Qinghai, China with Ctrip
Here I am with my fellow travelers. Everyone in this shot, apart from our guide Homer, is a professional traveler. An influencer. Including yours truly.
With the success of Ramen Adventures, I have been given so many new opportunities. Media work within Japan and abroad. A book deal. Fame and fortune. I'm never shocked by what might come, but was happy nonetheless when I was contacted by representatives from Ctrip, China's biggest travel company, to take part in a week-long visit to Qinghai, China. This was back in May, and the trip was slated for June.
Recently, President Xi Jinping declared that 2016 would be the year of tourism in China, and localities jumped at the chance to promote themselves. Have you even heard of Qinghai? I asked a few Chinese friends, and they all asked the same question, "Are you sure you don't mean Shanghai?"
No, I mean Qinghai.
And what would I, a blogger with less than 10,000 Instagram subscribers (some people on the trip had over half a million) have to promote to my audience?
Noodles of course. Qinghai is the planet's noodle king.
Or should I say noodie king. The oldest archaeological record of noodles comes from Qinghai, some 4000 years ago.
Let me stop here. I seem to be doing my job, reporting on the food situation in Qinghai, something I was meant to be paid for. This campaign with Ctrip was no pro bono publico adventure. The deal was all expenses paid, plus a fee for my time. Everyone on the trip had this deal. Like I said, professional travelers.
I live a pretty chill life in Tokyo, but the hustle is strong. I'm grinding on the ramen side of things everyday, and time off means money lost. I lost a lot of work doing this trip, especially since it was last minute. I literally had 2 weeks to get my visa taken care of and find people to cover my performing work in Tokyo.
Well, I was never paid what I was owed. Plain and simple, I was taken advantage of by Ctrip and Eight Dragons Digital, the Australian group who was running point on the trip. Emails were returned with "we're working on it", and then not returned at all.
I've essentially exhausted my resources. As an American, living in Japan, dealing with a Chinese company, with an Australian middleman, there isn't much I can do. I went back and deleted the content on my articles (here, here, and here).
仕様がない - Shoganai - life goes on. Instead of wallowing in the purgatory of bitterness, I can write honestly about this trip, which was so messed up that it bordered on hilarity.
First, a bit about Qinghai.
We were based in Xining, Qinghai's main city. This map was given to me by the hotel when I asked for a local street map. To put Qinghai's size into perspective, driving from Xining on the right to Qinghai Lake was a 3 hour bus ride.
Zooming out gives us perspective. Qinghai is massive in scale. Most tourists don't go far, and a week was barely enough time to see the area. Not because there is so much to do, but because it took so long to get anywhere.
At least we had our VPNs and cell service. We, the dozen or so travelers I was with, took it upon ourselves to learn about the places we were visiting. Our tour guide, a lovely man named Homer (but not a homersexual he joked on more than one occasion) gave us very little to work with. One day, we visited a massive temple, only to find out later that it was the birthplace of the Dali Lama. Kind of an interesting point to gloss over.
Xining from a local mountain. The haze wasn't visually as bad as Beijing, but the pollution in countryside China is intense. PM 2.5 levels are some of the highest in the country.
Day one, drive three hours to the south to a temple. Day two, drive four hours west to a temple. Day three, you get the idea.
It's size must hide something, as we were under police and military scrutiny the entire time. I've heard there are some big military installations in the area, which makes sense. We were told not to stray far from the hotel, and when we stayed in non-Xining, don't even leave the building.
One night I went down to the lobby at 11pm and there were dozens of police flipping through sheets of papers, papers with our photos and stats.
Food was tasty, but my search for noodle culture was almost impossible. The internet has not been kind to Qinghai in terms of promotion, and I could only find one article from 2012 that went into detail.
I asked our guide, a local, where the best spots were. He told me that everything is the same. Just pick a place with 面 - noodle - in the name and you'll be fine. I posited the situation where you meet a beautiful girl who loves noodles, where would you take her? He said Pizza Hut; local chicks dig Western food. I gave up.
I still found some spots, and Ramen Adventures is more about the adventure. Of course, I deleted these stories, as they were shrouded in sellout-style promotion for Qinghai and Ctrip.
Where were our minders on this trip? The middlemen between the massive Ctrip corporation and us? Hookers and blow. Literally. Every night they were out buying women and looking for hard drugs. One guy was so hungover the entire trip that he simply didn't join the bus trips during the day, sleeping off the previous night's hangover in his hotel.
They were, I admit, decent hotel rooms.
Live and learn. As a freelancer, I have been taken advantage of a few times in the past, and learned a bit each time. In this case, they had agreed to pay us on the final day of the trip. I figured they were just slow with this, so I went ahead with my work, published, and assumed they would get around to it. Sometimes I am slow to send a book out or reply to an email; I get it. By completing my assignment, I had no leverage in the situation.
If you're wondering how much I was owed, it was significant. Enough to get a new Fujifilm XT-2 camera and fully outfit it for video production with some lenses and accessories.
And it wasn't like, "Hey! Free trip!" Like I said, I cancelled a busy week of work in Tokyo; six or seven food tours, my regular teaching gig, and weekend performances.
Thanks for reading my ranty Qinghai story. I'm not super bitter, but the whole situation leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In the end, I did get a free trip, met some interesting people who live interesting lives as full time professional bloggers.
And I was given a sweet yak horn comb that I still use today. Win!