Mei Zhang has always loved an adventure. Born in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, her passion for uncharted waters inspired her. Whether it was Harvard’s Business School or a safari through the wilds of South Africa, Mei was an explorer.
In the late 90s, Mei went on a whirlwind journey from the dusty streets of Kashgar, Xinjiang to the Tibetan spiritual capital of Lhasa. She remembered one long, winding truck ride. The clouds seemed to dance on the top of the snow-covered mountains; Mei Zhang gazed through a dirty window. Even though she had paid for her own seat, she found herself squeezed in between two hitchhikers as the large truck rumbled up a narrow mountain road leading to Tibet. The truck vibrated and lurched and came dangerously close to the edge, but Mei wasn’t bothered or scared—the scenery was too beautiful for that.
“That trip was the most amazing experience of my life,” Mei said. “China has so many beautiful sights to offer the world. It inspired me.” That trip is what led to Mei’s founding of WildChina, a Beijing-based travel company that leads low-impact sustainable guided tours into rural China.
Mei was determined to make sure foreign visitors could experience the beauty of her homeland without being ripped off by greedy opportunists.
“You know, even by the late ’90s most foreign tourists that came to China still only went on one basic tour circuit: Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin and Shanghai,” Mei explained. “But there were so many wonderful places off the beaten track that they were missing. I wanted to help them go to these places. I wanted them to experience China differently.”
By 2000, Mei had decided to put her Harvard MBA and work experience with the firm McKinsey and Company to good use. She wanted to see a travel company that was dedicated to providing authentic, interactive travel experiences. She wanted not only to provide a firsthand experience of Chinese culture, but also to protect the local environment that was being visited. In short, she wanted to be sustainable both culturally and environmentally, so that the wild parts of China could have something to offer the world for years to come. Mei’s brain was overflowing with ideas, but she needed to find talented people that shared her passion.
Then she met Jia Liming. Jia is a small woman and might not look like the typical backpacker, but looks can be deceiving. Not Shan (Yellow Mountain), she’s also worked as a travel journalist in nearly every corner of China.
“When Mei first presented me with her plan I thought, ‘This is fantastic,'” Jia remembered. It just took one night of thinking it over. Then Jia quit her job and decided to join Mei.
“We didn’t even have an office,” Jia recalled. “We had all of our first meetings at a Starbucks in Beijing. I remember one day Mei was interviewing a person at one table, I was with someone at another, and at a third table we had someone else waiting to be interviewed. It was quite an adventure.”
“Getting ideas was easy,” Mei explained. “All of us knew what it was like to visit an authentic village that was protected and respected. We knew what we wanted to do… the problem was doing it.”
Oftentimes, when Mei and Jia set off into the wilds to work out the details, they found that they were swimming against the current. The problem was, and still is, that many tours in China are all about the money.
“Usually, tour guides live off of commissions they get for bringing tourist to local shops,” Jia said. What the tourists end up seeing then, is a highly commercialized, skewed perspective of a place. “That is what we are trying to avoid,” Jia said. “It can ruin the whole experience.”
More detrimental still, mainstream commercial tourism also ends up hurting the local community. Local resources are stressed and ultimately depleted; traditions and customs are lost. In 10 years of business, Jia has seen the difference between small villages that are taken advantage of and those that follow WildChina’s model for sustainable tourism.
Jia recalls when one small rural community, Maomaohe, opened its doors to commercial tourism. They imported non-villagers to perform their traditional dances and even gave up hand-crafted arts to sell mass produced ones at a high profit margin. In the process, Maomaohe lost something. It became more of a tourist trap than a real village.
“In the long run, sustainable tourism will earn a village more money,” Jia said, confident that through WildChina, she will be able to protect the culture and natural beauty that made a village a tourist attraction in the first place.
So how, exactly, does WildChina lead this low-impact, sustainable tour company?
“Well, we don’t take big groups, we properly dispose of all waste, and we work with non-governmental organizations like Ye Cao and the World Wildlife Fund,” Jia said. This ensures that whatever tourism comes to the area, the community’s interests and natural resources will be kept in mind.
WildChina hopes to create a holistic traveling experience, and there is a whole team dedicated to educational programs, so that while the tourists travel, they can understand the place’s history and culture.
“It makes the experience more meaningful,” Jia said. “They can offer experiences and knowledge that brings everything to life.”
WildChina is constantly innovating and looking to add new routes and services—to keep things fresh. So what’s coming up?
“This fall we are going to open a tour package,” Mei said, “for those interested in traveling China’s ancient Tea and Horse Trail through Yunnan Province. Also, we’re trying to set up ranger walks on a Panda reserve in Shaanxi Province.”
In the meantime, they’re going to keep doing what they do best—offering travelers real, memorable experiences, and glimpses of another world.
In a poor and remote Guizhou village, WildChina’s customers worked side-by-side planting rice with local villagers. As the sun set, the tourists retired for the night. They rubbed their aching backs, amazed by how hard the work was. They had realized something: while in a few days they could be in a spa, the local villagers would go on working like this, day after day. The tour group, so affected by their hands-on experience of rural country life, decided they wanted to make a difference.
They decided to chip in and buy the village a water buffalo.
- I am looking for an adventure tour.
- Let’s chip in and buy a water buffalo.