After living in China for more than 4 years, it is also a natural part of this website. As a foreigner, it is very easy to gain a one-sided impression of China from an environmental perspective. In this article I describe why. It is quite easy: the air pollution in Beijing sells newspapers. All the ecofriendly tourist destinations are not considered as “sexy” and will be forgotten.
Anyway. Despite living far away from home, I have always tried to leave as small of a carbon footprint as possible. This can be illustrated by the little things I do every day. I do not eat too much beef. And I am very cautious about buying anything wrapped into plastic. In addition to that, I am a very sustainable traveler. We know that the travel industry in total counts for about 11 % of the total greenhouse emissions.
So that is why I wanted to tell you about some of my ecofriendly trips in China. The mission is to show that you can easily travel between some of the biggest and most interesting cities without leaving a huge carbon footprint. People going abroad on holiday tend often to make easy solutions in order to not challenge themselves too much while being away from home. And frankly, that is understandable. But I really hope that this article can inspire you to travel environmentally friendly when you visit China.
Table of Contents
- My (ecofriendly) trips inside China
- Environmentally friendly transportation in China
- Where should you travel in China?
- General tips for traveling in China
- Environment related tips for traveling in China
My (ecofriendly) trips inside China
Let us get it straight immediately: flying to China from Europe is not exactly environmentally friendly. And as I am born in a country close to the North Pole, I did not have much choice when I started my studies in Beijing. I flew in, and I still feel bad for the carbon footprint that left on the planet. Anyway, when I started to travel from one Chinese city to another, I always made sure that it should be as ecofriendly as possible.
First: let us map out the travels I have accomplished so far. It can quite nicely be illustrated with this map:
1st trip: Beijing to Shanghai.
2nd trip: Shanghai to Xian.
3rd trip: Xian to Beijing.
4th trip: Shanghai to Xiamen.
This is as much I have travelled domestically in China. I wish I had seen cities like Shenzhen, Qingdao and Chongqing. But I guess I will leave those for later. As you might notice from the map, China is a huge country. Enormous. But most of the major cities are either located down south (Shenzhen, Macau, Guangzhou) or north-east (Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao).
Stick to the big cities
If you plan to visit China for less than a month, you should try to visit cities. I know that a lot of people have this big dream of “going out to the countryside and meet local farmers”. Well, it doesn’t work like that. You might meet a guide or two that will be willing to take you out on a daytrip or something. But chances are that you will just end up in a tourist spot where a lot of other Chinese and foreign tourists. I have talked to many people within the Chinese tourist industry. But none of them have ever told me that they assist tourists to such areas. It is simply not a correlation of what they think they will experience and how the small, Chinese villages are constructed.
Anyway. If you know where you want to travel, the next step is to figure out how you would travel.
Environmentally friendly transportation in China
There are two things that Western media very often focuses on when writing newspaper articles about China. One of them, as I already mentioned, is the air pollution in Beijing. Beijing citizens with masks in the smoggy air on Tiananmen Square is something that sells. Another interesting newspaper article is: “China now got the best train infrastructure in the world!”. Because they do.
The high-speed train itself, which is called Gao Tie in Chinese, has become the most convenient way to travel domestically.
First: I took these two pictures when I sat on the train from Beijing to Shanghai. I guess there are better pictures out there, but at least these show some of the buildings surroundings the train tracks:
As a foreigner, you will really love seeing China this way. It is simply remarkable.
And this is a picture I took of the front of the train before the trip started:
It looks as powerful and fast as it is .
Some quick facts about trains in China:
– The fastest commercial train in the world is called Maglev. It goes from Shanghai airport and almost into the city center. It has a max speed of 311 miles per hour, which is quite impressive. Last time I took it, it costed me 60 RMB, which roughly equals 9 USD.
– The train from Shanghai to Beijing has a distance of 1318 kilometer. And the time it takes to complete the trip with the fastest train available? 4 hours and 50 minutes. WOW!
You can just imagine the feeling when you sit by the window and just look at these gigantic cities “fly past”. Cities you will never know the name of.
– More efficient and better for the environment than flying. Well, taking the high-speed trains in China MUST be a very costly affair? Not really. It roughly costs the same as taking an airplane. 550 RMB [80 USD] is standard price from Beijing to Shanghai with the train. It costs between 500 and 800 RMB to fly.
