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.

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/

World War II Cemetery in Tengchong, China

I’ve long wanted to visit the World War II Cemetery in Tengchong, Yunnan, as I’ve heard so much about how bloody the battles were, and how the American Flying Tigers came to our assistance at moments of needs. We even created a trip that goes there.  I went there with much respect, and left with the same respect for lives lost, but also sorrow for how differently deaths are treated.

First I had a little difficulty finding it. I asked the taxi driver to take me to 二战烈士陵园 (World War II Martyr Cemetery), as “Martyr” is usually the word I knew how we called those who died in wars. The taxi driver asked me if I wanted to see the Martyr Memorial or 国殇墓园 (badly translated by me as National Tragedy Cemetery). What’s the difference I wondered? “Those who died in WWII were Chiang Kai Shek’s solders, they are not in the Martyr Cementery.” He said. Ah, now I get it, the word Martyr I grew up knowing was only referring to communist soldiers not the ones who died fighting for Chiang Kai Sheck, even thought they were also fighting against Japanese.

As I found out later, those two cemeteries are located next to each other, separated by a wall. I wonder if the ghosts mingle at night.

A very brief background. Yunnan Province in Southwest China only became the frontline when the Japanese decided to change their tactics and started their attacks from Burma into mainland China. The bloodiest battle took place in May 1944, as Chinese army mounted a bloody siege to win back the ancient trading town of Tengchong. More than 9000 Chinese soldiers and 6000 Japanese died in the battle.  There are 3346 dead honored in the Cemetery.

Since I visited the Viet Nam Memorial in DC, I’ve always wanted to see how the names are arranged at any cemetery. Take a wild guess? Are they ranked in alphabetical order of their names? Or by the date of their death? Or by the unit they belonged to?

In Tengchong, they are arranged according to their military ranks. The lowest ranking soldiers at the bottom of the hill, and the highest ranking at the top; while generals are entombed separately.  There is also a separate area honoring the 19 young American soldiers who died in the War.  I was glad to see the American soldiers honored as well, but the ranking of the other names bothered me quite a bit. To me, those who died in a war are equal regardless of their ranks, as they all equally gave what’s most precious to them – their lives.

At Viet Nam Memorial in DC, the architect Maya Lin decided to do it differently. She organized the names by the date they died, and for those who died together, she intentionally kept their names together. I was told, each Viet Nam Vet volunteer always stands in front of a certain plaque, as if he was guarding the names of those who served in the war together with him. I find the message powerful and moving.

This little blog is my way of commemorating those who sacrificed for what we have today.  Thank you!

Interview with Yunnan Girl

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.


The Magic of Mt. Kawagebo and Yubeng

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.

From Sunshine“

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.

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When WildChina failed to deliver

Sporadic Impression - Rongkun LiuMekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

Mekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

Mekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

Mekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

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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!

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Top 5 things to avoid when planning a China trip

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.

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Top 5 places in China you have to see, even in Winter

Just received a call from Jim from Colorado, a potential traveler of WildChina, and this was what he said: “Hi, some friends recommended you. So, I am calling because I want to go to China in mid December. First time. I don’t know where to start.”

I am sure Jim is not alone, wanting to explore this vast country, but not sure where to start. He has about 14 days, and probably won’t make another trip out to China in the near future. So, I tried to introduce to him the places that he absolutely cannot miss. Here are my picks:

  1. Beijing. You just cannot go to China without going to Beijing, even if it’s winter. It’s the capital, and you have to go there to see the iconic Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The Great Wall is long, but most people only visit the most popular sections of the wall, so at these tourist places, there are maybe 6 million visitors a year. It can get crowded. So, if you want to see the real wall and get to meet some of the villagers who live by the wall, then take a car and driver to go to some of the sections further out of town. Spend a day, walking and really experience the wall.  Then you’ll want a good half day the next day for the forbidden city.  This is where a lot of your impressions of China will become reality. The guide can tell you stories behind the dragon and phoenix, and bring history to live to you. Then, you’ll want to wander around the old part of Beijing. This is like the old town of Marrakesh, where people live along narrow alleyways. Kids still run around the courtyard houses.  3rd day, you can visit the temple of heaven or some markets, before taking a flight to Xi’an.
  2. Xi’an is where the famous terra cotta soldiers are. China’s first emperor Qin Shuihuang had all these terra cotta soldiers built to guard him in after life.  There are thousands of pieces to see, and they really are stunning when you see them in person. Other than that, there are some other activities you might want to experience. Farmers’ painting is famous, also calligraphy. Easily, you can spend 2 days in total here.
  3. Then you will want to take a 2 hour flight to Southwest China to Yunnan Province. To me, this is home, but also it gives the largest contrast to Beijing and Xi’an, so that you really get to see the diversity of Chinese culture. It’s located on the eastern extension of the Himalayas. It’s a combination of high elevation and low latitude, resulting in a very pleasant winter. During winter time the average temperature in Lijiang (one of the major tourist destinations in Yunnan) is in the 50s during the day. So, quite pleasant. Lijiang is a UNESCO world culture heritage site, and is a must visit.
  4. Also in Dali (another town in Yunnan), 5 hours drive north of Lijiang is Shangrila, a Tibetan area. If you don’t have time to do a dedicated trip to Tibet, Shangrila is an absolute must see. It’s higher in elevation, around 10,000feet. So, it is cold, but worth it, since you definitely don’t want to be here in Summer, when millions of Chinese tourists also visit this place.
  5. My favorite stop is Shanghai. The best place to exit China. Particularly, after spending 5 days covering Lijiang and Shangrila, Shanghai is a whole world away. The Bund, the sky scrapers really tell you why all the multinational companies are relocating their headquarters from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

This is my list of top 5 places in China.

