Interview with Ian Richards - China small group tour

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Leader interview: Ian Richards - China small group tours

Ian is English, but now lives in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, having been based in Asia for the last ten years. Mountains are his big love, especially the Himalayas, and so his regular trips to China allow him to keep up his peak practice. Like so many of his fellow tour leaders, he has been doing this job for a long time because he really wants to do it, not just to fill a gap year. It is now his life, which is what makes him such a well-loved leader.

The most beautiful viewpoint on this trip is probably the top lookout point at Longsheng, looking down at the rice fields. Views are always much better when you have worked hard for them, and you have to walk up hill to have a look at it, so you appreciate it more.
It is also nice because the majority of China is cities, so the countryside is much appreciated. You head out there from the hotel in Guilin early in the morning, and it is a bit of a drive so you won't get there until near lunchtime, but the view is still fine at that time of day.

Longsheng rice fields
Longsheng rice fields (Photo by niceguy_eddie)
When you are on this trip, the survival tip is like anywhere really. Have a smile, a sense of humour, patience and, very importantly, a phrase book.
Language is a thing because even if you think you are saying something, the language is tonal, and generally you aren't saying it properly. But if you have a phrasebook, it is amazing because you can show it to someone if you need to. And of course the Chinese appreciate it if you are giving the language a go and immerse yourself a little bit. And they then want to look up other phrases that they can say back to you, and they love doing that.

I love Chinese music, but there is one western song from a band called Japan, and they have a song called Visions of China which is actually very good. And has a traditional Chinese beat to it, so I think it sums up this trip pretty well.

There is one guy who stands out for me as totally inspirational on my trip.
He is Canadian, called Miles, and I know him well now. He is a very youthful 60-ish man. But he had an accident and lost a leg, which was really tragic. Before that he had been on some of my trips, but since having had his leg cut off six months ago, he has been back in China, bouncing around on his very fancy prosthetic leg, and just bursting with life. He is a huge inspiration to me, his friends and everyone else who meets him. He lost his leg in Nepal, in a freak accident, but he just gets on with it and hasn't let it destroy him, which has made me very thankful for everything I've got. He is a pure inspiration.

My favourite souvenir is this huge lump of turquoise, which I bought in a small market up in the mountains.
Turquoise is very appropriate, shall we say, because Tibetans always wear turquoise, they used to have it as something to trade. So if you look at old pictures of Tibetan ladies, they are wearing dresses with pieces of turquoise. You get the Tibetan girls who wear turquoise in their hair. It has become a little bit trendy, even with Tibetans. I only paid about 200-250 Yuan [around 20-25] for my big piece of turquoise, but I bought it in a very remote market. I have seen big bits like this go for as much as 2500 Yuan.

One of the most unexpected things that happened on this trip was one day when we climbed the Great Wall at Mutianyu, and we could actually see Beijing it was so clear. I have never seen that before and local guides didn't even know that you could see Beijing. But we could actually see the towers of Beijing 90 km away. Last couple of times I have been up there it has been really clear.

Great wall
Great wall (Photo by Robin Zebrowski)
I always try and get people to eat Shaanxi noodles (aka Bingbing noodles) when they are on this trip. Shaanxi is a province of China where Xi'an is.
It is just fresh noodles, hand pulled noodles, and a very simple sauce, usually an eggplant sauce with some bean paste and a bit of chilli, and it is just fantastic. But so simple. I make it myself at home, and use Chinese ingredients.

Shaanxi noodles
Shaanxi noodles (Photo by Grey World)
There are probably two or three big highlights on this trip, but if I had to choose one, it would probably be the Shanghai Acrobatic Show.
It is towards the end of the trip but it is just amazing. I have seen it many times, but I will sit through it every time and still really enjoy it. We usually get really good tickets, so we are right at the front and so we are really close to these people. It's a really full on hour and 20 minutes of stuff that we can't do! And people love it. The music is also excellent, and it is live which makes it even more special.

The first expression that I teach people who come on this trip is byo xixie (pronounced 'boo yeow shisha'), which is 'No thank you!'.
Because although the sellers in China aren't 'heavy', they will try and sell stuff. But if you just politely say byo xixie and smile, they will just leave you alone straight away. It is a useful term to have here.

Food market
Food market (Photo by Lori Branham)
People are very friendly in China, much to many people's surprise. People see Chinese tourists and think that all Chinese people are going to be like that.
But in China people from the countryside are very curious. They do want to talk to you, and they are practising English all the time and want to come up and talk to you. And they do have a sense of humour actually too.

I actually can't think of anyone who wouldn't like this trip. There is a bit of everything on it and something for everyone.
It isn't too active, although there is one walk in Longsheng, but that isn't too tough. It covers a whole mixture of places unlike some trips which just cover Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an, but this one has a few other places which are a bit different as well.

The only thing that scares me on this trip is losing one of the clients at an airport, when we have an internal flight.
They go off to do their own thing, and I arrange to meet them at a certain gate. But the airports are so big, it's like a 3km walk to the gate, and so people disappear and don't realise how long it is going to take them to get to the gate - even though I always tell them. Either that or they sit down and have a coffee, and get really upset about paying $10 for a coffee and go to pieces and forget about their flight!

Chinese people like to call foreigners 'da bizi' which means 'big nose'.
It isn't really derogatory, it is just a nickname because we literally have big noses. So that's what they call us, and it isn't malicious in any way.

There are certain smells that stay with you on this trip. Once you have done one of the big cities and head out into the countryside, you can really smell the country air.
And you really notice it in China, because of the contrast of so many cities everywhere. It is the smell of trees really, and just a freshness, for which China is not well known. And on this trip we get out of cities quite a lot really.

Chinese countryside
Chinese countryside (Photo by tefl Search)
The taste of Sichuan cuisine is also something you will never forget from this trip. It is the best food in China. It is quite spicy, with chilli and a lot of pepper, like fresh peppercorns.
People who like food, if I take them to a Sichuan restaurant, they will get much better food. They probably don't realise it, but it is true. It really is the best food in China.

When I am not working, I love to head into the mountains. I think the mountains are good for the mind.
Recently I went to Zhangjiajie in Hunan province and just walked. So, definitely walking is what I love to do when I am not working. In Zhangjiajie I was very close to the moutains so I could just go walking for the day.

As a tour leader, I like to get people into a very local experience, maybe just sitting in a local restaurant talking to local people. Or when you are with a local guide and get an older member of society and do a question and answer session about their life.
Just something very local and simple - these are the things that people remember a lot. I like to go to a lot of very local restaurants where they might not even have menus. But you just go in to their kitchen with them, see what they've got and ask them to cook it. This is often some of the best food that you are going to eat.

When tourists are very rude with their cameras, it makes me want to scream at them. They just stick their camera in someone's face.
I do quite a lot of photography, but that really makes me want to scream. I was in Myanmar in a market once, and saw all these people with flash cameras. It must have been a photography tour or something. But they were just so rude, and I just don't get it. Because that ruins it for everyone else. If I want pictures of local people I talk to them first, create a relationship with them, ask their permission and then take the picture. Then let them see it, their friends see it and so on. You just have to lay the seed first.

I love it when tourists go and mix with local people, and get out of their comfort zone.
People see me doing it; I love going off and chatting with local people. So I think customers take that in a little bit and it gives them the confidence to go and do that themselves. Even if I am struggling with the language, as my Mandarin isn't very good, it is amazing what you can get through with a few words, a bit of sign language and being stupid and smiling!

Luotiancun kids
Luotiancun kids (Photo by egorgrebnev)
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