November 29th, 2013
WildChina | Categories: Adventure Travel in China, Exclusive Access China, On the Road, WildChina Travel Tips
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If cold weather is not your thing, head south to the subtropical region of Xishuangbanna.
Nestled in the southernmost tip of Yunnan province, just between neighboring Myanmar and Laos, this region hosts a vibrant intermingling of cultures and landscapes. With average daily highs of 26 degrees Celsius in January, the forests and villages here are immune to the annual chill that is felt in the north. It’s no wonder Xishuangbanna was picked as Travel+Leisure’s 2012 Hottest Travel Destinations.
What better way to spend the winter than in the mountains and rainforests of Southeast Asia?
The winter months are the ideal time to visit this part of the world, as they mark the end of the wet season. Imagine finding your inner naturalist as you walk among the regional flora, keeping an ear out for the song of the elusive black-crested gibbon.
The home of peacocks, wild oxen and various primates, Xishuangbanna is also the only place in China that still has a wild Asian elephant population.
Xishuangbanna’s biodiversity is matched by an equally astounding cultural presence. Of more than a dozen different ethnic groups living here, the most prominent is the Dai population, which makes up nearly a third of the region’s one-million inhabitants.
Dai culture is markedly different from that of other Chinese populations. The language spoken here is more similar to that of the Thai, which draws heavily upon Theravada Buddhism and the indigenous practices that predate it. Both geographically and culturally, this is the one part of China that really belongs to Southeast Asia, and that feeling is impossible to miss.
If you are looking to get a taste of this unique cultural identity, your best bet is to take a trip into one of the many villages that dot this region. Here, you experience life as it has existed for centuries – something that is increasingly precious in a country that is rocketing into the 21st century. Visit the age old Buddhist pagodas, or step into a villager’s home for a cup of tea. This is, after all, the corner of the world where tea originated.
If you’d like more travel ideas or to join WildChina on a trip to China’s subtropical south, see our journey:
Pushing China’s Southern Boundary: Trekking in Xishuangbanna.
On the road in Xishuangbanna: Manfeilong Stupas.
Photo Credit: Chris Horton
November 8th, 2013
WildChina | Categories: Adventure Travel in China, Sustainable Travel, WildChina Causes & Partnerships, WildChina Experts, WildChina Explorer Grant
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Bill Bleisch has been involved in environmental efforts in China and its neighboring countries for nearly two decades. One perennial focus of his work has been the way in which habitat loss stemming from patterns of resource management, industrial development, and environmental degradation has contributed to the rapidly declining state of wild gibbon populations. Once abundant throughout Southeast Asia, this family of apes has become critically endangered. Unfortunately, while much international attention has been given to other endangered animals, very limited resources have been mobilized in the effort to protect these primates from extinction.
In his efforts to spread awareness about the existence and peril of southern Yunnan’s black-crested gibbon, Bill Bleisch spent time exploring their remaining habitat in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. In 2012, he received a WildChina Explorer Grant to continue this research in hopes of establishing a trekking route through the Ailaoshan mountain range.
Bleisch on the trail
How did you first become interested in China?
Like many American kids, I was first introduced to China through the food. My mother taught my sister and me to use chopsticks whenever we went to a Chinese restaurant. People in China ask me how I learned to use chopsticks and I explain that my mother taught me. Then I have to explain that she is not Chinese. Later, she took a Chinese cooking class and we used to go to the Oriental market and gawk at all the interesting delicacies. I had a collection of miniature figures from China – a fisherman, a nine-eaved padoda, an arched bridge, two scholars playing weiqi.
Later, when I was about 12, my father and I made a deal that I could stay home from Sunday school at church as long as I spent Sunday morning reading religious texts. I happily agreed. I read the Dao de Qing, the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, the Book of Changes, the Book of Songs,… I took a Chinese course one summer, but it was too difficult.
