“Lung washing tours” are the new thing in Chinese tourism. Smog is driving mainland tourists into novel migration patterns to escape the worst days of autumn, when the air stinks of coal and the other side of the street might just as well not be there.
Around the time Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama were congratulating themselves on battling climate change in Beijing, I decided to drive five hours to a place near the very end of the Chinese earth, just to get a breath of fresh air.
It was my second lung-based tour in six weeks. In late September, I took two aircraft, a bus, a Jeep and a camel to get to a spot where I could safely savour the blue skies of Mongolia – in the middle of the desert, living in a yurt with nomads. I take this smog tourism thing quite seriously.
So do many Chinese. Datong, a big mainland tour agency, says this is normally low season but that this year, between late October and early November, “smog-escaping tourism” boosted the number of total tours by 20 per cent year on year. Top destinations for the bronchial set? Places such as Sanya, on Hainan island in the South China Sea, Lhasa in Tibet – and the Zhoushan archipelago in the East China Sea, where I went for my latest bit of alveoli-altering travel.
Unfortunately, the best way to get there – to the island of Zhujiajian at the far edge of the archipelago – is by personal pollution machine, or private car. Normally, I take public transport in China, but our family loves a road trip and it’s not easy to get to blue skies in a short space of time without one. So I rented a car and plunged in among the testosterone-crazed masses of Shanghai drivers.
It was our first Chinese road trip, and I celebrated by making illegal turns in front of oncoming buses, failing to stop for pensioners at pedestrian crossings and refusing to indicate – just like everyone else. Liberating stuff.
After several hours of driving through some of the worst polluted areas of eastern China – including the coast of the East China Sea near the lovely ancient city of Ningbo, where spewing factories line every bit of shoreline – we finally reached the easternmost tip of the easternmost island in the archipelago that is accessible by car. Gazing out from the hotel balcony, there seemed to be nothing between us and, say, Baja California – except haze.
The heavens, it seems, weren’t in on my travel plans. No blue sky, just a view obscured by fog. Now fog and smog are not the same thing – though tell that to Beijing, which uses the word “wumai”, which means “fog” and “haze”, even when it really means to say pollution. But in this case, the fog was clearly not smog. The official “air quality index” for Zhoushan was about one-10th the level we had suffered earlier that week in Shanghai. So the air was clean – it was just too wet to go out and breathe in it.
And then there was the matter of the ocean, which was brown. I sagely told my children that oceans are always brown when it storms – and that there are good geographical reasons why the East China Sea is always a funny colour – but after a stroll down the beach, I realised that oceans don’t always smell quite that “brown”. In fact, about 100 yards down the beach from the hotel, I discovered an inlet spewing what smelled like raw sewerage into the sea. The local government might want to get on top of that kind of thing, before promoting the place as a haven of green tourism.
Even my Mongolia trip was not completely “fog” free. The country may have a total population of just 2.8m people, the size of a larger Shanghai suburb, yet it has managed to create enough pollution that tourist aircraft must pierce a carpet of smog as they come into land. At least the Mongolian desert still has plenty of “blue sky” days, but getting there from Shanghai took almost 48 hours door to door (and an indeterminate amount of aviation fuel).
The truth is that despite what the tour operators say, fleeing pollution is not all that easy in today’s China – no matter how much money you spend (and carbon dioxide you emit) getting away. Maybe that’s why some vendors have started selling “canned fresh air” from China’s remotest areas. Go long on oxygen. China’s pollution season has only just begun.
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