If this is your first and only time to China, where should you go?

A twitter post responding to WildChina’s message prompted this blog piece. @Chinaandbeyond said:

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.

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 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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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.

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Don’t travel to China during Oct. 1 to 7th

Saw this email exchange between a client and my colleague, thought it’s really useful for anyone planning a trip to China in the fall.

Clients email: My husband and I are planning a trip to Asia in late September and are very interested in visiting Tibet and Lijiang.  We will arrive September 26th to Shanghai and will depart October 11th so we will have 14 days for touring.  We are very active and are open to cultural trekking, biking, etc.

My colleague’s answer covered a series of recommended activities and sites, but this is the most important message: Late September to early October is one of the best time to visit China as the weather then is mostly pleasant. However, during the week-long National Holiday ( Oct 1st – 8th ) or few days before/after, all places in China will see a lot of domestic tourists.  If your schedule is flexible, we would like to suggest we make the tour plan after Oct 15th , when the weather is cooler and you will be able to enjoy the local culture as well as the beautiful scenery.

Avoid China during Chinese New Year and Oct 1-7th golden week at all costs. Too many domestic travelers.

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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