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.

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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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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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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Where should you go in China if it’s your first and only trip?

I recommend a classic China itinerary:
Beijing -3 days, for imperial Chinese history
Xi’an – 1 days, for ancient Chinese history
Yunnan Province – 7 days, for colorful ethnic cultures and stunning scenery
Shanghai – 2 days, to experience the head-spinning modern China

Skip Hong Kong if you have limited time. You can always swing by on your next business trip.

Don’t do the Yangtze River Cruise unless it’s absolutely your thing. Too much time spent on board with hundreds of other western tourists, eating hotel food. Why come to China to do that?

Come back to my post to read about what to do if you have 3 days in Beijing and more

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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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