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 Not sure if the guide books’ outdated or the writer didn’t know about it.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.

Taiqi lesson and fan making, are they tourist traps?

I saw a client email to my staff another day, requesting a series of changes to the itineraries we proposed. The clients email reads:

  1. There is a scheduled visit to the Temple of Heaven in the morning of the 3rd day, and it says learning Taiqi from a master. Please delete that, we are not interested in activities contrived for tourists
  2. There is a visit to a sturgeon farm in Yichang while I only want to go see the 3 gorges, and have no interest in sturgeons.
  3. Day 16 is a visit to Fuli. Fan making is of limited interest to us. What makes this an interesting place to visit?

As I read along, I knew we found the ideal clients – they are engaged, well traveled, and want to make sure they see the authentic China. Yet, I cringed, knowing very well that if my staff followed the email instruction to delete these activities, the clients will miss out exactly what they were seeking- the real china experience.  So I hopped on the phone.

Clients told me that they were seeking a couple of things: a/ a basic understanding of the history of China, b/contrast of the developed and developing parts of China to understand its diversity, c/ exposure to traditional China that’s unspoiled.

Why would WildChina staff arrange the guests to go to Temple of Heaven early in the morning to learn Taiqi? I remember the days when I lived in Beijing, one of my favorite activities is to go to Ritan Park at 6 am, and simply observe the Beijing residents do their morning exercises. Some would sing at the top of their lungs, some do fan dances, some would throw their bodies against a tree, some do Taiqi. It’s simply the best time to people watch and connect.

I went back to the park again with my 1 year old daughter strapped on my back in a carrier. Those old ladies in the park would walk up to me, grab my daughter’s thigh, and ask me in amazement? “孩子怎么这么胖?喂什么了?就喝你的奶呀?” (How can the baby be so fat? What do you feed her? She just drinks your milk?” I’ll save you the answer here, but the point is, these parks in the morning are the real china, fresh from a full nights sleep, people connect as real people, with little inhabitation or consideration of “cultural differences”.

Now the sturgeon farm near the Three Gorges. I was delighted to know when my staff first added this visit to the itinerary. My distaste for the Yangtze Cruise is well known at WildChina. I even spoke about this at the New York Times Travel Show earlier this year. There are better places to see the Yangtze River, but it’s most interesting to understand the environmental and economic challenges brought about by the dam. Visiting a sturgeon farm, for me, is a time when I get to meet the local entrepreneur to understand how their way of living changed because of the dam. When did they start the business, who do they sell to? How has that changed with the dam? To understand the real China, one has to get to these places that are off travel industry route to find out.

Now onto Fuli village near Guilin. The potential clients have never heard about this village, it’s not in tourist guidebooks, as most tourists on the Li River Cruise would bypass the village. That’s a blessing for the villagers, who still live a very traditional agrarian lifestyle, while hand make Chinese paper fans as a side business. Seeing how the local artisans carefully paint those fans is almost a Zen moment for me.

I remember when I was little, people told me that westerners pay more for hand-made things and less for machine-made things. I couldn’t understand why, because I was eager to trade in the cotton-soled shoes (棉底布鞋) that my grandma made under a dim light for a pair of pink plastic sandals! Now, I am willing to pay whatever to have one more pair of her 布鞋,if she were still around.

Strange how time changes, and how I long for the China I grew up with.

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.

For Breathable Air, Visit Beijing in October

A friend/WildChina client sent me the note:

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

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

To my friends comment, here is my response:

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

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