China is huge, and the Southwest is the most diverse part. You’re bound to find something you like!
LONG ANSWER: In terms of size, China is more like a continent than a country. In all its enormity, it harbors a plethora of different ethnicities, landscapes and weather patterns. The country’s southwest (Guizhou, Sichuan and most prominently Yunnan) is the most diverse corner. The lowest point of Yunnan is almost as low as 70 meters (229 feet), while the highest point reaches nearly 7000 (the Kawagarbo peaks 6740 meters and 22110 feet above sea level). Just imagine you have everything in between, highlands, valleys, lakes, etc. Each corner has its own vegetation, language, atmosphere, etc. An almost kaleidoscopic richness will present itself to you, and no matter what your interests are, you’ll be sure to find something interesting in this part of the globe!
Our travel products are designed so that they are beneficial for everyone involved. This attitude has resulted in a very strong level of personal attention for our guests. Our passion has become to constantly push the boundaries of meaningful interaction, conscious awareness and moving out of the comfort zones.
LONG ANSWER: As a tour company, we believe in the rules of morality and ethics as taught in Buddhism. We do not mean that in the sectarian or devotional sense, but a strictly practical sense. According to Buddhist teachings, the ethical and moral principles are governed by examining whether a certain action, connected either to body or speech, is likely to be harmful to oneself or to others. To put simply, harmful actions are to be avoided, whereas beneficial actions should be promoted. In Buddhism, there is much talk of a skilled mind, in order to make the right decisions and take the right action. Personally, we strongly believe in mind training to become a better person. But the truth is that as persons we do manifest ourselves largely in the world in our professional environment, and that’s why we incorporate these very basic values in the way we provide tour products.
To mitigate our impact, we always travel with small groups. Having traveled with many couples, families, or small groups of up to about 8 people, we have perfected the tour experience for everyone involved, working with the communities and the environment and at the same time providing a superior tour experience for our guests. The amount of personalized attention we can give our guests has turned out to be a crucial privilege for all parties involved.
In order to be able to provide it to our guests, we have asked ourselves many times what entails “the most meaningful tour experience”. We are pretty sure that for us and our clientele it is not only a question of where to purchase the cheapest ticket or crossing the highest rated attraction off our bucket list. It does not involve “doing” (like in modern travelers’ jargon) as many places as possible. We have come to the conclusion that in order to have an experience which is as meaningful as possible, depth is the key.
So, how do we go deep?
• We need to venture out of our comfort zones. When you travel, you want to be pollinated something out of the ordinary, something foreign. It is not possible to fully experience this if we stay in our comfort zones. It doesn’t mean we’ll take you to go ice swimming with a bunch of crazy Russians on your first day of the trip. It has to stay safe and enjoyable and it all has to do with finding the “sweet spot”. It has become one of our specialties as tour operators to find that sweet spot, and in our experience, it has always paid off.
• We need interaction. To just view “the exotic” from outside might land you that stunning picture which gets you likes social media. But the question remains how much of the foreign experience have you internalized and taken home with you? The most lasting and important travel experiences are often stories of personal connections. There is a lot of beauty in realizing the similarities between yourself and people at the other side of the globe, especially when that what will be usually emphasized are the opposites.
• We need conscious awareness and attention. To get back to the Buddhist practice of cultivating mindful awareness which we mentioned in the beginning, we think a tour product is so much better experienced “in the moment”. You are coming to a new environment, so we wholeheartedly recommend to embrace the opportunity and go off the grid to focus solely on the things that matter to your experience on the road. If you have to divide your attention between the trip and sending out e-mails, chats, video calls and contemplating future work projects, it is inevitable you miss certain crucial leaps of something which is so important in China and is called “yuanfen”(缘分), loosely translated as “faith”.
We don’t cut costs on certain things that we believe in makes the tour higher quality, and more beneficial for everyone involved. This might make us slightly more expensive, but we are confident and proud to state that we run some of the most unique and exciting tour itineraries in this part of the world.
LONG ANSWER: We’ve had to design our products and plan our operations completely outside of the regular logistical framework and had to depend on slowly building our own rural grass-roots network. We always aim to focus on places that are not featured on the standard itinerates. We invest a lot of time and effort into finding excellent locals to promote their traditional crafts or lifestyles and we pay them according to an international standard for the activity they provide for our guests. We will always choose to do something interactive, so that there is never a feeling of being “an outsider” as a tourist snapping pictures of what is presented to you, but rather make sure there is an exchange that benefits all parties. This way of working may have made us more expensive than some other tour providers, but we believe wholeheartedly that our approach results in higher quality tours.
