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April 30th, 2014

It’s all about the tea…WildChina Expert Jeff Fuchs on the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road

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

Musings from WildChina Explorer and Expert Jeff Fuchs on the importance of the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, and why we should all bump it up on our travel list…

WildChina Expert Jeff Fuchs chomps on an apple in Yunnan, tracing the Tea & Horse Caravan Road

The Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road has long held the attention of explorers and vagabonds alike for the fact that it represents one of the globe’s great and daunting adventures. A cultural odyssey as much as a physically demanding pathway that brought tea, salt, horses, and all manner of goods from the fringes of the old dynastical empires into and onto the Tibetan Plateau. Pre-dating the Silk Road, the Tea & Horse Caravan Road and its meandering pathways through indigenous zones, ancient tea forests, and stunning geographies offer up a deeper look into the very historical fabric of southwest China, Tibet, and beyond.

Across snow passes, over some of the planet’s great waterways, the route takes in three- dozen cultures, two dozen languages…all with their own histories with tea and the great trade route.

Tea figured greatly upon this ‘highway through the sky’ as it was – and to some extent remains – one of the great panaceas and commodities of time. Tea was more a fuel and medicine to the ancient tribes and its safe transport was one of the great vitals of the trade world.

Tea growing in Xishuangbanna, on the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road

This WildChina journey along the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road seeks to dig into and take the journey back to its roots. Authentic touches of exploration off the beaten path, serious tea-highs from some of the planet’s purest ancient tree teas, and home stays that are entirely integral with delving deeper into a culture and land are on offer. Walking through some of the oldest tea forests on the planet, and then sampling them in a cup bind the leaf to its drinker and by extension to any that partake in a cup.

Xishuangbanna, boiling tea on the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Route.

We’ve enhanced sections to take you deeper still into Yunnan’s diversity and created more of a full-on adventure. Daily tea samplings, from fresh bitter harvests, to locally prepared specialties (including the Tibetan’s famed and pungent butter tea) from local regions.

I’m delighted that this journey has continued and been intensified to add a more authentic feel that reflects life and travel upon the Tea & Horse Caravan Road. In traveling upon this most ancient of trade routes, it is important to retain some of the original feel of travel, life, and interaction for our guests.

It is vital that such a journey keep its vitality and spontaneity. It is only in this kind of travel and attention to detail that a route’s history, legend, and truths can remain intact.

All photos by Jeff Fuchs

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If Jeff’s descriptions of tea got your heart beating a little faster, check out the itinerary & October dates for the 2014 trip here. You can also download the flyer to share around here. If you want to read more about Jeff and his travels, check out his blog here. And finally, if you have any questions, shoot us an email here: info@wildchina.com

 

 

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June 17th, 2011

WildChina Student Summer Expedition

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

We would like to introduce a new experience in educational travel in China – the WildChina Student Summer Expedition.

Designed to bring together unforgettable experiences and cultural discovery in a safe, professionally managed adventure learning experience, highlights of this program include:

- Experience life in China’s capital of Beijing where Imperial history collides with hyper-modernity

- Trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, a spectacular natural wonder where we meet local residents cuaght in the midst of China’s struggle to balance environmental concerns with economic demands.

- Journey into one of the spiritual centers of Tibetan culture and experience the daily lives of its residents.

- Retrace an ancient pilgrimage route on a five-day Tibetan style trek amongst the snow-capped peaks of the Tibetan plateau to the 14,500 ft summit of Mount Skika.

- Participants will have an opportunity to give back to the community by participating for four days (roughly 20 – 30 hours) in a community service project.

Quick FAQs:

Q. Who is this expedition for?

A. Students ages 14+ and entering 9 – 12 grade are eligible.

Q. When does the journey depart?

A. There are two programs running in the summer of 2011: July 11 – July 28 and July 20 – August 6

Q. How much is the program fee?

A. USD 3,990. This fee includes domestic but not international airfare.

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Please see the flier below for more details.  To enquire about this trip, please email education@wildchina.com.