It was not until I finished graduate school that I had the chance to come to China. I received a grant from the Chinese Adventure Capital Fund, a fund managed by the Durfee Foundation and set up in honour of R. Stanton Avery, the inventor of the stick-on label, who had previously travelled in China in 1929 as a young man. His family wanted others to have the chance that he had had to see China first hand. I came to China in 1987, to survey gibbons in the Ailaoshan and Wuliangshan Nature Reserves.
Scouting a route along the ridge of the Ailaoshan range
What was the goal of your expedition in Yunnan’s Ailaoshan region?
My personal goal for these recent trips sponsored by WildChina, has been to bring something back to the Ailaoshan and its gibbons, 26 years after my first visit. I had the idea that a trekking trail through gibbon habitat could increase public interest and commitment to protecting the gibbons and reconnecting their forest habitat. The idea of a long trail in China came to me while my son and I were hiking the Appalachian Trail, which is a long trail along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. The AT, as it is known, was started by local hiking clubs, but is now a National Scenic Trail managed by the National Park Service. I know that there would be interest in such a trail in China if could be opened. So the goal of the four trips this year was to map out a stretch of trekking trail and start building local support for the idea of a long trail on the Ailao Mountain ridge.
What role does exploration play in spreading awareness about social and environmental issues?
I think exploration, at its best, has always been the key to building awareness of the world beyond our own everyday lives. European explorers brought back the news that China had an advanced civilization in the 13th century. Later, it was the explorers that convinced people that the world was round, not flat. In this century, opening people’s eyes to the environmental and social problems that exist in remote rural areas is one of the best things that exploration can do. That’s why a real explorer must also be a good story teller – either through written word, photographs or film.
Bill and his team blaze a trail through the forest
How would a new trekking trail contribute to the preservation of the black-crested gibbon’s habitat?
I have to tell you that this is controversial. There are those who are dead-set against opening any habit of endangered species to tourism. There is certainly good evidence that noisy tourists inside nature reserves scare wildlife away from heavily used tourist trails. That is why the Ailaoshan National Nature Reserve is still officially closed to tourism. (We work with the Xing Ping Provincial Ailaoshan Nature Reserve for now.) There is another view, however.
Nature reserves need support, both from local people and from the general public. The reserves have a hard time winning that support unless people have first hand experience of benefits. Trekking by well-informed hikers is a gentle form of tourism that can build that support. Just look at the passion with which people fought for the completion of the Pacific Crest Trail and its protection in the USA. Trekking can also provide direct benefits to local people in remote areas, something they do not see from big hotels or scenic hot-spots. Local people can sell food and supplies along the trail, or open a nongjiale-style hostel. Also, in provincial nature reserves, which have little funding, trekkers can serve as the eyes and ears of the nature reserve, reporting illegal hunting or logging that they find inside the reserve. Their very presence can be enough to scare off poachers. And experience in the USA has shown trekkers will fight to have protection extended beyond the boundaries of the nature reserves, many of which are too small and isolated from other natural forest.
But it can do more than that. The trekking movement also taps people’s desire to get bck to our roots, back to basics, back to the wildness. On a trek, you learn very quickly how to get along without many of the luxuries that we take for granted. If you don’t really need it, you don’t carry it. Eventually you ease into a new standard of comfort and start to find joy in the simple beauties along the way. Many even find a kind of spiritual fulfilment on a long trek. Tibetan pilgrims do these long walks regularly, Europeans called it the “pilgrim way,” native Americans called it a spirit walk. Perhaps in this is part of the antidote to the pointless conveyer belt of consumerism that is driving unsustainable development, global climate change, and senseless destruction of wildlife habitat.
The group rests by a cascade
What other efforts are being made to help these primates recover from the brink of extinction?
