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.