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March 1st, 2011

Wildfire in Lijiang, Yunnan

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

A wildfire broke out in Huangshan township of Lijiang City yesterday morning.  According to China-Daily.org, at least 14 hectares (about 35 acres) were affected.

WildChina’s on-the-ground partner reports that the fire has been contained, but the cause of the fire is currently still under investigation. Our partner also says that Lijiang itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was not affected as the fires were up in the mountains located to the south of the city proper.

We will follow the situation closely and send you the latest updates.

Image: Xinhuanet / Li Rongzong

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January 21st, 2011

Home for the Holidays: China’s Busiest Travel Season

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

Today marks the beginning of the busiest travel season in China: from January 21 to February 27, China’s skies, roads, and rails will be inundated as an expected 640 million people, from every corner of the country, go on the move. What destinations could possibly be so compelling as to temporarily shift more than 9% of the world’s entire population? Home, of course.

The impetus is the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival (chun jie). Far and away the most important festival on the Chinese calendar, the Spring Festival has always been a traditional time of homecoming and renewal. As such, this deluge occurs every winter, but the Ministry of Transport in China has predicted that this year’s will be the worst yet. One explanation is that many Chinese, in addition to returning home for the holidays, will also take advantage of the time off for domestic and international tourism.

With so many people competing for tickets, the rush has resulted in some amusing local news items. One story details the rising trade in fake student IDs as travelers get more innovative in their search for a cheap ticket home. A well-humored Beijing man named Chi Dongting, frustrated with long wait times at railway offices in freezing temperatures, successfully used a stylishly-dressed mannequin to hold his place in line – while he huddled in his car for warmth.

Far from being intimidated by the crowds, WildChina believes there are some not-so-packed spots in China that truly shine during the holiday period. Yunnan province is a popular destination with our clients this time of year for a variety of reasons; the subtropical climate of verdant Xishuangbanna is an obvious draw, while up north the old cities of Dali and Lijiang take on a more peaceful personality with high season still months away.

And if you own a good jacket, Tibet awaits. With many annual pilgrimages underway, February represents an ideal opportunity to see local Tibetans in their colorful traditional dress – and there’s plenty of yak butter tea to keep you warm!

We always promote going off-the-beaten-path for travel in China; but with the beaten path about to fill up with home-bound travelers and domestic vacationers, there’s perhaps no better time to do so than during the Spring Festival.

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Image: Birmingham Post

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November 18th, 2010

Shaxi: A small patch of paradise in Yunnan

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

Teeming with geographical, ethnic and biological diversity – plus some of the best food in China - Yunnan has always been one of our most popular destinations.

The charming small towns of Lijiang, Dali, Jinghong and Shangri-la and the Naxi, Bai, Yi, Dai, Hani and Tibetans who live there have provided our clients with unforgettable travel experiences and new insights into China.

These popular places aside, Yunnan is brimming with countless lesser-known destinations that are also well worth a visit. One of our favorites is the former trading outpost of Shaxi in Yunnan’s northwest.

Blessed with blue skies, sunshine and cool breezes year-round and located in a verdant mountain valley with no airport, tall buildings, car traffic or noticeable pollution, Shaxi is almost too good to be true.

For centuries Shaxi was a busy trade hub linking the Yunnan and Tibet portions of the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan route. Traders coming up from the south on the route would bring tea, cloth, alkali and daily necessities, while Tibetans would bring yak furs and traditional medicines.

In addition to being a convenient halfway point for Yunnanese and Tibetan traders, Shaxi also had an important commodity of its own: salt from the nearby Misha salt wells.

The majority of Shaxi’s residents belong to the Bai ethnic group, who are known for their hospitality and their green thumbs. When the caravans were passing through town, it was not uncommon to see the different faces and costumes of the Yi, Lisu, Han, Naxi, Hui and Tibetan ethnic groups, especially in Shaxi’s main square, where goods were sold.

The caravans could have as many as 40 or 50 animals, mostly mules with some horses. Just as important were the muleteers, who were usually responsible for 10 animals.