If you plan your tours a longer time in advance and do not mind joining a group of like-minded people, a scheduled expedition will be the best choice for you. If you prefer to have a 100% flexibility and personalization and/or you are bound by certain travel dates, you should look into a tailor-made adventure.
LONG ANSWER: You could decide to join a scheduled expedition for several reasons:
• Planned longer in advance, expeditions are carefully scheduled with all possible factors like weather, festivals, etc. in mind. They are the epitome of our love for perfect tour design.
• You get the maximum worth, going on a “perfect trip” and sharing the costs with others.
• Judging by the thematic nature of the expeditions, you’re likely to end up meeting and traveling with a bunch of like-minded people.
• Because we only handle small groups, you’ll get all the personalized attention you need.
• We all get to “live towards” the tour dates much longer, giving us longer time to research and prep for our expedition.
You could decide to have us handcraft a private tour for the following reasons:
• You want a tour which is completely tailor-made to your personal preferences.
• It gives you a chance to make last minute decisions about what you want to do, we can give you a 100% flexibility before and during the tour.
• It can be perfectly combined with other travel arrangements you have in a different part of Asia.
• 100% personalized attention when we are on the road.
We provide interactive activities in the periphery, outside the trodden paths. Food is a prominent focus.
LONG ANSWER: We want our guests to have a hands-on and interactive experience. That’s why most of the tour design is out of the box, so we will for example go out to take a water buffalo for a bath, we’ll be learning how to make a wild mushroom broth or participating in a ritual to honor the village spirits. It really depends on our host, and the kind of craft or lifestyle this person is into. It is true that we seem to have an emphasis on food harvest, preparation and enjoyment. This has organically occurred because food has such a prominent place in Chinese society. Every little village or town has its own special signature dish that makes everyone proud, and it is unthinkable to image any social gathering without a giant feast. This makes it a very enjoyable way to learn about the area, get to know the people, and use your senses to enjoy the devouring of many tasty snacks. To counter-balance all the eating, we also love physical activities, which will be handled in the next question.
As long as you can do a bare minimum of walking, and are enthusiastic about visiting the destinations, we will be able to provide a great trip for you. But if you’re after a very active tour you are also at the right address. We offer multiple day hiking and cycling trips and can occasionally schedule rock climbing, kayaking or paragliding.
LONG ANSWER: If you are looking for a manicured and all-out “convenient” or effortless experience, where you stroll from your hotel room to the bus, and from the bus onto a viewing platform, you’re at the wrong address. We are of the opinion that it adds value to move around through the countryside, and what way is better than how locals have done it for centuries, by foot! It gives us a great opportunity to explore and discuss history and social issues. And don’t be alarmed, we will only stretch your comfort zone right until the sweet spot, so that you’ll be happy with your accomplishments after a day out, but will be fresh and springy the next morning. We have a “light version” of every activity, as well as medium or hard. Many of the destinations (villages, temples or markets) are located just up a little hill, and you will have to move up on the stairs or a muddy trail here and there in order to get to a certain place. If you absolutely despise walking or moving your body, or getting some mud on your shoes, you’d probably better book a relaxing beach holiday. But we have traveled with people with immensely varying fitness levels and we know that everything works out just right when the right motivation is there and the communication is clear.
Some expeditions will feature hiking as the main activity, because we’ll be reliving history, crossing the mountains from town to town over ancient trading routes. For these trips we are opting to recruit people who love walking. Still, we don’t require people to be athletes, but as long as they have their minds in the right place and it corresponds with the other members of the group, we’re all set!
We have some deep immersive nature trekking as well, usually on high altitude and in very remote places. For these treks we do require a certain fitness level of the participants, and will have to go through an intake process to match out these levels for the others in the group.
We can also offer cycling itineraries in the south of Yunnan. These trips have (a) following vehicle(s), which makes it easy for us to be flexible and pick you up whenever you are exhausted, if the rest of the group wants to ride further. Also, we’ll be cherry picking roads, which is absolutely crucial for any cycling endeavor in China, to make sure there is minimal traffic and the uphill and downhill grades are manageable.
Rock climbing, kayaking and paragliding are possible in certain circumstances.
