Wild and wonderful
VENTURING INTO the far-flung parts of China was once the exclusive preserve of backpackers - the only people with enough reserves of time and fortitude to endure the bumpy journeys, filthy hotels, ill-informed guides and mediocre food.
Then came Wild China, and other similar adventure-travel outfits, with thrilling itineraries that promised to take travellers into the wilds, but in style and comfort. The companies have tapped into a growing demand from people who want to motorcycle across open plains, hike around sacred mountains, experience nomad horse fairs and see giant pandas up close. These are tourists who do not mind paying to ensure that their day begins with freshly brewed coffee and croissants, and ends with tasty food, a glass of decent wine and a bed with freshly laundered sheets.
Yunnan-born Zhang Mei has built a thriving operation organising personalised tours that take visitors to off-the-beaten-track wonders, such as the Tibetan Yushu horse festival, the ancient Yellow Mountain villages of Anhui and the rustic rice paddies of Guizhou and Guangxi. Most of the trips have been personally road-tested by outdoorswoman Zhang and her team of English-speaking guides.
'We organise trips to the Yushu horse festival in Qinghai, where there are dances and cultural events and locals come from far away. We pitch a tent and the whole family lives there for a week,' says Zhang. 'Usually a tourist's nearest access to that would be a hotel in town, which is not great quality. We set up luxury Tibetan tents with a great view of the mountains. Each couple has a toilet tent and for the whole group we have dining under the stars, shower tents, solar power and a chef from the nearest town. During the day you rough it on exhilarating hikes, watch the horse racing and visit monasteries, and then at night you have comfort and luxury.'
The Wild China portfolio includes an enticing array of exotic travel options, including a journey along the ancient tea and horse caravan route, through Yunnan and Sichuan, towards the Tibetan Plateau. Along the way, there are visits to tea plantations, grottoes, monasteries and the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge in the so-called Shangri-La region. Another option is to follow the ancient Silk Road, with stops at Dunhuang to experience its whispering sand dunes and view the fabulous Buddhist-painting grottoes.
Zhang has managed to track down some dinky boutique hotels in the furthest flung parts of China such as Songtsam Lodge, at the foot of Songzanlin Monastery in a remote part of Yunnan. It offers stupendous Himalayan mountain views and ethnic-themed rooms furnished with chests, rugs and sculptures from Tibetan owner Baima Dorjie's personal collection. Another special property in the region is Laomadian, which translates as Old Horse Inn, a nine-room hotel that has been painstakingly restored by a Taiwanese couple.
Slightly closer to civilisation is the Unesco listed heritage town of Lijiang, beneath the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which was once fiendishly difficult to get to, involving a long and bumpy drive from the Yunnan capital of Kunming. An airport at Lijiang has solved the accessibility problem, which is a double-edged sword: the place is easier to reach, which means its exclusivity has become somewhat diluted.
Still, travellers from Hong Kong with only limited time will welcome the chance to be able to fly in with ease, and stay in luxury hotels such as the newly opened Pullman Lijiang Resort and Spa, with 79 villas and 51 rooms, many with stunning mountain views.
The architecture is inspired by the local Naxi minority style, with contemporary Chinese elements added to the design mix. The low-rise resort has canals that meander through the lush grounds, a central lake and restaurants, making it a self-contained destination.
More enterprising visitors will want to leave the luxury cocoon to venture into the mountains around Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the wonders of this region, where torrents of melting snow surge and roar through a narrow canyon. Another notable spot to visit is Lashi Lake, which is a migrating stopover spot for 57 varieties of birds, including the black-necked crane.
Expeditions to Tiger Leaping Gorge and beyond are the speciality of the Swiss-owned company Hidden China, which also has trips to Qinghai, the last stop before the Tibetan plateau, involving visits to nomad families, monasteries, lakes and Buddhist caves. Hidden China also offers camping tours to obscure parts of the Great Wall, far from the tourist hordes that congregate at the most accessible spot at Badaling, near Beijing. For people who hanker after a really challenging expedition, they have the 20-day pilgrim-path trek around the 7,000-metre Mount Kawakarpo in Yunnan province, a mountain bike expedition that starts in the Tibet capital Lhasa and heads to Mount Everest base camp, and an off-road motorbike ride through Sichuan.
The offbeat options are there - in spades - thanks to these pioneering operators. Ironically, Zhang of Wild China, did not intend to run a soft-adventure business; it came about through demand, rather than vision.
'Originally it was to become an information platform for travel adventure operators, but that didn't take off because the people in places like Chengdu were not online, so we were forced into becoming a tour operator,' says Zhang.
'We wanted it to be high-end, we were not going to do a backpacker experience. We wanted to make sure that if people go to the adventure lodge, then the sheets are white and there is a proper cup of coffee. Over the years it has morphed and grown.'