By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent
The advice was simple: If you want Americans to visit China to go Jeeping – make the trails just a bit easier.
Sounds like a challenge, but that was a small part of the message two residents offered a Chinese entrepreneur who wants to bring a little bit of Moab to the Far East.
Members of the Red Rock 4-Wheelers are often invited to visit the countries visitors to Moab come from, but none of them were as insistent – or as accommodating – as Jinson Gao, who owns a Jeep park in Yinchuan City in the Ningxia Province of northwest China.
It wasn’t until Gao made his second visit to Moab and, also for the second time, invited members of the group that puts on the annual Easter Jeep Safari, that President Mike Kelso and Past President Doug McElhaney took him up on his offer.
They were glad they did. The two men were still excited three weeks after returning on their more than 13,000-mile round trip when they described their experiences to The Times-Independent.
The men left on their all-expenses paid trip on Aug. 3 and returned Aug. 15.
“The trip was designed mostly for Jeeping,” said McElhaney, but they also visited temples and parks, and dined out while essentially immersing themselves in a foreign culture. “We had built in certain things other than Jeeping,” said Kelso. The men four-wheeled at Gao’s The Hooke Jeep Park. He owns a Jeep dealership that provides warranty work, custom modifications, two restaurants and a brewery.
McElhaney said the park is “spectacular,” both in terms of challenges and vistas – a portion of the Great Wall was in clear view.
They also Jeeped on two deserts, visited lower Mongolia, viewed a herd of camels and made new friends. They had a ton of fun, but the trails might be too rough for some, according to the men. “I told him, ‘If you want American tourists, make things easier.’ The infrastructure isn’t there yet. China has a very small Jeeping community,” said McElhaney.
Small but passionate, Gao is doing everything he can to introduce four-wheeling culture to his fellow citizens. That includes offering more than challenging trails. “He throws big concerts where 2,000 to 3,000 people show up. It’s so much larger than what we do. We get hundreds and he gets thousands,” said Kelso.
Gao is getting the Chinese government involved, as well as the national media, rubbing shoulders with the people who can help him market to international tourists. The government seems willing to help. Kelso said China has amped up its tourism marketing efforts since the country hosted the 2008 Olympics.
The trip was educational, as well. “The people were unbelievably friendly,” he said. “We never felt threatened. The food was great. We both gained weight that we’re still packing around.”
Gao and his entourage will be back in Moab later this year and again next April for Easter Jeep Safari 2019. Not to be outdone, Kelso and McElhaney plan to return to China next year. “We went there to see what it was. They (Yinchuan City) would be like a sister city to Moab,” said McElhaney. “They want to emulate what we do here.”
Clearly, Gao is a huge fan of Moab. In his showroom is a mural featuring a Jeep and one of area’s iconic arches. There are other Moab-centric photos with captions on his walls. “To think that some guy in China has been here, and now in China there are trails named after trails in Moab. That shows that the people of Moab made an impact on this man,” said McElhaney.