Going green, staying green: Three eco guesthouses in China

Culture | by Chris Barclay
Posted: November 11th, 2009 | Updated: October 24th, 2012 | Comments
View of the Yulong River from the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat American entrepreneur ecotourism in China, founding two eco hotels in Yangshuo. Here, he writes about his Yangshuo eco hotels and Yunnan's remarkable Wenhai Ecolodge. Despite its dubious distinction as the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has a handful of accommodation options where you can reduce your travel carbon footprint. These eco-hotels are leading the way toward sustainable tourism in China, promoting low-impact business practices in environmentally sensitive areas. The river town of Yangshuo is one such place where these green hotels have appeared in recent years. Located one hour from Guilin, Yangshuo has experienced explosive tourism growth, as large groups of mainly Chinese visitors come down the Li River on huge tour boats to experience the mystical beauty of the area's otherworldly limestone formations. This once quiet western backpacker town has become a must-see destination for domestic groups, which has brought a massive influx of tour buses, large hotels and river traffic.

Yangshuo Mountain Retreat

Just outside of the town, which now features both a McDonalds and KFC (Starbucks is sure to be next), there is one hotel that has been a haven for Asian expatriates and Western travelers. I started it after working as an educator with the idea of creating a sustainable business model that would help preserve Yangshuo's natural beauty, as well as promote its unique culture. I've spent 18 years in China and opened the Yulong River (which does not have any motorized boat traffic), and is surrounded by towering limestone peaks. It features 29 guest rooms, and has made concerted efforts to minimize its impact on the environment. To begin with, the hotel does not use any disposable products, such as chopsticks, napkins, or single-use items in bathrooms. The entire Retreat has a policy of no plastic bags. Instead of bottled water, guests will find a traditional hot-water thermos and an aluminum flask filled with drinking water in their rooms. These practices save the Retreat over two metric tons of waste per year. All of the food cooked in the kitchen comes from local farms or specialty items from local markets and is recycled for use as animal feed. The Retreat also has its own herb garden and grows pumpkins and bananas on the property. To protect the local water supply, the hotel uses water from its own wells, and features a natural waste system where sewage is filtered underground and gray water is contained in nearby lily-covered septic fields. The grounds have been landscaped with flowering osmanthus trees, bougainvillea, and local grass which require little watering. Yangshuo Mountain Retreat welcomes you The Mountain Retreat also uses solar hot water and is implementing a unique waste-briquette fuel to supplement the hot water boiler. These briquettes are made from recycled newspaper, sawdust, clay and rice straw, with a small amount of glycerol to reduce smoke. Using a hand-screw press built at the Retreat, the briquette fuel initiative intends to replace coal as fuel in the near future. In addition to these sustainable practices, all the staff at the Mountain Retreat are hired from nearby villages, where the Retreat has created a village homestay network, to encourage all guests to spend a night in the local villages and have dinner with the local farmers. This has helped to develop several village B&B businesses, and help guests experience authentic local culture. The Mountain Retreat rents Trek mountain bikes and has a locally drawn map of trails for both hiking and bicycling. Inside the Retreat you'll find handmade bamboo furniture made from local trees and reclaimed wood to make the plank floors in the bar and restaurant, as well as river stone wainscoting throughout the buildings. It has the feel of a lodge, but with modern comforts and a distinctly rustic Chinese style. Although the Retreat has been following these green practices for nearly ten years, it is only now that other hotels in China are beginning to move in the same environmentally friendly direction.

