Special Report: Hidden China (VIDEO)

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“My country is so diverse. There are always going to be new places to be discovered and explored,” Howard Hu, chief experience officer (CEO) with G Adventures in China, tells Travel Agent. “First, my country contributed a lot to the civilization of the world, and today we are still an important country. It is important for foreigners to know more about China, which is why it is so important for people to travel here. We have beautiful landscape, with mountains and rivers. And the food here is very delicious. People in China are friendly and make China a safe place. For that reason it is a great destination.”Some people may look at China as a “rising destination,” but that is a misnomer. China emerged as a tourist destination long time ago, and grows more and more accessible by the minute. Even so, the country is in a constant state of development and expansion, causing new interior and “hidden” destinations to spring up regularly. Travel Agent is just back from a 12-day G Adventures tour of these “off-the-beaten-path” destinations in China, and we can say with certainty that there is still so much of the country yet to be discovered.

 

 

Overcoming Obstacles

Yes, China is a great destination because of its diversity and centuries-old history. But even though it is one of the most heavily toured Asian destinations by Westerners, it is not the easiest country to tackle without the help of a guide (or a general “devil may care” attitude). “The language barrier is a big difficulty,” says Hu. “Not many Chinese speak English. Not being able to communicate with the local people can be difficult for foreign travelers.” Case in point: It is extremely difficult to hail a taxi in Beijing. A group of Westerners trying to flag down a taxi will be hard pressed to do so. This isn’t because the taxi drivers are prejudiced, as we initially thought. We learned it is solely because of the language barrier and most of the time the driver and Western passengers end up frustrated by the lack of ability to communicate.

At a grotto shrine in Yungang, Shanxi, China, local worshipers burn incense to pay homage to Buddha.

At a grotto shrine in Yungang, Shanxi, China, local worshipers burn incense to pay homage to Buddha.

The best way to overcome this is to either have a Mandarin-speaking guide, or have someone from your hotel write the Chinese name of your destination on a slip of paper to show the driver. Passengers with G Adventures will always have a CEO with them who is fluent in the local dialect.

Seeing China outside of the luxury hotel landscape can yank travelers easily outside their comfort zone, as we discovered. But keeping an open mind is crucial to understanding cultures that are so different from our own. “Foreigners should be more open-minded,” Hu advises. Much of the food in China is “different.” The majority of bathrooms are not “Western style.” People spit openly on the street. There is a lack of personal space. These are things that a first-timer to China must know and understand, or they are at risk of being completely overwhelmed.

That said, the country is constantly developing to make it more accessible and comfortable for Westerners. “Most streets have traffic lights now, which make it easier for foreigners to cross the street,” says Hu. “Hygiene conditions in this country have improved greatly. The streets are very clean. Most places have clean toilets, as well. There are more restaurants and shops. China gets easier for foreigners all the time. Our facilities have improved greatly. But travelers should be more open-minded.”

 

New Destinations

As part of our tour, we were taken to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, which is a destination rarely visited by Westerners. After a 12-hour journey on an overnight train from Beijing to Baotou, we arrived and hopped a bus for the 180-mile journey to the grasslands. There we were to spend a night in a traditional ger, which is a round, tent-like Mongolian dwelling.. These days camping in gers across Mongolia run the gamut in terms of amenities. Some have solar powering and hot showers. These did not. But even amid moderate grumbles and mild skepticism, we readied ourselves for what was sure to be a completely local experience.

“Inner Mongolia is so different from other parts of China,” says Hu. “Only there do people live in gers. If you want to see a different part of Chinese culture and people then I recommend going to Inner Mongolia.”

Stupas—hillside Buddhist temples—are decorated with prayer scarves and other offerings.

Stupas—hillside Buddhist temples—are decorated with prayer scarves and other offerings.

With our local guide, we headed to a variety of hillside temples, known as stupas, which are Buddhist religious monuments decorated with offerings and prayer scarves. It’s easy to let go of Western comfort needs when looking out over the undulating grasslands.  Colorful scarves and flags slap noiselessly in the wind and locals prostrate themselves in front of the shrine in the most devout prayer.

