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The absolute latest updates in China travel information.

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Mei Zhang
WildChina founder, entrepreneur, mother.

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Insider tips on China's finer side

July 30th, 2010

If this is your first and only time to China, where should you go?

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

A twitter post responding to a WildChina tweet 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: http://bit.ly/csCDGq.”

 

Gobi Desert in Gansu, Dunhuang

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 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.

 

Big Goose Pagoda, Xi'an

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 to that.

 

Street Food in Yunnan

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 bear 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 without making your mouth pucker. Fresh vegetables and wild mushrooms are blessings.

Hospitality is another side of the 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.

 

Local Yunnan Dishes

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 can put my tea needle in checked luggage (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.

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July 29th, 2010

Conde Nast Traveler names WildChina Founder Mei Zhang “Top Travel Specialist for 2010″

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

We at WildChina are thrilled to announce that founder Mei Zhang has been named by Condé Nast Traveler‘s Wendy Perrin as a Top Travel Specialist for 2010.

For the past 11 years, Perrin has hand-selected a group of elite travel specialists around the globe for her famous list. According to the Perrin’s introduction to the awards, specialists are chosen for offering “the best blend of expertise, access, and good value” all over the world.

Perrin praises Mei’s expertise in creating unique niche journeys in China, saying,

Zhang wants to show you the “authentic China,” beyond anything you’ll find in guidebooks, and—as a Yunnan Province native, Harvard MBA, and former consultant for the Nature Conservancy—she has a vast network of in-country experts in nearly every field that can make this happen… and get you farther off the beaten path than anyone else.

Mei is proud to be a featured travel specialist for the elite international list this year. She says of the distinction,

It’s such a tremendous honor. It was 10 years ago, almost exactly to the day, that I started WildChina. I still go back to Yunnan constantly, searching for those villages, the hidden Daoist temple, the corner noodle shop that smells like my childhood. One would have thought these would be hard to find, given the fast speed of change in China. But, truth be told, it’s not difficult. The idyllic culture of rural China is still there: the villagers still invite me to their homes for tea, the Nature Reserve chief still rolls up his pant legs to accompany me on hikes through the old forest.  It’s those moments that I cherish and long to share with my guests, and I can, thanks to tremendous support from the WildChina team in Beijing.

Mei is incredibly happy to share such passion with this year’s other distinguished leaders in tourism.

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Learn more about Mei’s fellow Travel Specialists across the globe and see why they are experts in their region of travel.

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July 28th, 2010

Living like the Miao: Guizhou Homestays

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

It is one thing to visit a remote Chinese village – but have you ever wondered what it would be like to live and participate in one?

I often think back to my study abroad experiences in China. While studying at Hangzhou’s Zhejiang University of Technology (through the C.V. Starr – Middlebury program), I loved taking trips with my Chinese roommate, both with school and on our own, meeting local people in various provinces and sampling all things cultural that my semester in China could offer me. (After such a great experience, it’s no surprise that I moved back.)

So, when my colleague Summer, who works in WildChina’s Educational Travel department, recently shared with me a few stories of student homestays in Miao minority villages in Guizhou province, my interest was immediately piqued. The trips’ unique combination of cultural interaction, adventure and service made me wish I were still that student on her abroad program trips.

The coolest part about these trips is that they were both centered rural village homestays – an integral part, in my opinion, of academic travel in China for both high school and college students alike. Doing so offers students a chance to personally encounter and understand daily life for rural minority peoples in China.

The beginning of the students’ homestay was one I didn’t expect: to arrive at these communities, Summer told me, students hiked 1-2 hours from Kaili, a larger town in Guizhou.  With a larger group of students, it’s not always easy to motivate everyone to trek on foot to a new destination. But, the old adage “when in Rome” applies here – it’s all part of the rural experience. I think it is a special, and important, part of the program.

Other highlights I found from my conversation with Summer were Miao fish hotpot, service activities at local schools, and learning to play the lusheng.

