How to Explore China's Off-the-Beaten-Path Places
With the world covered by satellite imagery instantly available on the Internet, and with no more unknown continents or lost islands, undiscovered mountain ranges or hidden cultures, it may seem at times that there is little opportunity for the explorer. However, given its vast area and recent opening-up to modern foreign travel (not to mention the stick-to-the-path tourism of the Chinese themselves), it is still possible to be a pioneer in China and to boldly go where no one (or, at least, no foreigner) has gone before.
However, boldness must be tempered with caution. If you want to explore the unknown China back and beyond. China Highlights cannot tell you where to go (that would be pointless), but we can tell you how to do it.
The Chinese Way
Global tourism was all-but unknown before cheap air travel made it available to many in the late-20th century, and for most of the period since that time China has not encouraged tourism. It is only with the opening-up policy that even internal travel has been encouraged, and tourism in China today is big business.
Nonetheless, the authorities remain cautious, and progress has been slow. Even such magnificent treasures as Zhangjiajie have been virtually inaccessible even to most Chinese people until quite recently, and there is much magnificent scenery and local culture which remains unexplored.
"An undeveloped tourist sight is not a tourist sight."
Consider also the traveling habits of the Chinese themselves. You may be advised by a Chinese friend of a 'new rock formation that wasn't there before' and wonder how such a thing may be possible. For the vast majority of Chinese, until a path is marked out, an entrance provided, public toilets instituted, and tour buses run there, that rock formation did not exist. Once it does, then the Chinese tend to stick to the path laid out for them.
When you find yourself wandering the back of beyond in China, it is unlikely you will meet any Chinese tourists. You are more likely to bump into another foreigner and you will, of course, encounter the locals. For many you will be the first-ever foreigner they have encountered 'in the flesh' as you find yourself in places no foreigner has previously visited.
The Unknown Bordering the Known
To begin your voyage of exploration, you may not need hiking equipment, a tent, a rucksack, and a traditional pith helmet to mark you out as an explorer. Minutes away from the beaten track you can find yourself in uncharted territory; a few hours walk beyond that and you may truly be a pioneer while still returning to your hotel in time for dinner.
Consider the karst formations of southern China's Guangxi province. These pocket-sized mountains in minuscule ranges you can walk around in twenty minutes which rise out of the area's plain are extensive, and yet most are only familiar to tourists from such popular destinations as Guilin, Yangshuo and, more recently, the 'new' ancient town of Xingping. Half an hour's walk away from the tourist-packed streets of these, and you're in a new land free of tourists, no less magnificent in its scenery than that the crowds cluster around.
Mount Wutai is another example of stick-to-the-path tourism, with crowded streets and packed temples, but check out the hills around the main area. These are dotted with their own barely-visited temples and complexes, and a short stroll away from the main paths can take you to the quiet solitude of a pleasant site amidst flowers and trees in which the monks meditate rather than serve as tourist supervisors.
Still Further Back of Beyond
Still-more intrepid foreign tourists may choose a more adventurous option.
It is not unknown for foreigners to buy a bicycle and set themselves up for a voyage of exploration lasting a month or more. Others have been known to walk the entire length of China's legendary Great Wall. However, please be wary should you decide to undertake such an extensive tour. For all its population, much of China is inhospitable and plays host to few inhabitants, let alone tourists. The infrastructure, both in terms of travel and communication, is poor in outlying areas, and you may find yourself unable to call out for help if you get into difficulties.
Moreover, some border areas can provide other challenges, such as the preponderance of drug smugglers in the area near Myanmar, or local concerns about international terrorism on the western borders at Xinjiang which, though they may be more imagined than real, can lead the authorities to feel anxious about the presence of foreigners.
Should you wish to undertake so far-ranging a tour, please do your research into the area you will be visiting as extensively as you possibly can, including local regulations and sensibilities. Being the back of beyond you may find little information, of course, but arm yourself with as much as you can, and be prepared to change your plans along the way.
