This August, Absolute Asia Tours is proud to launch our brand new, in-depth line: Local Life. As part of our exciting new initiative to respect, support and celebrate the cultures and people that make each of our destinations unique, this specialised line is designed to get travellers closer to the heart of Asia – without sacrificing the comfort and ease of a classic Absolute Asia Tours experience. We sat down with Luke Mitchell – the man who created our China Local Life experiences – to talk culture, back alleys and conquering language barriers with Absolute Asia Tours.
You’ve lived in China for many years now. What’s the most intriguing thing for you about local culture here?
Definitely the communal spirit. I have seen it in all the countries I have lived in throughout Asia, but I found it much more obvious in China. People don’t spend time in their homes – they go to the local parks, streets, and restaurants; and they socialize all the time. Everything from tai chi, practicing calligraphy on the ground with water, dancing, singing and just sitting around chatting. I could never imagine going to the park in Australia, turning on some music and dancing to exercise with my neighbours! I love how it really builds a sense of community among people, and that’s an element of the culture I’ve made a point to highlight in these new experiences.
What was your inspiration for when you set off on creating these in-depth local life excursions?
Whenever I travel, I love to see the sights, but I always think: “what would it be like if I lived here? What would I do? Where would I go?”
I wanted people to see the regular lives of the people here; where they eat, where they relax, where they have fun. So, I have tried to include in each tour what it would be like just to go about a normal day as a local. Where would you buy your produce, what food would you eat, how would you socialize with your friends? I want the tours to show the side of these cities that is just a couple of streets away from the palaces and temples, but that may be daunting to venture into by yourself.
Why do you think visitors to China should make a point to dig into the local culture? What’s waiting beyond the highlights?
Beyond the highlights is one of the most friendly, warm and genuine cultures I have ever experienced. There is a saying by Confucius to “always look after friends from afar” and the local people will go out of their way to do this. Chinese people are flattered that you are making the effort to learn about them, and they really want to learn about you, too. They are just as fascinated by our culture as we are by theirs, so expect that once a guide is bridging the language gap that they will have just as many questions for you as you do for them. Dig into the local culture and the reward is a heartfelt experience that can be extremely humbling.
“I want the tours to show the side of these cities that is just a couple of streets away from the palaces and temples, but that may be daunting to venture into by yourself.”
One of your tours explores the culture within Beijing’s Hutongs. What’s so special about these places, and what makes them a great place to see Beijing locals as they live today?
Hutongs are the traditional areas that people in Beijing have always lived in. Most of them have disappeared in the name of progress, but the government has designated some areas that will not be developed. In these areas, life goes on as it always has. People have lived in these areas for generations, which gives the feeling that they are not just streets, but extensions of people’s homes.
You can see everything – from people sitting outside chatting with the neighbors under their fresh laundry, to tiny local shops that are still making their own products. People here still don’t go to supermarkets. Instead, they will go to the soy shop to pick up their tofu and soy milk that was freshly made that day, or the pickle shop or the sesame oil shop. It’s all made right there. They know the owners and their parents probably bought the same products from the owners parents, and so on. You can feel that it’s a community that is standing the test of time and is like one big, extended family.
We stay away from the tourist areas where the shops have been turned over for souvenirs, and see the genuine areas where people are surprised to see us walking down the street and are so happy and proud to show their local wares.
China is a notoriously difficult country to explore unguided, thanks to a language barrier and drastically different local culture. How do you think these new in-depth tours help with those challenges?
The language barrier in China is two-fold. There is the spoken language barrier which can be slightly broken with translation apps, and there is the written language barrier which becomes very apparent when you are in a restaurant and the whole menu is written in Chinese characters. There is so much to try and enjoy, but its often inaccessible without an understanding. These tours break down those barriers with either snacks along the way or meals in local areas. It’s not just the menu – sometimes it’s the whole process that would put you off. Sometimes you don’t know whether to order at the counter, or do they give you the food or bring it to the table! We try and make this process smoother so you can focus on enjoying yourself.
I wanted people to experience things that they can’t do themselves or with the help of a guidebook, but also learn from the experiences so that they can they try it alone after the tour. Like the little yoghurt pots you see sitting outside the shops all over Beijing – it is something unique to Beijing, and you always have to leave the pot behind once you’ve finished. Most visitors wouldn’t know that!
We will show you the little things that will give more depth to a China experience. It’s not just the food, it’s the people – like talking to the ladies in the park in Shanghai that exercise there every morning or the men that swim in the back lakes of Beijing. They are outside because they want to socialize and have a chat. There are so many things we would love to ask them but can’t. With the guide’s help, you can understand more about their lives. You will come away feeling like you have made new friends.
You’ve made a point to create tours that are responsible and sustainable – an important element to the Local Life line. In China, what does that mean?
This definitely means going small scale. Rather than eating in the big chain restaurants, you will visit shops that are owned and worked by parents and their grown kids. Everything is small scale and goes directly to the people you are interacting with. We aren’t just there to ogle them, but to try their products and talk to them through the guide. It makes it a two-way interaction.
Also, all of our tours are walking tours that start and end near metro lines in both Beijing and Shanghai. In cities like this that already have too many cars on the roads, we are keeping down our environmental impact by utilizing public transport – which in and of itself, is a cultural experience, too!
What do you hope travellers will learn from embarking on these new experiences in China?
I hope each and every person who embarks on these journeys with us will feel like you haven’t just seen the cities from the other side of a window of a tour bus or car. You will feel that you have created a genuine connection to how it is to live as a local, and see a destination through the eyes of a local. These are the moments and experiences that are more memorable because they have a human side to them. Every interaction is unique, so you will know that what you have experienced will be yours alone to remember.
You can customise your China tour to include these special Local Life experiences in Beijing and Shanghai. Create your own itinerary with the help of our expert sales team, and let them know that you want the Local Life flavour!
COMING SOON: Explore all of our Local Life tours in each of our 11 destinations on our website – coming August 7th!
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