Our ideal accommodation is the historic courtyard boutique hotel, a style of hotel that is popping up all over the area. If this is not available, we’ll find a hot spring hotel or the best possible rooms at a Chinese business hotel (city/town) or family guesthouse (village), and help out with the management to maintain standards as high as possible.
LONG ANSWER: We want our guests to stay in the best places possible. The accommodations should be clean, comfortable and charming in some way or another. We have found that we don’t like to work with large international resort chains, because they are overpriced and the profit doesn’t flow into local pockets. That’s why we always prefer to work with capable local hoteliers. We are excited to see that more and more historic courtyard homes get renovated and turned into lovely little boutique hotels. We have cultivated very good relationships with the local families running these establishments and have provided our advice on how to improve service to meet international standards. Dahua’s hotel in Shaxi is the best example of this. He has really perfected the rural Yunnan hotel experience for international guests. Visit his website for pictures and stories. Dahua works with us as a driver-guide as well.
Sometimes we’ll stay over in a village or a town which doesn’t have a courtyard boutique hotel. In a city or town, that means we’ll search for a hotel with natural hot springs (abundant in Yunnan) or if that is not available, book rooms at a clean and convenient business hotel. In the villages, we have contacts with all the absolute best local guesthouses and help out with some management tasks to make sure the basic requirements of cleanliness and comfort are met.
We have spent years to refine our network of outstanding restaurants. We know exactly what to order for whom in any single one of them. You’ll be treated to the absolute best the area has to offer, whether it is in a posh environment in a historic courtyard or in a roadside shack, trust us, we know what is best. We try to stay as vegetarian as possible, but are very familiar with all the nicest meat dishes as well.
LONG ANSWER: The single thing that makes Yunnanese cuisine so special is the amazing array of different (wild) fresh seasonal ingredients that are used. The lush hillsides are a rich hunting ground for foraging; especially in the summer season, the markets are full with the most exotic looking wild mushrooms and herbs. Not only the vegetation is diverse, also the distinctly different regions will handle their food each in their own way. This makes that there is no such thing as a singular “Yunnan cuisine”, it constitutes of a few different types of sub-cuisines. We’d state that the absolute culinary hotbed is the subtropical part of the province, divided into roughly 3 sub-groups: Simao food, Banna Dai and Dehong Dai. Dishes from here are spicy, prepared with lime and fresh chilies and remind of Southeast Asian food. Think of fresh rice noodles in a spicy cold lime dressing, wild herb salads and the most sensational barbeques. While the variety in these areas is the highest, the places we visit on the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau are all very fertile, and chefs display amazing aptitude to make something delicious out of these wildly exotic ingredients. While for everywhere below 2500 meters (8202 feet) counts: “freshness is key”, in the higher mountain areas they want something soothing and filling. This results in a lot of meat and butter, and more breads like in the north of China. All these cuisines have borrowed a lot of techniques from mainstream Chinese cooking.
Frank started Zouba Tours touring his bicycle in southern Yunnan. Because cycling up and down the mountains makes you hungry just about any time of the day, he invested a lot of time and effort into finding all the best restaurants. Today scouting restaurants and ordering exactly the right dishes for the group is still one of our most distinguishing specialties. Having such wide experience, we also know which restaurants to avoid in terms of hygiene, and we can almost (99%) guarantee that our guests will not get any food poisoning, even though we do select some very (very) local joints.
On our caravan treks there will be much more cooking, and this is a favorite activity to do together, with guests, muleteers, everyone loves good food.
We edge toward vegetarian food, but can order the most delicious meat on request.
We work only with new, clean and spacious vehicles, driven by happy and competent drivers. We will make sure the vehicles are insured to the maximum, whether it is an official touring car or not. Feel free to inquire about further details when you book the tour with us. We will design the itinerary so that you will rarely sit in the car for more than 3 hours, and we have activities to cut up any of our road trips.
LONG ANSWER: It goes without saying we prioritize safety on each trip. We have built up our years of field experience navigate the crazy jungle that is Chinese traffic and we have gotten to know drivers of varying pedigree. In an attempt to appease “big business”, and make it difficult for small companies, Chinese law has made it only possible for certain cars to get the highest possible insurance, through an official “touring car license”. It is very expensive to get this license, so there are a few big companies in Yunnan that have cars and drivers with this license. The effect has been that the companies that have such licenses have acquired monopolies. Just by getting this much coveted license, they can operate in any way they want, which obviously leaves a lot be desired. We often had to deal with dirty and aged cars, completely exhausted drivers who are constantly complaining about tips, because they get underpaid so much. Not exactly best practices. These cars weren’t cheap, so we saw a lot of the money flowing into the pockets of these rogue companies.
