6 tips traveling with kids in Asia

One of the perks of my job is traveling with my kids. Over the years, I’ve saved up a few tips to share.

Fish Spa in Cambodia

1. Slow down the Pace and allow kids (and yourself) down time.
We tend to feel pressured to pack too many things into one day’s travel plan. The pressure is well justified as we are often talking about thousands of dollars of plane rides for the family, so get as much as you can.  But, in the end, kids get grumpy, parents are exhausted. To me, that’s a lose/lose situation.  So, I often plan just one major outing for each day, and have the rest of the time for hanging out.  Take Cambodia as an example, the temples can get repetitive really quickly.  So, I made a deal with the kids, one temple a day! That plus the time they spent watching monkeys in the temple grounds would usually take us to noon, then, we grab a nice lunch in one of the road side restaurant, back to hotel for the baby to nap, the older kids for an afternoon movie, while I get a massage.  Then it’s pool time, followed by excursions for dinner and ice cream in local markets.
2. Stay put in a place at least 2-3 nights before moving.
city hopping was driven by the same pressure.  I got to see everything! . Wrong. it burns out the kids and you. Stay at a place a little longer so they develop a sense of routine, which calms them down.
3. Try to take 1 or 2 kids on a special “date” trip with mommy or daddy.
We often travel as a whole family entourage for chrismas and spring break, but through out the year, I try to take the kids on separate trips to match their time and interests. The younger ones could afford missing preschool for long stretches at a time. So, I took them to China with me for 6 weeks, slow pace of travel worked great. We covering Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Cambodia.  Then I didn’t want the older child to feel left out, took just him on a cruise to patagonia as observing animals/hiking in nature was his love, while if we had the little ones, we wouldn’t have been able to do as much.
4. Choose a hotel or cruise that’s kids friendly and also with family clientele.

A lodge or cruise sounds great, until you discover that your kid might be the only child among large groups of baby boomers. That puts too much pressure on the parents to constantly provide entertainment. It’s best, when on a cruise, your child finds a pal to play cards, chess or watch movie with.
5. Whenever it’s affordable, take a guide, sometimes they can double as sitter.
I’ve found this often possible on my travels. Most guides in China, Cambodia are so eager to help that they are willing to spend time to help out with the kids.  I had 3 kids with me at the Great Wall, the oldest one ran fast, while the baby was still in my arms. So the guide willingly took the hand of the middle child and helped her up and down those steep stairs. Same thing as in Cambodia, I hired a guide for the day, but was done with touring by lunch time, so the guide happily played games with the child back at the hotel. It’s often fun to see the kids learning different games from different cultures.
6. Favor houses and villas over hotel, favor places with a pool.
I always needed a microwave to heat up milk at 6 am.  Some times kids want to climb into my bed.  Hotels just don’t work as well with 3 kids.  Houses always! Pool is always a lifesaver!

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.

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.

Is it OK to call your travel agent at 3:30am?

“Absolutely NO.” is my immediate answer.  But, we just did.

A travel agent called WildChina’s US at 3:30pm EDT, which makes it exactly 3:30am in the middle of the night in Beijing, to tell us that her client just notified her that her flight from Guilin to Beijing was delayed from midnight, and now she’d be arriving at 5am in Beijing.

Could WildChina make sure someone’s picking her up at that early hour?

My colleague and I looked at each other, and answered her firmly, “YES.”  Because that traveler is a WildChina client, and there is no way that we are leaving our travelers stranded at the airport after a full night’s delays to wait another 3 hours before their car ride comes.

But, to make it happen, there is no option but to call our Beijing office colleagues. To our happy relief, the staff picked up the phone, and said that she had been monitoring the flights and have adjusted the pick ups already. Clients are to be picked up at 5am!

When I heard this, I couldn’t help but feel myself getting emotional from this. How often in the corporate world, do you find a staff more dedicated to clients than the staff of WildChina?

