Keeping it real: Chatting with John McKenna about 'ultra-sports' and travel in the 'real China'

Culture | by Aimee Groom
Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
John McKenna Travel the Real China Traveling China can be one of the most rewarding, challenging and exciting experiences many people will ever have in their lives (especially if part of it takes the form of an ultra-sport marathon across the Gobi Desert!). It can also be one of the most daunting, not to mention frustrating and infuriating, even if you're not looking for an extreme experience but just hope to soak up some authentic local culture. It's not so bad for backpackers who aren't tied to a schedule—frustration and the unexpected become part of the total experience, but for anyone with a schedule to keep and a finite time line, a bad China day can really put a damper on a trip—and believe me, from first-time visitors to old China hands, we all have our bad China days. This is where someone like New Zealander John McKenna, founder of the Shanghai-based travel consultancy Travel the Real China and Ultra Sport China, comes in. He's passionate about travel and China, he's been all over, and most places he hasn't been, he's helped send others. After seeing (and experiencing) the difficulties faced by foreigners in making travel arrangements via local agents, John realized that his wealth of experience could  help others avoid the frustration and disappointment that so often results from the mass-production approach and formulaic group tours that dominate China's tourism industry, especially for anyone looking for authenticity and off-the-beaten-path experiences, including fans of outdoor sports and adventuring—rock climbers, trekkers, mountaineers, marathoners and the like. On the subject of the "real China," it's not as if it has be old to be authentic, John says, explaining that it's "both the old and the new. People love to come and explore the old, however the fast-moving and amazing cities that are now part of China are also amazing to new visitors... both sides are worth seeing." And when it comes to exploring China's amazing—and often extreme—natural landscapes, the challenge lies in organizing travel to areas that are still often well off the map when it comes to traditional tour and travel agencies in China. It's John's own extensive experience traveling that makes the difference. Like many of his fellow New Zealanders, he's traveled far and wide, having spent 15 years working his way around the world. His adventures include three months backpacking around the China and even a stint as a personal trainer on a North Sea oil rig (interesting fact: at any one time there are up to 30,000 people living in the North Sea in enormous floating hotels parked up next to the oil rigs!). With firefighting and survival training all in a day's work, he clearly has a taste for adventure—a taste that has made him something of an extreme sports junkie now that he's settled into a quieter occupation. Life brought him back to China in 2002 when he was enlisted to help set up the Asia HQ of a multinational company. After two years on the road traveling China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Pakistan to train staff and set up operations, his mission was complete. With his contract at an end, it was time to think about his next move. That move was Travel the Real China. [pullquote]"They're looking for some comfort and convenience when they travel but they also want to stay in control."[/pullquote] About 80% of his customers are are expats living in China who he describes as "ex-backpackers who have grown up and now have families and schedules. They're looking for some comfort and convenience when they travel but they also want to stay in control." These are people who know the prices of cars and hotels and where to book cheap flights, so John focuses on support. By offering quality land services and logistics that cater to Western tastes, requirements and expectations, Travel the Real China seeks to deliver smooth, rewarding trips that make the most of limited time. And by understanding the needs of each particular client, from food allergies to fussy kids, with Travel the Real China, John helps make sure any visit is as seamless and fulfilling an experience as possible. Travel The REal China A China travel maven who delights in sharing his extensive knowledge, tips and tricks, having taken the plunge and going from travel hobbyist to travel pro, John started organizing regular "Travel Chats" throughout Shanghai. These casual get-togethers provide a platform for people to plumb the depths of his extensive travel knowledge and share their own ideas. Of course, they help his business by word-of-mouth marketing (which is all the marketing he does), but there's no hard sell involved. "The chats are more about chatting and sharing than selling trips," he says, "traveling in China for some is a scary idea. I just thought if people wanted to know more, I would  make myself available to them with no pressure of a sale. However, indirectly, they learn to trust me and remember me, and thus maybe think about me for their next trip within China." I went along to a recent chat at the  Costa Coffee on Hongmei Lu (check here for the full schedule) and I have to say, it was a great experience. Apart from John himself, there's no knowing who will be there, sometimes "one or two may turn up, sometimes no-one, sometimes 20" he warned me in advance. Hakka House This time round, there was Heather, an expat wife and mother who has been in Shanghai for two years, has three children (10, 8 and 6 years old) and was headed to Xiamen and the Hakka houses in the October holiday. Everything was already booked but John had given her and her husband some advice on a previous trip to Yangshuo and she was interested to come and hear what he had to say about other destinations. Then there was Linda, another expat wife with two children who was planning a trip to Xi'an with her family. A third gentleman who left before I caught his name--we'll call him Dave for simplicity's sake--had only been in Shanghai for 3 months. The father of 10-month old twins, Dave's own opportunities for China travel were a little limited but he was keen to see what John could recommend for his elderly parents who were headed over to pay a visit. And, of course, there was myself. There as an observer and with no particular travel agenda, I found myself utterly absorbed in the conversation and occasionally throwing in a tuppence worth from my own personal experiences. [pullquote]as foreigners, we miss out on a lot of great destinations because the infrastructure isn't deemed suitable or because frankly, we're just too much hassle for the Chinese tour operators.