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For Breathable Air, Visit Beijing in October

A friend/WildChina client sent me the note:

“About China and the air quality in Beijing I think your statement “Loved the energy there, but worried about the air quality” sums up the problem. I believe it is this energy (human energy) that is creating, in part, the sources of air pollution. In other words to improve air quality this energy must be directed towards environmental friendly chores that is by their nature are less rewarding financially on the short term. This would not be acceptable for a population that is trying to improve their lots in life after so many years of poverty and lack of opportunities. Does this makes sense? You tell me.”

My husband labels me as a “patriotic Chinese” and I generally stay away from commenting on politics. But, for air quality, I do want to give my travel advice: If you are going to Beijing and Shanghai, go in the Fall (or Spring as second choice). I was in Beijing in July just before Olympics last year, and then again August this year, the air difference was night and day.  On the recent trip, I took my  kids out for walks to my favorite Ritan Park by the Friendship Store in Beijing at 5am (jetlag), and I couldn’t breathe! 5AM, it’s supposed to be the cleanest air of the day! Either my memory of lovely Beijing eluded me, or the air seriously deteriorated. Fall is the only time when you see crisp blue skies occasionally in Beijing. In the Spring, sometimes you can run into serious sand storms that turn the sky black.

To my friends comment, here is my response:

I can’t agree with you more on the energy vs. air quality tug and pull. The sad thing is, most of the people I know there are oblivious to it, precisely as you said, making money is more important. There are some friends who already have money, they are very pessimistic – oh, there is no hope, so why bother, just go live overseas. Then, there are the few who are dedicated to conservation, they care and want to do good, but their voices are often muted by the tide.

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Food for Your Picky Little Eaters in China

I don’t think anybody else can have a pickier eater than my son. I know, a lot of other mothers feel the same way about their own children. Well, traveling to China with picky eaters can be a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. The food choices in China broadens at an amazing rate both in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but also at unknown smaller cities or towns like Kunming or Dali. Rather than providing a complete restaurant review here, I will simply tell you how my son survived his three weeks in China.

Breakfast: All major hotels in China provide a mix of Chinese and Western dishes. You can easily find bacon and eggs, or corn flakes and yogurt at breakfast buffet table. The situation changes immediately if you are headed towards any cities lesser known than their provincial capitals. For example, in the panda nature reserve I visited near Xi’an, I was served 4 dishes of cold and spicy salads, a bowl of Zhou (very watery rice porridge), a couple of steamed bread. In situations like this, my goes for his default backup-
White Rice –available at every single Chinese restaurant, and the cheapest solution. Usually costs less than RMB4 (US$0.5)/bowl.

Lunch: One of the things that frustrate me most at WildChina is that our local guides still insist on serving a HUGE 8 course meal for lunch, regardless of how much we tried to change that. This is true for most foreign visitors, alarmed by how big those lunches are. Only on hiking trips, are we able to really change things around and provide only sandwiches and chilled drinks. If you are traveling on your own, go for local noodle soups and dumplings. Those are tasty and more than sufficient for lunch. My son would touch any of the Chinese dishes, despite the fresh green beans, broccolis, and noodle soups, he opts for –

McDonalds Happy Meals. Yes, McDonalds is practically around every major corner in Beijing, and widely available in all provincial capitals. In fact, KFC is even more successful than McDonalds, because most Chinese finds KFC more similar to Chinese tastes. That said, KFC also made some amazing localization in their menu. For example, they serve youtiao (fried dough) and Zhou (the watery rice porridge I mentioned above) on their breakfast menu too! My son was happy with McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, but didn’t like any of the toys, since they are local toys based on Japanese or Korean figures. My daughter on the other hand, LOVED those RMB10/piece Hello Kitties.

Dinner: Dinner in China is a big deal, particularly with guests. All the meals that I went to served on average 20 dishes on the table! I don’t remember any dish being completely finished off. Quite a bit wastage. In Yunnan, it’s wild mushroom season – enough reason for me to travel there just for the mushrooms. My son didn’t even taste any of that, instead, his grandfather went to fetch him a –

Pizza from Pizza Hut every single day. Yes, Pizza Hut also made successful entries into China. Although the restaurants are all regarded as high-end places that are 50% empty at all times. If you go in there to order a pizza, they ALL tell you that it’s a 17 minutes wait time for the pizza to cook. I bet their management drilled this sentence into every server’s mind. So, my dad would call the Pizza hut that’s right next door to the Carrefour Supermarket, then take a 20 minutes round trip walk to bring back dinner for his grandson. The 乳酪大汇 (rulao dahui) on a round dish is the same as a regular crusted cheese pizza here. It costs RMB 76 ($11) for a 12 inch pizza.

After all grandpa’s effort. My son made the conclusion in the end: America is better than China because there is clean air and youtube here. What can I say?

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