Why do I love traveling?

In addition to the gorgeous scenery, pampering spa, exotic cultures, I believe it’s also because of the fresh feeling of “suspending my life” for just a few days.

Last night, I heard a good writer David Ignatius articulate the situation in Egypt. That, strangely enough, reminded me of travel.

“In January, there was a feeling of euphoria.  All of a sudden, the common people felt that they were living a different life; it was exhilarating in Tahrir Square. You could now take risks that you normally wouldn’t; everything was possible. Two months later, the square was littered with trash. The euphoria was gone.  Life returned to normal. I am still jobless, and there is no police, crime’s going up.”

It struck me that travel was just like a mini version of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, regardless of where I go.

One of my favorite things to do back in China was to go back to Yunnan, find a little village like Shaxi. Check into a little lodge, take my camera and wander around.  Take a walk along the beautiful stream running through the village; roll up my sleeves and offer to help the farmer planting rice in the paddy fields; sit down for a cup of tea in an old horseman’s house and learn about the traditions of the tea and horse caravan road; hike up the mountain to examine the fine figurines of Jianchuan Shibaoshan Grottoes.

In doing so, I relax, I smile, I get into a zone of “travel high”.

The question is why? Yes fresh air helps. More importantly, it’s because I put my daily duties of running a business, being a mom on hold. I forgot to fuss over how many people commented on my facebook posting. I stop to worry whether I weighed half a pound more or less than yesterday.

It was my mini-revolution. I could now, at this very moment, imagine being a photographer, a historian, a writer, an anthropologist, an explorer, an artist. Basically being in all the professions that I’ve always wanted to be, but couldn’t be.  Oh, there are many reasons why I couldn’t. I don’t have the talent; these professions don’t make money; or because I went to Harvard Business School.

So, I return to my normal life after a week, return to the routine of school pickups/dropoffs, running business, savoring the euphoria of travel.

A few weeks later, I take off again, for another mini revolution. This time with kids and family.  This time, I would suspend my daily life as a “do-your-homework-now” mom, and change for a week, into a loving, all-attentive, let-mommy-rub-some-sunblock-on-you-sweetie mom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my daily routine, I have a great family and a great job. Travel is simply additive.

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.


Avoid Lijiang between Oct 1 to 7 at all cost!!

A client asked WildChina to help book the Lijiang Banyan Tree hotel in Lijiang, arriving on Oct 1, and departing on Oct. 5th.  I wanted to scream –“NO, NO, NO! You don’t want to do that.”  Hence, want as many to know this as possible, pls. pass it onto anyone who’s planning to go to China. 

Here’s my advice:

If you have any flexibility on timing or location choice, I would highly recommend you NOT to go to Lijiang at this time. October 1st is the busiest day of the whole year. That is Chinese National Day, that’s the day when Chinese travel most. Lijiang is on top of the list as popular destination.  In fact, this Chinese National Day Holiday is state-sanctioned, from Oct 1 to Oct 7 every year. So star from Sep. 30, it’s already crazy there.

That means:
A. The crowd in Lijiang is probably equivalent to black Friday at the mall after Thanks-Giving.
B. No hotel or flight discounts.
C. Inconsistent services due to the volume. 

In fact, you also want to avoid Lijiang at the following time too
Chinese New Year: Feb. 13-19, 2010
Tomb Sweeping Festival: April 3-5, 2010
Dragon Boat Festival: Around June 16, 2010 exact dates to be determined
Moon Festival: Around Sep 22, 2010 exact dates to be determined
Chinese Labor Day: May 1st to 3rd, 2008
(Note all except Chinese Labor Day and Chinese National day are based on Lunar calendar, so the dates changes every year. )

This warning probably applies to all travel in China. I would not recommend anyone to travel in China during those dates.

Bookmark and Share

3 days in Lijiang, 2 days in Shangrila

An old friend sent me this inquiry: We (3of us) are going to Yunnan for the last week of August. We have things pretty well organised and plan to spend 3 days in Lijiang and 2 in ShangriLa. If you have any suggestions about wild and  exciting things to do, that would be great !

Here are my answers:

1. First of all, where are you staying?  That’s important because Lijiang has turned into a crazy tourist town that stays alive 24/7. The old town of Lijiang is most charming with those two-story woodden houses lining cobble stoned streets, but it’s really hard to find a quiet hotel room because the bars and cafes stay open till midnight. In this context,  I’d recommend either the Banyan Tree, which is charming, but expensive. Or some Chinese 4 star hotels like Guanfang, which is not that memorable, but at least you can sleep. In Zhongdian, you want to stay at the Songsam Hotel near the Songzanlin Monastery. It’s owned by a Tibetan entrepreneur. It’s better than the Ringa Banyan Tree.

2. Activities in Lijiang:  Lijiang old town used to be so lovely, but now, it is overrun by tourists during the day. Exploring the old town, I suggest you get up early and walk around in the maze, allowing yourself to get gloriously lost. Pick up some pancakes freshly made on a food stall, etc. That’s still quite lovely. The Black Dragon Pool, despite its popularity as a tourist site, it’s still lovely. Spend a good 2 hours in there, check out the dongba museum – not fancy, but gives you a little sense of what dongba culture is like. Xueke’s Naxi music used to be great, and I loved it many years ago. But, now the venue has doubled or tripled in size, it’s lost its intimacy. At WildChina, we used to just hire a small local band and do a dinner/concert in one of the village houses. After that, you probably want to get out of the old town as quickly as you can.

  a. Leave Tiger Leaping Gorge for a  stopover visit on your way to Zhongdian.

  b. For glacier, Maoniuping is slightly better. It’s probably quite fun to ride horse up, as compared to taking the tram. I would not recommend riding horse downhill. The horses don’t come with western saddles with all the padding and handle for you to grab. If you’ve never done horseback riding, don’t try it out there.

  c. If you like day hikes, try to go to Wenhai or Lashihai. Not tourist sites, but interesting villages.

  d. If you don’t mind 2-3 hour driving, go to Xuehua village, a tiny little village with 80 people, you can still meet the Yi Shaman there. (Yi is another ethnic group, different from Naxi in Lijiang.)

  e. Further afield, on the border with Dali, there are some wonderful places to visit: Jianchuan Grottoes – most stunning grottoes documenting the history of Dali Kingdom. Not touristy at all, but the hike and the grotto are just absolutely mind boggling. You can hike from the Grottoes to a nearby village called Shaxi – an intact old village, that used to be a key stop of the Southern Silk Road. Lovely old temple, old houses. Again, either without a tour guide, getting lost in it is a wonderful experience. (It’s not that big).  To go there, you need to drive 3 hours each way from Lijiang.

3. Activities in Zhongdian: Songzanlin Monastery, Pudacuo National park will probably take up all your time. I’d recommend you try to visit a local Tibetan home in a village nearby. Anyone will do, just to see what their life is like. Remember to start slow, give yourself time to get used to the altitude when you just get there. Altitude sickness usually hits you after a nap or something like that, with in my case, a bursting headache. Drink lots of water to recover or go with Diamox from your doctor.

Have fun. for more information, check out www. wildchina.com