But, what really impressed me was the inclusion of household chores in these homestays. This may seem incredibly mundane, but to explain myself, a quick anecdote about my horse-crazed sister. Growing up, she rode at a barn that required riders to do everything from tacking up, feeding the horses, and cleaning stalls to tidying up the barn, fundraising at events, and running a rider-created committee to work on barn improvement. She has always had a closer relationship to and greater understanding of horses and riding than anyone I have ever known.

It’s the same with chores in these Miao villages: there is so much value to being a part of a daily system that sustains a traditional Chinese community. It makes a student’s experience in the community that much more integrated and personal. In the spirit of my own positive personal experience with Chinese community members during study abroad, I think Summer was right to make this a core part of the academic homestay experience.

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Make your school trip experience in China memorable, too – take a look at our customizable educational travel programs.

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July 27th, 2010

Interview with Matthew Hu, Chinese cultural heritage preservationist

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

Beijing’s whirlwind of development, like the rest of China’s, is having serious consequences for the city’s traditional neighborhoods. In wake of such destruction and construction, who is behind the movement to protect the structures of Beijing’s past?

We spoke to Matthew Hu, Beijing-based cultural heritage preservationist and WildChina expert, about Chinese cultural tourism versus cultural preservation, the impending Gulou-area demolition, and what you don’t know about the Great Wall.

WildChina Travel (WCT): How did you first become interested in Chinese heritage preservation?

Matthew Hu (MH): As a Chinese citizen, I’m naturally very interested in Chinese history. I think it’s interesting: it tells me who I am and where I’m from. My generation has been taught history is a very censored, standard way that has been tightly controlled and approved by the government – it’s not very in-depth. In my various jobs relating to Chinese culture and cultural heritage preservation, I’ve always been asked by foreigners to explain my own culture. This prompted me to read more about Chinese history, to really understand it. In order to do so, you really have to understand Chinese heritage. It’s everywhere you go – historical sites, the buildings across from your home, etc. So, this is where my jobs took me. I learned about residential, storage, administrative, ceremonial, and other types of buildings present in Chinese history and culture. They tell you so much about what traditional Chinese culture is all about.

WCT: How have your professional and personal interests related to heritage preservation evolved over the years?

MH: At first, when I was in the travel industry, I went from place to place exploring different traditional Chinese structures. In heritage preservation, you do the same thing, but have more time to understand the rationale, historical background, hidden reasons, and socio-economic circumstances that contribute to the creation of a building or structure. So, my main focus in work has not changed, but rather become more focused. In any culture in China, whether it be Han Chinese or that of a minority group, I find that the most impressive aspect of it is usually the architecture that supports, literally and figuratively, their customs, beliefs, and other aspects of culture. Heritage preservation gives me the opportunity to understand how such structures accomplish this.

WCT: What have your latest projects/initiatives been relating to heritage preservation in China?

MH: Right now I am working on a hutong renovation and preservation project that integrates renovation training into the process. While it is certainly important for preservationists to renovate hutongs, local construction teams, as well as owners and tenants, need to know how to properly restore these homes for longer-lasting cultural impact and better structures. We are collaborating with the local government on training sessions on how to properly and sensitively renovate these courtyard homes, in order to maintain an air of tradition and authenticity. Correct practices are crucial to these homes’ upkeep; otherwise, they quickly deteriorate. For example, if one layer of plaster is put onto a hutong home being renovated, it is proper to wait 7 days until the next coating, so that the first layer is stable. Construction teams, in the interest of time and money, often keep putting on layers without waiting for that first coat to dry. You can see the difference – half a year later, these homes’ walls are already peeling. It’s important to get the details right in this process to properly and effectively preserve these structures.

WCT: Which type of Chinese structure, in your opinion, is most culturally important in China’s history? Why?

MH: It’s hard to say, but if I have to choose, I think the Great Wall and the hutongs. Both are much more diversified than many people think. Take the hutongs, for instance. Each one is different from the other. The culture in each area of hutongs is different as well. As for the Great Wall, each section is unique – different materials are used, aesthetics are different, and more. The Wall has been glorified because it is a symbol of Chinese civilization, but so much of it is neglected because some sections are in remote areas and don’t look as impressive as other parts. Both the hutongs and the Great Wall are largely misinterpreted and neglected.