I guess you now are pretty tempted to try the high-speed railway in China? You should be. There have been a lot of speculations in the media trying to figure out the economics of this railway development. And most sources conclude that it is an extremely costly project that will barely hit “break-even” in about year 2040. In other words: it is something China are doing for the environment simply because they needed better infrastructure. People will travel more and more in the future. We know that for a fact. And unless we have a well-developed infrastructure that is less harmful for the environment than cars and airplanes, we would be in big, big trouble.
But why shouldn’t we fly?
Because it pollutes. And because its much less convenient than taking the train. Honestly, the train station in China is less chaotic than the airports. They are sort of designed like airports (like a big hangar with a tall roof), but much better structured. It is much easier to purchase tickets for train travel – and you can be sure that the planes will be delayed. Will write more about this later in the article.
Where should you travel in China?
Now that we already established that you can go ANYWHERE in China by using train, it opens up for all kinds of possibilities in terms of travel destinations. I would think the average European/American can maybe name three Chinese cities. But there are just so many cities in China that you have never heard of that is the home of 5, 8 and 10 million people. Cities that are “untouched” by tourism and that is a goldmine if you want to get close to the ancient Chinese culture.
Let me propose some good cities for you.
Probably the most iconic city in the world? Beijing is something that close to every adult person in the world got some sort of impression of. The city is simply packed with a lot of interesting things to do for tourists.
I actually lived in Bejiing one year, which made me see a lot of different things in that city. Yes, you have some days where the air quality is not exactly top notch. And yes, there are some scams going on in certain parts of the city (I write more about that later), but all-in-all: Beijing is a fantastic city. And it is the city where about 70 % of all the tourists will go first time they visit China.
1) The forbidden city.
2) The great wall.
3) The hutong areas.
4) Summer palace (the new one, not the old one).
Once you have taken a week or so in Beijing, it is time to hop on the high-speed train to Shanghai. Comparing Shanghai to Beijing is so weird. It is like apples and pears – they are simply so different. But Shanghai is not one of these cities where every old apartment is torn apart and where everything is fancy. In fact, you will find this unique combination of old cultural landscape and high skyscrapers. If you walk around the areas of People`s Square or Jing`an, you can literally walk in some really old, historical neighborhoods. And then: boof! Just on the other side of the corner, you will find a high-tech park or buildings taller than you will ever see in New York.
Shanghai is amazing.
Another very interesting part of Shanghai is the long international culture. People might stop you and ask to take a picture of you if you travel to other cities in China. But in Shanghai you are not even slightly popular despite having another hair or skin color. If you want to learn more about the international settlement in China, you can check this Wikipedia page. It also means that you will find a wide range of foreign cafes, restaurants and bars in Shanghai city center.
And the reason why Shenzhen is the “runner up” to Shanghai? The cities are actually quite similar. Many people refer to Shenzhen as the “Silicon Valley of China”, meaning that it is the heart of technical innovation in Asia. Loads of European companies are now investing heavily into various businesses in the city.
Most of people reading this article have never heard of Xiamen. The small, cozy harbor city in South-East China is not exactly famous for people that do not have any direct connection with China. Actually, with 3.3 million inhabitants, it is considered to be a “small city”. But this can also be considered a tropical paradise. I personally spent my first 20 years of my life in Northern Europe. Coming to Xiamen was the first time I really saw how nice a tropical climate could be. That being said, I visited the city in December. I guess coming in June, July or August will be a bit too much for me…
Let me first give you some pictures that I took when visiting the city. You have to click on the pictures to make them bigger (it`s worth it..):
Quite beautiful, right?
Secret tips for visiting Xiamen:
– The university got probably the most beautiful campus in the world. Walking among all the students, eating in their cafeteria, enjoying the scenery and buildings…just lovely! But remember to bring your passport when you want to visit the campus area. The guards are pretty strict.
– Book a hotel room close to the city center. Xiamen is one of those cities that do not have a subway system and, frankly, the bus routes were pretty confusing. Walking is the best way to travel in Xiamen.
And about the runner-up….well, if you haven’t heard about Xiamen, you probably haven’t heard about Sanya either. But it is a quite beautiful area famous for their beaches in South China. Unfortunately, the latest reports I heard said that it has turned into a “mass tourism spot”, which is not exactly very charming.
General tips for traveling in China
– Be aware of scammers. Unfortunately, every country will have some people that will try to make some money out of mass tourism in a cynical way.
Certain things that you need to be aware of (especially in Beijing):
1) The “tea house scam”.
Young, attractive people are getting hired by these scam groups in order to ask foreigners for a tea or a beer. This will usually happen on popular tourists spots such as Nanjing West Road in Shanghai or around The Forbidden City in Beijing. As soon as a young, English-speaking person comes up to you (often from the opposite gender of yourself) and asks if you want to join a drink, please leave. Do not join them.
