Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street

Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street is located in Nankai District, Tianjin, with Tianhou Temple as the center, starting from Shuige Street in the south and Tongbei Road in the north. Here is the concentration of Tianjin’s most famous time-honored shops and handicraft shops. You can find many handicrafts and taste classic Tianjin cuisine here.

In Tianjin, if you want to experience the taste of Tianjin and explore the ancient culture the best place to go is Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street. Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street is composed of three parts: Gongnan Street, Gongbei Street, and Gongqian Square. Tianhou Temple is located in the center of the street. All the buildings are brick-wood structures and it is currently the largest group of antique buildings in Tianjin. The architectural style is an imitation of Qing, folk, and small style. All the 80 single buildings on the street have one or two floors, and they are all equipped with paint and color paintings, brick carvings, and wood carvings.

Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street has nearly a hundred shops that mainly deal in ancient books, antique jade, traditional handicraft products, folk products, Tianjin folk art, etc., and there are many small stalls selling candied haws, baked sweet potatoes, pastries, and desserts.

Every city has its own old street, where you can find childhood memories. In Tianjin, this old street is called Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street, where you can explore the atmosphere of culture. Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street is the only national 5A-level tourist attraction in Tianjin. There are many shops on the street. There are all kinds of art products such as the four treasures of the study, antiques, calligraphy and painting. It is a paradise for culture and art!

AsiaTravel in Orville Schell’s Conde Nast Traveler article ‘China’s Magic Melting Mountain’ (February 2010)

AsiaTravel in Orville Schell’s Conde Nast Traveler article ‘China’s Magic Melting Mountain’ (February 2010)


China scholar Orville Schell recently published a piece in the February 2010 issue of Conde Nast Traveler entitled ‘China’s Magic Melting Mountain,’ in which he discusses China’s lesser-known Tibetan Plateau, the region’s Buddhist culture, and the physical and cultural effects of global warming on the area’s glacial mountain peaks.

AsiaTravel is proud to be mentioned in the article as Orville Schell’s sole operator for the journey. Orville says of AsiaTravel and traveling through the region:

You’re best off booking your trip through a tour operator who can help you navigate the often-tricky logistics in this remote area. The author booked his trip through AsiaTravel—the founder of which, Mei Zhang    , is a Yunnan native and Harvard MBA (888-902-8808; wildchina.com).

Why did Orville Schell decide to travel with AsiaTravel? Find out here.

The February 2010 issue of Conde Nast Traveler is on newsstands now, and you can find the full version of ‘China’s Magic Melting Mountain’ online here.


Photo credit: Abelow PR

For more information about travel to the Tibetan Plateau, please contact Barbara Henderson at barbara.henderson@wildchina.com.

When AsiaTravel Failed to Deliver

As I was wrapping up my day before the snow hit DC, an email popped onto my screen:

“I have made a gift of $3000 to the Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan program in honor of Wild China. I am so happy to know about this area of China. A magical place that needs and deserves protection. Kristine”

This is the most significant Christmas present I have received from a AsiaTravel client. Kristine just won my respect and heart for donating the refund I gave her for a less than perfect trip to China.

This was Kristine’s first email to me after her trip:

“We loved the route and the scenery of Yunnan and the support staff (cook and driver) were fantastic. However…. Xiao (one of the guide) was very good about talking with Nico in Mandarin. However the first two days on the trail he was talking on his cell phone constantly which interfered with the serenity of the hiking and hampered chances for me to see birds (which he knew was an important objective for me). At the second campsite we were joined by two other large groups. It turned out that one group was guided by Xiao’s brother, and the other group had trekked with Xiao before and had been outfitted by him for this trip. From that point on, we could not seem to escape from these two large and noisy groups. They began hiking at the same time, stopped for lunch in the same places, camped in the same areas and clearly wanted to chat with Xiao on the trail. The noise and the size of the group significantly detracted from our enjoyment of the trekking and any opportunities to see birds along the way. This did not meet my expectation of a private trek and Xiao was clearly splitting his attention between the groups.”

