Tourism opens paths for young minorities in China
Meet Lily Zhang, Amy Lao, Linda Zhuge and her husband, Deng Gui Sheng, a few of China's newly minted young entrepreneurs. Lily, 26, a member...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Northwest travel guides
PING AN, China — Meet Lily Zhang, Amy Lao, Linda Zhuge and her husband, Deng Gui Sheng, a few of China's newly minted young entrepreneurs.
Lily, 26, a member of the Naxi ethnic minority group known for its colorful costumes and pictographic style of writing, grew up in a rice-farming village outside the historic mountain town of Lijiang in the Yunnan province near Tibet.
A few years ago, she was diagnosed with anemia and had to give up plans for college. Today, she spends most of her time outdoors, working as guide for a community-owned ecotourism company supported by the Nature Conservancy.
Amy Lao, 22, comes from a farming family in Ping An, a village atop a steep range of hills known as the Dragon Backbone rice terraces northwest of Guilin.
Her family is Zhuang, the largest of China's 55 minority nationalities. Living mainly in poor rural villages near bordering countries such as Tibet, Mongolia, Vietnam and Myanmar, each has its own customs, cultures, traditional dress, and sometimes language.
Armed with a middle-school English vocabulary, Amy works as a waitress in a restaurant and moonlights as a tourist guide, leading visitors on hikes along the hairpin paths she has walked since childhood.
Deng Gui Sheng also comes from a minority family. His mother is Dong, and his father is Yao. After the government juice factory where he worked closed, the families pooled their savings and opened a restaurant called the Minority Cafe in the Guangxi province of Southern China.
Responsible travel: For more on the concept of sustainable tourism and responsible travel and a list of related programs, resources and Web links, see www.transitionsabroad.com, the Web site for Transitions Abroad magazine, which devotes its November/December issue to the topic.
When China began opening up to foreign visitors in the late 1980s, the state-owned China Travel Service held a monopoly on tourism. Economic reforms have since spawned hundreds of private travel-related businesses. Some are joint ventures between foreign companies and local partners. Others are the Chinese version of the mom-and-pop corner store.
For me, one of most satisfying aspects of traveling there last month was finding ways to support the sustainable tourism movement that's taking hold in poor countries around the world.
Sometimes referred to as "responsible travel," it's about supporting fair trade and ecotourism, and funneling travel dollars directly to local people by seeking out family-owned hotels, restaurants, guesthouses, guide services and travel agencies with an economic and social stake in their communities.
Most of these businesses are too small to benefit from the package tour industry, but they offer great value for the independent traveler, and I like the idea of making a direct deposit.
This is why it was disappointing to find one U.S. travel magazine recently advising its readers to "always insist on the services of a bilingual Western guide; that way, you can avoid the inevitable commission-based visits to souvenir shops and restaurants."
I don't hire guides often, but when I do, I don't begin by looking for an insurance policy. I look for someone who lives in the area and seems excited about sharing their culture and customs. Maybe I've been lucky, but like Lily in Lijiang and Amy in Ping An, I find they're usually more interested in knocking on their neighbors' doors than collecting commissions from trinket sellers.
Turbans and pony tails
More from China
Seattle Times travel writer Carol Pucci recently spent several weeks in China, reporting for the newspaper and for seattletimes.com. Today's column is part of her reporting. We'll have more in Travel on Dec. 11, and Pucci will be online Dec. 13 to answer your questions. You can see the dispatches she wrote while in China at seattletimes.com/china.
Amy began most of her explanations about Ping An with, "My grandmother told me... "
Finding her on the spur of the moment was easy. I asked at my hotel about hiring an English-speaking guide for a hike. The desk clerk made a phone call, and the next morning Amy showed up in an embroidered white smock and black trousers, the workaday version of the traditional costume Zhuang women wear on special occasions. Her fee was $6.
My husband, Tom, and I spent the morning with Amy, walking for about three hours along rocky, narrow ridges above terraced rice fields that looked like folded blankets. We stopped at a viewpoint for glasses of fresh-pressed soy milk, and I asked her about some of the village women I'd seen wearing terrycloth turbans.
