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August 17th, 2010

Sign of the times: Lonely Planet goes Chinese

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

 

Around a decade ago Yunnan was still a bit off most travelers’ radar, but today it is one of China’s top draws for both international and domestic travelers.

For international travelers, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that the main factor that put Yunnan on the map toward the end of the 90s was the opening paragraph of the province’s chapter in Lonely Planet’s China guidebook:

“Yunnan is without doubt one of the most alluring travel destinations in China. It’s the most geographically varied of all of China’s provinces, with terrain as widely divergent as tropical rainforest and icy Tibetan highlands. It is also the sixth-largest province in China and the home of a third of all China’s ethnic minorities and half of all China’s plant and animal species. If you could only go to one province, this one might well be it. [emphasis added]”

It was one of the most succinct (and accurate) summaries of what is one of China, Asia and the world’s most topographically, biologically and ethnically diverse regions. It was only a matter of time before the world realized how unique Yunnan is. Domestically it is already well on its way to becoming a “brand” of sorts like California or Tuscany.

Which brings us back to domestic tourism – and again to the Lonely Planet, who recently published it first Chinese-language guidebook introducing a part of China to Chinese people. What was it? Not surprisingly, Yunnan.

Former Lonely Planet contributor Chris Taylor’s recent review of the LP’s Chinese-language guide to Yunnan captures the through-the-looking glass feeling we had when we got our hands on a copy of the book:

“There is perhaps no greater irony of modern travel than being photographed by the natives with digital SLRs. Times have changed and now foreigners are part of the colorful backdrop for Chinese on personal journeys of discovery in their homeland. Add another layer of irony: in Yunnan, some of those Chinese travelers are now armed with a Chinese-language Lonely Planet guidebook to the province.”

As recently discussed in this blog, the popular destination of Lijiang is now held up as a model of how to not use tourism to develop a city. But that’s not to say Lijiang isn’t worth visiting. It’s all about knowing where and when to go to avoid the crowds.

The LP Yunnan guide won’t affect Chinese travel habits the way it did with laowai (foreigners) but it is still noteworthy in that it shows how important Yunnan already is to China’s domestic travel market.

This no doubt means that there are plenty of destinations overrun by unsustainable commercial tourism, but these places are all connected to a tight network of agents, shops and “scenic areas” operating on a code based upon kickbacks. Unfortunately for the Chinese market, there are no domestic WildChinas offering real off-the-beaten path options.

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Photo credit: Amazon

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August 9th, 2010

Chopsticks out: Chengdu now a “City of Gastronomy”

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

We were interested to learn on CNNGo today that Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has recently been named Asia’s first “City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO.

How did it beat out the competition (which is fierce, considering the many delicious Asian cuisines that exist)? Besides its delectable history of fiery cuisine, the city fit UNESCO’s extensive criteria for the distinction described by CNNGo:

A city must have a well-developed cuisine that is characteristic of the region; nurture a vibrant community of chefs and traditional restaurants; show local know-how of traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial and technological advancements; maintain traditional wet markets; have a history of hosting gastronomic events; prove active in the promotion of sustainable local products; and be committed to nutritional education and the inclusion of bio-diversity conservation programs in cooking schools.

As author Annabel Jackson mentions, this is a great opportunity to showcase some of China’s lesser-known cuisine to the world. As big fans of Sichuan, we’re thrilled that the area is receiving more publicity for its culinary heritage.

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Read more about Chengdu’s appetizing award and its culinary delights on CNNGo.

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August 5th, 2010

Opposing viewpoint: No to Lijiang?

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

This week on Twitter, we engaged in a short but telling debate with @chinaandbeyond, or blogger Jessica Marsden, on Lijiang, Yunnan province.

 

After reading our tweets on our Chinese Treasures journey – our ‘China 101′ itinerary with an-off-the-beaten-path twist – she challenged our choice of Lijiang among cultural and historical mainstays Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an in a blog post, citing its devolvement into a tourist trap.

As we have discussed in previous posts on the WildChina blog, we don’t dispute this fact. Much of Lijiang’s cultural value has been replaced by cafes, bars and other entertainment venues targeted at foreigners. It’s a tough call, and one that we have to make each time we take our clients to lesser-known villages and sites in the area.

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Photo credit: Michael Mudd

Explore the many facets of this ongoing debate: read Jessica’s full post on her blog and Lonely Planet, get our thoughts on the subject, and join the conversation on tourism in China with us on Twitter.

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July 13th, 2010

The Hypocrisy of Tourism?

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

Clean technology, sustainable tourism. They go hand-in-hand in China, right?