There was more…

The email simply broke my heart. How, could this ever be possible? Generally, when clients seek me out to send me an email, I am used to reading the ones piling praises on our guides and staff. They make me happy, and remind me again and again why I am in service industry and not in fund management as most of my HBS classmates are. I just love the human contact and love the smiles we bring to clients. Also, negative on this trial? I could never have imagined that. I took my whole wedding party on this hike from the Salween Valley to the Mekong valley and it was the last frontier of China. Xiao was the best local villager I could find. How did this all change? But, I was in no position to defend AsiaTravel but to apologize:

I am terribly sorry that you had such a negative experience, and I am sorry that our guides were not as considerate or professional as you expected. Let me investigate on this further and I’ll get back to you on this specifically. If I may, let me tell you a story about Xiao.

I personally insisted for the team to bring Xiao onto your trip, because I remember the first day when I met him. I went to his village with my backpack (after days of travel on the road, not 10 hours), and simply asked around a group of villagers if any of them would be interested in a job of guiding me through the mountain ranges across to the other side. Nobody except Xiao raised his hand. I don’t think any other traveler went to the village with such a strange request before. At that time, the village didn’t have electricity, and Xiao’s house was dark and small. He had a bright and sincere smile, so I hired him on the spot. He guided me through the mountains for 4 days, and was the most attentive helper I could ever find.

Following that journey, I decided that it was such a wonderful experience, I took my own wedding party there, and Xiao couldn’t be more attentive, and so were our Tibetan guides and chef. Xiao was so entrepreneurial that he called me up afterwards to see if I would invest in him to build a lodge. He had to make the call from the village pay phone, since he didn’t have one in his house. I appreciated his entrepreneurial spirit, and gave him the money. For me, it was a simple way to give back to the community, and if he could succeed, great, if not, I tried.

To help him develop a sense of customer service quality, I sent two American interns there over the next two years to work with him, helping him develop menus, helping him purchase sheets and mattresses and set up the first computer. Then, he emailed me one day, and said, “hey, I am online! And I have a new cell phone”
A year later, he sent me a message, “hey, check out my blog!”

Earlier this year, when I logged onto Flickr, I found his pictures there!

I haven’t been back for a while, and was simply delighted that someone would take the opportunity and develop a successful business out of it.

Then your feedback came. I could just picture him talking on the cell phone and busy talking to all the other guests. I just never imagined that would ever happen on that trail, and I don’t think our operations team could foresee that either. Imaging hiking crowds on that trail came as such a complete shock. The only reason I could see if October 1st holiday when travelers from Kunming also decided to discover the beautiful wilderness of Yunnan.

The fact this area is now covered with cell phone signal and popular with travelers, I don’t know if I am supposed to be happy about or not. The fact that your experience was negatively impacted upsets me tremendously. Xiao and our Tibetan guides may have become victims of their own success. How to deal with that, how to take it forward from here? I’ll have to pursue the answer.

After confirming the facts with our local guides, I sent Kristine a heartfelt note and a refund check of $3000 (needless to say, AsiaTravel lost money, but that’s not the point):

“Our brand is about excellence, and our mission is to deliver excellence. On your recent trip, we did not deliver. There were forces at play, some we could control, some we could not. But the fact remains we are committed to excellence.”

She donated the check to TNC in honor of AsiaTravel. What a beautiful thing!

AsiaTravel Twitter Live Q+A, Question 5: Traveling by Train through China

There are some who say that one cannot truly experience China travel without traveling by train through this vast country. Indeed, it is a sometimes harrowing, but often entertaining, experience that provides a unique and intimate perspective on the Middle Kingdom.

While there are plenty of cheap and convenient domestic train routes that can take you from one destination to the next, there are a few noteworthy routes to consider for your next land-based travel excursion in China:

1. Chengdu to Kunming: This route, which stretches from the capitals of Sichuan and Yunnan, respectively, is marked by impressive terrain and architecture. As you pass over mountains, you can admire the astounding engineering that makes this route possible. The impressive views made the trip all the more enjoyable.

