Tag Archives: slow travel


nancy-photoEveryone who has been on an On the Road trip with our super-guide Nancy Wu will understand why she is our first On the Road Star. With a wicked sense of humour, bags of energy, an encyclopaedic knowledge of Yunnan’s people and places, and peacock dancing skills that are in a class of their own, she has given many of us happy memories from our journeys with her. I sat down to talk with her about her and her work:

First of all, why did you become a tour guide?

dsc_6412Not the reason you might think! I’ve always liked using language as a tool and working with people – the worst job for me would be working alone in an office. When I was a child I would always sign up for public speaking opportunities and debate teams, and originally I wanted to be a lawyer. But my father told me that I would never look the part, because I’m too short! That might sound silly, but Chinese people care about things like that, so I started thinking about other options. By then I was studying English at university, and tourism was taking off in Yunnan, so I decided to train as a tour guide. My mother used to organise trips for a workers’ organisation, so perhaps I took some inspiration from travelling with her when I was little…

And now that you’ve been doing it for 15 years, what do you love most about your job?

I really enjoy introducing things that I find beautiful to my guests, and sharing with them. I learn from them and they learn from me! As we travel we all become friends and I’m able to interpret Chinese culture for them, and maybe correcting misunderstandings that people from overseas have about China.

What’s the worst part of your job?

nancy-wuThe worst part of my job is related to the best part! When I’m travelling, I often come across Chinese people doing things in an… uncultured way, just because they don’t know any better. It drives me crazy, because I want to show off the best of Chinese culture, and don’t want my guests to think that we’re all uncultured! Sometimes I can help to improve whatever it is they’re doing badly, and sometimes I end up feeling embarrassed and caught in the middle. I understand why they’re doing it, but I can also see things from my guests’ perspective. So all I can do is to try and communicate with both!

How did you learn the Dai peacock dance?

My mother liked dancing, and I often went to watch dance performances with her. So I’ve enjoyed dancing ever since I was little, but I’ve never studied formally. I just taught myself the peacock dance, but I’d be a lot better at it if I’d started when I was younger.

What are you favourite places in Yunnan?

dsc_5282Jianshui! Jianshui is one of the places I like best – I prefer small towns with their own character to big cities. In Jianshui the people are very cultivated, the pace of life is nice and slow, and – very importantly – the food is good. Then I like Xishuangbanna (again the food is delicious) and Dali. Near Kunming, I like Shilin [the Stone Forest] and Qiongzhu Si [Bamboo Temple] the best – one is full of visitors, the other is very quiet and peaceful, and you can sit and drink tea…

And which of On the Road’s itineraries do you like most?

The one with Jianshui in it! Haha… I really enjoy the drive from Jianshui via Yuanyang and Jiangcheng to Xishuangbanna, then on to Thailand [“From Yunnan to the Lanna Kingdom”]. But I also like the new Burmese itinerary, perhaps because my mother was half-Burmese…

Finally, you always seem to know the best restaurants to visit and the tastiest dishes to order – and your cooking is great too! What do you like to eat most?

img_1562Barbecue! Spicy barbecued fish is one of my absolute favourite things to eat, but barbecue restaurants here sell lots of different dishes – rice noodles, different vegetable dishes, meat and fish. As long as it’s spicy, I love it. When Peter took me to Europe, I was dying for something good and spicy to eat! [Smacks lips.]

Thank you, Nancy!

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On my first trip to China I kept hearing rumours about Laos, which at that time – mid-1999 – was still very much off the beaten track.

“The roads are all dirt tracks, and you’ll spend weeks getting rust-red dust out of your hair,” one fellow backpacker told me, knowingly. I had only recently discovered that such a country existed, so these survivors’ stories of epic bus journeys and remote villages combined with my near-absolute ignorance in a way that left me longing to hop over the border and explore.lao-countryside

Distracted by university and work, it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally managed to arrange a trip to Laos. Escaping the greyness of a Beijing winter, my husband and I flew to Kunming, caught a bus to Jinghong and took a minibus to the border at Mohan.