Many people deserve a great deal of credit for turning things around for primate conservation in China over the last 25 years. The State Forestry Administration and the Yunnan Provincial Forestry Bureau, and especially the staff on the ground – the nature reserve staff and also the poorly paid and poorly equipped forest guards (hulin yuan) – they are often the real heroes in primate conservation now. Field researchers, mainly Chinese scientists, have contributed a great deal. NGOs have also made a big contribution. They all work together now. For example, my friend Professor Jiang Xuelong and his students, with support from the China office of Fauna and Flora International, have worked with the nature reserves in Ailaoshan to carry out a complete census of the gibbons there and develop an action plan for gibbon conservation.
All of these efforts are adding up, but there is still more that needs to be done; to protect and restore the forest habitat, and to rebuild forest connections between isolated groups of gibbons, so they can find suitable mates and pair up to breed. Some of that work must be done outside of nature reserves, and that means that local people and local government must be more involved.
Western black crested gibbon (Photo Credit: Flora and Fauna International)
Have you been involved in any other conservation efforts outside of southwestern China?
WVB: I have had the great good fortune to work in over 25 nature reserves all over China, in Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou, Guangxi, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei, Hainan, Qinghai and Xinjiang. I have also worked in Vietnam, Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Malaysia at one time or another. I have been part of teams for conservation research on the Grey Golden Monkeys in Guizhou and the Tibetan Antelope in Xinjiang, but most of my work has been helping local nature reserve staff to develop their skills and to write their own management plans. That includes helping them to focus on the conservation problems that need the most attention.
What’s next? Do you have any upcoming adventures planned?
There are so many exciting things that need to be done, and I hope I have time for them all.
Right now I am on my way to Luang Namtha in Lao PDR were we have started a project designed to answer the question I posed above – is trekking tourism good for wildlife conservation, or does it just scare the animals away? I think it may help. Lao is a very poor country that cannot afford the kind of patrolling that China has, so tourist guides and trekkers may be the best defence the animals have there. The trekking companies provide payments to the villages, which should be an incentive to keep the forest intact. Most of the trekkers are from Europe or the USA. They are not usually so noisy and they do not ask if they can eat the animals that they see.
I will be back in Yunnan for the official launch of the Ailao Shan Trail in Xing Ping County on November 26 – December 1. Of course I want to hike the complete Ailaoshan Trail as soon as I am given the chance. And I want to see it extended, to Dali in the north, where it can connect with the Ancient Tea Horse Trail, and to the south along the spine of the same ridge, where there is more gibbon habitat, but where much forest needs to be restored. Those are Hani and Lahu minority areas, so very interesting culturally.
I want to be a part of mapping out the trail, and to hike as much as I can. Perhaps eventually the trail and the forest can stretch all the way from Dali to Feng Shui Lin Nature Reserve and the Vietnam border. Then China would have a National Scenic Trail to rival the famous long trails in the USA; the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. I may not live long enough to see the trail completed, but now I am sure it will happen.
Bleisch has been the Chinese program director for Flora and Fauna International, which works to protect some of the most endangered species in the world. He also spent time as the program director of The Bridge Fund, which works to improve the lives of Tibetan communities through their support of various educational, environmental, cultural, and economic initiatives. Now, as program director for the China Exploration and Research Society, he continues to promote the cultural and environmental protection China’s minority regions.
Don’t forget to apply to the 2014 WildChina Explorer Grant for the chance to win $3000 of funding for your own Chinese adventure!
November 8th, 2013
WildChina | Categories: Chinese Culture, Exclusive Access China, Luxury China Travel, On the Road, WildChina Travel Tips
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Ring in the New Year… Shanghai style
Looking for an exciting way to bring in the New Year? While thousands of people are huddled like penguins in the streets of Times Square, you could be singing Auld Lang Syne in Shanghai’s historic Bund district. Though the traditional Chinese New Year does not fall on December 31, Shanghai’s vibrant international community comes out in full force to ring in the end of the annum. As one of the fastest growing cultural and financial centers in the world, Shanghai has cultivated an amazing nightlife. The only challenge this presents is choosing from the multitude of options. Join the party at one of Shanghai’s world-class nightclubs or watch the fireworks and laser show over Pudong’s iconic skyline… depending on where you end up, you could do both at once.
