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.
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.
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/
A very happy client of WildChina sent in a quick note to thank us “I just wanted to let you both know we are having a great trip here in China. It is a beautiful country with incredible sights and history. All of the people we have met have been wonderful! And your guides have all been terrific. Thanks for setting everything up!”. A bit background, this is one couple traveling with more than a dozen kids – a feat that I can only admire!
Then came my staff’s response. “ Guess not easy for you to manage all the kids, but heard from our guides, the kids are quite obedient and sensible…” I am not sure how our clients would react to this, as I knew my colleague only meant it as a compliment, without realizing there is a different connotation in English.
The word “obedient” was “ 乖” (pronounced as Guai) on my colleague’s mind. 乖 is translated as “obedient” according to google. But the truth is, there is no word in English that expresses what “Guai” means. This is one of the few cultural incidences that made translation impossible.
In Chinese families, kids are praised if they behave well, i.e. listens to parents and elders, does what he or she is told to do, does not challenge authority, or creates mischief. Adults would say, “孩子真乖，听话”. (you are Guai and listened well.” So, this is praise simply on the child’s behavior, as a compliment. There is a general social acceptance that adults’ words are to be heeded and respected.
But in English environment, we still want the kids to listen, but there isn’t such a praise word for obedient behavior. Usually, if my son did his homework by himself without me prodding, I’d say “Good Job.” When he doesn’t listen to me, I count “1, 2, 3” and then “Time out”. “Guai” concept simply doesn’t exist, as sometimes, kids being naughty and breaking rules is viewed as “entrepreneurial” potential. It’s true, I am sure Mark Zuckerberg, founder of facebook wasn’t a “Guai” child.
At the same time, the word “Obidient” often has a negative connotation on both the parents and the kids. It comes across as the children being overly pressured to follow rules, and the parents overly managing their children.
Hope our clients didn’t take this as an offence.
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!
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?
Talking to a journalist recently. He asked me: I’m thinking of going to China in Sept. or Oct. to do a story on China’s holy mountains. Have you been to many of them? Any particular one worth profiling?
Here is my answer:
I am sure you’ve researched, two different definitions of China’s holy mountains:
Wuyue, Five sacred mountains:
1. Tai Shan, Taoist mountain of the east, Shandong
2. Heng Shan Bei, Taoist mountain of the north, Shanxi
3. Hua Shan, Taoist mountain of the west, Shaanxi
4. Heng Shan Nan, Taoist mountain of the south, Hunan
5. Song Shan, Taoist mountain of the center, Henan
Four Buddhist mountains:
1. Wutai Shan in Shanxi
2. Putuo Shan in Zhejiang
3. Ermei Shan in Sichuan
4. Jiuhua Shan in An’hui
Shame to say, I’ve only been to Er’mei, which is stunning. Most of these places are very crowded with tourist, but if you opt for hiking up the mountain the same way the monks did years ago, it’s still really beautiful. Jiuhua Shan is close to the Yellow Mountain. There are some lovely villages nearby that’s worth your visit – Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon was filmed there – all those bamboo forests.
If you include Tibet on the list, then I have been the holiest of all Mt. Kailash. I hiked around the mountain myself for 2 days. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.