Upon returning to the ger site we were treated to a traditional Mongolian dinner of a full roasted lamb. The family presented the cooked lamb (in whole) to the center of the dining tent. Following the feast, which is accompanied by an electric keyboard player dressed in traditional Mongolian garb, the party is moved outside as the keyboardist hooks up to giant speakers that bellow out over the grasslands. The party goes late into the night with homemade rice wine, a fireworks show and plenty of dancing.

Beijing’s Forbidden City may be second only to the Great Wall among China’s “must-see” historic attractions.

Beijing’s Forbidden City may be second only to the Great Wall among China’s “must-see” historic attractions.

From Inner Mongolia, the tour takes travelers down to Datong. The city is home to more than three million people and two spectacular tourist sites. An hour and a half outside of the city center is a temple built directly into the side of a cliff. The Hanging Monastery, built in 491 AD, uses no support from the ground and is entirely constructed into the side of sheer rock. Inside, it is a house of worship for three of China’s ancient religions: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

The Hanging Monastery of Datong, which dates back to 491 AD, is built into the side of sheer rock and uses no support from the ground.

The Hanging Monastery of Datong, which dates back to 491 AD, is built into the side of sheer rock and uses no support from the ground.

Closer back to the city is Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These grottoes, constructed in 460 AD, are a series of caves that house more than 51,000 statues of Buddha carved into rock. The Buddhas range from worn away, barely recognizable lumps, to towering, massive structures that loom down over tiny people below.

Following Datong, the itinerary takes travelers to Pingyao, a city whose historic section has not been touched for 600 years. “Pingyao is the only city to still be protected entirely from 600 years ago,” says Hu. “Many cities have changed dramatically. They don’t look like they used to. If people want to know what Old China looks like, they have to go to Pingyao.”

Sampling food from a Beijing street vendor is recommended for any visitor who wants an authentic culinary experience in China.

Sampling food from a Beijing street vendor is recommended for any visitor who wants an authentic culinary experience in China.

If visitors head to Pingyao independently of a G Adventures tour, they should still book rooms at the Pingyao Yiguan Hotel, which is a Chinese-style hotel with a gorgeous courtyard and styled with art from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Amenities include a restaurant, lobby bar, free Wi-Fi, air conditioning and free parking. The hotel is also located right off one of the main streets in the old district and is within walking distance to the city’s museums, restaurants and shopping.

Pingyao is a shopper’s paradise. The streets are flanked with vendors selling everything from steamed buns and meat on a stick to carved statues, jewelry, textiles and furniture.

A Changing China

As more and more foreigners come to China, the landscape shifts. China has long been known for its restrictive government, which has tight control over the public’s way of life. But even that is continuing to change. “Our democracy is what we perceive as democracy,” Hu says. “I think it will take another 50 years for China to reach Western democracy. Education is being expanded and facilities continue to be improved. But right now, democracy in China is making sure that everyone has enough food to eat and enough clothing to wear. Most peoples’ expectations are on the basic requirements. Our leadership was born in the 1950s. When those who are born in the 1970s and 80s become leaders, China will be much more democratic.”

Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing is named after the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace), which separates it from the Forbidden City.

Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing is named after the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace), which separates it from the Forbidden City.

From a tourism point of view, China is also in a great state of flux. More and more foreigners are coming to China for more than just sightseeing. “Ten to 20 years ago, tourists only came for the Great Wall and the Forbidden City,” Hu says. “Today it is different. They come for medical treatment, leisure activities and to volunteer.”

The China National Tourist Office reports that, according to recent studies from sources such as TripAdvisor, PhoCusWright and the U.S. Department of State, U.S. leisure travel is on the rise. China hopes to take advantage of this rise in international leisure travel by improving its touristic offerings, access and conditions of the country. China has made efforts to reduce air pollution, including closing down more than 8,300 factories, moving others and enacting a national $277 billion environmental plan. Through actions like these, the Chinese government hopes to bring air pollution under control more quickly.