WCT: In light of the Gulou demolition, how do you think the area will change? At this point, is there anything preservationists, activists, and citizens can do to protect the traditional hutongs?

MH: As of now, the government has already begun the project. It’s hard to say what we can do at this point. There is no public petition process, so the public cannot be part of the game. Anyone who cares about the hutongs can still go and document these areas, and preserve them in that way. While many see the demolition as a development that will be unsatisfactory to many parties, which I do not dispute, I am more inclined to look at it as a case study in understanding preservation versus economic impact. In the government’s eyes, not including the public opinion might save them money avoiding grassroots campaigns and petitioners to stop the development, which would mean jailings and other methods of control. In that way, they can coordinate a systematic method of renovation within the government. This system of disregarding public opinion, however, is not right, and so the outcome will not be satisfactory. We need to keep a close eye on this project and follow its development.

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Photo credit: Organized Networks

Explore these traditional neighborhoods while you still can – take a customized tour of Beijing with WildChina.

Questions? Email us at info@wildchina.com or ask us on Twitter @WildChina.

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July 27th, 2010

Travels that changed one’s life

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

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.

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July 22nd, 2010

Press/Media: Your Chance to Visit China with WildChina!

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

As someone whose first job out of college involved writing for a China-related website, I have a soft spot for writers interested in China. In many ways, China remains a misunderstood place, one whose complexities can only be truly understood and conveyed by those who have  been there. In that spirit, WildChina is excited to officially invite international writers, bloggers and radio / TV hosts to apply to participate in hosted press trips to China this fall.

We’re looking for unique voices that are in sync with the WildChina brand image: premium quality, attentive service and an adventurous spirit. If you produce multimedia content for a luxury adventure travel audience, all the better.

On these press trips, we invite you to experience China the way that our guests do: sipping tea with village elders or shooting hoops with local school kids on a dirt court. This fall, we’ll focus on two trips to southwest China’s Guizhou and Yunnan provinces (you may join just the Guizhou portion, just the Yunnan portion, or both):

1) The Richest Mosaic: Discovering Hidden Minorities of Guizhou (Nov. 6-9, 2010)

We like to think of Guizhou as China’s best-kept secret. A remote province that is still relatively untouched by modern tourism, Guizhou is a must if you want to experience rich ethnic minority culture. On this trip, you’ll hike along ridges of terraced rice paddies from village to village and learn ethnic traditions and craftsmanship.

Curious what Guizhou is like? See for yourself — two of WildChina’s best guides, Billy and Xiao, are featured on our new Vimeo channel, showing what they love most about their home province.

For this press trip, WildChina will provide a car, driver and services of local, English-speaking guides; hotel accommodations; admission fees and activity expenses; meals and drinking water; opportunities to interview village heads and local craftsmen; and free time to explore and conduct interviews on your own.  Please note: you will need to arrange your own international / domestic air to the starting point (Guiyang) and from the ending point (Guiyang).

2) The Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road: An Expedition with Jeff Fuchs (Nov. 10-16, 2010) 

Yunnan is another one of our favorites, given its stunning natural landscapes and cultural diversity. We’re particularly excited to offer a press trip for our newest journey, one that retraces part of a legendary trade route that remains little known to Western audiences. The Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road was a vital route along which Chinese tea was traded for Tibetan horses. On this trip, you’ll travel from Yunnan’s subtropical south in Xishuangbanna, the source of all tea, before heading north up the Road to a former trading post, Shaxi, and further north to Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, finally ending in the mountainous Tibetan region of Shangri-La. Along the way, you’ll sample teas at their origin and study the trail’s impact on ethnic minority villagers.

What makes this trip particularly special is the access you’ll have to Jeff Fuchs, the first Westerner to have ever traveled the entire 5,000-kilometer (3,100-mile) route and author of The Ancient Tea Horse Road. Jeff’s passion for exploring off-the-beaten-path locales and local culture is right up our alley, and we’re pleased that he will lead this press trip in addition to the journeys we’re offering our guests.

