From celebrity to cultural ambassador

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"Traveling isn't just about relaxation for me," said 25-year-old actress Zhao Zhaoyi. "It's about stepping out of my comfort zone and rediscovering myself through encountering diverse landscapes, people, and cultures."

Zhao is part of a group of Chinese celebrities featured in the popular reality travel show, Divas Hit the Road. In the fifth season, which concluded earlier this year, the group went on a 23-day journey across Saudi Arabia, Croatia, and Iceland — countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

In a special season currently airing on Mango TV, the group visits more of China's friends — countries that have signed visa-free or visa-on-arrival arrangements with China — including Singapore, Indonesia, and France.

The show aims to provide the audience with travel tips and itineraries by assigning each group member the role of a "tour guide".However, the fifth season introduced a small twist by adding short lessons and quizzes about the countries they visited.

"It was a different style of travel from what I'm used to, but it was a meaningful experience," Zhao said. "I'll always remember the things I learned, like the length of the Peljesac Bridge in Croatia, which is 2,440 meters."

The group had the opportunity to personally witness the Peljesac Bridge, which spans the Bay of Mali Ston in the Adriatic Sea, connecting Croatia's mainland with the Peljesac Peninsula. The bridge opened to traffic in July 2022, and most importantly, it was built by a Chinese consortium.

According to Zhao, it is this sense of pride as a Chinese citizen that strengthens and motivates them to do their best as cultural ambassadors. "We're not just traveling and filming a reality show; we're also representing China as we visit these 'friends' of China," she said.

During their time in Croatia, the group also had the chance to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with staff from the Cultural Exchange Office of the Chinese Embassy.

As they chatted under the moonlight, they were surprised to learn that one of the staff members, who seemed to have the most local friends, didn't speak Croatian at all, and his English wasn't very good either. They simply communicated using body language.

Despite the language barrier, some of his local friends joined the group for dinner. Even though they didn't speak Chinese, they had learned it was a special holiday for the Chinese people and wanted to send their best regards.

"It made the night even more memorable, filled with love and warmth," Zhao recalled.

The trip to Saudi Arabia also left Zhao in awe. "In Saudi Arabia, you can immerse yourself in nature and history, appreciating its beauty while realizing how small we humans are in the world," she said.

Among the cities the group visited, Zhao particularly recommends AlUla over more modernized cities like Jeddah.

Situated in the desert, AlUla is an ancient oasis city renowned for its 7,000-year-old tombs and breathtaking rock formations. AlUla is also home to Hegra, Saudi Arabia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"AlUla represents more of a microcosm of the country," Zhao said.

However, she acknowledged that personal preferences vary and she understands that some tourists may prefer more urban destinations.

During their trip, the group experienced firsthand the local culture and customs.

"We learned that using one's left hand is considered impolite in Saudi Arabia and, in many cases, taboo," Zhao said. "Even though locals understand you're a foreigner, it's respectful to use your right hand at all times."

Zhao and her fellow celebrities also introduced Chinese culinary delights to the local people. While Zhao mentioned that it was impossible to list them all, she enthusiastically recommended one particular dish — or rather, genre: hotpot.

"There are so many types of distinctive hotpot across China: from the spicy Sichuan style to the traditional Beijing copper pot, and the Cantonese Dabianlu hotpot," said Zhao.

"Hotpot is deeply embedded in Chinese culture. It's a dish that offers both physical and emotional warmth, bringing people together. It often fosters genuine and open conversations around the dining table."

Since 2019, Saudi Arabia has been issuing tourist visas to visitors from 49 countries and regions worldwide, and Zhao highly recommends it as a tourist destination.

Personal growth

The trips have also helped Zhao grow as a person. Being one of the youngest members of the group, it was her first experience traveling with senior colleagues in the same profession, and she learned a lot from them.

"One of the most valuable lessons for me is to prioritize the bigger picture instead of getting caught up in minor differences among group members," she said.

"Each person is unique with their own perspectives, so it's natural for opinions to vary."

Reflecting on her current experience filming the ongoing special season, Zhao said she can see how much she has changed. "I've become more outspoken about my opinions and feelings," she said. "I've also been taking on more responsibilities and have been more proactive in helping others."

Some audience members believe that in this season, Zhao was able to address some regrets from the previous one. For example, she missed out on snorkeling in Iceland due to her fear of water but had a great time in the sea in Thailand.

"I wasn't obsessed with completing what I hadn't done last season. It simply felt effortless and natural for me this time in Thailand," Zhao said.

Zhao also emphasized that there is no single way to experience a place.

"As part of Generation Z, I think we're open to new experiences and self-expression, eager to explore the world in our own unique ways."

She added that sometimes leaving something unfinished on a trip can be beneficial.

"Regret is a beautiful thing; it brings you a sense of longing and enhances the joy and fulfillment when you eventually revisit it," she said.

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