EnjoyShanghai recently sat down with 5-year Shanghai veteran Muscovite Anastasia and Xīnjiāng-born Sheng (who has a degree in organic chemistry btw), the brains behind adventure/ecotourism travel agency Wanna Travel, which organizes trips out of Shanghai into the lesser-known corners of China. Over a cup of coffee at the Urban Soup Kitchen near their new offices on Kāngdìng Road, we talked about their inspiration for Wanna Travel, ecotourism, camping on the Great Wall, how to escape Shanghai’s pollution and what they’ve got planned for future trips.
EnjoyShanghai: How did the idea of Wanna Travel come to you guys?
Anastasia: The idea of Wanna Travel came to me from my previous job where I was working in a wine company. I was doing wine tastings in small villages all over China, so they were sending me on business trip to really small places where no foreigner had ever been. Foreigners have no idea about such places, about the attractions of those places, and don’t have the opportunity or the know-how of how to get there. We thought of creating Wanna Travel as a way for foreigners to get to those hidden places and discover the “real” China.
Sheng: I agree. After university, I started my real estate business, and I’d always had a lot of clients and lots of friends, lot of foreigners, start telling me, oh, they want to go see the real China. Most of the time, when they took a trip to some part of China, they saw a lot of people, but they didn’t see the nature, they didn’t see the culture. That’s why beginning of last year…
Anastasia: Yeah, February last year.
Sheng: Yeah, February, we were thinking, why don’t we just have a lot of activities, bringing people to these places, to help them enjoy the real Chinese culture and life, and also improve the local businesses. That’s how we started with this ecotourism thing.
Anastasia: Ecotourism [tourism designed to create minimal disruption in the areas visited] helps local small businesses develop. When we travel, we hire local guides, we stay in local farmhouses, eat local food, which helps those small villages make money and survive.
Sheng: Every time we go to those rural areas, we see a lot of beautiful people, they’re very kind and they always welcome us to stay with them. That’s why we’re thinking, why don’t we bring people from everywhere, from all over the world to see what real Chinese people are like, not just Shanghai? Shanghai’s only part of China, right, it’s not the whole of China.
ES: That’s very true. Tell us about a recent tour you had?
Sheng: Why don’t we start with Gōngyú (公盂)?
Anastasia: We just completed the tour to Gōngyú in Zhèjiāng province. It’s a hidden village, we called it “Trip to Wild China, the Shangri-la of the East”. It’s a small village hidden in the mountains at a height of about 600 meters. There’re 98 families living there, preserving the traditions of 100 years ago. We had 21 people on the tour and it’s already the third time we’ve had a tour to that place. It’s very unique because you can really see the life of rural Chinese people in this village, like it was 100 years ago.
Sheng: Their buildings were mostly built 300 years ago. Very old, very beautiful.
ES: What’s it like in terms of amenities?
Sheng: There’re no amenities.
Anastasia: Well, there’s a public toilet, public shower, not really what foreigners are used to, no air conditioning, in the winter they use stoves instead of heaters.
ES: How do you feel that people have responded to that, have they freaked out?
Sheng: Nah, we’ve had no problems like that, most of our groups understand, they respect the way people live there. They just want to observe, they don’t want to interrupt, they just want to see how people live their lives. We’re from all over the world, but we’ve come here to just respect the way they live. It’s really a unique experience.
ES: So take us through it, what was it like being on the trip?
Anastasia: First of all, it was a hiking tour. There’s no infrastructure going to this village, so first it was two hours hiking just to reach it. There’re no cars to get there, and it’s really hidden. First the group hike to the village and explore the village surroundings, and hike to a point from where you can see this amazing view with rice terraces, a really beautiful view. In the evening they make dumplings, they learn from the local people, have a bonfire party and fireworks, like firecrackers, just to celebrate their adventure. The next day they climb to the highest peak where you need ropes to climb up, because it’s a really wild trail.
Sheng: There’re no stairs, it’s really off the wall, not like a scenic area.
Anastasia: Last time, they saw the sunrise, the weather was great, there was a sea of clouds. For lunch, the locals taught them how to make bamboo rice.
Sheng: It’s great, you put the rice in the bamboo wood and then you bake it in the bamboo cane itself. They put it on the stove or on the top of the bonfire to burn it, to heat it up, and eat it with meat. It’s very primitive, very cool.
ES: How did you guys come across this little village to being with?