The caravan routes died out around 60 years ago, eliminating the main source of revenue for the economy that had thrived in Shaxi. The town reverted to reliance upon agrarianism and has passed the decades quietly, missing out on benefits – and drawbacks – that other Chinese cities have experienced since the late 1970s.

Now, just as quietly, Shaxi is experiencing a renaissance of sorts through tourism. The local government has spent quite a bit of funds on cleaning up the old town for visitors and has done a surprisingly good job of it.

Without any advertisements, few shops and no cars, plus several dozen well-preserved old Bai homes, in many ways Shaxi feels frozen in time.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing in the old town, there is a small handful of cafes and restaurants there, as well as one of our favorite new boutique hotels in Yunnan, Laomadian.

Laomadian is a compound of several old Bai homes that has been tastefully renovated by A Fang, an extremely welcoming Taiwanese woman who has long been interested in the history and cultures of northwest Yunnan.

Just a few doors up from Laomadian is the courtyard home of Ouyang Shengxian, a 70-year-old Bai man whose father and grandfather were some of the last of the muleteers.

We spoke with Ouyang on a recent sunny Shaxi morning in his 100-year-old home, where he recalled the days of visiting caravans for us. As he told us stories of the old days, with visitors from afar and banditry, we felt extremely fortunate to be able to sit down with a man who is truly a link to a bygone era.

The history and people of Shaxi alone make a visit worthwhile, but there are also plenty of natural attractions.

The crystal-clear Heihui River flows just outside the old town, with paths on both sides that are ideal for strolls in the sunshine. There are several photogenic bridges along the river and several small towns dotting the valley.

Up in the hills surrounding the valley, there are plentiful hiking options. If you have the time, we highly recommend any of the two- or three-day treks in the hills, which will take you through several Yi villages.

If you’re shorter on time, Shibao Mountain is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon before hiking back downhill to Shaxi. The mountain is home to Buddhist grottoes that miraculously survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and are some of the most important artifacts connected to the spread of Buddhism into China from India via Tibet. These grottoes are highly treasured – visitors are not allowed to take any photos of them.

Interestingly, there is also a large indentation in the stone near the grottoes that locals say resembles a human vagina. It is a tradition for pregnant women from around the valley to pray to it with the hope that they have a smooth delivery.

After checking out the grottoes on Shibao Mountain, we hit one of the trails that leads back down to Shaxi and the surrounding valley. We scanned from one end of the valley to the other and were unable to see a crane or any other construction – this is nearly impossible in today’s China.

Work is underway on a new highway that will make Shaxi more accessible to the outside world – all the reason to visit Shaxi sooner rather than later. The local government has declared its dedication to sustainable development and is working with international NGOs to that end. We hope that for their sake, and the world’s, they can manage to preserve Shaxi’s pristine beauty for generations to come.

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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 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 16th, 2010

Where did the beauty of Lijiang go?

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

Incredible scenery, history, and culture. Overrun destinations, touristy shops, and luxury chain hotels. In Lijiang, Yunnan province, there is a constant push and pull of cultural value versus cultural commodity, authentic experiences versus commercialized sites.

 

 

After what many consider Lijiang’s tragic transformation from quaint town to loud, touristy hub, is there any beauty left in Lijiang?

We consulted Huang, one of WildChina’s top guides in Lijiang and a true expert on local culture and history, on his views regarding tourism in the area and beyond.

WildChina Travel (WCT): What, in your mind are the best aspects of tourism in Yunnan?
Huang Huaihai (HH): Yunnan’s rich variety is certainly its best trait. From the southeast to the northwest, Yunnan boasts an incredibly diverse array of climates, minority cultures, topographies, cuisines, historical sites, and more. In one province there is so much to experience.

WCT: What about the worst?
HH: The downside of such an attractive area is that Lijiang and Zhongdian [Shangri-La] have become commercialized and, to some degree, artificial. UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] World Heritage Sites are often overcrowded with tourists, and many shops and restaurants now cater exclusively to travelers. At the same time, these and other travel-friendly towns boast the best infrastructure in the province. Tourists can easily access these areas, whereas other parts of Yunnan, or China, may be incredibly difficult to reach.