[/pullquote] With this group of people providing the broad framework, the chat kicked off with the fortress-like Hakka houses of Fujian and how Heather and her family might find staying there overnight. Facilities are very basic (despite internet in every room—a bizarre but true marketing hook... there are no windows or indoor toilets and the bedding doesn't even match but yes, indeed there is a Stone Age computerfrom which you can update your loved ones on life in a tulou.) Though this wasn't a problem for hardy Heather and Co., who had experienced worse in a Hongcun courtyard house, for many families it's a bit too much, so when organizing family trips to Hakka country, John had tracked down a good 3-star hotel as a backup. He went on to tell us about a trip he'd organized for a family to Guizhou where the entire schedule had to be structured around the kids being able to take a nap at 2:00 p.m. each day. In a predominantly rural and mountainous area largely populated by minority groups and some very bad road conditions, familiarity with the area, a well-planned itinerary and properly briefed guide was crucial. This led to more discussion about traveling with children in general—how female guides are best for families, as they go crazy for the kids. How in China, a child discount is offered according to height (under 1.2 meters) rather than age. Though  Western kids tend to be taller than their Chinese peers, John still prices by age, as in his experience, foreigners can usually get away with their child being a few centimeters too tall as long as they show some ID. He once had a client who neglected to mention her 14 year-old daughter was 6'2". It was only when they arrived at the first hotel and he received a call to say she was too tall for the additional bed that he discovered the problem and swiftly arranged an alternative. Family travel with young kids has its own set of problems, but what about family travel with elderly parents like Dave's? His dad is 85 and has a dodgy knee. Here John would ensure the guide doesn't to try and fit too much into the day, that there are plenty of rest breaks, longer lunches and that they are dropped off as close as possible to tourist attractions and so on. The more detail the customer is able to provide the better the service that can be offered and with an employee tasked solely with following up at each destination, any issues can be solved immediately. Lijiang Yunnan Over almost two hours, the conversation meandered along in a very organic way. We talked about destinations from Lijiang and Dali to Changshu (both are top favorites of John who recommends the former in winter when there's blue skies and sunshine and few crowds, and the latter well, any time at all. Just an hour outside of Shanghai, it's a vibrant town with a handful of Chinese tourists but barely a foreign face in sight). We also chatted about Putuo Shan and the beaches of the surrounding Zhoushan archipelago. Tipping: should we or shouldn't we? The pros and cons of train travel versus flights and how, as foreigners, we miss out on a lot of great destinations because the infrastructure isn't deemed suitable or because frankly, we're just too much hassle for the Chinese tour operators. We talked about why he avoids activities like rafting in his tours: "give a farmer a paddle and he's an instructor... there's a lot of potential for this market but it still needs another 5 or 10 years to develop the regulations needed to make it safe." A recent balloon accident in Yangshuo only added weight to the argument. An adventure sports enthusiast himself, he's well aware of the dangers involved. He talked a little about his recent experience in the Gobi March. It was the second time he'd taken part in what is widely considered to be the toughest land race in the world involving running and walking across 250 km of harsh desert carrying all your own equipment and it was tough, very tough. Gobi March With these two ultra-marathons under his belt, plus a Wild West-style motorbike adventure across the Taklamakan desert, it's no great surprise that John has taken his passion and once again found a way to share his enthusiasm with others, this time in the form of Ultra Sport China. Dedicated to extreme sports in China, the project is an attempt to bring together a lot of very disparate information on the subject. As he explains, "It's a hobby that may go somewhere in time, I just thought there was a lack of info about sport in China so I put the site up. I want it to be about sport in China, written by sporting people in China, not by me, so I ask others to contribute articles and content and I post them on the site; real people in China, doing real sports events and activities here. If you know people that would like to contribute—clubs, organizations, individuals, please pass on the info!" Genghis Khan MTB Adventure Nordic Ways Personally, I think it's a great idea. I'm rather partial to a good dose of adrenalin myself and have always had to scramble around to find information on what's going on and who is involved. Here, John has created a community for anyone who is interested to get expert advice and share their own experiences and knowledge. There are so many amazing sites in China that lend themselves to these kinds of events—a marathon on the Great Wall of China, a mountain bike adventure across the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia, and companies like Nordic Ways and Racing the Planet are setting some great international standards, but the concept, like so many, is still fairly new here. However, as John explains, "sport and leisure time activities in China are becoming more noticeable and will only grow within China; a younger generation is learning that sport is also good for the soul and that working all the time like their parents did maybe is not so good for their health. More and more young Chinese are getting out there and buying bikes, running, swimming etc. It's great—a new industry will begin to form and develop around the new generational Chinese." Gobi March JohnMckenna All that is still to come though and in the meantime, it's wise to take extra care if taking part. As John points out, "if dangerous activities are involved, you have to rely on yourself to govern things to be safe. Do not rely on others or assume things will be safe—double check everything yourself." If you'd like to hear more from John McKenna or have something to share, contact him through either Travel The Real China or Ultra Sport China, or drop by to one of his regular Travel Chats which take place at various coffee shops around Shanghai.
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