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.


What’s so Wild about WildChina?

At Pure Life Experience luxury travel tradeshow in Marrakech, Morocco, I met about 60 travel agents and tour operators from around the world. The most asked question was “So, tell me what’s so wild about WildChina?”

Here’s my answer for the record: By naming it “wild”, I want to push the boundary of people’s imagination of China, both in the sense of nature and culture.

China has so much to beyond Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, and even in those familiar sites, there is so much more to explore in depth, that I don’t think current travel industry’s done a fair job at promoting the country’s deeper beauty. I want WildChina to make some contribution in bringing China’s inner beauty to the world.

Typically in the past, when travelers go to China, and there were variations of the standard route: Beijing-Xi’an-Yantze River cruise-Guilin-Shanghai. That’s about it. In these sites, guests get to bused out with crowds of other travelers to visit Badaling Great Wall, stop at commission driven shops, forced to buy those kitsch trinkets, and to eat those bland buffet food. I just don’t want WildChina guests to be subject to that at all!

For me, who has grown up in Yunnan Province in Southwest China, there are lots to be explored in places that are not on the tourist map. In the villages like Shaxi near Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan, you visit the local family, join them for a lovely Bai meal in the courtyard, then watch a casual village concert performed by village elders. That’s the way I used to know Yunnan, and that’s the way I want my guests to experience China. I cannot quite pin point these tiny little villages on the map, and I can’t really tell you which tourists sites featured in the guide books you might visit. All I can say is I can take you to experience the China I grew up knowing. Regardless of where you go, the most important aspect about traveling is getting to know the people there. One of the best compliments I got from some clients was that they really felt like they got to know some Chinese people as everyday individuals with their joys and personalities, not as a collective “Chinese”.

Now back in familiar sites like Beijing and Shanghai. Same thing, I want my guests to experience life the way it is. One of my personal favorite thing to do when living in Beijing is getting up early to go for a jog in Ritan Park, where tons of Beijing ren’r do their morning Taichi, or sing at the top of their voice to exercise their lungs. So, I want my guests to have the same – a morning of Taichi with a master in the park. Obviously, there are a lot one can do, but getting to know the Chinese way of life is a big part of our experience.

Then, there are the nature reserves that people don’t even know about. Why did I take my 8 month old baby to travel to Changqing Nature Reserve last august? I admire the conservation work the Chinese rangers are doing on a daily basis. The director of the nature reserve has a sincere desire to see what is possible to build a sustainable ecotourism practice so that they can spread the word about their conservation work. So, I spend time to get to know them, and spend time to work with the nature reserve staff. In due time, we’ll be able to launch a sustainable eco-walk into the nature reserve, as what we’ve achieved with Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan.

So that’s what I am talking about. WildChina is all about helping our guests to experience China differently.

Top places to visit if you travel to China for Modern Art

Had some Chinese friends over for dinner over the weekend, we were all lamenting the fact that we missed out buying a piece of Zhang Xiaogang’s portrait of a Chinese family. For those of us from the late 60s or 70s, the portraits remind us of the family photo albums we all had. Yes, those straight colored Mao’s jacket on Dad, and those pigtails we used to sport. One has to travel to China, and maybe find villages to go back in time to understand what those pictures meant to us.

Short of that, I can list my favorite places to shop (window shop) for modern art:

Shanghai: Moganshan 50, a trendy art district. Visit Shanghart, Eastlink, Island 6 galleries. Also, MOCA Museum, and Shanghai Art Museum are not to be missed.

Beijing: Dashanzi Contemporary Art District (aka 798). An old factory that was turned into an artists’ colony. Visit Xindong Cheng, Long March, etc.

Also Beijing: Cao Chang Di art district, a newer art gallery area close to 798. Visit Pekin Fine Arts, Urs Meile, Three Shadows, China Archives and Warehouse.

After these visits, you can consider going to Dali in Yunnan Province, to visit those working in private villas by Lake Erhai.

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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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Family get together in China with kids

A friend and I are considering bringing both of our families to China for a reunion next summer. My kids are 6 yr, 3 yr, and 9 month old. His 3 girls are 9, 7 and 3.  So here is his questions ” Should we take Josh’s Tangula express to Lhasa?   Or do we want WildChina to organize a princess tour of the wonders of China? Tibet?”

Here are my answers:

Tangula express would be cool, but not for kids. It’s too long a ride and kids get antsy. I know mine can’t handle it. I actually think it’s best to anchor kids at one place for 3 days, have lots of little fun stuff for them to venture from one base.  I would say, hang out somewhere near Guilin or Dali, go on short hikes, bike rides, fishing, crafts, etc.

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