2. Guilin to Guiyang: Hailed as one of the most scenic train routes, the train from Guilin province to Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province, is marked by quaint minority villages that line the route.

3. Beijing to Lhasa: A classic route and perennial favorite, the train route from Beijing to Tibet’s capital Lhasa was not built without sacrifice – many died in the process of constructing the route. However, their work was not in vain. This route soars at 5,200 meters above sea level, and is an amazing experience in itself for sightseeing.

Regardless of which route and destination you choose, a trip by train will almost certainly lead to interesting interactions, new friendships and a perspective on China’s landscapes and people that you can’t get from other domestic travel experiences.


Want to learn more about train travel in China? Send AsiaTravel a tweet or email us at info@wildchina.com.

The AsiaTravel Twitter Live Q+A question series is a collection of five questions either posed or inspired by AsiaTravel’s Twitter Live Q+A session on Wednesday, November 11. If you have questions about China Travel, follow @AsiaTravel on Twitter and tweet us your query. We are always happy to help!

This question was inspired by a series of posts by @yunnangirl and @AlexGrieves regarding train travel in China.

AsiaTravel Twitter Live Q+A: Answers for You, and Books for Children

Never been to China before? Don’t know where to start planning a trip?

Maybe you’ve already been to China’s major cities and their respective attractions. You want a trip that is adventurous, off the beaten path, and enables you to experience a new side of China. Where do you go?

What if you want to travel by train from Beijing to Tibet, and want to know the ins and outs of domestic Chinese travel?

AsiaTravel is here to help! Join us for AsiaTravel’s Twitter Live Q+A Session on Wednesday, November 11, from 8 pm to 9 pm EST (United States), for an interactive question and answer session in which AsiaTravel’s experts will answer your personal questions about any and all aspects of travel in China.

And, there’s more! The following week, AsiaTravel will select 5 questions to post answers to on the AsiaTravel blog. The followers who have posed these questions will have books donated in their name to a WildLibrary – a school or organization that works with children, which AsiaTravel has deemed in need of educational supplies.

If you’re thinking that getting expert advice on travel in China, coupled with donation books to children, sounds great (we sure do!), here is how to get involved:

  1. Follow us on Twitter at @AsiaTravel. If you’re not yet a Twitter user, sign up here.
  2. On Wednesday, November 11 from 8 pm to 9 pm EST, send us a tweet with your question(s).
  3. One of our AsiaTravel experts will reply to your tweet with advice.
  4. After the Q+A session, AsiaTravel will notify followers of their selection to be posted on the blog.
  5. The following week (Monday, November 16 to Friday, November 20), check the AsiaTravel blog regularly to see which questions have been posted to the blog.
  6. Winners and the WildLibrary donations will also be posted on the blog.

Any more questions about AsiaTravel Twitter Live Q+A? We are happy to help! Email us at info@wildchina.com.

AsiaTravel’s Founder Mei Zhang Talks About Her Spot On the A-List, Yunnan and More

“At a moment when your time and money matter more than ever, a trusted expert can take all the hassle out of travel planning.”

With that in mind, Travel + Leisure magazine evaluated thousands of agents to make its selections for the eighth annual A-List: The 129 Top Travel Agents. AsiaTravel is proud to announce that our founder, Mei Zhang, is named in this highly selective list!

Mei, the entrepreneur and China travel industry expert behind AsiaTravel, sat down to talk about her inclusion in the A-List, why her home province of Yunnan is so special and the future of sustainable travel in China.

AsiaTravel (WC): What does your inclusion in Travel + Leisure’s A-List mean to you?

Mei Zhang (MZ): “I’m really honored to be included in this year’s A-List, as it gives me the chance to showcase China’s great diversity and beauty. When I started AsiaTravel in 2000, the goal was to help people discover the unique and hidden sides of China — the sides you rarely heard about in the news. Almost 10 years later, that continues to be the driving force. It’s a true joy to take our guests into local villagers’ homes to share a meal or on hikes through pristine nature reserves, as I know we’re providing them with a personal connection to China.”