Taking Care of Yourself
When traveling China's back of beyond there are many things to consider. Precautionary measures prior to an expedition, whether for a day's hiking or for a week's cycling, are best taken before you leave. Once you're out there, you will need to be aware of the challenges you may face.
Tell someone your intended route and when you plan to return.
This is a good idea even if you are only out hiking for a day, or even an afternoon. Should you fall and hurt yourself, for example, you may not be able to get help, but should you not return then search parties will at least have some idea where to look for you.
It is best not to travel alone.
Unless you are given to solitary travel, a companion can keep you out of trouble. If some mishap befalls, at least one of you should be able to go for help. If you are alone, you may be stuck.
Incidents of attacks on foreigners are rare in China, but they do happen. Bear in mind, particularly if you have with you an expensive camera, a notepad computer, or other supposed necessities of daily life that the total value (even second-hand) of what you're carrying may be more than many of the people you meet in rural areas earn in a year. Don't be too ostentatious with your equipment; you are, if nothing else, a temptation to an impoverished farmer.
Snakes and other unpleasant critters may lurk in the grass, or amongst the trees. Feral dogs may harass you, and even some domesticated dogs in rural areas may be poorly-controlled and unused to strangers. Water buffalo may make be photogenic, but they can be ornery, and dislike having cameras shoved in their faces, or even waved at them from what may seem to you to be a reasonable distance.
Bring a phrasebook
Even if you speak reasonable Mandarin, you may be unintelligible to someone living in a small village far from Beijing, and you can be reasonably confident he or she will not speak your native language. A phrasebook is useful given that most of China's populace is literate, and you can at least point to the Chinese characters to communicate.
Food, water, and clothing
If you are taking a route through some of China's more inhospitable landscapes, don't forget to bring sufficient food and water, along with appropriate clothing to protect you against heat or cold in some areas. Remember, daytime-to-nighttime temperatures in some areas can change dramatically. In the day you may be at risk from sunstroke, while at night you risk exposure.
Communicate with friends and family when you can
On longer treks, take every opportunity that arises to send an email or use your mobile phone to let friends back in civilization know your current location and intended destinations. Should there be an accident, or should you go missing, you will be easier to find.
These can pop up in unexpected places, may be poorly signposted, and though the locals may be able to walk in and out of them they tend to be intolerant of intruding foreigners. Keep your eyes open and, if you are detained for trespassing, stay calm and be cooperative. It may be that the detention is extended while they try to locate someone who can communicate with you. Your detention is almost certain to be no more than a nuisance, but it can be intimidating.
And finally, Smile!
This may seem a strange suggestion, but you will be amazed how much difference it can make with the locals in your travels. Walk into a small village in the back of beyond, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of that walking into a bar when the piano stops playing, everyone falls silent, and all eyes turn upon you. This alarming response is not intended to warn you off, but your entrance into a village may mark the first time in its perhaps ancient history it has ever hosted a foreign visitor. The response is much as yours would be were a Martian to walk into your town.
When that happens a nod, a smile, and a 'Ni hao!' can transform you from some dread apparition into a welcome guest. Try it. You will be amazed at the difference it can make.
Let China Highlights Set You Up
At China Highlights, we understand personalized tours, and have made them our specialty. We know our customers do not always want their hands held, but we are here to provide you with the guidance you need to get you started should you decide to try something different away from the usual tour parties. With our expertise, we can help you plan your journey. With our slogan Discover Your Way, we understand better than anyone your desire to go off the beaten track and can set you up for the journey of a lifetime.
Check out our item on roads less traveled for some starter ideas. If you're taking a camera with you, (and why wouldn't you if you're taking a unique journey to uncharted destinations), then see our photography guide. Above all, look through our city guide. Many of our destinations may be the perfect jumping-off point for your voyage of exploration in China's wonderful and undiscovered backwoods.