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The Interview: Mei Zhang, WildChina

China2_2 With all of the attention on the Olympic Games in Beijing, this seems like a good time to look at some of the other aspects of the enormous country that is China. Specifically, the wilder side of China, the remote places that offer a glimpse into rural life and tribal cultures. One person who does just that is Mei Zhang, a native of Yunnan and a Harvard MBA, who founded WildChina. This Beijing-based company takes travelers to such areas as Tibet, Guangxi, Yunnan and Guizhou. I caught up with Zhang after she had visited Sichuan, the province devastated by earthquakes this spring.

China7_2 Why did you start WildChina?

I started Wild China after spending 6 months traveling around China and the world in 1998. I took a sabbatical from my job at McKinsey & Company and journeyed from Europe to Africa, along the Silk Road, and through Tibet and Nepal. The experience was absolutely one of the best of my life, and it planted the seed for a future start-up. I was struck by how little support was available for travelers looking to get off the beaten path in China and inspired to provide it: premium, stress-free, responsible travel to China's most remote and unique destinations.

There's a lot of attention on China right now, because of the Olympics, the problems in Tibet and of course, the devastating earthquake in southwest China. Honestly, should Americans be considering a trip at this point in time, when things seem so tumultuous?

It's undeniable that things in China are tumultuous. Since the March protests in Tibet, Tibet Travel Permits were not issued to foreigners until recently, when the ban was lifted. The earthquake-devastated Sichuan Province is currently only open to relief workers and supplies. The coming Olympics have caused the Chinese government to tighten regulations on foreign visas and registration, and August will see a flood of people rushing to Olympics to be a part of the Games. However, this is still overall an exciting and safe time to visit China. Every day Beijing becomes more foreigner-friendly, with more and more English language signs, menus, and speakers. Beyond the capital, a beautiful nation of diverse landscapes, peoples, and cultures offers itself up for discovery -- from Tibetan mountains and monks in Yunnan province, to shimmering rice terraces and Miao minority embroidery in Guangxi province, to the endless desert and Muslim mosques along the Great Silk Road.

China From another perspective, I do understand some travelers who may want to stay away from China for political reasons. I was just talking to our guide in Tibet and Sichuan during my recent trip to China. They are all in despair at the moment, because for them, they depend on tourism for their living. The longer travelers stay away from the region, the harder their life will be. These are all local Tibetans or Sichuanese who already suffered enough from these past events that were totally beyond their control. They are as hardworking as any Americans, so there is no better way to help these people by traveling there, understanding their lives and building a common understanding across the oceans. In the end, isn't that the purpose of traveling?

Do you see part of your mission at WildChina as encouraging people to leave Beijing and Shanghai to see what might be termed a more authentic China?

At WildChina, our passion is helping people get off the beaten path and discover unique and hidden sides of China. Our motto is "Experience China Differently..." This is interpreted in different ways. While Beijing and Shanghai may sound like typical tourist track, at WildChina, we strive to find different ways and different sites to allow visitors get to know these familiar places in a different way. For example, in Beijing, we try to take our guests to parts of the Great Wall that's original and less visited. This way, the true stunning beauty of the Wall is not interrupted by tourist crowds. In Shanghai, if we have a group of Jewish visitors from LA or NY, we might schedule for them to see the Synagogue that was built by the Jewish community in old colonial Shanghai. Of course, when we're outside Beijing and Shanghai, we take our clients on journeys into the real heart of China. Some of our favorites are the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail in Yunnan Province, where the colorful ethnic cultures are on full display against breathtaking scenery. We also visit Guizhou Province, which was just featured in the May issue of the National Geographic Magazine. There are of course a lot more places that offer unique adventures around China, the list is long.

China5yunnan  How is traveling in China different from other countries?

I actually think traveling in China is similar to traveling in any other unfamiliar cultures - it takes a sense of adventure to appreciate the beauty of the local culture. The different languages, customs and behavior may seem daunting at the beginning, but once you accept these things with an open heart, then the local residents will welcome into their lives. For example, some of our clients came across Chinese school kids, who would say to their face, " You are fat!" My clients got really upset, and then I tried to put it in perspective. First of all, Chinese don't take comments like this as offense but instead it may be a compliment that they think your life is good, not short of food. Secondly, Chinese kids are all studying English, so they are very proud that they can find a few words to communicate in English. Thirdly, most Chinese are very hospitable, so they'll look for any opportunity to connect with foreign visitors. Once there is understanding, this experience becomes memorable in a different way.