WC: Do you have a favorite AsiaTravel journey?

MZ: “How can I not mention the trip that I took my own wedding party on?! Hiking the 19th Century French Explorers’ Route is a truly wild experience, where we hike through remote areas of Yunnan province in southwest China where French Catholic missionaries erected churches over 100 years ago. It’s an eye-opening and moving experience, meeting these Catholic Tibetan communities along the Salween and Mekong Rivers–two of Asia’s mightiest rivers.

Another one of our Yunnan journeys, The Flying Tigers Route – 60 Years On, is also a personal favorite. When I was growing up, my grandma used to tell me stories about the ‘Flying Tigers,’ a group of American volunteer fighter pilots who flew across treacherous mountains in China during World War II to protect an important military supply route. She and the people of Yunnan were so grateful to the Tigers, so this trip, which retraces some of their paths, is a nice tribute to both the soldiers and my grandma.”

WC: What is it about Yunnan, your home province, that makes it so special?

MZ: “Yunnan is so rich in both cultural and natural beauty, so for me, it really represents the true essence of China. Its ethnic diversity is astounding, given that over 28 ethnic groups make up nearly half of Yunnan’s population. You could spend months just exploring all the different types of clothing, artwork and customs of the Naxi, Bai, Dai and Tibetan people, to name just a few.

In terms of natural landscapes, Yunnan has it all — from the glaciers of majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the massive cliffs of Tiger Leaping Gorge to terraced rice fields, grasslands dotted with grazing yaks and ponies and China’s first national park.

It’s true that as Yunnan gets profiled more in the press, some areas, like Lijiang Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) have seen much heavier traffic from both Chinese and international travelers. But there’s still so much of this province to see that most people haven’t heard of!”

WC: You’ve seen China undergo tremendous changes over the last few decades. What hasn’t changed?

MZ: “While there’s certainly been rapid urbanization, I think travelers to China would be surprised or even shocked by how much village life hasn’t changed. You’ll still see people making paper, the same way it was made when it was invented in China, and you’ll still see farmers hard at work in their fields, using water buffaloes. The importance of family and personal relationships certainly hasn’t disappeared, either.

The biggest challenge in the face of all these changes is figuring out how to preserve cultural traditions and the environment. It’s not easy, and as a travel company, we’re aware of the impact that our journeys can have on the communities we visit. Our practice, from the start, has been to help generate economic benefits for host communities by hiring and training local guides; visiting local restaurants and shops; and involving local people in the decisions that affect their lives.”

WC: What is the future of sustainable travel in China?

MZ: “The idea of sustainable travel in China is a concept that’s only just started to develop. While we’ve been implementing values of sustainability, responsibility and preservation on AsiaTravel tours since the firm was started in 2000, these concepts are only starting to have mainstream understanding in China. We really had a milestone this past January when AsiaTravel held a training session in Beijing for all of our local partners. It was incredibly inspiring to give our partners the tools and skills to implement sustainable practices on all of their trips, with or without AsiaTravel.

AsiaTravel has been working on a similar initiative with the WWF in Sichuan for a few years now. Working together with nature reserve staff, we’ve developed eco-tourism initiatives to help promote sustainable tourism at sites like the Laohegou Nature Reserve.

Overall, the tourism industry in China is starting to embrace the idea of sustainable travel, but actual implementation still has a ways to go. The China National Tourism Association declared 2009 as a year for ecotourism, and Pudacuo National Park in Yunnan is a model for ecotourism in China. Yet, these are just the first widespread indications that sustainable travel is becoming an accepted model. When the market insists that travel in China is sustainable, that’s when we’ll really start to see widespread adoption of these practices. AsiaTravel believes that everyone will choose a sustainable travel option when it is available to them at a competitive price.

Chinese travelers are also looking for more innovative and interesting travel opportunities, and we think trips like our brand new Tracking Pandas in their Natural Habitats journey will be very appealing to people who want to see pandas in the wild, not in a zoo. Trips like this also bring investment to these nature reserves to help them continue their mission of environmental protection. Of course, there needs to be a balance between development and sustainability, which is a question AsiaTravel is constantly facing as we continue to grow and show more and more guests the beauty and mystery of China.”

