I saw a client email to my staff another day, requesting a series of changes to the itineraries we proposed. The client’s email read:
1) There is a scheduled visit to the Temple of Heaven in the morning of the 3rd day, and it says learning Taiqi from a master. Please delete that, we are not interested in activities contrived for tourists.
2) There is a visit to a sturgeon farm in Yichang while I only want to go see the 3 gorges, and have no interest in sturgeons.
3) Day 16 is a visit to Fuli. Fan making is of limited interest to us. What makes this an interesting place to visit?
As I read along, I knew we that we had found the ideal clients – they are engaged, well traveled, and want to make sure they see the authentic China. Yet, I cringed, knowing very well that if my staff followed the email instruction to delete these activities, the clients would miss out on exactly what they were seeking – the real China experience. So, I hopped on the phone.
The clients told me that they were seeking a couple of things: a basic understanding of the history of China, a contrast to the developed and developing parts of China to understand its diversity, and exposure to the unspoiled, traditional China.
Why would WildChina staff arrange the guests to go to Temple of Heaven early in the morning to learn Taiqi? I remember that when I lived in Beijing, one of my favorite activities was to go to Ritan Park at 6 am and simply observe the Beijing residents do their morning exercises. Some would sing at the top of their lungs, some would do fan dances, some would throw their bodies against a tree, and some would do Taiqi. It’s simply the best time to people watch and connect.
I went back to the park again with my 1-year-old daughter strapped on my back in a carrier. Those old ladies in the park would walk up to me, grab my daughter’s thigh, and ask me in amazement, “孩子怎么这么胖？喂什么了？就喝你的奶呀?” (How can this baby be so fat? What do you feed her? She just drinks your milk?”) I’ll save you the answer here, but the point is, these parks in the morning are the real China. Fresh from a full night’s sleep, people connect as real people, with little inhibition or consideration of “cultural differences.”
Now, the sturgeon farm near the Three Gorges. I was delighted to know when my staff first added this visit to the itinerary. My distaste for the Yangtze Cruise is well known at WildChina, and I even spoke about this at the New York Times Travel Show on Sunday, February 28th earlier this year. There are better places to see the Yangtze River, but it’s most interesting to understand the environmental and economic challenges brought about by the dam. Visiting a sturgeon farm, for me, is a time when I get to meet the local entrepreneur to understand how their way of living changed because of the dam. When did they start the business, and to whom do they sell? How has that changed with the dam? To understand the real China, one has to get to these places that are off the travel industry route to find out.
As for Fuli village near Guilin: potential clients have never heard about this village. It’s not in tourist guidebooks, as most tourists on the Li River Cruise would bypass the village. That’s a blessing for the villagers, who still live a very traditional agrarian lifestyle, while hand crafting Chinese paper fans as a side business. Seeing how the local artisans carefully paint those fans is almost a Zen moment for me.
I remember when I was little, people told me that Westerners pay more for hand-made things and less for machine-made things. I couldn’t understand why, because I was eager to trade in the cotton-soled shoes (棉底布鞋), which my grandmother made under a dim light, for a pair of pink plastic sandals! Now, I would be willing to pay whatever to have one more pair of her 布鞋，if she were still around.
Strange how time changes, and how I long for the China I grew up with.
Follow Mei on Twitter: @yunnangirl.