Posts Tagged 'China'

World Savers Congress: Educating China on Green Travel

Bamboo forest, Sichuan. Photo by Pat Rioux.

Bamboo forest, Sichuan. Photo by Pat Rioux.

WHEN A HEAVING EARTHQUAKE leveled China’s heartland earlier this year — taking nearly 70,000 lives and leaving 5 million homeless — the reaction exhibited both the best and the worst of human behavior. Grassroots leaders organized to bring relief to those affected by the disaster, and the government functioned with surprising transparency in addressing the region’s needs. But it wasn’t long before the Party grew tired of the bad press about shoddy construction and resumed its old tack, silencing the voices of those who lost the most.

It’s not an inspiring example of either sustainability or responsibility. Yet in the rubble some locals saw an opportunity to bring out the beauty of Sichuan — to reinvigorate it and share it with the world in a way that would embody the meaning of both those terms.

Albert Ng, CEO of adventure travel company Wild China, conveyed to attendees of the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress two weeks ago the reality that environmental and tourism authorities faced after the dust settled: facilities, paths and roads linking the region’s nature reserves had been destroyed. Over a year of daunting reconstruction work lay ahead.

“But what is interesting is that the authorities really understood that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to reshape tourism in this area,” Ng said. Previously the reserves had been geared towards one-size-fits-all tourism, he explained, the kind that chews the landscape and leaves more of an impact on the environs that it does on the traveler.

The challenge, according to Ng, lay as much in training as it does in actual building. His company has been working both with local governments and non-governmental organizations to develop travel infrastructure, and provide the tools and cultural understanding that must form its foundation.

“When we go to these remote places the local governments…believe they should be doing something right, they should be doing something responsible,” Ng said. “And we have been working with them on doing camping, doing hiking trails. They all believe in those ideas..the problem is that they do not know how to do it.”

Ng said his group’s education efforts range from discussions on how to build trails to preparing bedding and meals that will be acceptable to foreign travelers, all while protecting sensitive ecosystems and preserving local culture.

It’s a massive challenge, but one of pressing importance. In 2001, there were 89 million international travelers going to China. In 2007, the figure jumped to 132 million and has only showed signs of going up — not to mention domestic tourism.

As China fumbles through one scandal after the other — whether it be the poor construction of schools, the razing of traditional neighborhoods, tainted milk or polluted lakes — it is clear that the country needs an infusion of new ideas and dedicated individuals. The sprouting of initiatives like Wild China is hopeful, but there are also a thicket of “green” options exploding onto the scene. Mindful travelers must also educate themselves as to which are really interested in reducing the impact of their growing numbers.

Seoul Journal: Tell Me What It Mela-Means

Beef protest in northern Seoul, June 2008. Photo by Mr. Matt.

Beef protest in northern Seoul, June 2008. Photo by Mr. Matt.

SEOUL — DAWN IS AN OPALESCENT SOUP of haze and refracted sunlight. I pour a bowl of cereal, shuddering slightly as the flakes and bran twigs tap out a quiet cacophony on the porcelain, and reach for the milk. I pause, vaguely wondering about toxic proteins from New Zealand. The thought passes.

I take a jog through my neighborhood and see a woman selling dairy from a yellow pushcart, one of the many found in this city in the early hours. I wonder how her business has been affected. At the office, a co-worker asks if I’d like an instant coffee. I tell him tea would be better for both of us; there’s probably melamine in the creamer. I eat a sandwich for lunch and wonder briefly about what went into the cheese, the bread. At night, my wife brings home some icecream for dessert. We check the label and see “China” listed as an ingredient’s country of origin. We chuck it.

The globalization of the food chain has exploded the range of China’s melamine debacle. But here in such close proximity to the new world power, the likelihood is even greater that people are ingesting, buying, selling or giving contaminated foods to their kids. The industrial chemical that has claimed the lives of at least four infants in China has been found here in fish feed, snacks, dairy and candy. There are growing concerns that it may have been used as a pesticide on imported vegetables. The nation — indeed, the region as a whole — is facing a food safety crisis of unprecedented pervasiveness.

