Wanderlust is a regular series where we speak with a notable individual from the travel industry.
Growing up, Belgian Maxime Tondeur spent a lot of his time outdoors recreating the adventures of explorers. Fast forward to young adulthood, and – “looking for any excuse to get out and discover new places” – he stumbled across an article about a fellow Belgian who ran a tour company in China, emailed him and was on his way to Beijing.
What were you first China experiences?
I arrived in 2010 as an intern for a Belgian high-end tour operator that was planning to launch budget tours for young travelers. I was sent all over China for six months to do site and hotel inspections, meet local travel agents and write down everything I came across, covering nearly all provinces along the way. After my research, I based myself in Shanghai and haven't left since; I have made China my new home.
How did Explore Beyond come about?
When I first arrived in China, I couldn't speak a word of Mandarin. But thanks to travel colleagues, friends and my Chinese family, a whole new world opened; so many aspects of China became obvious, and I was able to better understand the Chinese perspective. With Explore Beyond, I hope to recreate that experience; despite its dominance on the world stage, China is still too often misunderstood by outsiders.
Furthermore, China isn't really known as a 'holiday destination' because of the language and culture barriers and the ever-looming possibility something might not go as planned, so it's often ignored for more accessible alternatives abroad. We want to prove you really can have a holiday in China: our trips are hosted by a personal Explorer, who is your introduction to the destination, makes sure your every comfort is taken care of and deals with any inconveniences, so you don't have to.
Tell us about the cultural aspect to the experiences Explore Beyond offers?
We prefer to skip the commercialized aspects of China travel and instead focus on helping you better understand the Chinese perspective or what makes China so special. Our favorite way to do this is by introducing you to our network of local contacts. Some are Chinese who make traditional artistries, produce specialty foods and drinks or simply want to preserve history, culture and traditions. Some are foreigners who invested their lives and savings to make their China dream come true. And we also have our Explorers, with their own unique backgrounds, who weave the whole story together.
What is your most popular trip?
Our Tea Horse Corridor in Northwest Yunnan. It is one of China's most diverse regions when it comes to scenery, architecture, cuisine and ethnicities. There are a lot of options for hotels, good restaurants and the infrastructure is very well developed, which means less time on the road and more time to explore the destinations. If you only have a week, you can get a lot of bang for your buck in Northwest Yunnan.
It is also a popular destination with (young) families because of the kid-friendly hotels, available meal options (Chinese or Western), outdoor activities and our engaging Explorers. Recently, our trip to ancient Huizhou (Huangshan & Wuyuan area) has been gaining traction with families for the same reasons, but with the additional advantages of its proximity to Shanghai (three hours by bullet train) and with the option to explore more independently.
Which is your personal favorite trip to take people on?
Our Along Ethnic Trails in Guizhou. I'm most proud of this trip as we really venture off the beaten tourist track, yet we still offer a decent level of comfort. Traveling in Guizhou always reminds me of my early days in China: everything feels new and exciting. Getting around can still be a bit rough, but it is also more adventurous. In Guizhou there's always something interesting going on, and we have the flexibility to improvise, which makes each trip even more unique. The people of Guizhou are some of the friendliest around and a simple hello often leads to an invitation into someone's home. Living in a hectic place like Shanghai, you sometimes forget how genuinely nice people are, and we love to show our guests that different side of China.
What is next for Explore Beyond?
I would like to make our rural experiences and activities more accessible to a Chinese audience and show China's diverse countryside is no longer synonymous with poverty, but rather a safe haven of culture and tradition.
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[All images courtesy of Explore Beyond]