Not so, says Hunan province’s Zhang Yue, or “Chairman Zhang” – the founder and chairman of innovative, clean-tech Broad Air Conditioning and accompanying utopian Broad Town in Changsha, the province’s capital.

 

Zhang Yue ("Chairman Zhang") of Broad Air Conditioning and Broad Town in Changsha, Hunan province.

The Chairman, according to a recent New York Times article, “achieved the new Chinese dream of making millions, but then dropped the jet-setting life for a green philosophy that determines company policy” for his air conditioning empire.

While Chairman Zhang is unwaveringly pro-green technology and sustainable living, he does not have the same praise for tourism in China. The author of the article, Manuela Zoninsein, writes,

Despite Broad [Air Conditioning]‘s affiliation with the Expo, [Chairman] Zhang remains vociferous and critical, pointing out the innate hypocrisy of focusing on sustainable urban development while also “inducing people to tour, to attract more people for tourism. … All of the above is quite dangerous,” Zhang warns, before pulling another drag on his cigarette.

Though the thought of hordes of visitors to the Expo may not conjure up images of sustainability etc., Zhang seems to overlook the value of the event as an educational tool. The Expo isn’t “inducing people to tour” so much as to experience the future of our world.

What are they experiencing? Models for better living and technology for a more environmentally-friendly future. The Expo’s primary mission has never been to simply entertain or amass crowds (though these are certainly side-effects). Rather, the event displays a re-conceptualization of life as we know it. It is important for China’s citizens – and people all over the world – to be exposed to this, especially in the context of living ‘green’ and sustainably in highly-populated areas.

There is certainly a cost to this education in the form of human traffic and waste generated during the Expo. But is any education free? The danger here, which Zhang suggests there is, is being unaware of how crucial this is to our survival (urban, suburban, or rural).

In a broader context, we at WildChina must constantly ask the following questions: Are we turning “off-the-beaten-path” destinations into purchasable commodities for people to exploit? Are we, in fact, playing into the hypocrisy that Chairman Zhang so vehemently opposes?

While Chairman Zhang may say yes, we beg to differ. Why? In contrast to the mass tourism agencies that are rampant all over China at present, WildChina cares deeply about cultural and environmental sustainability, and we strive to achieve these in each trip that we operate. The venues, activities, and guides that we choose for our journeys are intended to teach and engage our travelers, to push them beyond their previous notions of what ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ mean. Accessing the farthest reaches of this country, whether that translates to cities or villages, means that our visitors aren’t numbers in overrun tourist traps, but examiners and thinkers in communities and spaces beyond the public eye.

So, Chairman, I challenge you: how can educating China’s people about the perils of lifestyles unchanged, and travelers of cultures oft-misunderstood be ‘dangerous’? In order to move forward with global ‘green’ goals, we must show people what life could be like with such practices and technology in place. We, as a tour operator, also commit to supporting traditional local communities while promoting cultural understanding by taking travelers all over China. In these ways, people avoid the dangers of being ignorant and unaware about our environment and our world, wherever they may be.

Let’s call this Lesson #1.

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Photo credit: NY Times

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Post a comment, or talk to us on Twitter @WildChina.

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June 17th, 2010

Travel Tip: Planning Luxury Family Travel in China

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

As China’s best luxury tour operator with a focus on customized, off-the-beaten-path tours to China, WildChina specializes in making family trips to China exciting, memorable, and hassle-free for both children and parents.

This morning at the WildChina Beijing office, we read Eva Vasquez’s excellent CNN article on luxury family travel with great interest, as this type of travel to China is increasingly common. Vasquez’s practical advice – from determining appropriate activities for your family and choosing how much to plan, to involving children in decision-making and more – helps traveling families decide how to make the most of our their experience.

WildChina similarly subscribes to many of the ideas Vasquez writes of in her article. For example, for our Classic China Family Vacation: Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin & Shanghai, we make sure to choose hotels in these metropolitan cities with kid-friendly pools. Pint-sized travelers on our Cultural Family Vacation: Beijing, Henan, Xi’an, Yunnan & Shanghai can delight in hands-on activities to help them learn about traditional Chinese culture.

What are other important points to keep in mind for a luxury family trip specifically to China? Barbara Henderson, WildChina’s Director of Private Journeys, has a few key tips for successful luxury family travel in China:

 

1) Inquire about “wow” moments just for the kids. Rather than simply including your children on your family trip, ask for child-friendly activities to keep them entertained and engaged. Activities like kite-making, kungfu lessons and calligraphy will make China more accessible and interesting for them.

2) With young children, bring your own carseat and stroller. You can buy these in China, but they might not be up to the safety standards that you are used to. Keep your trip worry-free by bringing the products you trust.