Yet months after South Korea’s citizens cried for the ouster of the Lee Myung-bak government, claiming his decision to open the local market to U.S. beef created a public health risk, there is no visible uproar over the melamine issue. The Korea Food and Drug Administration carries out its tests of products containing imported dairy, announces the results, and then — presumably — consumers change their behavior. No one is up in arms about Mars shirking the news that melamine was found in its products (the levels detected are supposedly too low to pose a health risk), and no one is blocking the ports where Chinese products are arriving, as happened when the first U.S. beef shipments arrived.

The belated reporting of the melamine crisis has revealed a gaping vacuum where morals, corporate responsibility and oversight should have been. China’s citizens are crying out, though due to the country’s media sieve, the outside world likely hears only a muffled echo of the true anguish felt by the tens of thousands of parents whose babies are suffering in hospitals across the country.

Why Korea’s people have chosen to stay silent on an issue that affects them more intimately and poisonously than mad cow disease ever will is a mystery that invites speculation: Perhaps, like smoking, the idea of gradually-accumulated chemicals causing harm is not immediate enough to stir panic. Or it may be simply that there’s just no real way to pin this one on the wildly unpopular President Lee. Either way, Korea would do well to meditate on what it means when the country’s largest trade partner is growing increasingly toxic, and spend an extra moment thinking about what might be floating in the milk.

[Edited on 2008.10.06]

Post-Olympics Beijing: Car Bans Continue

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

SEOUL — AS IT SWEATS OFF the last of the Summer Olympics fever, Beijing is beginning to shift its environmental policy paradigm. In the cold, smoggy light of morning, the city must now face all that it has become, and re-orient itself with the needs of its citizens.

Last January, I expressed hope that residents of the Chinese capital would take a cue from a planned ban of over a million cars during the Games and dust off their bicycles. While a two-wheeled revolution has yet to take place, the municipality has shown surprising initiative in keeping the skies blue (China Daily via China Digital Times):

Under the new traffic restrictions, 30 percent of government vehicles will be sealed off as of October 1 […] The remaining 70 percent of government vehicles, as well as all corporate and private cars, will take turns off the roads one out of the five weekdays as of October 11, it said.

The plan is not completely without its flaws. And while many Beijingers were willing to put up with public transport during the Games, the Daily says their patience has now worn thin.

While most people applaud the ban on government and corporate vehicles, the ban on private cars, however, has sparked an outcry from car owners, many of whom complain it is “unfair”.

“I need to take my daughter home from boarding school on Friday night,” said Beijing bank clerk Zhang Min, whose number plate ends with “0” and will be banned on Friday. “Probably we need to buy another car.”

The restrictions appear to be mostly aimed at easing congestion, with a nod to the effect they will have on air quality. But that’s a start. The city is taking a progressive approach by first cutting municipal traffic, and the kinks will get worked out as people and policies adjust. Auto-owning residents may be loathe to relinquish the wheel for now, but they might change their minds in a couple months when they’re able to drink in a lung-full of oxygen.

This Week’s Wandering News

It’s been a long time since This Week’s has run, but in an attempt to — once again — get things into a normal rhythm here at TDT, we’re bringing it back. This week we lead with another disheartening tidbit about fakery at the Olympic Games.

