Photo by Yuri Andries
Bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy the riverfront in Lanzhou City Old Town.
Mei Zhang, the founder of WildChina—an outfitter specializing in off-the-beaten-path itineraries—wants to put a human face on a country of 1.4 billion people.
When Mei Zhang was staying in a guesthouse in Dali, a city in China’s Yunnan province, she befriended Cheng Ayi, the housekeeper. Zhang and her children joined Cheng for meals, and they noticed that she cooked some dishes outside in heavy pots set over a crackling fire. Neighbors would drop by unannounced, bearing homegrown vegetables and local gossip. Zhang was moved by the intimacy of the slice-of-life scene. “It was this community closeness, and this idea that people leave their doors open to friends and strangers, that really touched me and my family,” she says. “We loved the experience and realized that our guests would, too.”
Zhang is always seeking out such moments. In the 20 years since she founded the Beijing-based travel outfitter WildChina, her goal has been to show travelers a side of China that most tourists never see. Depending on the itinerary, that could mean a pottery lesson with a master ceramist in Jiangxi; a tutorial with a cheese maker in her traditional Bai farmhouse in Shaxi; a visit with the Lisu people of southwestern Yunnan, who scale cliffs to collect mountain honey; or a home-cooked meal from Cheng with a side of neighborly chatter. Other offerings invite guests to travel with a scholar of Chinese history and archaeology. The familial encounters—which can only be orchestrated by someone as well-connected as Zhang—are the specialty of WildChina, which leads trips for small groups and individuals.
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Born and raised in Yunnan, Zhang earned her MBA from Harvard University. When she returned to China for a consulting project with the Nature Conservancy, she gained a new appreciation for the nation’s myriad cultures and landscapes. The trip inspired her to create a company that could help humanize a country often portrayed as monolithic, both in Western media and by its own government. Today, her outfitter brings 10,000 travelers to China each year, half of them from the United States.
Accompanying those guests on every journey is one of 200 trained guides. They’re part of the WildChina story, too: Zhang encourages her tour leaders to forgo scripted recitations of facts in favor of sharing personal stories, be they about their grandmothers’ cooking, the pressures of getting into college, or the impact of China’s one-child policy.
“We’re really hoping to build a more personal experience of China, and you can achieve that by building connections with the local community,” Zhang says. “That’s a key element of all our journeys.”
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