Over the last decade China’s largest airports have doubled in size and the construction of additional airports continues, including Beijing’s second international airport, slated to begin this year and open in 2018. It will house half a dozen civilian runways—double the number at Beijing’s current airport— relieving a tremendous amount of pressure on Beijing Capital International Airport, currently the second busiest airport in the world (ranked by passenger volume). In addition to airports, the latest available data from Lodging Econometrics (2013Q2) shows China had 1,695 hotel projects in the pipeline amounting to 435,000 additional rooms, hitting another historical peak.

The Terra Cotta Warriors have fascinated visitors to Xi’an in central China ever since the first ones were unearthed in the 1970s.

The Terra Cotta Warriors have fascinated visitors to Xi’an in central China ever since the first ones were unearthed in the 1970s.

Air Lift

Earlier this year, American Airlines launched daily nonstop service between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Hong Kong International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

Chinese airlines are also launching new routes from North America to China. Passengers can fly Air China direct between the capital cities of the U.S. and China. The four-times-per-week route will depart Beijing and arrive in Washington, D.C. every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The route is operated using Air China’s new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft.

China Southern Airlines has also launched a new direct flight between Guangzhou and New York. The new service operates four times a week and is the only direct connection between Guangzhou and New York. 

Rail Travel in China

As part of G Adventures’ “Hidden China & Inner Mongolia” itinerary, travelers experience real rail travel in China. Note: Those who are thinking this is the Maharaja’s Express or the Rocky Mountaineer will be sorely disappointed. This is rail travel for the masses—the masses of a third-world country.

Our first experience was an overnight journey from Beijing to Baotou, Inner Mongolia. For the 12-hour trip we settled into a “soft sleeper” cabin. Soft sleepers fit four to a cabin in bunk-bed style. Note: The majority of train trips with G Adventures take place in “hard sleepers,” which are far more common among the locals. These bare-bones accommodations sleep six to a cabin, also in bunk-bed fashion. There are no doors in the hard sleepers, unlike the soft sleepers where you can shut a door at night for maximum privacy.

The hard sleepers also do not offer Western-style toilets. But this is the real way to see China. Despite the lack of creature comforts, there is still something romantic about staring out the window, watching the countryside and mountains roll by.

On the Road With G Adventures

G Adventures prides itself on taking adventurous travelers into the very soul of a destination. This translates to interactions with locals, traveling with the masses and staying at very basic accommodations, all as a means to help people connect with the country in which they are visiting. G Adventures clients are not faint of heart. They are intrepid, have a need for the exotic or strange and have no fear of being outside their comfort zones.

In the grasslands of Mongolia, G Adventures guests sleep in gers.

In the grasslands of Mongolia, G Adventures guests sleep in gers.

Our “Hidden China & Inner Mongolia” itinerary, which the tour operator inaugurated in May, took us from Beijing to Inner Mongolia via overnight rail, then onto Datong, Pingyao, Xi’an and back to Beijing. While the itinerary did show off some of the major highlights (the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Terra Cotta Warriors), the point of this new journey is to take travelers outside of what is known in China. Some of the major highlights included overnight train trips in sleeper compartments with locals, calligraphy classes at the home of a calligraphy master, lunch with a local farmer and camping in a traditional ger (yurt or tent) in the Mongolian grasslands. These are the types of experiences that travelers can expect from a tour with G Adventures.

It’s the little details about a destination that make it unique, and that’s what G Adventures strives to highlight. For example, you simply cannot come to Beijing and not visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and marvel at everything this metropolis has come to mean over the centuries. But with G Adventures, the real glimpse into Beijing and its place in the world can be found in the back alleys of the local hutongs—the historic neighborhoods of Beijing that have been kept undeveloped. These narrow alleys give way to tiny restaurants, open doorways that lead into private homes, shops and more. Winding your way through the streets you can catch a real look at local life in Beijing as people bathe, hang laundry and conduct business.