If anyone called me at 3:30am, I’d be really mad!! By the way, my father and husband included. They know to avoid calling after 10pm my time. But this? A phone call from an overseas office in the middle of the night about a car pick up for somebody you’ve never met? She took it with such grace and professionalism! Her name is Maya Ren.

I guess I got emotional, particularly because the day before another WildChina staff found out that there was misunderstanding about the deadline of a VIP travel proposal. It was due on Wednesday US time. She found out at 10pm Beijing time Wednesday evening – that means, unless she pulls the all-nighter, there was no way she’d be able to deliver. I was almost ready to call the client and tell them to wait another day, but she and her teammate told me to wait. They would work on it then, and sleep the next day.

At 2am Beijing time, 2pm on Wednesday afternoon in New York, the beautiful proposal arrived in client’s email box! Their names are Amy Sun and Sunshine Shang.

I was rendered speechless by the amazing commitment from the WildChina team in Beijing. Thank you!

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/

Lonely Planet China guide is good looking with mediocre content

I was very impressed by the beginning of the Lonely Planet China Guide book. “the Best of China” page offered a quick summary of the classic highlights of the country that one should never miss – The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, etc. The photos are beautiful. I also liked the section that introduced the writers, bringing a human face to advice they are dispensing.  Then the Rural China, Eat China, Hike China and Red China pages all offered some interesting sites, and are very helpful for those who want to venture off the Yangtze Cruise to experience the real China.

But, to me, it also demonstrated the lack of access due to language constraint. For example, the Hike China section is a bit limited. Having hiked most of the trails listed in that section, I beg to differ. For example, the Yubeng hike aka. Pilgramage trail to Mt. Kawagebo is among the most breathtaking and spiritual hike. WildChina team members first hiked in this area in the late 90s, and only now that trail is gaining some awareness among Chinese speakers. Not sure if the guide books’ outdated or the writer didn’t know about it. Either way, I think there could be a better guide on hiking ops in China.

Then I went straight for the section on lodging (called “Sleeping” in the guidebook) in Beijing. It is unfortunately written by a backpacker who is too well versed in adjectives such as “top notch”, “Elegance”, “gorgeous” “stunning”, “impressive”, “outstanding”, “splendid”, “enticing”.. I’ll save you the rest, but seriously, these words all appeared in 3 paragraph describing St. Regis, Grand Hyatt, and China World Hotel. You can basically randomly re-allocate these words, and the information you are getting won’t change a bit.

Obviously, the writer hasn’t stayed in any of these places.  I wish there is a bit more details like, The Made In China restaurant in the Grand Hyatt serves the best “Begger’s Chicken” and is one of the most interesting Chinese restaurants to dine in because of the open kitchen layout. You get to see the chefs tossing the greens in a wok alight with fire!  By the way, I think the Frommers Guide does a much better job with restaurants recommendations. Also, for families traveling with children, the China World Hotel Service Apartments offer the best option- with large rooms, ensuite kitchen, etc.

Also, among the top notch, I’d add the Opposite House for its zen like design and personal service. Not to mention the beautiful Aman at the Summer Palace. These are the more boutique hotels that really make Beijng an interesting destination to stay.

What got me most is the section on “Beijing for Children”. I have a feeling that the authors didn’t really travel to Beijing with kids. The hardest thing I found upon arriving in Beijing is how to kill the early morning hours due to jet lag. Two very important things for me: breakfast at 金湖茶餐厅 (GL Cafe Restaurant),and morning walks in Ritan Park. The Café is a 24hr Hong Kong style restaurant, very helpful at 4am when there is no other place to eat, and the kids are crying! They have branch locations next to the St. Regis and the China World. Hotel. And they have high chairs. Ritan Park is a major source of entertainment as it opens at 6am for the morning exercises- an entertaining place for the kids to watch others play badminton, or do taiqi. Maybe that’s me, but I need to have the jetlag bunch taken care off before I could think of ice skating in Beijing. A good source, follow @BeijingWithKids on twitter.

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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