“Getting off the beaten track” is a very popular phrase among travellers, so much so, that guidebooks now highlight which places are off the beaten track for you, which only confirms they are most definitely full of tourists. Each traveller dreams of idyllic deserted beaches, fascinating isolated tribes, and culture shocks that smack you round the face rather than merely arouse intrigue. If you can pull it off, it will provide just the right amount of excitement to make you remember it forever. If you can pull it off…
If you have read between the lines in my other posts, you might have spotted an aversion to Chinese tourists as a running theme. After 6 weeks in China, we had visited several places I’d never heard of before, but it had all been relatively easy and all was as expected. The scenery in China is outstanding, and the old towns look incredible, but before we left the country we wanted to try somewhere completely different, which led us to Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan.
This is the most southerly part of mainland China, sandwiched between Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Due to the mountains that separate Xishuangbanna from central and northern Yunnan, it has a much hotter tropical climate, and has historically always been isolated from the rest of the province. This has led to a number of different ethnic minorities maintaining their traditional way of life to a far greater extent than much the rest of China, and that way of life and culture is more in tune with its South-East Asian neighbours than its parent country China.
Lush jungle treks interspersed with tiny remote villages sounded a fascinating way to spend some time, but the place is so hard to get to, we had to jump on our first plane of the entire trip, which officially brought an end to our epic train journey from London. Once I got over this fact, we set out trying to research where to visit in the region which highlighted the first problem of trying to get off the beaten track - there is very little information available. It sounds obvious, but you can’t go somewhere untouched by tourists and also expect a swathe of brilliant travel blogs and guide book info to hold your hand through the trip. Hence, we decided to wing it.
We flew into the wrong airport in the region, 2 hours away from the hub of trekking routes, and it took us 2 days in this wrong city to work this out. When we did arrive in Jinghong, which is still a huge city, we still didn’t know where to start. Thousands of square kilometres of jungle and limitless options was just too much for our wee brains to take in, and highlighted the paradox of choice, which is always stressful.
We eventually decided to hop on a local bus to a small village and just ask around where is good to visit. Note, it help massively having a Chinese speaker with you, as nobody at all speaks English and only some understand Mandarin. We arrived in Menghun village (also not a village, more of a small town) 4 days after arriving in Xishuangbanna region, and just wanted to start walking. We (Claudine) had some horribly awkward conversations with a local woman trying to explain we wanted tips on where to hike. However, this woman just seemed baffled why we were in her town in the first place, and then offered to be our tour guide for the day for a very expensive rate. She also couldn’t explain where she’d take us or what we would see, so we declined her offer and decided to just start walking in any direction the following morning.
When we woke up, it was hammering it down, as it had been for 6 days straight by this point. Fair weather hikers at the best of times, we ditched our early start and promised that we would walk somewhere in the afternoon. By this point, we were 5 days into our Xishuangbanna adventure, and had to leave the following day to get back to the real world before leaving China for good. So at the end of 5 days travel, countless impossible decisions, a lot of rain, and very little culture, we set off on our 3km “hike” to the neighbouring village… along the main road.
I write this all with tongue in cheek, as delving into China’s backwaters is incredibly interesting, but we didn’t see anything remarkable, nor did we get many pretty pictures. We saw kids playing musical chairs, some locals drying our parchment paper they had made, and we got to try some a man’s local baiju brew (50% he told us). Then it got dark and we had to walk home in the rain again.
Before leaving the following morning, the village had its huge weekly market, which luckily brought all of these ethnic minorities out of the hills to sell their produce, and straight to our doorstep. This was the first time I ever witnessed puppies being sold for food. I had always believed that was a bit of a Western myth prior to this market.
Visiting Xishuangbanna took a huge chunk of time out our trip, and I definitely felt underwhelmed and tired by the experience, but I did enjoy it and we did see things we have never seen anywhere else in the world. The problem is it’s just not always worth the effort.
Our last stop in China was to be the Yuanyang rice terraces, which are firmly back on the beaten path, and they were unbelievable to witness. The food menus were in English and there were 200 other people watching sunrise with us, but the hotels were lovely, we actually knew what food we had ordered (nod to the sticky pork ribs we ordered 3 days running), and the scenery was incredible.
Travelling can make you a bit of a travel snob without trying to be. Constant bravado of “my beach was more isolated than yours” is very evident, and getting back on the beaten path made me realise that things are very often touristy for good reason, and that this way of thinking is a sure fire way to miss out on some incredible sights. So we won’t just follow the crowds, but we (I) also won’t be so stubborn as to think we know better than the crowds when you’re on the other side of the world.