AFTER two motorbike tours of Shanghai by Insiders Expeditions and eyeing their Yunnan trips for three years, my expectations were high when I finally flew to Lijiang to begin a four-night Yunnan getaway.
The trip was part of a “bucket list trilogy” for a friend who will soon be leaving Shanghai. We each suggested things to do and this longed-for trip was mine. So if this proved to be a dud, I would be the one taking the fall from three very disappointed friends.
Insiders Expeditions organizes private journeys into China’s interior with vintage vehicles. All tours are tailor-made, all inclusive and hosted by passionate “insiders,” expats and returning Chinese who live locally.
Taking us on our little adventure was Kewen. He was the “insider” who took me on my first motorbike tour of Shanghai two years earlier. Kewen has many skills. Not only is he the most dapper man to ever live out of a small sports bag over four days, but he’s also the perfect host. I prefer to use the word host rather than tour guide. Kewen ensured we had the best possible time. He tailored our days to suit when we wanted to start (with some compromises bound by the practicalities of distance), what we wanted to do, see, eat ... This included instantly becoming “one of us,” either willingly or otherwise, whiling away the hours on the road and at meals, listening to hypotheticals, truth and dares and other endless inanities.
Our accommodation covered all ends of the spectrum. We had opted for premium accommodation and the luxury bivouac in Shangri-La. Having said that, people need to take an open-minded approach to “premium” as you are staying in places relatively untouched by mass tourism.
Our first night in Shuhe was spent at The Bivou. This quiet village was the last place you would expect to find what I can only describe as a designer hotel. The Bivou’s contemporary architecture combines white minimalism with natural materials.
In total contrast, the following night we stayed in a 150-year-old hotel in Shaxi. I really loved this quiet town, once an important stop on the old tea road. Our hotel was in the old quarter and opened onto a large, slumbering square. The age of the hotel’s Bai architecture was evident, right down to the light streaming through the gaps where the frames of the old wood structure failed to meet. (Don’t worry, it had flywire over the gaps and mosquito nets over the beds. Not that we needed them.)
Its location was perfect for a slow stroll around the town’s narrow alleys and shady streets, or for a bit of people watching sitting outside at the cafe on the square. The highlight being the woman walking her pig. And no, it did not look like the pig was on its way to meet its maker. You don’t usually put that type of harness on an animal who is dinner.
From here we went to Shangri-La and Songzanlin Monastery, which is as spectacular as you would expect. The night was spent in bivouacs in Ringha. These sit on a rise behind the home of the owners, Constantine, a French writer, and his British partner, Phoebe. The bivouacs themselves are decorated in what I would call 19th century African explorer style — rugs on the floor, an old shipping trunk as a low table, lighting by silver candlesticks and tea lights, mattresses on the floor with warm quilts.
Normally, our dinner would have been eaten under a canopy on the hill with a bonfire burning but it was a bit too chilly that night. Instead we ate in Constantine and Phoebe’s home. A Western, three-course, home-cooked meal eaten in a traditional Tibetan house, where the ceilings, beams and walls are decorated with paintings by the local monks. Constantine and Phoebe’s hospitality stretched to breakfast the next morning. Eggs, bacon, juice, yoghurt, fruit, coffee, tea — we could have easily stayed for days. But we had another big drive to get to our last stop, Tiger Leaping Gorge, before returning to Lijiang.
Our hotel at Tiger Leaping Gorge, where a primary tributary of the upper Yangtze River rushes through, was plain. Our rooms had air conditioning and private bathrooms, so that’s pretty much all we needed to be happy.
The big plus was the large shady terraces where you could sit and watch day turn to night against the two sheer, barren mountains of grey rock that form the gorge. But don’t let the word gorge fool you. If this conjures up green mountains and rushing waters, try thinking of harsh greys and browns. It is not pretty, but it’s striking.
The biggest attraction of our trip was, of course, Yunnan itself. Over 4 days we traveled to places that are home to Naxi, Bai and Tibetan people. Yunnan also gives the panorama feature on your phone or camera a good workout. It’s an endless parade of magnificent mountains and fertile valleys (the barrenness of Tiger Leaping Gorge being the exception) and wide blue skies.
The other highlight is the food. Everything Kewen ordered was delicious. We told him we wanted to stick to local food and we weren’t afraid of spice. We tried everything from yak carpaccio to home cooking in Ringha and soup in the market at Lijiang. In Shaxi, Kewen took us to a home where we sat at the one and only table on a long verandah. We had to wait for the lady of the house to finish her mahjong game before she cooked six dishes for lunch. That evening, Kewen led us down a narrow alley near our hotel into a miniscule little bar. Again, in the last place I would have thought to look, we ate unexpectedly authentic Italian food cooked by a Milanese top chef. In fact, the best pesto I’ve ever had.
I chose this particular trip because the first day was spent on the bikes and sidecars. It was, as I expected, a highlight of the trip. Sitting on the back of the bikes or in the sidecars taking in the amazing countryside around Lijiang should be the only way to travel. We took in the small Naxi village of Yuhu where the botanist, Joseph Rock, lived and is remembered with a small museum. On the way back we stopped at the old airfield that was used by the Flying Tigers who flew supplies into Myanmar during WWII. It was here Kewen proved he must be a gambling man. He allowed us to take the bikes for a spin in the wide and endless field.
I have never done a private tour before and, to be honest, it is not something I would have ever considered. It was like doing a trip under your own steam, but without any hassle because of the insider. With Kewen leading the way, we were able to go off the beaten track to places and meet people we would never have found on our own. Far from being a dud, this trip upped my cache with my friends.