Adventure Meets Culture: Getting Off the Beaten Track in China

April 15, 2018
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Combining adventure and cultural travel in such an expansive country as China can be a challenge but our friends at TanSuo Cultural Travel mastered it perfectly. Adventure Compass spoke to the agency’s director Na Wang about the latest trends in cultural travel in China.

 

What would you consider to be the top attraction or attractions that drive tourists to China?

 

That’s quite a difficult question to answer! China is such a vast country and it has so much to offer, so different people come here for different reasons. Some people are attracted by the natural beauty and biodiversity, others want to see the historic sites, and these days we’re seeing an increasing number of tourists visiting China purely to take a first-hand look at its futuristic megacities.

 

The attractions that naturally spring to mind are the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta Army. Almost anyone who has ever taken a trip to China will have made a point of visiting these three sites and they’ve become international icons for tourism in the country.  That being said, there’s so much more to see in China beyond these three attractions and we’d urge everyone to head off-the-beaten-track to really make the most of their trip.

What would you recommend visiting?

 

It depends on your personal preference and what you’d ideally like to get out of a trip to China. If you’re a massive history buff or you’re very adventurous, you can follow the Silk Road from Xi’an in Shaanxi province right through to Kashgar in Xinjiang. It’s a trip we’ve done many times and in multiple different ways, but it never fails to surprise us!

 

If you’re more into culture or want to experience something truly unique, we’d definitely recommend visiting some of the ethnic minority communities. The provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan are considered the most ethnically diverse, but you can find ethnic minority communities throughout China, such as the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, the Zhuang people of Guangxi, or the Hui Muslims in Ningxia.

 

We’d personally recommend the village of Basha, which is home to the Miao ethnic minority and is the only place in China where local people are allowed to legally own guns. Rifles are a really integral part of their culture and it’s an ideal opportunity to experience an alternative history of China through the lives of its ethnic minorities.

 

For nature lovers, Mount Huang in Anhui province, the Karst Mountains in Guangxi, the Danxia Landform in Gansu province, and Zhangjiajie in Hunan province are unmissable and are by far some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes we’ve ever seen.

What is your favorite local area where you like spending weekends?

 

If we’re looking for a city break, we prefer to go to some of the smaller and lesser-known cities, to escape the hustle and bustle of larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing. A few personal favourites are Chengdu in Sichuan province, Guilin in Guangxi, Huangshan in Anhui province, and Xiamen in Fujian province. All of them are nestled in beautiful natural surroundings and have a certain leisurely quality that allows you to relax, unlike other large cities.

 

In particular, staying in Huangshan gives you access to a number of picturesque ancient villages that are only about 40 minutes’ drive away, including Hongcun and Xidi, which were both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The nearby Mukeng Bamboo Forest is also a magical place to go hiking. You may recognize it as the set of the kung-fu classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!

Which adventures are most popular —hiking, boat, anything else?

 

China has some of the most diverse landscapes in the world and they are often best explored on foot, so hiking is very popular. Mountains like Mount Hua in Shaanxi province, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan province, and Mount Heng in Shanxi province have all garnered a reputation for being both challenging and rewarding, but it’s not just mountains that’ll keep you busy!

 

The grasslands of Inner Mongolia are ideal for walking and horse-riding, while the Gobi Desert, which spans many of China’s northwestern provinces, is the perfect place to engage in a few unusual adventure activities, such as camel riding and dune-surfing.

Which type of sports activities are most popular?

 

Arguably one of the most popular sports activities in China, which usually comes as quite a surprise to a lot of people, is rock-climbing! The Karst Mountains in southern Guangxi are perfect for climbing and the area, particularly the town of Yangshuo, attracts hundreds of rock-climbers from around the world every year.

 

If you’re a passionate runner, the Great Wall Marathon is an excellent way to see one of China’s most historic sites while also indulging in your favorite hobby. For those who prefer to cycle, there’s also the Great Wall Cycling Challenge, which involves contestants physically having to carry their bikes up the wall before cycling along it!

What are the specialities of local cuisine? Which dishes you can recommend personally? Any restaurants you are recommending to your clients?

