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.

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

My month of travel came to close with two more stops in northern Yunnan province: Lijiang and Zhongdian. Traveling with two French-speaking families, I had many “lost in translation” moments (bonjour, ça va and merci can only get you so far).

Fortunately, feeling the power of the local people, their surroundings and their spirituality was a shared experience that required few words.

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

Our first stop was in Lijiang’s lovely Old Town, which was restored after a devastating 1996 earthquake. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lijiang is considered the “Venice of the East” as it features cobblestone alleyways, arched bridges, weeping willows and canals. Despite the rain, which seemed to be following me everywhere on this trip, we enjoyed our easy stroll through the town’s bustling market and shops.

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

In Lijiang, we also had the chance to interact with the Naxi minority, a matriarchal group descended from Tibetan nomads. At the Museum of Naxi Culture, we learned about their script, Dongba, which consists of roughly 1,400 pictograms — the only hieroglyphic writing system still in use today.

Our dinner that night was truly special, as it was held at a local Naxi family’s courtyard house. The family, which has received such guests as the king of Norway, also hosted a group of local musicians to provide a private concert during the meal. I learned later that at least one member of the French group had tears in her eyes upon leaving the house — a true testament to the power of both music and warm hospitality.

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

The following day, as we drove north toward Zhongdian, we stopped for an easy hike at the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the world’s deepest gorges, it is nestled between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Mountains. Featuring massive cliffs and Yangtze River rapids, the gorge supposedly received its name after a tiger eluded hunters by leaping it at its narrowest point.

Beyond the picturesque views, the sheer power of the roaring river was simply amazing. Click here for two very short, amateur videos.

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

Finally, in Zhongdian, we spent a day exploring the small town’s Tibetan culture. Yunnan province lies just south of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau, and Zhongdian is a town near the Tibetan border area. Given that we were at an elevation of over 9,800 feet, we spent the mornings and evenings in jackets and slept at night with the heat on — a big change from the rest of my (sweaty) trip.

Several of our activities allowed us to experience the power of the area’s deep spirituality. Outside of the small Da Bao Temple, we came across rows upon rows of colorful Tibetan prayer flags draped across trees. Hoping to show respect and also improve our own karma, we draped our own prayer flags provided by our friendly guide, Huang.

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

Yunnan: Experiencing the Power of Lijiang & Zhongdian

At Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan, we had the chance to see monks chanting their prayers and burning incense. Built on a mountain hillside, Songzanlin’s main hall also offers stunning views over Zhongdian. From that vantage point, I can see why the town touts itself as the real “Shangri-la” of James Hilton’s famous 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.

And if you look closely in the pictures above, it appears that even the monk seems to be taken by the natural beauty around him.

Now that I am back in Beijing, I am filled with so many wonderful — and powerful — memories from my travels. And my Chinese has certainly improved. Too bad the same can’t be said for my French.

Yu Garden

Yu Garden is indeed a nice little garden. It is not like the exquisiteness of Suzhou Garden. Instead, it has more handsome masculinity inside, and it is refreshing. The Yu Garden is not as big as it was supposed to be. After all, it was a private garden, and it takes almost 1.5 hours to visit all the scenery spots inside. The distinctive roof and the engraved character scene really make Yu Garden very special. If you have visited the beautiful and quiet gardens in Suzhou, you can pass by and take a visit the charm of Yu Garden. And if possible, just choose the time when there is not so many people visiting the Yu Garden to come there, as it will be quiet, if you can isolate the embarrassment outside. The Yu Garden is closed earlier, and just pay attention to it.

When you go in the Yu Garden, it is recommended to take a map, so as not to go back, and you can buy a mobile phone explanation, it will be more interesting.

As soon as you enter Yu Garden, you will feel that as if you have traveled to another time space. There is no reinforced concrete and no high-rise buildings. There are only corridors, flowing water and willow. Although the Yu Garden is a scenic spot, you can choose to buy a ticket to go in and see, or you can choose to just stroll outside. Similar to Beijing’s South Luogu Lane, there are various ancient buildings, small shops and snacks along the street. It is really a place to eat and play.

You can buy the tickets for Yu Garden directly online, which is 54 Yuan/ 2 person. It is Suzhou garden style, and you may personally feel that it is more suitable to spend time to waste in Yu Garden, if you rush to leave, you may not feel the beauty of Yu Garden.