WCT: To combat over-commercialized sites, where do you think you should take clients instead?
HH: Dali, in northwestern Yunnan, is less touristy and still has a lot of cultural and historical value. In addition, I suggest the outskirts of Lijiang. Rather than simply visiting the Old Town, traveling to meet a Bimo (a very special and exclusive experience) and explore local villages makes for a great 1-2 day trip. Lijiang acts as a good access point from which to travel to these lesser-known communities.

WCT: So, why don’t more people do this already? What are potential setbacks of going to off-the-beaten-path destinations in Yunnan?
HH: Transportation is certainly the biggest issue here. Flights and other modes of transportation can become quite costly when there aren’t direct connections to more remote areas. In some cases, it is not practical at all, because road infrastructure is poor and distance between locations is too great. Comfort also becomes an issue, when long drives on bad roads create discomfort for clients. A bad lengthy travel experience poses the risk of canceling out the enjoyment of the cultural experience.

WCT: What, if anything, can travel operators like WildChina do to fight mass tourism in Yunnan, and China as a whole?
HH: This is a difficult question, because the local government is always in favor of development. Development means money for their province, which means infrastructure, prosperity, and a higher quality of life. They will stop at nothing to develop. Thus, off-the-beaten-path becomes a sort of sacrifice – you must be passionate enough to always be in search of unique and different ways to experience life, culture, and history here. This means engaging in sustainable adventure travel in China: trekking to explore remote communities, doing exhaustive research to gain more local knowledge, and re-thinking ways to travel sustainably.

WCT: If you could give advice to those visiting Lijiang today, what would it be?
HH: The crowds at historic sites speak to their cultural and historical value. Visit them early for a quieter look at Lijiang’s marvels. And, focus your attention on personal interactions when you travel – that’s when you’ll truly learn about what life is like for local people. Experiences like this can surpass any tourist trap.

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What do you think? Post a comment, and follow @WildChina on Twitter.

 

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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 24th, 2009

China Scholar Orville Schell: Why Choose WildChina?

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

For those of us who’ve spent years studying China, Orville Schell is a very familiar name. His books, like The China Reader: The Reform Era, are widely read by students and policymakers alike, and his talks on behalf of the Asia Society’s China Green project are attended by many with an interest in China’s environmental issues.

So we were all thrilled when Orville, who has been to China countless times, not only chose to travel with WildChina to study the effect of climate change on glaciers, but also provided us with rave reviews about his trip to Lijiang and Shangri-La.

Here, in his own words, Orville explains what he sees as the WildChina difference:

“Why choose WildChina? Well, I think WildChina is quite skilled at sculpting trips for people who have specific interests. So, if in fact you’re a bird watcher, a glacier watcher, a river watcher, a minorities watcher – whatever your poison is, they seem to have the ability to highlight that.

I haven’t done many trips like this – but to go to a place like Yunnan and in a week to see a lot, you really do need someone to organize it. You need drivers who know what they’re doing, and cars and land rovers that can go on very rough roads and over landslides.

You want to be with people who you trust, not some crazy cab driver you’ve never met. So it was reassuring to have good drivers, good guides, and to be able to stop in at local people’s houses that these guides knew…and we had a Tibetan guide and a Chinese guide – both very familiar with the area and extremely fun to be around and very much a part of our group – not bored people who couldn’t wait to get off the bus and get everybody back on the plane…and that, I think, made the trip incomparably more meaningful and interesting for us.

I’m not a big tour joiner, frankly, and that would probably be a good reason to have WildChina organize your trips so that it wouldn’t be like a tour. It would be more things you wanted to do, not you fitting into their tour—but them making the tour fit your needs.”

Many thanks to Orville for these kind words! Be sure to view the video on our home page for stunning footage captured during Orville’s trip to Yunnan.

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