We were on a bike ride to Haobao Organic Farm passing through Tuanjie Township (团结乡) when a sign caught our eye: "Youth Hostel 250 meters". Curious what a hostel was doing way out here in this rural valley outside of Kunming, we followed the sign's arrow onto a dirt road, eventually passing through a village. Soon we reached a handsome brick-walled courtyard house with the YHA logo. We had arrived at Heart 2 Heart International Youth Hostel (连心国际青年旅舍), 30 kilometers away from the city center.
The hostel's manager, Ting Ting (婷婷), graciously welcomed us into the hostel and proceeded to give us a tour, even though we explained we were just passing through. By the time we were through being shown around, we knew we'd be back. A week later, during the Mid-Autumn Festival long weekend, we returned to Tuanjie to see what it was like to actually stay in the hostel as guests.
Heart 2 Heart offers everything a good guesthouse should — character and comfort. But it is also a social enterprise, meaning that it is run on a for-profit basis, with all proceeds going to an NGO of similar name — Heart 2 Heart Community Care (云南连心社区照顾服务中心). Ting Ting, whose background is in social work, came to the hostel via the NGO. She explained to us that the organization's mission is to help at-risk migrants — particularly women and women with children — acculturate to life in Kunming, find housing, learn job skills and get access to resources such as personal health care, childcare, and education.
Lodging-wise, Heart 2 Heart has rooms at comparable prices to hostels in Kunming, but everything is newer, cleaner, more spacious, and perhaps most importantly, quieter. That of course goes with the territory. It is not a place for visitors looking to explore Kunming. It makes more sense to stay there for Kunming residents who are looking to get out of the city for a day or two without the hassle and cost of a more far-flung trip. That Tuanjie is easily accessible from Kunming by car, bus or bicycle makes it all the more welcoming.
The concept of offering lodging in the countryside surrounding the city of course is nothing new. There are hundreds of nongjiale (农家乐) — or rural bed and breakfasts — scattered on the outskirts of Kunming, including some in Tuanjie. These facilities often provide rustic entertainment for urban families — fishing ponds, home-cooked meals, amusements for children and plenty of majiang tables for adults.
Heart 2 Heart differs from more typical nongjiale by inviting guests to connect with the local surroundings and the environment. Guests can learn about the history of the village and the building itself from displays mounted on the walls. The structure, built of timber and brick by a Bai family 30 years ago, has been lovingly restored. Rooms preserve the original materials and layout, while adding modern creature comforts. A rooftop patio offers gorgeous views out over the surrounding valley with its cornfields as well as the green mountains of Woyunshan (卧云山) beyond.
An interesting mix of people gather in this hostel, among them local villagers, cyclists, families, artists and young people with interests in the environment and rural development. Heart 2 Heart regularly organizes educational and cultural activities, workshops and classes, both for the local community, visiting guests, as well as companies and organizations. An amphitheater out back is available for impromptu concerts or jam sessions. The hostel keeps amps and a selection of musical instruments.
Most guests who choose to stay there will probably be content just to enjoy the rural atmosphere and breathe the fresh air, but for those who need more, a library, pool table and wifi are also on hand. For those looking to rough it, a grassy knoll behind the compound provides a nice spot to pitch a tent.
Tuanjie is a great base for outdoor activities. Visitors can go hiking on nearby Woyunshan and those wishing to ride bikes can either rent them from the hostel for 20 RMB a day or bring their own. Haobao and Ji'ai (集爱) organic farms are both less than an hour's ride away, and offer guests the chance to tour the grounds and eat meals prepared from freshly-picked vegetables. Nearby apple and pear orchards are also open to the public and offer people the opportunity to pick their own fruit.
The surrounding countryside
Having explored Tuanjie's immediate surroundings already, we set our sights on the area due west of town, which on satellite images appears to be one of the largest forested areas anywhere near Kunming. Unfortunately, leaving Tuanjie in almost any direction involves first passing through a ring of mines and quarries. Once we were through this dusty fringe, we found ourselves in the village of Xiao Tuoji (小妥吉).
From there, a rocky dirt road led down into a valley that lacked any signs of human presence — nary a house, field, or power line. We descended the road, and continued on when it narrowed to a small path. At times it was so steep we had to get off and walk our bikes. We passed through meadows which would have made lovely campsites. In fact, the whole valley would have been better explored by foot than by bike. But we made the best of it, riding where we could through thick forest, along a gurgling stream and walking our bikes everywhere else.
All through the valley, we marveled at how close we were to Kunming yet how far removed from any form of civilization. Not a scrap of trash was in sight. The trail we followed had fallen into disrepair and was overgrown with vegetation in several places. A couple hours into our exploration we finally reached terraced rice fields and soon after came upon a village. In Liuchalu (六岔路), where the local dialect is thick, no easy directions back to Tuanjie were to be had.
There were several choices it seemed, and none of them were optimal — all leading uphill over steep mountains. Our batteries dead and GPS unavailable, we nonetheless started climbing eastward, knowing that was the most direct way back to Tuanjie.
Two ridge lines and a ridiculously steep dirt road carved fresh out of the thick forest, and we were back to the quarries and on a downhill home stretch. Exhausted from an intense day's ride, it was a relief to know that hot showers and comfortable beds were waiting for us down in the valley. There was no way we could have the make the additional 30-kilometer ride back to Kunming in the dark.
Of course we don't recommend others do exactly what we did that day. The trail down the valley from Xiao Tuoji is much better done on foot. The point is that outdoor activities within a day's reach of Tuanjie abound. With such a unique business model, Heart 2 Heart is a great place to get out of the city, spend some time, and give back to the community.
Heart 2 Heart Youth Hostel is located at 96 Dahe Village (大河村96号), about one kilometer north of the center of Tuanjie Township. A detailed map can be found at the hostel's website.
For YHA members, beds in the four-person dormitories cost 35 yuan. Private bedrooms range between 140 and 260 yuan. Reservations and information can be had by calling 0871-6840-8557. When we were there, the kitchen was closed for renovations, but plenty of nongjiale restaurants can be found in the surrounding villages.
Images: Matthew Hartzell© Copyright 2005-2018 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.