The Yu Garden itself is very beautiful. This typical Suzhou-style garden is exquisite and beautiful. The dragon wall is especially impressive. It is a rare garden in Shanghai. It is quite big inside. There are many tourists on the weekend, especially many foreign tourists. You can take pictures everywhere. There are many rockeries, and there are water and old houses. You may like those eaves, as the micro-carvings of the building are different.

Top 5 things to avoid when planning a China trip

There are some activities that seem to enter all itineraries going to China, and they can sound so appealing, but they really shouldn’t be for you, if you are reading my blog posts.

1. Cloisonné Factory: The itinerary often says that one can observe the skilled artisan create intricate designs. It’s usually on the way to the Great Wall. It is true? Yes, for about 5% of the time there. More importantly, this is a tourist destination shop that pays the tour guide and driver commissions. Usually, the guide and driver can obtain from 30% to 50% of what you paid in the shop, and this is their salary. The guide and drivers don’t usually get paid a wage for their time, so you can understand the pressure they are under. If you don’t buy, they would have worked for free that day. Imagine the service you’ll get the next day.

2. Jade factory visit: This is often in Xi’an and lots of other places around China too. This is again a commissioned shop. Again, your guides and drivers in Xi’an depend on this shop for their living.

3. Carpet factory visit: There is one famous one in Shanghai. Don’t think I need to repeat myself. That said, there are some workshops run by NGOs in Tibet, and those are real places you can actually see the workers stitching the carpet. Knowing that money there goes to support local schools or NGOs, I would encourage those rather than the ones in Shanghai.

4. Silk factory visit: There is one in Suzhou. To be fair, it was kind of interesting; I personally went there and bought a silk blanket and a mao jacket. But, remember I went there as a travel agent, so I could negotiate without tour guide commissions. I wouldn’t imagine going there as a tourist.

5. Yangtze River Cruise: I personally would not recommend it. It’s really not very interesting and you are just on a boat with tons of other western tourists for 3 days eating buffet good. That was a fine option when china was less accessible before, but nowadays, there are so many wonderful places to visit, fine restaurants to dine in. Particularly, for anyone looking to experience a country, rather than tour a country, the cruise is a hard place to experience China. There are generally no shorter options either. So, if I had 14 days to spend on one China trip, I would not spend 20% of that time on the cruise.

Top 5 Places in China to See – even during the Winter

Just received a call from Jim from Colorado, a potential traveler of AsiaTravel, and this was what he said: “Hi, some friends recommended you. So, I am calling because I want to go to China in mid December. First time. I don’t know where to start.”

I am sure Jim is not alone, wanting to explore this vast country, but not sure where to start. He has about 14 days, and probably won’t make another trip out to China in the near future. So, I tried to introduce to him the places that he absolutely cannot miss. Here are my picks:

1) Beijing. You just cannot go to China without going to Beijing, even if it’s winter. It’s the capital, and you have to go there to see the iconic Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The Great Wall is long, but most people only visit the most popular sections of the wall, so at these tourist places, there are maybe 6 million visitors a year. It can get crowded. So, if you want to see the real wall and get to meet some of the villagers who live by the wall, then take a car and driver to go to some of the sections further out of town. Spend a day, walking and really experience the wall.  Then you’ll want a good half day the next day for the forbidden city.  This is where a lot of your impressions of China will become reality. The guide can tell you stories behind the dragon and phoenix, and bring history to live to you. Then, you’ll want to wander around the old part of Beijing. This is like the old town of Marrakesh, where people live along narrow alleyways. Kids still run around the courtyard houses.  3rd day, you can visit the Temple of Heaven or some markets, before taking a flight to Xi’an.

2) Xi’an, home to the famous terra cotta soldiers. China’s first emperor Qin Shuihuang had all these terra cotta soldiers built to guard him in after life.  There are thousands of pieces to see, and they really are stunning when you see them in person. Other than that, there are some other activities you might want to experience. Farmers’ painting is famous, also calligraphy. Easily, you can spend 2 days in total here.

3) Yunnan Province, located in Southwest China and a 2-hour flight away from Xi’an. To me, this is home, but also it gives the largest contrast to Beijing and Xi’an, so that you really get to see the diversity of Chinese culture. It’s located on the eastern extension of the Himalayas. It’s a combination of high elevation and low latitude, resulting in a very pleasant winter. During winter time the average temperature in Lijiang (one of the major tourist destinations in Yunnan) is in the 50s during the day. So, quite pleasant. Lijiang is a UNESCO world culture heritage site, and is a must visit.

