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Meet the Author: Zhang Mei

zhangmeiBW: You’ve had a very varied career so far. What made you decide that it was time to write a book? What was your inspiration?

ZM: The truth is, I have always wanted to write a book, particularly about Yunnan, a region that I am lucky to have known most of my life.  Started in 2005, I was living in the United States then, but wanted to recreate the food I grew up with. So, I went back to Yunnan to learn cooking and record cook books. Those draft recipes got put aside when work with WildChina, the travel business, became more intense when I moved back to China. But, the idea of a book combining culture, people stories, food, and good photography never left me.

This specific book idea came up when we were celebrating WildChina’s 15thbirthday. I didn’t want to have a book showing all the major milestones/achievements of a company. So boring, who’d read it?  Instead, I thought, what if I take people on a journey that I often undertake myself to develop a trip. We are lucky to be able to travel and see beautiful things and people all the time, but not everyone could do it, given possible barriers of language, time, or money. Maybe I could do a book documenting that.

BW: I think everyone can see the attraction of travelling through Dali, but I have to ask – why the leg of ham?

ZM: Ham for me represents a very happy home – good food with family and friends. That’s what I think about when I think about Dali, my childhood home, despite the fact that my childhood was impoverished and never had the chance to have a full leg of ham. But in memory, even hardship has a special attraction to it.
Also to me, Yunnan is not just one of China’s top tourist destinations, the beauty goes deep, in the age-old traditions, in the hardworking spirit of the locals, in the normal pains and troubles of family life. So, I’ve chosen ham as a way to showcase the local life, and hope to show the beauty of Yunnan with the taste, sounds and images of Yunnan.

BW: Yunnan is your home, but you have lived in other places, including overseas, for some time. Did you notice new sides to your hometown when you returned with an “outsider” perspective? How did this influence the book?

ZM: In Chinese, there is a phrase that says “ Traveling 10,000 lis is equivalent to reading 10000 books”, and I think of traveling as a way to broaden one’s perspective. For me, living overseas gave me fresher perspective to appreciate the beauty of what an old home has to offer.
Marcel Proust, a French author, said it best. “the voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” I completely agree. That’s what I hope the book does, to look at Dali with new eyes.

BW: You are involved in sustainable tourism through your organisation “WildChina”. Where did your interest in this field come from? How does this all tie in with your book?

ZM: I have never been a fan of travel industry, honestly. I think to be an industry, you need scale, and by scale, the industry means big tour buses and millions of tourists.  Then naturally, scaled travel industry somehow takes away the beauty of discovery.  When I started WildChina, I wanted to simply assist travellers to get a richer experience of China, closer to the Chinese people, away from tour buses and cruise ships and tourist trinket shops. I did and am still doing that WildChina, in fact, with the extension of taking Chinese travellers overseas as well.

The success recipe for WildChina, is that travel extends beyond tourist sites, to the simple encounters with local farmers, artisans. This books tries to explore the stories of all these wonderful local individuals, without pigeon-holing them as a tourist experience provider, but simply as a local person comfortable in his/her own elements. They are proud to be photographed, their stories to be heard. To me, that’s the ultimate authentic and sustainable travel experience one could ask for.

BW: China is undergoing huge transformation at an unbelievable pace. In your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges facing provinces like Yunnan? What suggestions would you make for how best to move forward?

The biggest challenge is that tourism development has been extremely mono-colored.  By this, I mean, there seems to be a common playbook that the travel industry follows, developing cable cars, ethnic shows, large hotels. There is a lack of creative development of travel experiences. The cheap tourist souvenir you find in Yellow Mountain is very similar to the ones you find in Lijiang. Because of a low quality low cost travel product, you attract large amounts of low paying customer. Then the travel industry faces the same dilemma that Chinese manufacturing faces, how to upgrade and innovate for a better product. I think the only way out is to courage creative entrepreneurs/artists to create more sophisticated travel products to meet the market demand. Travellers don’t need another tourist site, but they need another WOW experience.

BW: What advice would you give to anyone who is inspired to visit Dali, or Yunnan Province, after reading your book?

ZM: Dali has so much more to offer beyond the Cangshan Mountain and Erhailake. Give it a week, comb through the small villages one at a time, and simply find opportunities to hang out with locals like the ones featured in the book. That’s when you touch the earthiness of the destination.

By the way, most of the experiences from the book are now featured on a chinese website: www.newugo.com. You can connect with the characters there to book their time to cook a meal with you, or show you how to make a leg of ham.

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