 

Different provinces and regions all have their own unique styles of cuisine, so there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different local cuisines in China! The best styles are arguably the Eight Culinary Traditions of China, which are from the provinces of Sichuan, Guangdong, Hunan, Shandong, Fujian, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Personally, in terms of these eight venerable styles, our favorites are Fish-Fragrant Eggplant from Sichuan province, Dong’an Chicken from Hunan province, and Stinky Mandarin Fish from Anhui province — don’t let the name put you off, it’s delicious!

 

Outside of these eight styles, there are many wonderful specialty dishes and snacks to be found throughout China. We’re enduring fans of deliciously soupy Guilin Noodles from Guangxi, meaty Xiaolongbao from Shanghai, and of course mouthwatering Peking Duck from Beijing!

 

When it comes to finding restaurants, China is such a vast country that it’s quite difficult to make individual recommendations. However, we’d always suggest keeping an eye out for the restaurants that are full of locals and try to visit the smaller, family-owned restaurants, as they tend to have the most delicious food.

Which seasons are most popular?  What are seasonal activities or events that you recommend visiting?

 

We normally recommend visiting during spring or autumn, as this is when the weather is at its most comfortable and the countryside is at its most beautiful. Whether it’s spring blossoms or autumn leaves, the landscapes throughout China during these two seasons are guaranteed to take your breath away! In particular, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a wonderful way to engage with authentic Chinese culture and try a few local specialties, such as moon cakes, which usually aren’t available during the rest of the year.

 

Summer is generally speaking too hot and humid to visit most parts of China, although it’s ideal if you decide to visit the tropical island of Hainan. Similarly we wouldn’t recommend visiting during winter unless you plan on taking advantage of the winter tourism opportunities, such as marveling at the magnificent Harbin Snow and Ice Festival in Heilongjiang province or visiting one of the many top quality ski resorts in Jilin province.

Could you tell us about your personal favorite adventure locally? Maybe a favorite trekking route?

 

Thus far, my three favorite hikes in China have been Mount Huang in Anhui province, the Mukeng Bamboo Forest in Anhui province, and the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Hunan province. It might also be worth mentioning that two of these areas are technically movie stars! You may recognize the Mukeng Bamboo Forest as the set of the fight scene in Ang Lee’s martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while the bizarre plinth-like mountains in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park famously served as the inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar
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What is your favorite and most notable experience that you’ve planned?

 

For myself, I’ve always been a huge fan of martial arts and I’ve practiced Tae Kwon-Do for many years, but one of the greatest adventures I’ve ever had was when I was living in China and decided to take a month’s holiday from work to study full-time in a Shaolin School. That being said, hand-feeding a giant panda is a very close second!

 

For Na Wang, the head of TanSuo Cultural Travel, it has to be when she traveled for over 5,400 miles (12,000 km) from Beijing to Xinjiang via motorcycle. She crossed diverse terrains, from the barren Gobi Desert to the lush grasslands near Kanas Lake, and got to see a wide variety of wildlife, including a rare encounter with a wild herd of Przewalski’s horses. One of the highlights of the trip was staying overnight in a charming log cabin within the remote village of Hemu.

How long have you been a travel agent? What differentiates you from other travel agencies?

 

TanSuo Cultural Travel has been providing people with unforgettable bespoke and group tours in China for just over four years now. We might be quite a new company but, when it comes to our tours, we offer a diversity and depth that is unmatched by our competitors. We also try to keep our prices as low as possible, meaning we offer rich experiences for reasonable prices.

 

Unlike other tour companies in China, we do not have designated shopping days included in our itineraries and we generally avoid visiting “souvenir” shops, as we want to dedicate the entirety of our tour to visiting off-the-beaten-track locations and giving our clients an authentic experience of China. We do not simply offer views of these breathtaking sites from the seat of a tourist bus or through the window of a train; we make a point of physically visiting every location advertised on our tours and allowing our clients to explore them at their leisure.  

 

Many of the locations on our tours and sometimes whole tours themselves are completely unique to us. You won’t find them on any other itinerary!


What areas of travel does your agency specialize in? Why did you choose this specialization?

