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Tourism in China comes in all sorts of colours, but green is not normally one of them. China may leave western visitors feeling blue, seeing red or sunk in a black rage – but few go home raving about how green the place is.
Yet improbable as it may sound, one of the world’s most eco-friendly resorts recently opened near Shanghai – possibly the worst-served major city in the world, from the point of view of proximate natural beauty spots. The resort, Naked Stables – which uses loo water to power the room heaters and has walls made partly of rubbish – is working to be certified the world’s greenest resort outside the US by the US Green Building Council, under its prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design programme.
For Rmb1,800 ($286) per night, the nature-starved masses of Shanghai can stay in a mud hut at Naked Stables, under a roof of bamboo thatch, with an unpredictable hot water supply and toilet water that is slightly brown in hue, because the resort recycles 100 per cent of its water. For entertainment, they can watch bamboo grow: the resort is surrounded by a forest whose bamboo grows up to a metre per day. Scant wonder the New York Times recently named the local area – Moganshan, a hill station for Europeans and gangsters in the 1930s – one of the world’s 45 top places to visit in 2012.
After four concrete-crazed years in Shanghai, I think the resort is perfectly heavenly: hidden hot tubs on secluded hilltops; private massage huts on stilts in the forest; an outdoor jacuzzi that beckons in a snowstorm. Expat appeal is a given.
But will the Chinese über-wealthy – who single-handedly drive the world’s gold, diamond and bling markets these days – aspire to a night in a yurt, when it could be the Waldorf Astoria? Some of them already have had a more than passing acquaintance with pounded earth walls, from their days out in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. A mud hut tends to have the most charm for those who have never lived in one. China may not be quite ready yet for rustic.
Hummer road hogs
Don’t get me wrong: the Chinese touring classes are keen on nature – so long as it comes with staircases instead of dirt paths and a souvenir shop every few hundred metres.
In my quest to commune with what passes for the environment in overcrowded, overworked and over-ambitious eastern China, I took my tween-aged girls recently to climb a famous Chinese mountain, Yandangshan, which has since come to be known in our household as “the mountain resort from hell”.
There was nothing wrong with the hill in question. Yandangshan has all the attributes of peaks, waterfalls and caves and throws in a good helping of dangling suspension bridges over dramatic gorges, Buddhist nunneries perched halfway up sheer cliffs and temples sunk deep in underground caverns. In short, not the kind of thing one could see in the Cairngorms.
The problem was not nature, or even the humans who chose to invade it in hordes on the first day of the lunar new year – wearing the standard Chinese mountaineering uniform of stiletto heels and satin hotpants for the ladies, pink tutus and plastic swords for the little guys; and a cane and scowling visage for grandma.
What really got to us were the cars. For a place dedicated to hiking, visitors to Yandangshan spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in an insane and peculiarly Chinese form of road racing. The bigger the car, the worse the behaviour: those in million-renminbi cars seemed to think that lane discipline was for Toyotas. Overtaking on the wrong side of the road, around a blind bend in a snowstorm: isn’t that what mountains are for? Ask the owner of the stretch Hummer hogging our hotel car park: he really knows how to rough it.
By the time we got back to Shanghai, a city scarcely renowned for traffic safety, we breathed a sigh of relief to be back where people run red lights and target pedestrians on zebra crossings – but mostly drive on the right side of the road.
Don’t bet on rustic
Will Moganshan ever meet Yandangshan? Ask the guy with the stretch Hummer. When he parks it next to a yurt we will all know that green has finally come to Chinese tourism. But for the moment, you won’t catch me going long on rustic.