The traditional tent-like dwellings of the local people.

The traditional tent-like dwellings of the local people.

Just off Tiananmen Square on Qianmen Street is a maze of hutong alleys where adventurous travelers can get lost among aromas of roast duck, noodles, dumplings, dried fruits and more. Motorbikes zig and zag, darting around pedestrians and dangling laundry lines, in a web-like frenzy of activity.

 

A Culinary Discovery

We were drawn to a noodle shop on a corner (name entirely in Chinese characters—that’s the beauty of the hutongs: no English). Inside was a dizzying array of Chinese soups, noodle dishes, dumplings and sauces. For less than $7 we were stuffed with made-to-order, authentic Northern Chinese specialties, served with the ubiquitous tableside tin of chili oil. No sweet and sour pork here, folks. The best part was the clientele: not another American in sight.

For those who may be wary of venturing off into a spot where very little English is spoken or understood, that’s half the fun. Through simple hand gestures and pointing at pictures of menu items, it was easy enough to nail down exactly what we wanted. It should be said, though, that picky eaters would probably want to steer clear. There is no room here for dietary restrictions or explanation of what exactly is going into that sauce. Just trust, and be delighted.

The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, just outside of Ulaanbaatar, is a larger-than-life rendering of the famous Mongolian warrior.
The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, just outside of Ulaanbaatar, is a larger-than-life rendering of the famous Mongolian warrior.

The China Effect: A Hotel Perspective

Stephanie Ricca, editor-in-chief of Travel Agent’s sister publication Hotel Management, recently traveled to China as well. Here are some of her observations.

I, along with three other hotel industry journalists, took a trip to Beijing and Shanghai, China, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, as guests of Best Western International. We learned a lot about the company’s growth in that region, but the bigger lessons learned were about the intricacies and challenges of hotel development in China, and about the issues that really have an impact on Chinese travelers, both within their own country and here in ours.

First of all, while China is a huge country, so much of its development is concentrated along its eastern coast, anchored by Beijing in the north and Shanghai near the south. These two cities crawl with people—young people going to work, families traveling by motorbike and elderly people crowding buses. This is the growing middle class, which will have a dizzying effect on global travel in the future. Their role as travelers, as I learned on this trip, is linked so closely to the country’s economy, social and employment practices.

William Dong, the president and CEO of Best Western China, told us that leisure travel within the country is growing in part because highway development makes road-tripping easier, but also because more employers are giving their workers paid vacations. Two “Golden Weeks” of paid holiday time (one around the Chinese New Year and one in the fall), encourage domestic tourism. As a result, he said, so many more people in China now are able to visit tourist destinations in their own country. As people get comfortable and have the money to travel relatively close to home, they get the bug to travel overseas—the number of Chinese people traveling to the U.S. continues to grow.

Suite at the Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Suite at the Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

In a way, the hotel development in China is a little bit like it was here in the U.S. 30-40 years ago, as roadside hotels grew to accommodate traveling families and business hotels sprung up to cater to a newly mobile workforce. So take that American hotel renaissance period and multiply it times 100 and you’ll get an idea of what the power of the Chinese traveler is and will be.

What does this really mean for hotels? My very basic, simple take is that the companies that can gain midscale Chinese travelers’ business in their own country will be the ones that can make that business expand stateside. There is opportunity in this midscale segment, but also plenty of competition from Chinese brands such as Jin Jiang and Home Inns, which are focused on growing their business too.

Small U.S.-based brands with a handful of properties aren’t going to be heading to China anytime soon. But anyone at all involved with the large multinational brands and companies that are doing hotel business in China will learn a lot by taking a look at their business there.  Where do Chinese travelers’ loyalties lie? How are they booking rooms? If you tune into this now, you’ll be better off down the road when welcoming Chinese visitors to the U.S. later on.

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