The headgear is traditional for Zhuang women, but Amy prefers a pony tail. There was a time when a Zhuang woman was expected to marry a Zhuang man. Now young women can go bareheaded if they want, marry whomever they choose and dream of seeing the world.
With tourism expanding in rural villages, Amy hopes to someday work as a full-time guide. She's never traveled more than a few miles from Ping An, but she dreams of one day visiting the United States. She already knows what she'd do:
"Stay in an American home, eat Chinese food and drive a German car."
Ecotourism in Yunnan
More from China
Over the next two months, Seattle Times reporters will explore the challenges posed by China's emergence as a global customer and competitor. See our China coverage »
This week, business reporter Al Scott is reporting on the World Trade Organization meeting from Hong Kong.
Read his dispatches »
Lily Zhang grew up on a farm outside of Lijiang, in the Lashi Lake watershed, home to the Naxi and Yi ethnic groups.
When she entered the Nature Conservancy's first ecotourism training program in 2002, she didn't know English and had little knowledge of the outdoors beyond helping her family harvest and sell sweet potatoes.
Today, she leads treks through the foothills of the Jade Dragon Snow mountain range, the start of the Himalayas, and guides tourists to community-owned ecolodges and minority villages.
Her employer is the Lashihai Xintuo Ecotourism Company, a small business created by the Nature Conservancy and government agencies to help preserve minority cultures and promote sustainable tourism in parts of the Yunnan province threatened by overdevelopment.
Partly owned by community investors and employees, the company employs local Naxi guides such as Lily, and helps find local conversation efforts.
When rain left hiking trails too muddy for a trek, I asked Lily about visiting the ancient stone city of Baoshan, an isolated Naxi farming village carved into a cliff above the Upper Yangtze River.
Getting there requires driving five hours along a rocky 90-mile stretch of mountain road barely wide enough for one car, then a 45-minute hike to the entrance. Not everyone's willing to make the trip, but Lily knew an experienced driver with an SUV, and the next morning we were off.
Lily acted not so much like an official guide as an interpreter and friend. She ordered lunch at a roadside restaurant by opening the refrigerator door and inspecting the contents. In the village, she seemed to delight as much as we did in striking up conversations with people like the woman smoking a long pipe who invited us into her courtyard to see her wooden hand loom.
It takes too long to get to Baoshan to go and come in one day, so Lily found us a guesthouse with three rooms, dinner and a breakfast of Yak butter tea and pickled vegetables. She proved to be a shrewd negotiator as well as a good travel companion. The bill for the four of us was $16.50.
Dreaming of a future
Linda Zhuge and her husband, Deng Gui Sheng, also are staking their future on tourism. They opened their Minority Cafe in Yangshuo, a town along the Li River popular with Western and Chinese travelers.
Anxious to practice her English, Linda introduced herself one evening as my husband and I finished a dinner of sour duck with bell peppers and fresh ginger, steamed eggplant and pumpkin, rice wine and beer, all for about $7.50.
"In the old times, you finished school and the government gave you a job," she told us. That's no longer the case. People are free to own private businesses, something that wasn't possible less than two decades ago, and that means learning about the concept of risk.
"It's easy to open a business now," Linda said. "But it's also easy to close one."
Their families helped raise $12,000 to start the cafe, and they found a storefront big enough for a few tables on a street next to the Everest Camp Hostel.
Their specialties are Dong dishes, but they're also catering to Western tastes. Linda hired an American to teach her how to make bacon and eggs and hamburgers. She has recipes for making lattes and mochas, and she's been experimenting with her own Asian-style coffee recipes. So far, she's come up with a peppermint coffee with milk and a jasmine-flavored brew.
"Our dream is to one day have a big business," she said. "For us, this is a start."
Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or email@example.com
About Travel Wise
Carol Pucci's column is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', she'll cover everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture.
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