Anastasia: We’re always looking for these kinds of places. Zhèjiāng province especially, because it’s not far from Shanghai, has a lot of different places that are within 5-6 hours by bus, and every village has something special. Most of our trips go to Zhèjiāng province. We do a lot of research, usually we just find a local farmhouse and contact the local people, and they tell us what kind of stuff they have there, what kind of activities they can organize for us. And usually we find these spaces in the first place with the help of local people.
Sheng: We plan the trips with their help. Without them, we couldn’t do them.
ES: Sounds like it’s a close partnership.
Sheng: Yeah, every time.
ES: How do they respond to all the foreigners coming in?
Sheng: They’re super excited. They like it, they post a lot of pictures on their WeChat.
ES: Wait, even up in the isolated villages they have WeChat?
Sheng: Some people do.
Anastasia: There’s no stable connection. Not sure about the majority of people, but the local guides who live outside and bring people there definitely do.
ES: What do you think is the appeal of this kind of rougher adventure tourism?
Sheng: People get used to comfortable living in Shanghai, and a lot of people work a lot during the weekdays. Wanna Travel gives you a way to get away from the stress, get to know people. It’s more like an adventure with a chance to meet people. Getting to know somebody on the trip, you know?
ES: In a place where you don’t have to worry about exchanging WeChat contacts…
Sheng: Yeah, it’s not like a lot of events people are holding in Shanghai. You have to be really formal, and you have to have your business card. When you travel, you open up yourself, it’s a way to get rid of the bad things in your life, the stress, missing home.
Anastasia: And it’s a chance to make friends. It’s why we say “Wanna Travel offers more than a trip.” it’s a great opportunity for people who travel alone to make friends. Many people remain friends after our trips, they meet in Shanghai afterwards and they create groups of friends. Some maybe even find more than that…
Sheng: We’re not digging into that sort of stuff, but…
ES: But you’re seeing people spending a suspiciously large amount of time together?
Sheng: Well, we’ve had people who met on our trip and they come again as a couple.
ES: How big are the groups?
Sheng: 20, 30 people?
Anastasia: Yeah, from 15 or 30, depending on the trip.
How do you manage such a big crew? If it’s a village of 98 families, all of a sudden 30 people showing up is a big deal.
Sheng: Yeah, it’s difficult to manage people, sure it’s hard. You have a lot of… we’re all people, right? We have demands.
Anastasia: it’s why we have very experienced guides, who are able to manage big groups.
Sheng: Every time we have a tour leader with a lot of experience in that particular area.
ES: Do you guys have specific guides for each tour?
Sheng: We have a leader for certain types of trips; someone’s good at hiking tours, someone’s good at culture tours, someone’s good for one-day tours.
Anastasia: Like Bella, she’s been with us for more than a year, she was the first one to join our group. She’s a specialist in Yellow Mountain trips. We call it the biggest hike out of all of our trips, it really requires a lot of energy.
ES: Yellow Mountain? Do you guys do the east side or west side?
Anastasia: We do both.
Sheng: Yeah, we’re pretty hardcore.
Anastasia: We give people the opportunity to see most of the Yellow Mountain over two days. It’s really tiring, a lot of hiking, but Bella leads all the tours to the Yellow Mountain. She’s been there more than ten times.
ES: Where’s she from?
Sheng: She’s from Dōngběi.
Anastasia: Yeah, a tough Dōngběi girl.
What do you think makes Wanna Travel different from other agencies that do travel tours?
Sheng: I think the real difference is we really understand what people want. We have a lot of group tours, but most of them are off the wall, off trail, really adventure things you cannot find in the market. On top of that, we care about the local economy and we conserve the environment, it’s not something you find in other agencies. Plus we often have dogs coming with us, to make it a really engaging experience.
Anastasia: We are trying to be different from the traditional agencies that take a big group of people and take them to shopping places. We want to give them more freedom, more activities, more chances to make friends themselves. It’s more like travelling in a club, travelling together. Every person is important, they can feel like they’re part of a group, not just brought there, told to see something, and put back onto the bus.
ES: Do you guys have much background in adventure stuff like this, have you gone on these kinds of trips in the past yourselves?
Anastasia: Myself, not really, I can’t say that I’m the hiking type. The idea for adventure type trips just came from experience. We started with more well-known destinations, and then we developed this idea of these unique tours that people really want.
Sheng: I was born in the Western part of China. It has beautiful mountains, beautiful lakes, I’m used to these kinds of surroundings, so if I don’t see those things, I’ll miss it. Personally I’m always trying to do something unique, so if you want to go this way, I’ll go the other way. So if someone takes tourists this way, we’ll take them the other way.
