You get what you pay for.
At Brownell Academy this weekend, where top suppliers from around the world came to introduce us to their products and new offerings, it is clear to me that Abercrombie & Kent is an absolute leader in what they do. We were fortunate to meet with Gerald Hatherly, China Specialist and Director at A&K.
Gerald didn't talk to us about the Forbidden City or the Terracotta Warriors, he wanted to give us a good sense for how to think about a trip to China that really gets you to an understanding of the culture and rich experiences with the people of China.
See, the ability to access experts deeply knowledgeable in a destination can create experiences that are truly memorable and extend your understanding of the world and its cultures. As a traveler, you suddenly move away from massive amounts of tourists on Iphones trying to capture a selfie and instead really discover something new.
It is this lesson that is so important when traveling with kids. And, of course, not true just for China. All destinations have lesser-known areas that can help you focus on discovery. But with China's rising place in the world, it is my choice for next summer's vacation.
Gerald started our conversation by trying to correct some misnomers about China.
Beijing is not as polluted as people say it is and really just a problem in the winter. It is not even ranked among the top 50 polluted cities in the world.
China is also filled with natural beauty. One of the options of going a bit off the beaten path is to explore some of the natural wonders of China.
The other benefit of seeing lesser-know regions of China is to discover some of the different minority groups in the country. The Chinese population of 1.39 billion is made up of 56 different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups.
Gerald shared that the way to travel in China is by rail. China has invested $155 Billion in rail and high speed rail is now a great option for transport. China now invests more in infrastructure than any other region on earth. Beijing to Shanghai can take you 4 hours by train. Another huge plus: train stations are in the city center compared with airports that are outside of cities adding lots of travel time.
Exploring off-the-beaten-path places doesn't mean you must skip the well-known sites of China. But even the must-see places - The Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors , etc. can be approached more creativity with a guide who has deep knowledge of the region. This allows you to avoid the massive crowds. Layer in the major sites with some true discovery and exploration of lesser-known areas.
A few compelling off-the-beaten path destinations:
1. Dunhuang in Gansu Province
Dunhuang in Gansu Province is a city on the edge of the Gobi Desert, once part of the Silk Road.
Dunhuang is home to the important Buddhist site of the Mogao Caves. When the caves were rediscovered in the early 20th century, it was thought to be the greatest discovery of Oriental Culture anywhere. Thousands of transcripts and relics were also found inside and the caves are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
There are 51,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures that are the oldest and most vivid scenes of cultural exchanges on the Silk Raod. The caves, carved into the rock face, date back to 366 A.D.
(The video below gives a nice introduction to the caves but will prompt you to click the link to watch on YouTube)
Also in Dunhuang are the Mingsha Shan Sand Dunes. The tallest dunes reach 250 meters and are among the largest on earth - they cover an area of 1,200 square kilometers.
2. Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region
This is a vast region of deserts and mountains and home to many ethnic groups including the Turkic Uyghur people. The ancient Silk Road trade route linking China and the Middle East passed through Xinjiang.
In this region, near the border of Kazakhstan and Mongolia you can do horse trekking on unspoiled meadows and grasslands. This is home to the semi-nomadic Kazakh people who still engage in the ancient sport of hunting using the powerful golden eagle.
In Kashgar, in the far Southwest of Xinjiang is the great Kashgar Sunday Bazaar, one of the largest outdoor markets on earth.
3. Yunnan Province
In Northern Yunnan from the city of Shangri-La and Northward is where Tibetan culture thrives. A trip to this region opens up a rarely glimpsed window into Tibetan culture and local village life. Visitors are immersed in a mountainous landscape of hallowed monasteries and peaceful villages where daily life has remained unchanged for centuries.
Also in this area is Tiger Leaping Gorge which is 19 kilometers in length and formed by the upper reaches of the Yangzi River caving out its course between two sacred mountains: the Yulongxue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) and Mount Haba – both mountains are over 5,500 meters or 18,000 feet in elevation.
The entire region from Lijiang north to Shangri-La is home to an incredible density of wild flowers which bloom from late April to June in the higher elevations.
4. Guizhou Province
Finally, in Guizhou Province you will find many interesting minorities including the Buffalo Lo Miao. Also known as the Long Horn Miao, they live in Northwest Gizhou. These women wrap their hair and the hair of their ancestors around a horn-shaped headdress. The headdress is passed down from mother to daughter.
Another wonderful opportunity to learn more about the minority cultures in China is the Sisters Meal Festival held in the Taijiang and Jianhe Counties along the banks of the Qingshui River. The festival occurs April 30 until May 2 and the best place to base yourself is in Kaili - 31 miles SE of the festival site.
I'm thinking China will be my summer trip with my family this year. Exploring different cultures with kids is very powerful. When kids get to see and experience these different traditions in remote parts of the world, they simply have a broader worldview. The experts at A&K can help craft the right itinerary and then identify the right guide to help you with the context. That is what transcends an ordinary vacation.