You will be taken to a “tea house” nearby – and after you have had a couple of cups, you will be given the bill. That bill is probably 100000 % higher than what the tea should actually cost. I have heard about people that have been scammed for more than 1000 USD (= 7000 RMB).
If you have 22 (!!!) minutes, you can see how this Youtuber went undercover and got scammed on purpose:
PS! He has been living in China for about 10 years, so he really knew what he was doing.
2) The taxi scam (fake money)
This is something that I, despite living in China for many years, also experienced quite recently. On a trip to Beijing, we found a taxi outside The Forbidden City. I was aware that most taxis in this area would target tourists and overcharge them, but this guy seemed pretty normal. Had a nice chat in Mandarin throughout the whole trip, but once we reached out destination he became extremely stressful and almost demanded us out of the taxi. I threw some money at him and left. He then shouted back at me that the note I had given him was a fake 50 note, which I knew was not true. But as he kept on stressing me, I gave him another note, which he accepted – and he gave the “fake” note back.
Of course, he kept the real 50 note and gave me a fake one. So now I had given away two real notes (=100 RMB) and been given back a fake 50 that I could not use for anything.
Tip to avoid this scam: always pay with small notes (5 RMB, 10 RMB & 20 RMB).
3) “Helpful” local guides
If you are going to do some activities in China, make sure that you are booking those from certified people. And by “certified people”, I mean people that are either connected with a high-quality hotel or people that you have got recommended. There are so many people in the big cities in China that will try to squeeze money out of tourists.
A good example is when I did some research to my recent Beijing trip. I knew that you should pay around 600 RMB for a private car to The Great Wall from the city center. And when I started to contact various people by e-mail, I got offers that ranged from 500 to 2500 RMB. Everyone with the same service: car travel from the city to the wall.
And….since I guess some of you ask: no, there is no subway or other environmentally friendly way to get to The Great Wall! ☺
– Note that most domestic flights are slightly delayed. Another reason why you should choose to travel with bus or train instead of flights.
– Most people do not speak English in China. The younger generation might have a grasp of English, especially written. And in international cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai, it should not be a problem. The restaurants that serve “western food” (this is what the Chinese people call it), will have English menus anyway.
Environment related tips for traveling in China
From an environmental perspective, there are also things you can do. Or let me correct myself: things you should do when you travel in China.
Try not to buy plastic bottles
Buy a tint bottle or something else that you can pour water into when doing acitivities, climbing the Great Wall or visiting the Forbidden City. The amount of plastic bottles sold in China is massive. You see it everywhere: people buying bulks of plastic and bringing it home. Honestly, in some cases I would even say it is more plastic than water.
Choose metro over taxi
The metro system in the big cities is amazing. And as someone that lived in China for quite some time, please take this advice: do not choose taxi over subway. If you try to take a taxi from East to West in Beijing between 15:00 and 19:00, I can guarantee you that this trip will be painful. If you take the subway, you might see that it is crowded. But it is a much better choice. For yourself and the environment.
Try to stay away from meat – especially beef
Choose vegetables over meat. The meat quality in China is rather poor compared to most countries in Europe and North America. If I ever eat meat in China, it is on foreign-owned, high quality restaurants. No need to buy beef that does not taste very good.
Traveling in China is an amazing experience. There are so many exciting elements by doing so. Characters instead of letters. The feeling you get when you walk through the old Hutongs of Beijing. Or the feeling of taking the elevator up to floor 112 in Shanghai Tower. These are things that can only be experienced in China, and a good reason for why this fantastic country should be on your travel list. Also, please do not forget to support local shops wherever you are. It is much better to buy your Coca-Cola (this post is not sponsored ☺ ) from a local shop rather than going into a Walmart. Well…only if you have to pay roughly the same price at least.
I really did not want to end this article with something negative, but it is quite important to once again warn about the scams that are going on in the tourist areas. It is a shame that these people very often will be able to adjust the impression tourists will get from China. 99,99999 % of all Chinese people are wonderful people. And it is therefore a shame that the people trying to actively scam tourists in Beijing and Shanghai are the ones you will remember from your trip.
Talking about ecofriendly traveling, it is quite easy for foreigners to use the well-functional train system. It might require some planning and some challenges if you do not read nor speak Mandarin, but it is getting easier for every week. There are now loads of websites that will be able to assist you in buying tickets for the high-speed train.