Recreate the Adventures of Great Explorers in Yunnan
(Wenhai Valley near Lijiang, not much has changed since Joseph Rock set up base here nearly a 100 years ago)
(Dozens of prayer flags signal your arrival in Shangri-La on the outskirts of the eastern Himalayas)
(Cruise local roads in vintage, convertible jeeps and really absorb your surroundings;)
(Carefully chosen boutique hotels for a good night’s rest blend well with daytime exploring)
(Stay overnight in elegantly decorated canvas tents, completed with a candlelight, three-course European dinner)
As summer is approaching, most people I know have booked their tickets home or to Southeast Asia for the holidays as no one wants to stay in China. Polluted, poor service, language barrier, too crowded… Those are some of the most common reasons I hear from my fellow expats to take the uninspired way out and look for comfort and adventure across the borders.
May I introduce the Yunnan Province? Wedged between the jungles of Southeast Asia and the peripheries of the Himalayas, Yunnan in southwest China is roughly the same size (and with half the population) as Germany. Unknown to most visitors, and even to some long-term expats, Yunnan has it all: snowcapped mountain peaks, jungles roamed by wild elephants, China’s own Grand Canyon, well-preserved villages, relics of long forgotten trade routes and half of China’s minorities have found a home even in Yunnan’s most remote corners.
Before I first came to Yunnan, I had read a couple of books about the foreign explores and missionaries of the late 19th and early 20th century, who helped put Yunnan on the map (quite literally) as even the government in Beijing barely knew anything about this far-flung paradise. Off the plane, I quickly realised not much has changed in the past 100 years and the scenic landscapes, hectic markets, colourfully dressed minorities and friendly curiosity of the locals described in those books, are still all around me. I would even say the Yunnanese are the friendliest towards foreigners as the province was largely spared from colonialism with foreigners and Chinese alike defended Yunnan from the Japanese invaders during WWII with the same determination.
Now, combine all the sightseeing and rich history with an ever-developing road network (layered on top of the old trading routes) for easy travel and an emerging market for premium boutique hotels, secret gourmet restaurants and quality service not easily found in other parts of China. In Yunnan, everything slows down and moves forward at a leisurely pace for you to soak it all in: no honking, no people shouting or pushing you aside, no pollution or a free-for-all environment; the daunting rat race of the east coast doesn’t exist here.
My favourite aspect of Yunnan must be its diversity in people, landscapes, activities and the fact there’s something to be found for every type of traveller. If it’s comfort you’re after, you’ll easily find yourself sipping French wine in a hammock near Dali on the banks of Erhai Lake, dubbed China’s little Mediterranean; while the following morning you’ll have a fullon breakfast in a renovated Tibetan house watching the sun rise from behind the Himalayan outskirts.
Foodies: pay attention! In the relatively unknown Tea and Horse Road village of Shaxi, I stumbled upon a small, barely visible vegetarian restaurant (its Italian chef makes his own bread and cheese from locally sourced ingredients) where I had the best gnocchi ever and I stayed overnight in an authentic 150 year-old caravansary, an absolute rarity in China’s crazed frenzy of building and rebuilding. In Dali, there’s a small bakery whose crispy salmon bagels put to shame the ones sold at Shanghai’s fanciest and upscale bakeries.
For the more energetic visitors, I would recommend trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a natural wonder carved out by the mighty Yangtze River or playing a round of golf at one of the world’s highest golf courses in Lijiang. Explore the jungles of Xishuangbanna further south and meet the minorities who still live in pile dwellings.
To me, travelling in Yunnan means recreating the adventures of the great explorers and discovering the China I was hoping to find when I first arrived five years ago. Modern transportation has replaced the horse caravans and boutique hotels reminisce of the comfortable bivouacs, though, funnily enough, you can still travel by horse and stay overnight in explorer tents if you want; it’s all part of the Yunnan experience. I’ll be spending my summer in Yunnan, hosting and showing my passengers its beauty, diversity and all the other reasons why I call it my second home.
Maxime Tondeur is lead insider at Insiders Expeditions. Insidersexperience.com