We negotiated our exit from China, and took a van across the few hundred metres of “no man’s land” that separates the two border posts. The Lao checkpoint fitted my idea of how it ought to look perfectly; a series of ramshackle huts where sullen officials stamped our passports with an improbable number of rubber stamps.

don-det-basile-morinOnce finished with the formalities, we clambered into a songthaew (an overgrown tuk-tuk where passengers sit facing each other on two benches inside), and drove off into the afternoon sunshine towards Luang Namtha, giddy with the excitement of being somewhere fresh and new.

We spent the next five weeks travelling the length of Laos by bus and songthaew. After the border checkpoint had confirmed my expectations, the rest of the country came as a surprise; more beautiful than I had pictured, less developed than I anticipated, and more fun to explore than I had imagined.

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Photo: Alexander Steffler

In Luang Namtha we discovered Lao food. In a thatched hut in the rice fields, our hiking guide produced a delicious lunch of herb-filled larb salad and sticky rice all wrapped in banana leaves, a meal that we still talk about to this day. We slurped steaming bowls of rice noodles in a street stall, tried chilli-spiked river fish grilled over an open fire in the night market and breakfasted on baguettes stuffed with cheese and sausage, locally-grown coffee and plates of juicy tropical fruit. Like hobbits, we took to having multiple meals – first and second breakfasts (on one occasion finding space for a third), first and second lunches, dinner and perhaps an evening snack or two.

Photo: McKay Savage

Photo: McKay Savage

After travelling through the country’s beautiful, rural north, where villagers’ income seemed to derive from drying grasses to make brooms, we arrived in Luang Prabang one evening to find its colonial villas converted to chic hotels and well-heeled tourists mingling with scruffy backpackers like ourselves in the night market. By day, it was clear to see what had drawn people to this elegant town, its neat grid of streets lined alternately with ornate monasteries and faded Indochinese villas. All this lies nestled amongst forest-clad hills on a tongue of land formed by the confluence of two rivers, the town as blessed by geography as it has been by history.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Father south, the workaday town of Vang Vieng – which grew up around a Vietnam War-era US air strip – had just established itself as a backpackers’ favourite, thanks to its beautiful surroundings and a handful of bars showing Friends on loop. We floated down the Nam Song River in the shadow of jagged limestone karst hills and slept to a chorus of croaking frogs that lived in our hotel’s lily pond.

By the time we reached Vientiane, the monochrome of Beijing’s winter streets was a distant memory. It came as a shock to drive past the country’s only “factory” – a small water bottling plant on the outskirts of the capital – our first brush with anything even remotely industrial since we had left China.

The Laotian capital seemed impossibly small and quiet for a capital city. We cycled along the wide boulevards, dined at the city’s night market and drank Beer Lao as we looked out across the dark waters of the Mekong towards Thailand.

Photo: Arian Zwegers

Photo: Arian Zwegers

By the time we crossed the border into Thailand a fortnight later – now with survivors’ stories of our own, mostly relating to bus travel – South-East Asia’s only land-locked country had found a place at the top of our list of places to re-visit.

Little did I know that a few years later I would be regularly driving across northern Laos with groups of guests for On the Road. Over the course of many journeys, we’ve seen the Lao infrastructure gradually improve – the shabby border checkpoint has been upgraded and the rickety car ferry that we used to cross the Mekong in Huay Xai has been replaced with a new bridge. Laos is gradually becoming more developed, but, by and large, this is happening in a gentle way – there are no traffic-choked highways or big box shopping malls. The country retains its quiet charm, the Lao people still welcome curious travellers and the food still tastes as good as ever…

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On the Road offers several journeys that go through Laos:

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Go your own wayWhen I was working on The Rough Guide to Burma, I spent a week staying in a hotel in Hpa-An, Kayin State’s laidback capital, while I explored the surrounding region. One of my fellow guests was a slight, red-haired German man who wore wire-rimmed spectacles and a striped Kayin longyi, and spent afternoons drinking tea and reading on the hotel’s shady balcony. Intrigued as to why he didn’t seem to be going anywhere – other backpackers moved on after two or three nights – I eventually struck up conversation with him to find out why.

The man was actually on his third week in Hpa-An – this being the first major town he’d reached after crossing the border from Thailand. He’d arrived from with a two-week visa that he had used before returning to Bangkok for a second visa, which he was halfway through at the time of our conversation. “I just like to travel this way; I take a month off each year, and when I reach somewhere nice I’ll stop for a couple of weeks and spend my days exploring slowly and relaxing.”

 

Now, I write a blog that’s nominally about slow travel – a style of travel that I find very appealing and very unachievable, as I always end up in a mad dash to somewhere or other – so I began to enthuse about his slow travel philosophy and how everyone should travel like this (let’s put my own inability to do so aside for the moment). He politely let me go on for a bit before interrupting: “The main thing, I think, is that each of us gets satisfaction from our travels. Going so slowly would not suit everyone, it’s just important to know what you want to get out of your trip…”

Go your own wayAnd, of course, he’s right. But it strikes me that, with websites and magazines churning out lists of “must-sees”, “hot destinations” and “places to see before you die”, it is easy to get distracted and forget how you originally wanted to spend your travel time. Perhaps the best balance to strive for is between keeping an open mind and trying new things, and doing so in a way you find meaningful and fun.

That might mean taking the time to hunt down a special flavour of gelato in Florence rather than visiting another church; or sipping a cup of sweet tea in a Yangon teahouse rather than dutifully tramping around another yet pagoda; or blinking in bright sunshine from the roof of the Jokhang in Lhasa, rather than queuing to enter the crowded chapels below. Whatever it is that you enjoy, take time to seek it out and soak in the experience, rather than following crowds or fashion – go your own way.

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Push StartMost of my travel this year has been restricted to the armchair variety – reading about others’ journeys and reliving my own. My mind returns again and again to certain trips; a cycling tour of New Zealand and a very bumpy journey across Myanmar on public transport last year, and a meandering trip to Kashgar the year before. Eventually, I realised that my fondest memories were of the journeys where I felt that I made a connection with the place and the people I travelled amongst, journeys where I’d lingered rather than rushed.

With everyday life often feeling like a hectic, headlong dash between home, work and social engagements, many of us wish to do nothing more on vacation than lie on a beach with a book. Others may prefer the other end of the spectrum and strive to fit as much as possible into a few precious days off, tearing across a continent on a breathless five-countries-in-four-days tour. Either option seems a reasonable reaction to the “time poverty” that we increasingly experience; however, another more meaningful way of seeing the world has recently gained popularity – Slow Travel.

LakeSlow Travel is an offshoot of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy in the 1980s in protest against the opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Rome. The Slow Food philosophy, which celebrates regional cuisine and traditional farming methods, has since burgeoned into a movement that emphasises the connection between people, places and life in general.

Slow Travel is less to do with your mode of transport (or your relative speed), but instead concerns your mindset on each journey. It means taking back roads, travelling overland rather than by air where possible, and focuses on forging a connection between traveller and destination. Instead of tackling a place armed with a list of “must-sees”, the slow traveller slips into the pace of the local culture and soaks in their new environment. It’s about not letting the anticipation of arrival undermine the pleasure of the journey.

Farm HandWhile Slow Travel is a new term, there’s nothing modish about the practice itself. Some of you will have instinctively travelled slowly before – stopping to observe local customs, interact with the people you meet en route and try local foods, preferring the quality of your experience over sheer quantity.

Through our experience of creating memorable driving journeys, we have become firm believers in the merits of Slow Travel. While crafting each of our itineraries we’re always on the lookout for what makes each of our drives and destinations special – whether it’s a spectacular view to soak up, a fantastic but out-of-the-way hotel, or even something as simple as a chance to dip your feet in a cool, clear stream on a hot day. We also enjoy searching for opportunities to bring our guests together with local people, whether that means joining a yodelling choir in the Swiss Alps or watching craftsmen at work in Lhasa’s old town. A journey is made as memorable by the people we share it with as it is by our destination, after all!

Market Day5 enjoyable ways to practice Slow Travel (even if you start at home):

  1. Linger over a drink in a locally-owned café, bar or teashop
  2. Take a back-road or try a new way to get from A to B – turn down a street you’ve never used before
  3. Hunt out regional dishes and specialties, and visit a local market.
  4. Savour the unexpected – missed connections can create new opportunities
  5. Take a breath, check your stride and remind yourself to enjoy the pleasure of the journey.

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To read more about the Slow Movement visit http://www.slowmovement.com/

 

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