If you are looking for a more traditional way to “ring in the New Year”, make your way to the Longhua Temple located in the city’s southwest. Every year, to celebrate both Western and Chinese New Year, Shanghai’s natives come to the 1,800 year old temple to ring the 3,3000kg Buddhist Bell. Only the first 108 people to make reservations for the event will have a chance to ring the bell though, so plan ahead if you’re set on it. Otherwise, come for the folk performances, fireworks, and lion dances that make this event so spectacular.
Shanghai’s Celebrated Yu Garden
If you are in town for the Chinese New Year there are many ways to join the festivities. Fill up on some traditional holiday dumplings and tangyuan, which are said to bring wealth and prosperity into one’s life, or pay a visit to the 600 year old City God Temple near Yu Garden, where locals come to pay for a successful new year. Just be sure not to miss the Chinese lantern festival, which falls on February 14th this year, and is marked by colorful parades and astounding light shows, both traditional and modern. One of the best places to get a sense of traditional techniques and festivities is the Yu Yuan Old Town Bazaar, where conventional lanterns dominate the celebrations.
If you’re interested in a making a winter escape to Shanghai, click here to find out about WildChina’s winter tour of this world-class city.
November 5th, 2013
WildChina | Categories: Adventure Travel in China, Exclusive Access China, On the Road, WildChina Travel Tips
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For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, this time of year is one of mixed feelings. On one hand, the changing of the seasons is a welcome period of transition, in which we put on sweaters and watch the leaves change. On the other hand, we know that just behind the nutmeg-scented, flannel embrace of fall looms the unforgiving wrath of winter. Forced indoors by the deep freeze outside, we find ourselves confined to a state of seasonal hibernation. For those of us who like to explore, this can be a trying time indeed.
This year, why not break the cycle?
While people don’t often think of China as a winter destination, reduced crowds, local festivals, and mild weather (depending on your destination) make this season an ideal time to explore the “Middle Kingdom”. That is why we’ve put together a series highlighting some of the best places to visit during this time of year.
People don’t often associate Tibet’s capital with winter travel. Some would argue that the “roof of the world” just doesn’t seem like a good place to be in January. It may come as a surprise, then, that winter is an ideal time to visit Lhasa. Though you’ll still need to bring a jacket, daytime temperatures rarely fall below freezing. If you don’t mind the cooler weather, you will not be disappointed. The light this time of year is nothing short of fantastic, with the low-hanging sun casting long shadows across the markets and monasteries. This luminescence, along with the snow-capped peaks that surround the city, make Lhasa a photographer’s playground in the winter.
Potala Palace, former winter residence of the Dalai Lama
In addition to this unique seasonal beauty, another reason to visit Lhasa during this time of year is the significant decrease in tourism that takes place during the winter. This means less crowds, cheaper accommodations, and easier access to train tickets. This also means that you will be able to experience Tibetan culture more freely. As winter puts a break on much of the farming activity in the region, Tibetans use this time to make pilgrimage to Lhasa. This influx of pilgrims will begin arriving in December, and will often stay through the Tibetan New Year, which takes place around late January.
The tens of thousands of Tibetans who descend on this city during this time, along with the reduction in tourism, make winter the one time of the year where locals actually outnumber the tourists from China and abroad. The difference that this makes cannot be overstated. Instead of being surrounded by other foreigners, you can spend your time in Lhasa immersed in the rich cultural and spiritual life that has long made Tibet a focus of the global imagination. If you don’t mind a little chilly weather, winter is the perfect time to gain a truly authentic experience of Tibetan culture.
Jokhang Courtyard, Lhasa
If you would like to make your own winter pilgrimage to Tibet’s capital, find more information here.
