Ecotourism in Yunnan (Part I)
What adventures await our author as she leaves congested Beijing for the fresh air and mountains of Yunnan?
As my plane departs from Beijing airport, my mind is full of meetings and grant proposals and unanswered emails that I leave behind — the dust storms and stress of urban life weighing on my mind.
By the time we reach flying altitude, the ground is no longer visible through the smog, which looks thick enough to cut with a knife. My lungs look forward to the clear, forest-filtered air of Yunnan.
I pull my nose away from the window and close my eyes with a smile at the thought of getting out of Beijing.
I relish the thought of spending four days hiking through the sacred forests of Laojunshan, the very first trip of the new ecotourism program created and sponsored by my organization, the Global Environmental Institute.
But there is a tinge of guilt that follows this thought as I soar over the clouds and take a sip of tea from my plastic China Airlines cup. Ecotourism — the buzzword of the travel industry. The we-can-have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to tourism that says tourists can come and look without destroying what they see.
My organization, the Global Environment Institute, has identified it as an environmentally sound way of achieving sustainable development for Yunnan. But is ecotourism a good thing if it continues to harm the environment — destroying ecosystems more slowly, but destroying them just the same?
At what point does doing less bad become achieving good?
The part of me that craves fresh air and cherishes the call of birds from the trees wants so badly to believe in GEI’s new program — wants to believe that by flying all the way across the country and hiking in these woods for four days, I will be contributing to the conservation of Laojunshan.
But the conservationist in me remains skeptical. Ecotourism is still tourism and that means dumping tons of jet fuel and car exhaust into the atmosphere, cutting into the earth with roads and eating food we didn’t grow ourselves out of disposable plastic airplane dishware.
I remind myself that the world is not black and white, that the tourists will come anyway, that human nature requires exploration and discovery just as my lungs require clean, toxin-free air. And so I fly on, determined to do my part in this project to find a way to create ecotourism that does the most good for all.
Truly sustainable ecotourism, I decide, should: 1) benefit the local ecosystems and their protection mechanisms, 2) benefit the local people in long-term, sustainable ways and 3) improve the ecological stewardship of the ecotourists taking the tour.
Four hours and a hot rice and vegetable lunch later, our plane descends towards Lijiang, a little Naxi city in northern Yunnan province, a three hour drive from Laojunshan.
Landing in Lijiang provides a stark contrast to the dry yellow earth of Beijing. Stunning steep forest-covered mountains jut into deep-blue sky, lakes dot the valleys.
It is a landscape shaped by human activities — roads criss-cross the steep slopes, mines dig into the earth, terraces pattern the lower slopes, villages etch themselves into the hillsides.
But there is optimism here, a determination to live and thrive that sometimes seems to be lacking in Beijing’s landscape.
We start off in Lijiang this morning at the crack of dawn. We make swift, sleepy introductions while we separate into five jeeps and SUVs. We drive out of Lijiang as the sun rises, through increasingly rural landscape, through fields of rice, wheat, peppers, purple pea flowers and bok choy.
Ethnic Naxi farmers working in the early morning light wear their traditional clothing — colorful cotton adapted to the agricultural needs of the region, hand-made baskets holding burdens larger than the bearer.
Up and up we drive into the mountains. People become sparse, trees thicker. After a little over an hour the pavement ends, revealing a deep red earth that contrasts beautifully with the dark green around us.
Forests of pine, birch, red birch and hemlock, with thick beard moss hanging from the branches — the forest floor covered in layers of fallen trees and stumps in a bed of deep green moss. We see a field or two, seemingly out of place, mysterious in this fairytale forest.
On and on we climb through the trees — conifers, firs, alpine grasslands and wild rhododendrons — until we come to a circle of buildings and a Tibetan shrine strung with prayer flags and emitting clouds of strong incense.
We stop the cars and begin sorting gear — this, at 3,200 meters, is our trailhead. And then we are off, shoes laced up, packs on backs, into the mountain.
A well-maintained stone trail leads us through a thick evergreen forest, spotted with rhododendrons and small purple-blue pansies. As we climb, the path begins to narrow, and the vegetation gradually thins.
Beautiful lakes dot the meeting points between the mountain peaks, and the trees that have lined the roads up to this point gradually become shorter shrubbery — then eventually grassy alpine wetlands where I sit now to jot down these notes.
Just away from Beijing, I am drunk on the clearness of the air, the smells of forest and of life bursting forth. My heart jumps with each step, a celebration and a joy. The forest is vibrant — soft spongy earth below my feet.
It breathes life into me, and I can’t wipe the smile of my face. All the worries and stresses of the past months fade and become lightweight and insignificant.
It’s hard to understand how anything recently could have felt wrong in my life or in the world, when this forest is here, so right, so whole. Nothing matters except this moment. My mind is clear and calm.
Editor’s Note: Read Part II here.