 

At TanSuo Cultural Travel, the clue is in the name! We believe that culture is the greatest heritage of mankind and, with its 5,000-year-long history, China certainly has one of the most fascinating cultures in the world. In fact, since China is home to 56 different ethnic groups, it is actually home to a wide variety of different cultures, each with their own unique customs, traditions, and quirks. This is why, no matter where we go on our tours, we try to view each location from a cultural and historical angle. This means we spend a lot of time engaging with local communities, particularly on our Ethnic Minorities of Guizhou Province tour.

 

We decided to take the cultural approach to our tours because it allowed us to explore off-the-beaten track destinations and provide our clients with an alternative version of Chinese history. While the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta Warriors are undoubtedly must-see attractions and a testament to the majesty of imperial China, other lesser-known attractions in China each have their own story to tell.

 

Take for example the Tulou or Earthen Fortresses of Fujian province, which were built by the Hakka people as a response to roving bandit groups and wild animals. There’s also the elegant Hui-style mansions of Anhui province, which were constructed in a very specific way by the wealthy Hui merchants in order to circumvent certain Confucian principles. Imperial culture may have dominated certain parts of China but, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a myriad of incredible places where the imperial government had little impact and where individual cultures were thus able to flourish.

What areas of the business are performing particularly well at the moment and why?

 

At the moment, we are having a lot of interest in our Silk Road Tour, since we are one of the few tour operators that offer a comprehensive tour of the Silk Road in China. Recently, a lot of people seem very keen to trace the ancient caravan routes that once stretched from Europe all the way through to East Asia, and we can’t blame them! It’s an once-in-a-lifetime trip and our tour is guaranteed to provide our clients with unforgettable memories.

 

We recently also gave a presentation at the Adventure Travel Show on China’s ethnic minorities, which was largely based on our Silk Road Tour and our Ethnic Minorities Tour in Guizhou province. The presentation was very well received and, since the show, we’ve had numerous individuals, organizations, and businesses reach out to us to learn more about this captivating yet lesser-known side of China.

What do you think is the most important aspect of your business that has contributed to your success so far?

 

The fact that we offer something different has played a very key role when it comes to attracting clients. China is swiftly becoming a major player on the world’s stage, but unfortunately most tours in China are not rising to meet that challenge. We tend to find that most tour itineraries offer the same attractions, oftentimes in exactly the same sequence, and this can leave people feeling uninspired. While following a guide through the same major tourist attractions may still be what some people are looking for, we’re finding that more and more clients these days want to have a real and palpable engagement with the places they visit.

 

This is why we keep our tour groups to a maximum of 10 people and why we offer a lot of personal freedom on the tour. It’s important that, on top of providing our clients with expert guiding services, we also allow them a degree of independence so they can make their own memories along the way. We also make a point of using our own company tour guides, rather than using local guides, so that there’s a degree of consistency and familiarity on our tours. We like to get to know our clients personally and keep up that rapport with them long after they’ve finished the tour.

What travel trends are you noticing?

 

In general, we’ve noticed that most travelers these days prefer to maintain a degree of independence, even when they are visiting somewhere completely new. When it comes to China, this can be a real challenge, as less than 1% of the population in China can speak English. This can make even simple tasks, such as ordering food or buying train tickets, complicated and time-consuming. For this reason, we decided to launch our Travel Design and Customised Travel services alongside our annual group tours.

 

We offer a free consultancy service, so clients never need to feel under pressure when approaching us with their questions about traveling in China. From there, we can either follow the Travel Design path or the Customised Travel path. When it comes to Travel Design, we design a bespoke itinerary tailored to your specifications, work with you to perfect it, and then organize the entire tour for you.

 

Concerning our Customised Travel services, we still design a bespoke itinerary for you, but the arrangement is much more flexible. We can book train tickets, accommodation, and local tour guides, but ultimately you will take the tour independently and we will simply offer you the services that you ask for, nothing more. In both instances, once we’ve finished crafting your itinerary, you are under no obligation to book it through us and you can simply use it for your own independent travel, free of charge! We’re very passionate about travel in China and we’re always eager to introduce new people to the country, regardless of whether they choose to book through us or not.

What are the biggest challenges of working in an adventure travel field?