For this press trip, WildChina will provide an economy-class air ticket from Xishuangbanna to Dali; a car, driver and services of Jeff Fuchs and local English-speaking guides; hotel accommodations; admission fees, activity expenses and presentations; meals and drinking water; opportunities to interview Jeff; and free time to explore and conduct interviews on your own. Please note: you will need to arrange your own international / domestic air to the starting point (Xishuangbanna) and from the ending point (Shangri-La).

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For more information on either trip, see WildChina’s Press Trips page. To apply, please submit samples of your recent clips (within the past 6 months) and information about your outlet to Anita Narayan at anita.narayan@wildchina.com.

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July 21st, 2010

Travel Tips for Backpacking in China’s Wild West

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

Nang got you down? Eat nuts and dried fruit.

I recently returned to WildChina’s Beijing office after spending 11 days in Gansu province, and a friend similarly returned via train to the capital city yesterday after a month in Xinjiang. Back in the comforts of Beijing, we compared notes about how to successfully, comfortably, and cleanly traverse China’s Western provinces. Here are our best tips, combined:

1) Bring dried fruit and nuts for fulfilling and nutritious snacks/meal supplements: My friend loved Xinjiang’s famous nang bread and pulled noodles, but after five days of eating them for almost every meal, she felt neither inspired nor healthy from the carb-heavy Uyghur cuisine. To vary her diet for taste and health, she brought bags of dried fruit and nuts from Beijing, where she found cheap and delicious varieties at Sanyuanli Market (right by the WildChina office!). This way, she was able to get enough protein and fiber on the road when she didn’t have many dining options.

2) Don a sturdy pair of jeans: This may seem obvious, but I could not have a) horse trekked, b) camped warmly, c) visited historic sites in the rain, or d) gone to dinner when the weather was cooler without my sole pair of blues. I wore them almost every day, and they served me very well. As the summer in the West is generally a bit cooler than in the East, jeans are a necessity for both outdoor and indoor activities.

3) Be flexible with your time: Life in China’s West is much more laidback than that in the East – it’s less-developed, and so people feel less of a rush at work and at play. Make your schedule so that it accommodates the easygoing attitude. Your body will thank you, too – in places of higher elevation (such as Gansu’s grasslands), you’ll naturally feel more tired and less inclined to have a super-packed day.

4) Learn to wash your hair in the sink: Less infrastructure and a lower standard of living in the West means fewer washing facilities. Work with what you have to get clean (i.e. sinks, streams, bottled water, hoses, etc.). The cooler, drier climate means that you’ll probably sweat less, so showering should hopefully not be as crucial. In any case, bring a bandana and moisture-wicking clothing.

5) Bring toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a stain remover stick: You’ll be set for any surprising situation (basic bathrooms [or none at all], dirty busses, oil from dinner on your only shirt) with these.

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Have more questionsSend us a tweet.

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July 21st, 2010

Meet our Guizhou guides on Vimeo

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

Inspired by Guizhou‘s Miao minority villages in which we recently organized homestays – more on that later – we’re pleased to introduce two of our top guides in Guizhou on WildChina’s new Vimeo channel.

See for yourself why Billy and Xiao are fantastic guides, and what they love most about their home province.

Billy:

Meet the WildChina Guides: Billy in Guizhou from WildChina Travel on Vimeo.

Xiao:

Meet the WildChina Guides: Xiao in Guizhou from WildChina Travel on Vimeo.

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What do you think? Tell us on Twitter.

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July 21st, 2010

What We’re Reading: 72 Hours in Yangshuo

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

At WildChina’s Beijing office, we loved the playful and poetic piece by CNNGo‘s Dan Ouyang, “72 Hours in Yangshuo: Tourist town by trade, simple village at heart,” on one of Guangxi’s most charming areas.

Our personal highlight from the article was Ouyang’s description of the bike ride to Fuli Town. She sums it up perfectly: “Bicycling on nearly deserted roads, we passed by solitary farmers in rice paddies, water buffalo lowing in ponds, sandal-clad provincial bee farmers and tourist couples on tandem bikes, all against a postcard-perfect backdrop.”