4) Shangri-la, a 5-hour drive north of Lijiang and Tibetan area. If you don’t have time to do a dedicated trip to Tibet, Shangri-la is an absolute must see. It’s higher in elevation, around 10,000feet. So, it is cold, but worth it, since you definitely don’t want to be here during the summer, when millions of Chinese tourists also visit this place.

5) Shanghai, my favorite stop and the best place to exit China. Particularly, after spending 5 days covering Lijiang and Shangrila, Shanghai is a whole world away. The Bund, the sky scrapers really tell you why all the multinational companies are relocating their headquarters from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

This is my list of top 5 places in China.

Want to Visit Lhasa? Now’s the Time.

Want to Visit Lhasa? Now’s the Time.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, China

Working for a travel company, people often ask me where they should visit in China. While it always depends on the season and the situation, right now I’ve got a clear favorite: Tibet.

Normally, May – September is peak tourist season in Tibet, yet this year travel to this region has  diminished considerably, due to factors like visa restrictions and the March riots (People’s Daily).

However, our local partner on the ground in Lhasa has told us that most sites in Tibet are open and ready for visitors, with the Drepung Monastery just re-opened today in time for the annual Shoton Festival.

There have always been guidelines for traveling to Tibet – foreigners must have a guide at all times, can only stay at star-rated hotels, and need proper permits – but these are easily met, and the breathtaking landscape and incredible people make this trip unforgettable.

If you’re interested in traveling to Tibet, check out a sample AsiaTravel itinerary here.

Tips for Avoiding Altitude Sickness

In Tibet, “the Roof of the World”, Lhasa is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. At an elevation of 3,650 meters above sea level (11,975 feet), it’s also one of the highest.

While most visitors to Tibet aren’t planning on climbing Mt. Everest, the altitude alone is enough to knock you on your feet, even minus the strenuous climb. Before my visit to Tibet in 2006 I was given plenty of warnings about taking it easy and drinking tons of water. Yet as an experienced skiier with numerous problem-free visits to the peaks of the Rockies and Pacific Northwest, I didn’t pay much attention.

That is, until I landed in Lhasa. I quickly felt dizzy and short of breath. That night, I wasn’t able to hold down much of my dinner (too much information?). I quickly heeded the altitude advice I’d been given, and a day later was back in tip-top shape.

Tips for Avoiding Altitude Sickness

Watching the sunrise over Everest after shaking the effects of high-altitude

If you’re planning a visit to Tibet or any other high-altitude region, here are a few tips to help make your trip a comfortable one. It’s no fun to be stuck in your hotel room when everyone else is visiting the Potala Palace!

Be Active Before You Go: While altitude sickness indiscriminately affects marathon runners and couch potatoes alike, getting your lung capacity up through cardio activity could help you absorb more oxygen at higher altitudes, thus helping you fight some of the effects of being up high.

Drink Plenty of Water: This is simple advice that you’re always supposed to follow, but at high altitudes it becomes even more important. The lower atmospheric pressure means that you lose more water vapor from your lungs as you breathe. Basically, this means that you get dehydrated much faster than you do at sea level. Drinking plenty of water will stave off headaches and help to mitigate your other symptoms.

Take it Easy: It’s important not to push yourself too hard in your first few days. Even if you’re in great shape, your lungs will still be working overtime at high altitude. AsiaTravel trips to Tibet and high-altitude areas always include plenty of time for rest in the first day or two for this reason.

Climb Slow: As you climb to higher altitudes, it’s important to allow your body time to adjust. You shouldn’t plan on climbing more than 1,000 feet per day.

Following these tips might not help you avoid the effects of high-altitude completely, but they should help diminish them enough to enjoy your trip. Most people get over initial discomfort within a day or two.


For more information about the symptoms and treatment of altitude-sickness, the following links are full of great information:

  • Travelocity: How to Avoid Altitude Sickness
  • Travel Doctor.UK: Altitude or Mountain Sickness

Tibet Open to Travelers

Tibet has opened its doors to foreign travelers once again after a largely uneventful winter. Here at AsiaTravel, we’re ecstatic to once again be able to help people visit this spectacularly beautiful, deeply spiritual, and incredibly impressive land.

Tibet Open to Travelers

Sunset in Tibet

My AsiaTravel colleagues Jia Liming, Paul Moreno, and I (Emma Starks) were recently on CCTV9’s Up Close talking about why we love traveling in Tibet, and giving our suggestions and tips for those who are planning a trip to the roof of the world. It was a really fun experience for us, and (hopefully!) helpful for people planning a visit.

Join us on the roof of the world for a 9-day journey through Tibet.

Departing June 14 and September 13.