China4gonga_2 You have a mix of itineraries, in terms of both geography and length, from a 16-day trek to Mt Minya Gonga in Szechuan to a quick four days in Tibet. Are the latter meant to be a taste of adventure, add-ons to longer trips?

Our shorter trips can either stand alone, or link together with other trips to form a longer journey. We customize all of our journeys to fit the needs of each of our guests -- from simple overnight excursion to months-long adventures. Most of the itineraries are driven by the actual time needed to experience site. The Hike into Mt. Minya will take that a few days to access and days to complete the trek, while you can fly straight into Lhasa and spend four days visiting the sites around the city. If a traveler wants to explore beyond Lhasa in Tibet, then the four day Tibet trip can then be combined with a five day journey to Everest Base camp, for example.

In terms of the exotic, Tibet is perhaps best known. But what about places that Westerners may not be familiar with, or even heard of, like Quinghai, where you feature the Yushu Horse Festival? What's the attraction there?

Much of Qinghai, although outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, has long been a part of the Tibetan Kingdom. Remote and virtually unexplored by tourists, Yushu is the land of the Guesar de Ling -- mythic heroes and warriors of Tibet -- and the robust Tibetan Khampa people. The area is home to Khampa Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and colorful art, great open grass highlands, thriving Tibetan villages, and one of the world's greatest horse festivals. Also, the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers both originated from Qinghai, so this also provides a great opportunity for anybody interested in environmental issues to travel to the origins of the great rivers of China.

China3 Are you catering primarily to Western travelers or do you get Chinese travelers as well?

Our clients are mainly Western travelers.

How about guides? Do you use locals or do you have your own staff?

Our WildChina guides and drivers are locally employed, some as staff and some as contractors. Regardless of their employment status, they all have undergone rigorous training to guide trips to WildChina standards. Many of our guides belong to an ethnic minority, such as Tibetan, Miao, or Zhuang, and all are superior experts in their home region's local history, cultures, and stories. We also have a main office in Beijing with a mixture of foreign and local staff.

Why would a traveler choose WildChina over, say, one of the large adventure travel companies?

Unlike large travel companies, WildChina is based in China and operates only in China. This focus has helped us to build a deep knowledge of all of China's diverse and hidden corners. We can bring travelers to exciting, off the beaten path destinations that larger travel companies have never heard of. Our extensive local knowledge also helps us to operate more responsibly. We employ local and ethnic minority staff, stay in local boutique hotels, guesthouses, and village homestays, and visit local craftsmen, artisans, and restaurants. We work closely with small village communities, ensuring the protection of local heritage and the true, in-depth cultural experiences of our guests. The company is also founded and run by a very international management. 50% of our management are Chinese nationals and 50% are non-Chinese. This puts the company in a unique position to be able to understand the needs of our travelers and know how to access the best of Chinese culture.

China6_2 How about safety concerns, given the recent disturbances in Tibet?

Safety is absolutely our foremost concern for all of our guests. We would never allow travelers into an area without having complete confidence in the area's safety. The US State Department has issued a Travel Alert warning US citizens to defer travel to Sichuan province, but no alerts for any other areas of China. International SOS has also declared that travel to China can proceed, but that travelers should avoid Sichuan province. We firmly believe that China, outside of Sichuan, is a genuinely safe place for international visitors.

What's next in terms of new places to be explored?

One destination far from the beaten path that I'm particularly excited about is our Tea & Horse Caravan Trail journey in my native Yunnan province. This trip is particularly close to my own heart, as it is deeply tied to my native history and culture. The Tea & Horse Caravan Trail is an ancient trade route that once linked China and Tibet with modern-day India and Thailand. As it wound through southwestern China, the trail passed through landscapes and settlements as diverse as the traders who followed it. Our journey takes travelers through hills and pine forests, markets and ethnic minority villages, and temples and ancient Buddhist caves.

Also, although travel to Sichuan is not currently possible, WildChina is working with WWF develop journeys to Laohegou and Tangjiahe nature reserves in Sichuan province. These unvisited, pristine nature reserves are home to endangered species such as takins, golden monkeys, clouded leopards, and giant pandas. Travelers will be able to hike through breathtaking natural scenery with an expert tracker and guide, glimpsing some of China's most fantastic wildlife. They will also visit some of the region's Tibetan, Qiang, and Baima villages, and learn about conservation and sustainable development projects in the area. In the aftermath of the earthquake, we are planning to develop a program to rebuild schools in the Laohegou area. Our guests, particularly school groups, will be able to help with these projects -- sponsoring local Sichuan schools and doing service work.

For more information, contact WildChina.

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