3) Let guides know if your child is a picky eater. Some children are incredibly adventurous when it comes to Chinese (or other) food, whereas some prefer to eat macaroni and cheese exclusively. No one wants a hungry child and upset child if they refuse food at every meal, so be clear to arrange options and alternatives accordingly.

4)  Educate your children on China’s culture and history. They’ll get the most out of their China trip if they have some concept of China beforehand. Read up on specific historic sites, monuments, and/or destinations you will visit, so that children can connect stories with the real thing once you arrive.

5) Want a special evening out? Arrange babysitters with your tour operator. See what your guides have to say about hired help for an evening where you are staying. Rather than just hiring someone to watch television, your tour operator might be able to find fun ways to engage your child while you enjoy a special performance or nice dinner out.

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Want more tips for travel in China? Email us at info@wildchina.com, or send us a tweet @WildChina.

 

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May 9th, 2010

What We’re Reading: “In Shanghai, Preservation Takes Work”

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

It seems that Beijing is not the only Chinese city whose rapidly-changing aesthetic and identity have visitors and residents alike thinking about its past and present.

Recently, a New York Times article, titled “In Shanghai, Preservation Takes Work,” explored Shanghai’s development in light of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, whose pavilions opened their doors to the public on May 1st.

 

A modern, European-style building on Shanghai's Wujiang Road

The article quotes both Anne Warr and Peter Hibbard, two WildChina experts on architecture and history (respectively). On Shanghai’s disappearing past, Warr notes that there is still an impressive amount of history to be seen, saying, “For a city which has developed as rapidly as Shanghai, the number of historic properties that have managed to survive is a miracle.” Hibbard comments on the remarkable restoration of the city’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, a famous 1800s-era monument built by the Bund.

We were also particularly interested in the section regarding Shanghai’s Jewish neighborhoods, as WildChina is offering a one-day Shanghai Expo Tour, titled “Shanghai’s Jewish History.” For more information, a complete listing of this and other one-day tours can be found on the WildChina website.

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Photo credit: NY Times

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April 29th, 2010

What We’re Reading: Peter Greenberg’s ways to assist in Haiti, Chile and China

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

In our ongoing efforts to assist those in Qinghai who suffered greatly from the Yushu earthquake, WildChina follows our peers in the travel world and their suggestions for providing aid to the area, in addition to providing our own insights.

 

Aftermath of the Earthquake in Chile

 

One news item that particularly caught our eye was travel guru Peter Greenberg‘s article, Volunteer Vacations: Disaster Assistance in Haiti, Chile & China, on how to get involved in aid efforts to these three disaster-stricken areas. Combining service and travel, Greenberg’s article provides concrete ways to contribute to these regions’ health, community, and rebuilding efforts.

One of our highlights from the article is UNICEF’s efforts for women and children in Yushu. Greenberg writes,

‘The agency is [...] joining hands with China’s National Working Committee on Children and Women to establish ‘child-friendly spaces’ where young survivors of the earthquake can receive psycho-social support in a protective environment.’

In addition to providing relief materials, UNICEF will be providing very important and valuable services to preserve the psyche of those surviving in Yushu. For more information, visit UNICEF’s homepage.

 

Aftermath of Earthquake in Haiti

A complete list of Greenberg’s ways to provide disaster assistance can be found on Peter Greenberg’s blog.

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Photo credit: Alison Wright and Radio Netherlands Worldwide

Explore the ways that WildChina is helping in Yushu on our blog.

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March 9th, 2010

What We’re Reading: National Geographic ADVENTURE’s “First Ski Descent in China’s Minya Konka: Against the Clouds”

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

This past Monday, National Geographic ADVENTURE posted an article discussing the excitement – and danger – of skiing the increasingly-popular Mt. Minya Gongga (or ‘Konka’) region in China’s western Sichuan province.

 

 

Cliff Ransom writes,

In recent years the [Minya Konka] region has seen a marked increase in climbing expeditions, driven in part by a looser permitting process within China and a growing trend among elite climbers to favor smaller, more technical and unclimbed peaks over 8,000 meter behemoths. It has also seen a concurrent rise in morbid headlines—the rough terrain and unpredictable weather conspire to make the mountains of western China particularly avalanche prone.

While the risk is high, it is certainly rewarding if one can successfully ski this incredible area of China. However, it is equally incredible to trek through this area – as Rigby, Backstrom, Monega, and Chin did in the article – sans skis. WildChina offers an adventurous expedition to Minya Gongga , summiting three high-altitude passes, trekking through alpine forests and grasslands, and hiking the pilgrimage trail to Gongga Temple. Accompanied by expert local guides, travelers experience trekking that challenges even the most avid of climbers.