Anastasia: So Sheng is mostly bringing us the ideas of new destinations, and I’m organizing it, making a plan, making it happen.
What’s your favorite trip you guys have done so far?
Sheng: For me, it’s the Xīnjiāng trip. We had a Xīnjiāng tour last year to Kashgar (Kāshén 喀什), and it’s absolutely beautiful, it was a seven-day trip with, I think, eight people. We went to many places I hadn’t even been when I was a kid. We went to the lake, to the heavenly mountains, to the old town, there are a lot of old towns in Turpan… those are absolutely beautiful.
Anastasia: Mine’s also Xīnjiāng but I don’t want to repeat…
Sheng: Yeah try something different!
Anastasia: I’d have to say Zhāngjiājiè (张家界). We run tours every two months, and it’s a really magical place, completely different from what you can see on other mountains. The uniqueness on this tour is the sea of clouds, I’ve only ever seen two times in my life. When you stand on the mountains, and you can see the clouds like you see from the airplanes, especially when the clouds are flowing… it’s amazing.
Sheng: I also wanna mention a trip to Jiǔhuà Mountain, it’s also one of my favorite trips. We start hiking in a very scenic areas, with a lot of prayer shrines and temples, it’s a very religious place. People can see how Buddhism works in china, it’s one of the most famous Buddhist mountains here. We climb up and we live in a temple, and the next day we go to the other mountains. When we went, there were no people on the whole mountain, it was really beautiful.
ES: What’s your next trip?
Anastasia: We’re going to do camping on the Great Wall! We do it every month. Usually we get people who aren’t just from Shanghai but from different cities, we meet in Beijing on Saturday and we go to a very non-touristic part of the Great Wall, no people, no tourists, and it gives us a chance to stay on our own.
ES: So you’re literally camping on the wall?
Anastasia: Yeah, there’re these stairs on this abandoned part and we camp right there, so we have a chance to see the sunset and the sunrise from the Great Wall, have a chance to climb on the destroyed part of the Wall, so people really love this experience. In May, we even have two families joining, they really want to bring their children to experience camping on the great wall.
ES: Is that legal, are you allowed to camp on the Great Wall…?
Sheng: It’s not illegal.
Anastasia: This part of the Great Wall belongs to the village, so it’s the local people who arrange the camping and charge for the entrance. You need to cooperate with local people, it’s not like we just come to occupy.
Sheng: We’re pretty respectful.
ES: You guy seem pretty eager to get out of Shanghai, but is there anywhere you really like to go to?
Sheng: Inside or near Shanghai?
ES: Inside Shanghai, no trying to get away.
Sheng: Definitely the lǎofángzi, with the art deco stylings. All these old buildings built 100 years ago, the Bund buildings, and the French Concession, the North Bund…
Anastasia: Same, we usually go to these places together.
ES: But you’re still passionate about getting people out of the city?
Sheng: I think it’s good that people have a chance to see the real nature, a lot of people say China is polluted, but if you go just 300 to 400 km outside of Shanghai, there are some really nice places, you won’t believe you’re still in China.
Anastasia: And they’re so close to Shanghai, just a few hours by bus. There are even some places they call oxygen bars [because the air is so clean].
Sheng: And these travels help you to know the nature, to know each other, to know yourself, to challenge yourself… it’s a group tour, but it’s way more than just a tour, it’s a great social group.
ES: What kind of people do you have joining our tours?
Anastasia: Currently we have a majority of foreigners, about 90% are foreigners, 10% are Chinese. The foreigners are very mixed, United States, Germany, Netherlands, Singapore, Malaysia, Italy, Spain, from everywhere. But we would like to invite more Chinese people to join our tours so they can have more cultural exchange with foreigners, it’s a great chance for a little cultural mingling.
ES: Is it bilingual?
Anastasia: Our tour is in English, so those Chinese who join us can speak English and they can understand. We’re going to keep it in English.
ES: Do you guys have a group meetup?
Anastasia: We have a meet-up every week. We call it a meet up and networking, but it’s more like a casual event where people come and make friends, exchange some ideas… at these events we usually have half Chinese and half foreigners. We usually hold it in a bar, a restaurant, here sometimes, every week in Jing’an or Xuhui, so people just come, enjoy, it’s free entrance for everyone. It’s an important way for us to let people know we’re happening! We usually have 100 people or so, and we have around 30 or 40 regulars who come to every event.
ES: How do people get onto your tours?
Sheng: We have a website, a WeChat, Facebook, via EnjoyShanghai.
Anastasia: People can ask us questions via those channels, and when they want to book, we send them a link to the booking form.