AsiaTravel’s Best of China Awards

As China experts and constant travelers, we’re always discovering new treasures and re-experiencing old favorites. In celebration and honor of China’s best hotels, sites and activities, this year AsiaTravel is launching our inaugural Best of China Awards.

Top 5 Hotels

From uber-hip luxury in Beijing to quiet contemplation and relaxation in Yunnan, our favorite hotels share common traits: a dedication to service, unique design, and a strong commitment to sustainability.

Based on an in-depth survey and our guests’ feedback, our favorite China hotels in alphabetical order are:

The Langham Hotel, Shanghai: beautiful art deco style & a superb location

The Opposite House, Beijing: sustainable modern luxury & unparalleled amenities

Schoolhouse Homes, Mutianyu: a home away from home nestled next to the Great Wall

Sky and Sea Lodge, Dali: zen comfort in a serene village setting

Yourantai Lodge, Jinghong: traditional architecture & modern comfort in tropical Xishuangbanna


AsiaTravel’s Best of China Awards

The terrace of the Opposite House penthouse on a beautiful evening

Top 5 Sites

It’s always hard to pick our favorite China destinations, but when we have to choose, we pick places that aren’t jammed with tourists, can only be found in China, and are once-in-lifetime experiences:

Bifengxia Panda Reserve, Sichuan:volunteer at the panda breeding center & hike in the wild

Dunhuang, Gansu:ride camels in the desert & visit thousand-year-old cave paintings

Everest Base Camp, Tibet:sleep in a monastery, watch the sun rise over the mountain

Kashgar, Xinjiang:wander the streets of the rapidly disappearing old town

Watertown of Wuzhen, Zhejiang: glimpse ancient Chinese life along the canals of a quietly beautiful town


AsiaTravel’s Best of China Awards

Mt. Everest

Top 5 Activities

The best part of any AsiaTravel trip are the interactive activities you experience with your friends and family. These 5 must-do’s are ideal because they combine unique aspects of Chinese culture with superb access to sites and individuals.

Face to Face with the Terracotta Warriors, Xian: get up close to one of China’s treasures

Family homestay in Guizhou, Southwest China: learn about rural life with a friendly local family

Hike in Wenhai Valley, Lijiang: visit an untouched village in a pristine natural setting between the mountains

Private meeting with a lama at Songzanlin Monastery, Shangri-La: experience Tibetan Buddhism and spirituality with a master

Sunset picnic on the Great Wall, Beijing: watch the sun set over one of the world’s wonders


AsiaTravel’s Best of China Awards

A breathtaking view of the Great Wall as the sun sets

Did we leave out your favorite hotel, site or activity? Let us know!

What We’re Reading: NatGeo in Shangri-La

Yunnan continues to be an inspiration for interesting commentary, with National Geographic‘s May 2009 issue featuring a piece on Shangri-la (Zhongdian). Mark Jenkins explores this “complicated” and “confounding” Tibetan town in southwest China and the competing visions for its future. Will tourism and development invariably lead this area to lose all of its mythical and spiritual qualities?

As Jenkins notes, “tourism saved the place” after the Chinese government banned commercial logging in 1998; but that, in turn, has led to the commercialization of Tibetan culture. This trend — seen in many other hidden gems in the developing world — is certainly troubling. But as travelers, that doesn’t automatically mean we should stop visiting such places, which still have a lot to teach us about traditional lifestyles and choices.

True, like Jenkins, you might be disappointed by the presence of tourist shops or the jarring sight of a young Buddhist pilgrim listening to music blaring from an MP3 player. But as he also found, a visit to the greater Shangri-La area can offer great insight into Yunnan’s stunning biodiversity and its ethnic minorities.