The reward? An extraordinary adventure in one of the most remote and untouched corners of China. With or without skiing as a part of your trip in this area of Sichuan, Mt. Minya Gongga’s awe-inspiring peaks will provide an unforgettable experience for the adventurous traveler.

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February 4th, 2010

Revisiting “China’s Magic Melting Mountain”: A frank look at tourism in Yunnan

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

When reading Orville Schell’s recent article in Conde Nast Traveler, “China’s Magic Melting Mountain,” readers might notice that the destinations in Yunnan he describes seem rather, well, touristy.

Schell is quick to outline the realities of these tourist meccas. Of Mt. Kawagebo, he writes:

“A distant rooster crows, and the sun bursts into full flame over the ridge. As if some switch were thrown to make them artificially glow from within, the mountains’ peaks become tinted with gold and orange. The Chinese tourists around me begin clicking away on their cameras with the intensity of tail gunners whose bomber squadron has suddenly come under attack.”

On Lijiang, Schell is even less forgiving; he calls it a “high-kitsch carnival of Naxi minority culture.”

 

Lijiang: unforgettable Naxi minority town, or simply a playground for mass tourism?

Comments such as these beg the question: if Yunnan’s Lijiang and Mt. Kawagebo are so kitschy and crowded, then what is the point of visiting them? And, from a potential client’s point of view, why is WildChina still visiting these areas? Don’t they promote “experiencing China differently?”

We, too, have often debated the issue of historical and culture value versus tourist developments and influx in these areas. In the spring and summer of 2009, we wrote a few blog posts on the issue. Our April 14, 2009 blog post, entitled “What We’re Reading: NYTimes Goes to Yunnan,” addresses the struggles of preserving the uniqueness of such a popular destination on our trips:

“For operators like WildChina, it’s always a balancing act to manage sustainable development of a site while promoting its appeal to future travelers. On one hand, you might want to keep small places a secret so that they retain that je ne sais quo that made the place so appealing in the first place. On the other, you want to promote these amazing places and tell everyone about them so that they can share your experience.”

Three days later, we explained our philosophy regarding responsible tourism:

“For WildChina, our goal of responsible travel includes providing travelers a greater understanding of local cultural and environmental issues… It means visiting Songzanlin Monastery, also referred to by Jenkins, but having monks guide us through areas normally off-limits and having tea with a top lama in his private chambers. And it means visiting local families in surrounding Tibetan villages, like Hamagu, where World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working to build support for sustainable tourism as an alternative source of income to logging.”

We at WildChina realize that as more tourists flood these areas, some aspects of local culture and environment are inevitably compromised. However, despite these realities, we strongly believe that we are still able to give our guests a unique travel and cultural experience.

How do we accomplish this? We travel away from the crowds. We engage in people-to-people meetings and interactions so that our travelers experience daily Chinese life. We offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, such as meeting with a Bimo shaman (see our Chinese Treasures itinerary). In smaller, more intimate Naxi villages nearby, we take our guests to local markets and community performances by village elders. It is through these personalized experiences and intimate looks at life in Yunnan that we are able to customize our travelers’ experiences and maintain the wonder of local cultures for our guests.

It’s also important to consider why these sites have become as touristic as they are. Why do thousands flock to Yunnan each year? There is clearly a reason why: Yunnan is one of the most diverse areas of China. Lijiang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an absolute must-see; Mt. Kawagebo is a spectacular and breathtaking sacred Tibetan mountain. While we cannot and do not deny that mass tourism does have negative effects upon these areas, the tourist culture in this area reflects the reality of Chinese domestic travel, and, for the reasons mentioned above, is justified.

Orville Schell does not sugarcoat his opinions of Lijiang, Mt. Kawagebo, and the current tourist climate in China. But he is still writing about them. Why? Because regardless of the tourists visiting these sites, they are still simply remarkable.

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We invite you to join us in our ongoing rethinking of tourism in China. If you have something to say about this topic, please leave a comment, or email Alex at alex.grieves@wildchina.com. We’d love to hear from you.

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November 18th, 2009

Asia Society Video: On Thinner Ice

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

There’s a breathtaking video on the Asia Society’s website right now that documents the effects that the melting of Himalayan glaciers will have on the 2 billion people who live in Asia. The video talks about glaciers as “the canary in the coal mine” for climate change, and urges China and the US (the two biggest contributors to global warming) to take decisive action.

One of the directors of the Asia Society, Orville Schell (featured in the video) traveled with WildChina this past spring to research glaciers in Yunnan. It was an amazing trip, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the participants to learn about climate change in Yunnan first-hand. There’s also a video of this trip featuring Orville Schell on our homepage now, which you can see here.

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