then, he emailed me one day, and said, “hey, I am online! And I have a new cell phone”
A year later, he sent me a message, “hey, check out my blog!”
Earlier this year, when I logged onto Flickr, I found his pictures there!
I haven’t been back for a while, and was simply delighted that someone would take the opportunity and develop a successful business out of it.
Then your feedback came. I could just picture him talking on the cell phone and busy talking to all the other guests. I just never imagined that would ever happen on that trail, and I don’t think our operations team could foresee that either. Imaging hiking crowds on that trail came as such a complete shock. The only reason I could see if October 1st holiday when travelers from Kunming also decided to discover the beautiful wilderness of Yunnan.
The fact this area is now covered with cell phone signal and popular with travelers, I don’t know if I am supposed to be happy about or not. The fact that your experience was negatively impacted upsets me tremendously. Xiao and our Tibetan guides may have become victims of their own success. How to deal with that, how to take it forward from here? I’ll have to pursue the answer.
After confirming the facts with our local guides, I sent Kristine a heartfelt note and a refund check of $3000 (needless to say, WildChina lost money, but that’s not the point):
“Our brand is about excellence, and our mission is to deliver excellence. On your recent trip, we did not deliver. There were forces at play, some we could control, some we could not. But the fact remains we are committed to excellence.”
She donated the check to TNC in honor of WildChina. What a beautiful thing!
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.