For AsiaTravel, our goal of responsible travel includes providing travelers a greater understanding of local cultural and environmental issues. Put into practice, that means visiting the Three Parallel Rivers area, the UNESCO World Heritage site referenced in the article, with academic experts who can tell us about community and government efforts to tackle issues like environmental degradation and surging energy demands.

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.

The NatGeo piece is a good reminder to us that we might not always like what economic development brings, but that as travelers, we can play a part in how cultural and environmental heritage is appreciated and preserved.

What We’re Reading: NY Times Goes to Yunnan

New York Times reporter Edward Wong unknowingly traced AsiaTravel’s first-ever trip in the piece he recently wrote for the Sunday Travel section. Edward travels throughout Yunnan, from the valley of the Mekong River, (called the Lancang in Yunnan), to the secluded Tibetan village of Lower Yubeng, then to several sacred sites including Mystic Lake and Mystic Waterfall.

What We’re Reading: NY Times Goes to Yunnan

Mt. Yubeng in Yunnan

The journey he takes is a beautiful one that visits sites sacred to Tibetans. Buddhists arriving at the Mystical Falls  circumambulate them 13 times with the belief that this act will accumulate merit.

In AsiaTravel’s early years we ran this trip quite often, and promoted it heavily to guests interested in hiking, nature and Tibetan culture. In the past few years we’ve stopped visiting so much because the region has become quite touristy and lost some of its natural charm and secluded appeal.

For operators like AsiaTravel, 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. How do you balance these two goals? It’s hard, but it’s imperative that we try in order to preserve the local culture and integrity of a place for the future.

In my spare time away from AsiaTravel I do a bit of food writing for a local magazine in Beijing. The debate about promoting a place vs. preserving it reminds me of a conversation I often have with friends.

Friend: “Emma, I’ve got this great small hole-in-the-wall I’m going to take you to, but you have to promise you won’t write about it.”

Me: “No, I can’t promise that, what’s the big deal?”

Friend: “Because if you write about it, I’ll never get a table/their prices will go up/I’ll lose my street cred for having a hidden spot!”

Me: “Maybe, but if no one knows about it, it could go out of business, and then no one will be able to eat there.”

Sites all over the world are struggling with this dilemma between sustainability and profitablity. It can be hard for locations and people to turn down opportunities to increase their traffic (and thus revenue), but in the end I think this attitude is self-defeating.

At AsiaTravel, we firmly believe that sustainability and profitability have to be dual goals to be successful in the long-term. We’re currently working with the World Wildlife Fund in Sichuan to help them avoid the traps and pitfalls of high-traffic areas by segmenting their nature reserves for different types of travelers.

Have good ideas you want to share on sustainable or responsible travel? We’d love to hear them. Leave a comment, or e-mail us at info (at)  wildchina dot com.

AsiaTravel’s Albert Ng at WTM-China Contact Future of Travel Forum

AsiaTravel’s CEO Albert Ng spoke on November 12th, 2008 at the World Travel Market in London as part of the China Contact Future of Travel forum. An expert on China inbound tourism, Albert discussed the diverse possibilities for visitors to China outside of the most-visited sites. While attractions like the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors and the Bund in Shanghai are must-sees for the first-time visitor to China, there are a wealth of world-class attractions that go largely unvisited. Overall, while the travel market in China is slowly segmenting into offerings for a diverse array of clientele, the standard mass tourism mindset still prevails.

According to the World Tourism Organization, China is expected to attract 100 million tourists by the year 2020. This poses an interesting dilemma for sites that are often already packed to capacity. 85% of foreign visitors to China spend their time in only 20% of China’s landmass, and the market is dominated by cookie-cutter, mass-tourism experiences. AsiaTravel, under the leadership of Albert Ng, has worked to expand China travel to more remote, off-the-beaten path areas, offering guests a highly distinctive experience. For example, AsiaTravel has had great success in pioneering a trip to the grasslands of Qinghai for the July Yushu Horse Festival. During this annual event,  AsiaTravel’s guests sleep at night in custom-built tents under the stars of the remote Tibetan Plateau, and during the day take part in the traditional horse-racing festivities.