September 25th, 2013
WildChina | Categories: On the Road
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A WildChina employee takes off on an impromptu bike ride…
After exploring the bustling streets of Dalizhen in Yunnan Province, we needed an escape to mother nature. With the towering Cangshan Mountains encircling beautiful Erhai Lake, we decided to see what the waterfront had to offer. We considered a leisurely day trip down but, plagued by restless legs, we chose to cycle upwards of 120 kilometers (75 miles) around the lakeshore.
Our tickets to exploration
Erhai is surrounded by small villages that exist largely oblivious to busy “old town” Dalizhen and the rapidly expanding “new town” Dali. Hopping on rental bikes and heading towards Erhai, we crossed the busy Dali 1st Class road and enter what felt like a different place. Faces changed from chatty travelers to focused villagers working the land and the lake. Once on Erhai Ring road, the road winded through fields, villages and along the waterfront. Taking advantage of August’s fall heat, villagers were drying tiny fish on the roadside. The first time we passed a net full of fish, a heavy scent swept over us, but we soon adjusted after passing net after net.
Roadside drying fish
As we weaved through villages, we were awarded glimpses into the homes of those farmers and fisherman. Small houses and temples hugged narrow roads filled with talkative village elders and children playfully rolling hoops along side us. Really starting to feel the heat, we stopped and indulged in green pea popsicles, a surprisingly refreshing treat.
We discovered Erhai Lake is well known for its cormorant bird fishing. Following what appeared to be other travelers, we rode down through a village to the fishing pier. Fishermen were preparing long canoes full of squawking birds before heading out to local fishing spots. The birds are trained to dive into the water, catch fish with their long beaks and return to the boat where fishermen retrieve the fish from the birds’ throats. Such a interesting process draws quite a crowd, but we were fortunate enough to see cormorants in action at multiple points along our ride. Due to inefficiency, such fishing practice has largely fallen out of use and been replaced by motor assisted net fishing teams which spot the shoreline.
Cormorant fisherman preparing to depart
Each break yielded cheerful encounters. On one particular occasion, we were invited into a Bai (白族) village to celebrate someone’s 80th birthday. In such small villages, reaching 80 years of age is quite a significant event. We were welcomed with many smiles, incredible food aroma and the honor of sitting at one of the high tables with some of the village celebrities.
Being one of China’s 56 diverse ethnicities, many of the Bai people spoke and understood limited Mandarin which made dinner table discussion particularly entertaining. One man excitedly commented that it was the first time he had met Westerners. Countless bowls of food were placed on the table, chopsticks were passed around and the celebratory feast began. Some of the dishes included the small fish we saw drying along the roadside. While they may smell overpowering when drying, they taste wonderful when supplemented with flavorful sauces. The villagers told us the fish are considered a local delicacy. Loose leaf tea was delicately served. We had a blast celebrating 80 years of life and meeting the new faces. We were even offered beds for the night but, having to continue our progress, we left with full stomachs and further invitation to return the next day for a second round of celebrations.
Rest for Day Two
Fortunately with so many towns surrounding the lake, many potential spots exist to stop and spend the night. Shuanglangzhen provided a particularly good spot with many accommodations including lakefront balcony views. Savoring a glass of wine while watching the sun dip below the Cangshan Mountains and the lake reflect a palette of colors, we reflected on an incredible day. Packing up the bikes and eating a big breakfast, we got rolling before noon the next day.
Erhai Lake, Cangshan Mountains and a beautiful sunset
Continuing on the next day along the east side of Erhai, we encountered a bit more challenging elevation change. After sweating up the climbs, we were rewarded with spectacular panoramic views encompassing most of the Dali/Erhai Lake area. After having ridden through historical villages, we approached the outskirts Dali “new town” and its towering modern developments. We could not help but consider the insights offered across China. We just happened to enjoy a 120 kilometer glimpse into the immense contrasts of China.
Erhai island jewel
Join us on a similar adventure in Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La!
Interested in getting a bike ride in on your trip to China? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org!