 

Since China is such a vast country and it’s modernizing at such a rapid pace, our biggest challenge has always been keeping our information up-to-date. The infrastructures within a region on one of our group tours can change drastically within a year, and sometimes even within a month. The implementation of new high-speed rail routes, the building of new roads, and the renovation of certain tourist sites all affect our tours and mean we have to adapt our itineraries on a regular basis. Usually this is a positive thing, as faster transport links mean we can offer more within a shorter space of time. However, sometimes historic sites and even nature parks will be closed entirely for renovation, which can last for months, and we have to take them off of the itinerary entirely. 

 

We also need to keep informed on how popular certain tourist destinations are becoming and have in-depth discussions about whether we want to continue to feature them on our tours. Unfortunately, when a site is developed heavily for tourism in China, there is the risk that it becomes commoditized and overcrowded. We try to visit each site on our itineraries as regularly as possible between annual tours, in order to determine whether we still feel the site would be enjoyable for our clients and beneficial to their authentic experience of Chinese culture. 

What future do you think travel agents in China will have, bearing in mind the growing popularity of online travel?

 

There’s no doubt that the travel industry is definitely changing and more people are opting to use the internet in order to research their own independent travel, rather than using conventional travel agencies. We feel that there’s a real need for travel agents to adapt if they want to survive in the future.

 

Since we’re still a relatively new company, we’ve had the benefit of developing during the “modern age of travel” so to speak, and we’ve learned quickly how best to engage with potential customers.

 

Social media marketing has become a major feature of our business and we dedicate considerable time to ensuring that our website is constantly updated with fresh, interesting content. As far as we’re aware, we’re the only travel company that has sections of our website dedicated to specific ethnic minorities in China and in-depth articles on each dynasty in Chinese history.

 

By promoting our content online, it’s a really easy way to let potential customers know how knowledgeable we are about China, and we find that a lot of people initially come to us asking for advice on how to facilitate their independent travel in China. When it comes to customization and travel design, our services have become very flexible in order to accommodate this new clientele, who want help with their travel plans rather than a guided tour. Our main strategy has been not to try to force people onto a tour that they might not be happy with. We’d rather craft a free itinerary for someone that they end up using independently to have an amazing trip than try to sell them a group tour that they may not enjoy as much. 

How will you continue to grow your business in the future?

 

Our main aim is to continue expanding our website, particularly our ethnic minorities section. At the moment, we currently have in-depth series of articles on the Bai people, the Bouyei people, the Dai people, the Dong people, the Hui people, the Miao people, the Mongolians, the Tibetans, the Uyghur people, and the Zhuang people, but there are still 45 ethnic minorities left to write about! Researching and writing all of these articles is a mammoth task, but it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to learn about so many diverse cultures.

 

We’re also planning on visiting more travel shows in the future, as the Adventure Travel Show proved to be a very positive experience and one we’d definitely like to replicate. As we continue to expand our business, we will be developing new group tours that we hope will cater to a wider range of travellers. At the moment, we’re looking closely at Yunnan province, Sichuan province, and Inner Mongolia as potential areas for further development. In the meantime, we’ll continue to provide the same top quality service on all of our bespoke and group tours!

Which popular blogs on adventure travel do you follow?

 

We follow so many different adventure travel blogs these days, it’s so hard to choose just a few! Our personal and enduring favourite has always been NOMADasaurus, which is run by travel couple Alesha Bradford and Jarryd Salem from Australia. They’ve been traveling around the world together since 2008 and show no signs of slowing down!

 

Another lesser-known travel blog that we feel deserves special attention is Orient Excess. It’s run by travel couple Robb and Marie-Carmen, who are currently based in China and who have traveled extensively throughout the country. Their photography is exceptional and they dedicate a lot of time to visiting cultural festivals in China, such as the Torch Festival of the Yi People in Yunnan province or the breathtaking Zigong Lantern Festival in Sichuan province. Their blog posts really capture the diversity and beauty of each province they visit.  

 

A bit of Chinese wisdom?

 

There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Chinese proverbs that deal with the theme of travel, but we’ve opted for one of the more obscure ones. One of our favourite Chinese proverbs is:

 

“He who deliberates fully before taking a step will spend his entire life on one leg”.

 

We feel it really captures the essence of adventure travel and how taking risks is integral if you want to make the most of your travel experience. No matter how long you spend planning a trip, there is no way of knowing exactly what will happen, so you might as well go with the flow!

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