This has made us wary of the way things work over here. We prioritize the skills and happiness of the driver over how much the car company earns. We only do small groups, and rarely go over 10 participants. So, we have decided to place our trust on our own acquired network of outstanding local drivers. Sometimes they will drive a touring car licensed vehicle, and sometimes not. Sometimes we will rent a vehicle at a rental company and employ a driver out of our own network. We just make sure that the insurance is set at the absolute maximum, but most importantly, we have clean, brand new cars driven by well-rested drivers who use common sense in Chinese traffic. And above all, the driver will be happy with whatever they are making, they will not have to beg for a tip to make ends meet. Feel free to inquire further about the specific car arrangement for your tour when you make a booking with us.
Whenever we schedule a road-trip, we’ll always make sure there will be enough to do on the road. We can guarantee that we will not have you sit in the car for more than 3 hours.
We work with a passionate freelance team of Yunnan experts, both local and international. Our best guides don’t necessarily have a background in tourism and we do not place any value in traditional Chinese credentials acquired through written exams.
LONG ANSWER: In China, you become an official guide when you obtain a “guide license”. In order to acquire one, you have to do work your way through a set of written exams. We don’t think someone who can work him/herself through a set of written tests is necessarily a good guide. Quite on the contrary, in fact, we have very different requirements. We like to work with people who have found a deep personal connection to Yunnan. And they should have a natural passion and motivation for sharing their unique insights with others. They should be social animals. Always optimistic but realistic when necessary. They should possess all the soul to deliver the trip of a lifetime, not just practice in calculated, empty service gestures or tell scripted stories.
We have worked with many people over the years, and we know a good guide when we see one. They do not necessarily have a background in tourism. They could be teachers, writers, office workers, whatever. We love to help local people rediscover themselves as a guide and reconnect to their roots. We do our best to empower people to be the storyteller they are deep inside. During our years of research of tour design to get to this point, we have built a very strong network of Yunnan experts from all over the world. It depends what kind of trip you want from us, we work with outdoor experts, tea experts, minority culture experts and geographers. Our team of part Chinese, part international freelance experts provides us a fertile ground to practice our signature cutting-edge tour design.
The longer you have the better, but we can deal with any amount of time.
LONG ANSWER: We always try to convince our guests to stay as long as they can in this fascinating corner of the world. We have private day tours, but it’s already better if you have 2 or 3 days. If you have 5 days, you can travel from one corner to another and get more of a “feel” for where you are. Starting with a week, we can give you a proper introduction to what there is to find in SW China. You might want to come back next time for another week. A lot of private tours are 8-9-10 days, and this allows us to really go deep with our guests. But to judge from our own conviction that the longer you have the better, we have crafted our best scheduled expeditions at a length of about 3 weeks. Most of these expeditions will venture into higher altitude areas, and we have scheduled some time to get used to the altitude. But really, if you really want to experience this area fully and go as deep as possible, 2 weeks is a minimum, and 3 weeks is ideal.
The main routes on our itineraries run across the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau, which has a temperate climate (15-25 Celsius) throughout the year. Winters are slightly chilly, April-May hot and dusty and summers wet. The more northwestern corners on the Tibetan Plateau are about 10 degrees colder, so better be prepared for serious chilliness, especially during night time. The sub-tropical valleys in the south are a perfect refuge for those who fear the cold in winter. April-May might be a little too hot over here.
LONG ANSWER: Because of the diversity of the region, we have to divide it up into several different parts. The majority of the areas we cover in our itineraries are on the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau, more or less 2000 meters (6561 feet) above sea level. Most of the places on this plateau are temperate during the year (15-25 degrees Celsius for about 80% of the year), but can get kind of crisp during the fall and winter, especially at night. When cloudy/rainy in the winter, temperatures hover around a lower average, but will not dip as low during the night, remaining more stable. Especially in the more northern parts of it, like Shaxi or Lijiang, it can get cold in the winter, and it will typically freeze a few degrees in the night. Buildings do not have heating so that means layering up. The rainy season here is from June to September. Rain is usually considered positive, as we have had to cope with some drought, and it can get pretty dusty and hazy towards the wet season. The rain clears the air and results in incredibly vibrant greenery and an abundance of wild mushrooms and herbs.
