<a href="https://www.greenlifestylemag.com.au/blog/17#">Eco Travel</a>

Eco Travel

On the path to responsible travel, with Louise Southerden.

The China syndrome

pandas

Two giant pandas in the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base in Chengdu, central China

Credit: Louise Southerden

Tricyclo "cab" in the village of Leshan, central China

Credit: Louise Southerde

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Do you ever look at the world through eco-goggles? Evaluate a place by whether it does (or doesn't) pass certain environmental criteria?

I used my eco-goggles when I was in China last week and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw...

First, let me confess that China has never been on my top 10 places to go before I die, partly because of its poor reputation in the "responsible travel" stakes – think coal-fired power plants and dams on the Yangtse (Chairman Mao, whenever he wasn't declaring that "Man must conquer nature!", actually wrote poems about damming one of the world’s mightiest rivers).

But when the chance came to go, curiosity made the decision for me. I mean, what is this country of 1.3 billion people, many of whom (in the cities at least) seem hell-bent on progress at any price, really like?

Well, first-hand observations from ten days in Shanghai and central China seem to suggest that China has jumped on and strapped itself in on the green bandwagon.

I saw electric-powered vehicles; pedal-power is huge (Katie Melua sings about "nine million bicycles in Beijing" but there are probably at least a million more than that); and when people do travel further than the local park to do some tai chi or ballroom dancing en masse, there seemed to be more riding motorbikes than driving cars.

I was pleased to see battery-recycling bins everywhere, even in hotel lobbies. All the hotels we stayed in had keycards (so that lights and aircon turned off whenever you went out, to save power) and towels and bed linen weren’t changed (for guests staying more than one night) unless requested.

There also seemed to be a yearning for natural places and nature in general. From the Giant Panda park in Chengdu to the karst landscape around the town of Guilin in south-eastern China, the Chinese seemed to be really getting back to nature.

As a hotel notice in Mt Emei in Sichuan put it: "In the five number building ground floor [restaurant], you can look at the view … the nature is so nimble and unpredictable, pure and clean. You can not help being born in a state of mind that returning the nature within a bird cage in a long time".

And: "Green consuming is more than just a slogan, a topic. It is a belief, a moral and a lifestyle as well. We only have a planet just as we have a pair of eyes."

My favourite sign was in a bathroom at a freeway rest stop; underneath another sign that urged bathroom-goers to save the environment by recycling hand-drying paper towels, it said: "Please throw omnivorously."

I’ve also read reports that say China is definitely experiencing a "green revolution". For instance:

  1. WWF has been working with the Chinese government since 1980 on panda conservation and environmental education projects in Chinese schools (it’s estimated that there are 200 million school children in China!);
  2. water-harvesting techniques are being pioneered in Gansu in north-western China; and
  3. north-east of Shanghai, the world’s first eco-city is being built using zero-energy construction methods.

As Jon Miceler, who manages the WWF-US program in the Eastern Himalayas, told The Telegraph recently, "All is not lost in China, environmentally speaking, despite its bad press. Far from it; there is a huge amount to be done - and to be won."

Newsflash!
Louise Southerden recently won an unprecedented three awards at the Australian Society of Travel Writers (ASTW) annual "night of nights" in Shanghai, including 2008 Travel Writer of the Year and 2008 Responsible Tourism Writer of the Year (which she previously won in 2006). Louise also won the Best Travel Journey award and was a finalist in two other writing and photographic award categories. For more information visit www.astw.org.au.