In 2013, my wife, Meryl, and I took our first trip to China. It was a two-week small group tour with Gate 1 Travel in which we spent 2-3 days in many of the largest cities. It included the city of Lijiang, clear across the country in the southwestern province of Yunnan which borders on Tibet, Vietnam and Myanmar.
We only spent three days in Yunnan which is known for its large number of ethnic minorities including most of which originated in nearby Tibet. In that short amount of time, however, we experienced the cultures of these very different groups with their unique dress, food and celebrations. It was so fascinating to see such a variety of people within only a few days that we vowed to return to the area to take a much longer look.
In 2018, we traveled again directly to Yunnan for three weeks, starting in the provincial capital city of Kunming, known as the “Spring City” of China owing to its temperate climate.
From there, we traveled by air to Dali, a city on the shores of the beautiful Lake Erhai.
We spent a few days traveling independently further north to Lijiang where we met our guide and driver for the next nine days.
Our guide, Sonam, was a good-looking 26-year-old young man who originally came from Tibet. He had a very interesting history which qualified him to become an excellent guide.
When he was only 14, he managed to illegally cross the small border into India to the south where his older brother was training to become a Buddhist missionary. He spent five years in India where he learned to speak English before returning to Tibet. With his English skills, he was a valuable asset in the tourist sector in Tibet which was growing quickly after the high-speed rail connection to China was planned. It was amusing to hear him speak English with a very Indian accent.
Sonam was a gregarious person who always wanted to please us. He worked for a hotel chain in northern Yunnan called Songtsam.
Songtsam has created a network high-end small hotels which eventually included several in Tibet itself as well as the Tibetan area of China in northern Yunnan.
Our nine-day “sampler” included five of their properties, all within a few hundred miles, but because of northern Yunnan’s mountainous geography, were hours apart. With the construction of beautiful new highways, tunnels and bridges, this area was brought into the 21st century. Each hotel was different, but definitely luxurious for that region.
Our guide and driver had a particular pre-planned itinerary but they were very responsive in judging what type of activities we enjoyed. In every small village we visited, we were at first shown the sites that they thought would appeal to American tourists such as the rivers, the mountain views and the Buddhist temples and shrines.
After a few days, Sonam asked us if we were happy with his choices. He had observed that we had enjoyed going to a local event in one of the small villages. We had sat among the residents in the town square where they were celebrating the 30th day after the birth of a child.
They offered us their local beer and wine and other ethnic delicacies, many of which were made with the ubiquitous yak.
It was fun communicating with them using Google Translate into Mandarin Chinese even though among themselves they were speaking their Tibetan dialect.
At that village celebration, we instructed Sonam to continue searching for local events where we could mingle with the population in order to have these unique personal experiences. He wasn’t familiar with the word “spontaneous” but he certainly understood the concept. Teaching him that word gave him the freedom to customize our itinerary for the remainder of the trip.
Our subsequent activities included a visit to the home of a Tibetan woman who lived in a very large house. He explained that it was customary for a woman to be married at the same time to several men, often brothers in a family. When one brother would be traveling on business out of the area, the other brothers “took care of her.” The offspring these different pairings all considered themselves sisters and brothers.
Her ground floor was divided into areas for their animals including their yaks, pigs and chickens. The second floor was the living area and communal dining area where everyone ate together. On the third floor were the bedrooms for the various “husbands” and all their children.
Sonam also took us to a monastery atop a mountain. To reach that altitude, we had to walk along a dirt path during a snowstorm. It was worth braving the cold so that we could see the monastery which was constructed against the mountain top. While there, we had tea with the resident monks.
Along the way, the driver would suddenly stop the car so we could see the rivers winding through the gorges or of the bridges under construction which were best seen from a high vantage point.
He would then ask us repeatedly, “Is this spontaneous enough?”
Sonam was definitely a ladies’ man.
He seemed to have a girlfriend waiting for him at each of the hotels.
Sonam also loved to sing and dance. At one stop along a large pasture along a river, we left the car where he started to sing in his native Tibetan language. A crowd of Chinese tourists flocked around him and encouraged him to sing several songs.
In another city on the way to our destination of Shangri-La, he managed to find a Buddhist monastery where they were celebrating a religious holiday. On that particular day, all of the monks were playing their native drums while singing the ritual chants. We were the only visitors and unfortunately had to observe the “No Photography” policy within that religious shrine.
During our lengthy drives, there was one particular song which Sonam played repeatedly on the car’s CD player. He realized that we especially liked this song. At the end of our trip, he presented us with the CD with that song and he told us that this was his “spontaneous expression of his affection” for us.
On that trip, we saw a very personal side of the Tibetan-Chinese population that most travelers to China would never experience. I partly attribute this to the fact that by teaching him the new word in English, Sonam was encouraged to be as spontaneous as he wanted to be. It gave him the opportunity to express the true warmth of his personality and his desire to share his beautiful land with us.