Breaking Through New Frontiers of Travelling

By Sam Braybon 2021-12-28 17:31:41

A wild, luxurious way to holiday.

If you’re a China travel junkie, a lot has changed in the past few years. Despite the complications and restrictions of the pandemic era, it’s impossible to think of a better time to explore the plentiful travel destinations within China.

But there’s genuinely something very different in the air these days. A few years back, a hot new hotel would have meant a show of stagy opulence with ostentatiously expensive design in a high-net worth neighbourhood with decadent dining options. Elegance was not exactly subtle.



Fast forward a few years and such venues just don’t seem to excite people in the way they once did. Take Mark, for example. He’s CEO of a Beijing-based investment bank and travel is typically one his passions. “I’m not really that excited by five-star hotels in Shanghai anymore,” he says. “They’re very comfortable, but I stay in them a lot for work, and they are mostly quite similar.”

Mark recently planned a special 50th birthday trip, hiring a high-end travel agency to plan a week-long extravaganza for ten friends that saw them travel along the Silk Road in northwest China’s Gansu Province. “I had originally planned to go to Brazil, but for obvious reasons, that was not possible,” he explains. “I’d never been to Gansu, and it seemed exotic to us. We wanted something a little bit wild and away from other people. We camped in a remote spot on the Tibetan Plateau and had a catered meal with champagne on top of sand dunes in the Gobi Desert. It was amazing and made me realize how incredible travel in China really can be.”



This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who frequents local social media, but it’s pretty evident that traditional urban luxury is out, and China’s remote western regions of Yunnan, Gansu, and Guizhou are very much in. With rugged mountain landscapes and traditional villages, they can offer the kind of exotic feeling that many travellers, in less restricted times, flew abroad for.

And this new love for all things natural explains, at least partly, how camping has emerged as 2021’s hottest travel trend. But whereas Europeans might associate pitching a tent and spending a night under the canvas with an inexpensive and back-to-basics approach, young Chinese travellers have skipped that stage, turning this humble pursuit into something far more luxurious.



Glamping resorts are rocketing in popularity, so to snag a space at Norden Camp in Xiahe on Gansu’s Tibetan Plateau, for example, you’ll need to contact them several months in advance. The thirteen tents and huts there feature almost none of the amenities that you’d expect of even a mid-range city hotel: there is no running water or Wi-Fi, and showers are taken in a communal block. But they do boast an incredibly photogenic location on sweeping grasslands covered in babbling brooks, an outrageously chic contemporary Tibetan aesthetic, and an army of staff to do all the hard work for you and that’s why a night here starts from around 3,000 RMB, more than a standard room at almost any of Shanghai’s top five-star hotels.



Others are pushing the boundaries further. Nomads Wild is a company that has taken inspiration from the luxury wilderness camps that have thrived in places like Africa for decades but never really made it to China. In fact, founder Shane Benis’s original business plan involved taking high-end Chinese travellers to tented camps in Uganda, until the pandemic and a bit of inspiration struck, and he realized that the vast expanse of Gobi Desert that lay just outside the historic Silk Road in Dunhuang held equal potential.

This year the team held their first series of retreats, welcoming groups of 16 guests to a site 40 km from Dunhuang amongst soaring sand dunes, where stylish tents with a chic bedroom set up and full en suite bathrooms await. “The site is truly special,” says Shane. “Sometimes in China you turn up to a resort only to find a huge building site or mess of power lines next door. But we’re really in the middle of nowhere and that leaves a deep impression on guests.” The site is so remote in fact, that a helicopter transfer is the best way to access it.



With a price tag of over 20,000 RMB per person, these three-day retreats are clearly targeted at well-heeled travellers, but the aim here is to provide a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each morning is kicked off by a meditation session with an experienced instructor, and other unique activities might include an expert-led stargazing session and a talk on the Silk Road from a top historian. “Our guests are truly amazing and tend to be quite self-selecting,” says Shane. “They’re all sophisticated travellers, the kind of people that are willing to get off-the-grid, take a bit of a risk and try something new.” Still, with a top chef and a wine expert flown in from Shanghai, it sounds like attendees are in pretty good hands.

With the team currently scouring the country for new sites for potential camps, it seems safe to say that we can look forward to plenty more wildly creative and genuinely top-class travel experiences over the next couple of years, open borders or not.



Norden Camp:

Nomads Wild: