“On the back of an escape to Yunnan to celebrate the nuptials of our Blue Sky Escapes founders, Hilary Tseng-Phin and Mike Phin embarked on an 11D10N bespoke journey curated by us from Kunming to Shangri-La to Shaxi, and finally to Lijiang.”
– By Chuin Ying
Exploring this enchanting province was a first for the couple — and a first time to China for Mike. With no preconceived notions or expectations holding them back, we were able to blend a mix of fantasy and our own first-hand experience to turn the volume up on Yunnan and bring together the best of the place for them. By the end, a sense of terroir, of connection to the region, developed. What was left was a new sense of appreciation for and perspective of China, themselves, and each other.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did this trip come about, and what were you hoping to get out of it?
Mike and Hilary: Our dear friends, Krystal and Chervin had chosen to get married in Lijiang and we decided to use the opportunity to understand why they had fallen in love with China — so much so that they chose Yunnan as their wedding destination.
H: I had never been to Yunnan and strangely, had not (before hearing about it from the couple) even heard of other friends who had travelled there before. I believe this made us even more intrigued to find out more about the place. We both enjoy travelling and exploring new places, and generally always embark on our travels with the intention to simply learn and experience a destination.
M: It was our first trip to China together, and my first time in China ever. We wanted to focus on Yunnan and get in a mix of sightseeing and local experiences.
You spent some time with a local Tibetan family. What was that like, and had you experienced something like this before?
H: We were lucky to get to spend some time with a local family and we thoroughly enjoyed our time with them. It was completely off schedule too. Our original itinerary had included a visit to a local Tibetan house in the same village that our hotel was in. However, on our way to the Songzanlin Monastery, our guide, Ten, had told us that his friend’s family home was on the way to the monastery and asked if we were interested in taking a look.
The Tibetan family was so warm and welcoming, and fed us with lots of food and drink. Even though we were somewhat unexpected guests, we were greeted with such heartfelt hospitality and copious amounts of refreshments that came out of their kitchen non-stop. The home-made yak butter tea, in particular, was unforgettable. We were very grateful for Ten’s initiative in taking us there as we got a glimpse of what local Tibetan life is like, even in that short amount of time.
Yunnan is a destination that gave us a new appreciation for and a different perspective of China as a whole. Do you feel the same?
H: Completely. I had been to other parts of China before, specifically Shanghai and around that region, and had already formed an impression of the country from my trips there. However, our journey in Yunnan has completely changed my perspective and appreciation of China in ways that I had never expected. It has also since given me a new understanding of the vast cultural differences across different parts of China.
M: Yes, Yunnan was very peaceful and beautiful. The hospitality of the people and our guides, and even the quality of the food, was a real pleasant surprise.
Describe your peak and pit parts of the journey.
H: I thoroughly enjoyed all the light hikes through the various mountain ranges: Cangshan Mountain, Shibao Mountain, and of course, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. In this aspect, Mike and I are completely different. Mike does not particularly enjoy hiking but I really enjoy it. However, we both felt that the amount of hiking we did was just perfect and allowed us to see and enjoy enough of Yunnan’s countless mountain ranges.
I also particularly enjoyed the pottery-making session we did with a master, whose family has been in the business for more than 100 years! And probably the only pit in the whole trip was not being prepared enough for the scorching sun during the Impression of Lijiang show and getting burnt.
M: The peak was our time in Lijiang during our stay at the Jinmao Purelax Mountain Lodge resort. Like Hilary said, the only slight pit was being scorched by the sun during the Impressions show.
All in all, we really enjoyed our whole experience, especially the quality of the guides.
If you could go back in time and experience the journey differently, what would you change?
H: I think we would have liked to spend more time in and around Kunming, and see the Stone Forest. During our short time there, we felt like there was so much more the city had to offer and we said to each other that we would definitely be back again.
What is one thing you learned about yourself and each other after you returned home?
H: I always knew that I enjoyed hiking but never realised how much I did till this trip. For some reason, I never specifically sought it out or made trips specifically centred around hiking. Even though we only did some light hiking, I realised how much I truly enjoy being out in nature. Now if only I can get Mike to enjoy it too, then we can start planning more of such trips!
I also learnt that Mike is actually quite a talented artist during our painting session in Shangri-La, which he seemed to enjoy a lot.
M: I really enjoyed myself in Shangri-La! I also learnt that Hilary’s Mandarin skills are quite good.
“Our journey in Yunnan has completely changed my perspective and appreciation of China in ways that I had never expected. It has since given me a new understanding of the vast cultural differences across different parts of China.”
You collaborated with Blue Sky Escapes to curate a bespoke journey from beginning to end. What do you think is the best thing that came out of this than if you planned the trip on your own?
H: The best part about working with Blue Sky Escapes was the ability to tell them what we wanted or did not want, and then being able to completely trust that they had taken everything into consideration when planning our itinerary. Once we gave them the parameters, we didn’t have to think about anything else. Given that we were both completely new to Yunnan as a destination, we had no idea whatsoever on what we should be focusing on and where we should be going. If we had planned it on our own, it would not have been such a complete trip that allowed us to experience Yunnan so deeply.
We truly enjoyed our time with Blue Sky Escapes and have been recommending the company to our friends and family ever since — and will continue to do so!
M: The whole experience was very relaxed and organised. Not being a Chinese speaker, it was great to have a turnkey travel experience.
Tell us what you would say to travellers who have yet to explore Yunnan.
H: Throw out all expectations you may have and allow yourself to completely experience it: the food, the scenery, the culture, the people…
M: Nice people, beautiful scenery and awesome food.
How has this adventure since changed your approach to travel, and where are you off to next?
H: We had not done guided tours previously and this experience has changed our mindset to the possibilities of doing more. We generally enjoy travelling at our own time and pace, and not having too many things to do and just going with the flow. However, this experience has allowed us to see how it may be done in a way that aligns with our preferences and desired way of travelling without imposing any restrictions. We are likely off to Europe next (not on a guided tour) but we look forward to our next adventure with Blue Sky Escapes, and I am sure there will be one!
Complete this sentence: Immersive travel is…
H: Immersive travel is understanding… understanding a place, and more importantly its people, for all their cultural intricacies beyond the supposed glitz of what’s simply visible from the surface.
M: Immersive travel is switching off social media and getting back to the core of travel. That is, being in new worlds and having an intimate experience.
Photo credit: Hilary & Mike