Wehnhai Ecolodge, Yunnan

Further west in Yunnan province, large scale institutional investment has seen more vast real estate projects rather than ecotourism developments, but there are still a few shining examples. By far the most well known of these is the Lijiang. First initiated by Canada's Simon Fraser University in the early 1990s, it subsquently received additional funding from The Nature Conservancy, UC Davis and even the Japanese Government, when the project was nearly destroyed in the 1996 earthquake. A 56-household cooperative was formed in 1995, where each Naxi family (One of China's indigenous minority groups, numbering about 275,000, and living mostly in Lijiang) chipped in a minimum of sixty Renminbi to open the lodge. Yulong River scene near Yangshuo, China Each family contributes an agreed yearly quota of work, sharing the income in return. Traditionally, they are involved in farming, raising livestock, fishing, collecting fuel wood, hunting and charcoal-making, all of which impact the area's natural resources. The eco-lodge concept helps promote ecotourism in the area where the surrounding forests are threatened by unsustainable agriculture and illegal logging. The ten room lodge is a converted Naxi courtyard style house, refitted with many alternative energy systems. These include a biogas pit that converts livestock manure and toilet waste into methane cooking gas and electricity for the kitchen's light bulb, as well as providing heat for the greenhouse, where many of the organic vegetables are grown. Along with water purifiers, a micro-hydropower unit powers the lights, and cozy electric blankets, while a solar collecting tank provides hot showers. This means that snuggling up in soft, toasty beds with fluffy pillows is always a cozy experience, while just outside the carved wooden windows, Wenhai Lake sits in a sub-alpine valley that harbors one of the world's most biologically diverse temperate forests. Located at about 3,100 m (10,170 ft), the valley boasts a broad-leaf forest of moss-carpeted earth with lichen-draped poplar and Quercus trees, and green, rolling meadows. From early spring to late summer, the slopes are awash with bursting rhododendrons, exploding with pink, white, red and purple. Beyond the waters of the lake, Yulongxue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), a cluster of 13 snow-laden peaks, tops out at  5,596 m (18,467 ft), unfolding before visitors like a vast open air, Imax screening. Just an hour's walk away through the acorn littered trails lies Snow Flower Village (Xuěhuā Cūn, 雪花村), and the chance to visit an authentic shaman's home in the nearby Yi village. Thanks to the fantastic local widlife, Wenhai ecolodge was recently ranked as one of the world's ten best eco-lodges by the US-based Outdoor magazine. In the lake below, endangered water birds continue to thrive. Black storks and black-necked cranes migrate here annually, but patient twitchers can also spot giant laughing thrushes, winter wrens, Hainan leaf warblers, Northern Goshawks and sometimes even very rare species, for instance, the Lady Amherst's pheasant. At an altitude of 3,100 m (10,170 ft), Wenhai boasts an oak forest rich with endangered plants, including the Chinese yew, Lijiang hemlock and Changbao fir. Twelve different species of rhododendron complement, orchids, primroses, gourmet mushrooms and medicinal blooms, such as the snow lotus, a traditional remedy for menstrual cramps. On the upper slopes, villagers claim to have spotted wild cats, wolves, Asiatic black bears and even the elusive blue sheep. For Yetis, abominable snow men and other crypto exotica, one has to journey still further up into the Himalayas. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, China The bad news is that the lodge has struggled since its official opening in November 2002. Visitors were non-existent during the SARS epidemic and more recent events have also hurt this business that, at present, remains seasonal and slow. On good months, the lodge sees fewer than one hundred visitors while at other times, there are practically none. More than 90% of visitors to Wenhai are from overseas, as ecotourism has received a lukewarm response from domestic tourists, many of whom still feel that China has suffered so much in its recent history, that they are now entitled to consume aggressively and excessively, as the West has done in the past.

 Yangshuo Village Inn

Back in Yangshuo, there is another eco-hotel worth mentioning. It is part of the new boutique hotel Moon Hill Village, just behind the Village Inn there is a traditional mud brick farmhouse that will soon feature 5 guest rooms and some innovative new and traditional energy-saving features. The farmhouse is one of the mud brick designs that are disappearing across China, as they are replaced by multi-story concrete buildings that many Chinese farmers can now afford to build. Unfortunately in the process of new construction, the farmers raze the original mud brick then use it for the new house foundation. Rescued from demolition, this farmhouse is ideal for small groups or a large family, with three ground floor bedrooms and two loft bedrooms in the space formerly used for grain storage. The farmhouse uses radiant heat with a low wattage electric heater and pump circulating warm water through flexible tubes in the floor. These tubes are sandwiched between layers of fiberglass and bamboo, batting to provide heat retention in winter. The mud bricks are built to form double walls which also provide excellent heat retention and an ideal thermal mass to keep in the cooler air in Summer. The traditional roof tiles were also removed, fit with waterproof sheeting, fiberglass batting and woven bamboo, helping shield guests in loft rooms from the intensity of the summer sun. Above the building's eight meter-high main hall, glass tiles have used to provide more natural daylight, and guestrooms are outfitted with oversized insulated glass windows. The building shares solar hot water and a natural septic system with the Village Inn, which also follows strict sustainable guidelines. Traditional metal and glass lanterns and a unique replica antler chandelier,  made with small, low-wattage bulbs provides ambiance in the evenings. Yangshuo Village Inn in Moon Hill Village The guestroom furniture features hand-made beds, tables and chairs, from local bamboo, with antique Chinese wardrobes. The rest of the building is furnished with refurbished antiques, giving the farmhouse a kind of rustic chic. The owner has rented the vegetable garden and pomelo grove behind the farmhouse with the agreement that the farmers will continue to cultivate the land. Overlooking the garden is a large covered deck for guests, which offers views of the village and surrounding mountains. Guests of the farmhouse can enjoy an open pantry and afternoon tea included with their room, and dining facilities are right next door at the Village Inn. The farmhouse distinguishes itself from other traditional village accommodation in its attention to comfort, reduced energy use and enhanced use of traditional building materials. Truly a unique experience in the heart of rural China.
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