 

On bike, visitors to Guangxi can marvel and natural landscapes and local communities, like Langzi Village.

While the town is nothing special in comparison to Guangxi’s many delights (as she mentions), we agree that the trip through the province’s rustic landscapes she describes is simply fantastic.

Ouyang’s 72-hour trip around Yangshuo is perfect for the area, but if you’d like to venture out and see a bit more of the province, we recommend 5 days in total. Our Rustic Guilin itinerary, which includes Longsheng and the Li River as well as Yangshuo, gets to the heart of Guangxi’s rural charm. Or, if you’re looking for an in-depth adventure that combines culture with natural splendor, tack on a few extra days with our Stepping into the Scroll journey.

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July 21st, 2010

What does one do with a brick of tea?

By: Mei | Categories: Culture, News You Can Use

You know what I am talking about – that brick or disc of tea in the velvet box! What do you do with it?

A few years ago, we were living in LA. My dear father came from Yunnan to stay with us in America for the first time. He brought a few bricks of Yunnan Pu’er tea (普洱沱茶) as gifts for people. Literally, they look like a solid disc or brick that if you get wacked on the head, you’d bleed.

I held him back, telling him that Laowai (Chinese endearment for “foreigners”) really didn’t know how to appreciate tea, and they wouldn’t know what to do with the brick.  Finally, we were going to dinner at this famous screen playwright’s house for dinner, my dad insisted in bringing one brick and presented it to the writer. The writer was very polite and thanked my father. I never went back to ask what he did with it.

Let’s face it, the brick of tea is packed so dense, that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. It’s too big to boil as one serving of tea; it’s so hard that you need a hammer to break it; it makes a huge mess if you do that! So, all the bricks I have collected still mostly sit on my bookshelf, until yesterday.

A big background on Pu’er tea, this is one type of tea that Yunnan Province in Southwest China is known for. They brew into a strong dark brown colored tea. But, historically, this tea was always packed on horse backs and carried by caravan trademen over dare-devil terrain onto the Tibetan Plateau. There, they transfer into the famed Tibetan Yak Butter Tea.  Honestly, I prefer drinking Pu’er tea by itself without the yak butter part.  Nevermind my personal taste, Yak butter tea is an essential form of calorie for Tibetans. The transportation route became known as the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road. National Geographic magazine ran a beautiful article on this road, but I was hugely offended by the article left out Yunnan.

People from Yunnan still prefer to store tea in the same condensed brick form. In fact, it is said that the older the tea, the more valuable it is. So, many collectors are in search for decade old tea. There are tea connoisseurs in China, as there are wine connoisseurs in the west.

Back in May, I walked into a tiny tea store in Heshun Old town in Tengchong, Yunnan. A young tea salesman told me that I needed a 解茶针,(needle for separating the tea). I had no idea that special equipment was available to do this job. He also explained that the tea brick was pressed together one layer at a time. So, adjust natural tendency to break off a chunk, one should carefully peel layers of tea horizontally.

I took the needle as a treasure and tucked into my purse. Hello?? How stupid is that!! I was caught at the airport security in Tengchong. To my amazement, the airport staff saw it on the imaging screen, and said, “Take the TEA NEEDLE out! It has to go in checked luggage. “Oh, no!” I groaned, knowing very well that I’d loose the needle, as no one had ever bothered to retrieve my check luggage for something like this.

Well, I was in for a surprise. People there knew that I couldn’t do anything with the tea if I didn’t have the proper instrument. So, they found my luggage, and now I have the tea needle in DC!

With tool in hand, I gave it a try yesterday, and was delighted with the result- now in a glass jar for future use. My son was busy playing with my iphone next to me. I tried to explain to him what I was doing, telling him about tea from mom’s hometown.  He simply ignored me. Never mind.

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Photo credit: The Half-Dipper

If anyone’s listening, WildChina’s tea journey with Jeff Fuchs is worth the experience.

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Please tell us about your dream trip, including your reasons for taking this journey to China (e.g. first time to China, to celebrate an occasion, better understand a specific place or cultural aspect of China, etc.). If you have questions, please browse our Frequetly Asked Questions page or post your question below.