If you penetrate the Himalayan foothills further to the northwest towards Deqin, winters get quite a bit harsher and it will freeze and snow during day time as well. The towns out here are on 3000 meters (9842 feet), and will be 10 degrees lower in temperature if you compare them to the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau. If you venture into the mountains, you should prepare for some snow camping. The rainy season is also around June to September, but does have a slightly different pattern than the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau. The region is immensely diverse, so you can be out in a snow storm on a 4000-meter (13123 feet) pass in the morning, and descend almost into sub-tropical temperatures in a 1700-meter (5577 feet) river valley just a few kilometers away.
The Red River roughly slices Yunnan province into a more alpine part to the north, and a more tropical part in the south. The sub-tropical valleys in Honghe, Pu’er, Lincang and Xishuangbanna are pleasantly mild during the winter, but scorching hot in ending months of the dry season (April-May).
Payments to our company in the Netherlands or directly to our operation partner in China are possible through PayPal or international wire transfer. We recommend to use TransferWise, which is definitely the most convenient and affordable.
LONG ANSWER: In some cases, we’ll calculate a consultation fee for hand-crafted advice or tailor-made tour services. But usually these services are free. We will clearly communicate all fees and terms of service through the e-mail. Usually we’ll come up with a full-service tour arrangement, and bill you the total price when we have reached an agreement. It depends on your geographical situation whether it’s more attractive to bill you from our company in the Netherlands or ask our operation partner in China send you and invoice. In both cases, we can organize the transfer through PayPal, but they handle quite hefty fees. We recommend using international wire transfer through your bank. We have very positive experiences with a service called TransferWise.
We have traveled with people under 1 and over 85 years of age.
LONG ANSWER: We love designing the perfect family trip. It doesn’t matter if a part of the group is less mobile than the rest of the group, we can devise ways to split up and have alternative activities in more accessible places. Of course, when there is are babies or very old people on the tour, it is better if we can do a private tour design for you.
Occasionally, families with kids can join our scheduled expeditions, especially our mule “Classic Caravanserai” trekking adventure from Shaxi to Dali is suitable for this, because of the relatively low altitude and the overall accessibility of the route.
Sure, if you are into shopping, we do have some very cool places we can recommend to buy local delicacies and handicrafts. Yunnanese tea is by many considered the best in the world, and is a good investment.
LONG ANSWER: While it will not be the main focus of the tour, it is possible to purchase some local items. We will keep you away from regular souvenir shops, which will sell you fake minority handicrafts that are mass-produced in Guangdong. We have contacts with all the best artisans and craftsmen in the region. They will show you the tricks of the trade, explain you the roots of their tradition, and there will be an opportunity (never an obligation) to take a part of it home with you. There is an abundance of wild roots and herbs that you can purchase in dried form. This is where the tea tree originates, so you’ll get to buy tea from the oldest and most sophisticated tea groves in the world. This tea is considered a great investment, as the taste (and value) matures over time.
A group of 6 is the sweet spot in terms of price/personal attention. Any group size up to 16 is manageable for us. We will employ a second and maybe even a third guide for groups above 8.
No problem if you forget your toothbrush, you can buy one on the corner of any street. The following items are more crucial:
• Sun screen
• Sun hat
• Protective clothing (ideally long-sleeved, thin, quick drying clothing)
• Handy small day pack
• Shoes that reflect the amount of walking you signed up for
• Rain Gear
• Layers (if you come in winter)
• If you’re a sensitive sleeper, we recommend ear plugs and/or some kind of white noise generator. We try to find the quiet spots, but China is a loud country.
• Basic first aid kit
• Bathroom slippers
• Presents for locals. The men here are avid smokers and are always happy with a cigar or an exotic pack of cigarettes. Liquor is another item that is always appreciated. If you don’t want to contribute to people’s bad health, the Chinese are also really into strange foreign coins and bank notes. Women might appreciate handicrafts. Kids obviously like toys, but we recommend to not get any plastic stuff, they have enough of that over here. Consider taking things with a story or some kind of interesting use.
Yunnan is NOT a malaria area, so consider leaving your malaria meds at home, even if they are recommended by your doctor.
We have published Packing list for our mule caravan trekking expeditions.