  • Remember the ethnic minorities? They were fake too, says Foreign Policy blog Passport. Linking to a piece printed in Britain’s Telegraph, FP says the boys and girls who supposedly represented China’s 56 ethnic minorities in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics were, in fact, all Han Chinese.
  • Canadian writer-gone-English-teacher Joel McConvey posts a witty piece of booze-laden journalism about expat bars from his corner of the world in Jeju-do, South Korea. He deftly observes that the most memorable foreigner-filled watering holes are those that foster a “sense of limbo, wherein the bar’s palpable detachment from the surrounding geography and the norms of both the society in which it exists and that which it strives to emulate mirrors that of its transient patrons.”
  • Despite food prices being on the rise, people are still Buying into ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ ‘local,’ writes IHT journalist Aline Sullivan. From the under-the-bridge farmers markets to the aisles of Whole Foods, foodies from Orange County to Britain are putting their money where their mouth is.
  • The Head of the House Homeland Security Committee has labeled TSA screener testing ‘a waste’, according to USA Today. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) was reportedly pretty peeved when he found out that no follow-up examinations were being made after personnel failed to discover guns and other contraband that made it through the screening process. “You have a system that’s supposed to strengthen airport security, but you don’t use the results of the tests to do exactly what you’re doing the tests for,” he said. “It’s obviously a waste of money.”
  • And last Sunday, the Independent‘s Gap Year Guide took readers to the scorched New Mexico desert to show them How to be a modern day Mowgli. Or at least, how they can volunteer at a wolf sanctuary, hopefully without getting bitten.

And So We Ramble Far From Home

photo by shenxy

AS I READ TODAY about a disturbing bit of news relating to the Sichuan quake, my eyes drifted over to an advert for a new book titled The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. This quickly changed my mood from one of baffled disgust (which I can save for another post) to calm curiosity.

I became even more excited when I noticed that the book was penned by travel writer and journalist Simon Winchester, who wrote a book a while back with a similarly unwieldy title that had resonated with me nonetheless. This new release, I found out, is a biography of famed China scholar Joseph Needham, who invested himself so deeply in the cultural history of the country that he produced 24 volumes and 15,000 pages trying to answer a single question: Why did the West eclipse China?

Still intrigued, I sought out a review on the book (which was released just this month) and came across a piece on Salon by Andrew Leonard, who appears to be a bit of China-head himself. In describing the feeling of kinship he feels with Needham, Leonard pointedly fleshes out the emotions felt by the lot of travelers and expats who find themselves drawn to places far and foreign:

I feel a kinship across the decades with Dr. Needham. I believe I can imagine exactly what it was like for the esteemed biochemist to disembark from “a battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain” in Chongqing in March 1943, and feel instantly, passionately overwhelmed by a culture equal parts alien and entrancing. I believe all the outsiders who have become fascinated with China can relate. There’s a brilliance to the first part of the title of Winchester’s biography — “The Man Who Loved China” (let’s ignore for now the ungainly subtitle, “The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom”) — because even as it implies that this one man may have loved the civilization to an extent greater than the vast majority of the rest of us, the words still strike a chord with anyone who has been bitten by the Asia bug. We all savor that taste — Needham just took it to the next level.

Though I’m wary of the wide brush Leonard uses in the phrase, “the Asia bug,” in a way I can identify with what he’s getting at. People fall in love with foreign nations all over the globe, but the relationships that travelers build with countries on the Asian continent are perhaps all the more vexing and intriguing because it is a region that continues to be widely misunderstood. By that token I can describe my own affinity for Korea, as I am drawn to the nation as much for its endearing qualities as for those which leave me bewildered.

Leonard criticizes Winchester a bit for skirting around Needham’s grand question and instead focusing on the doctor’s patchwork personality. (Needham was “‘an accordion player, and a chain-smoking churchgoer’ and a supporter of gay rights who was a participant in an ‘open’ marriage that allowed him to carry on a wife-approved decades-long affair with the love of his life, a Chinese woman named Lu Gwei-djen,” Leonard says). Though I’ve yet to read the book, I feel that criticism may be missing the point.

Those of us who choose to steep ourselves in cultures foreign to our own do so to outwardly answer questions about our adopted country as much as to simply solve why we are so drawn in the first place. In both cases, the thing we seek is often nebulous — which may be one reason why Needham never really “unlocked” China, as Leonard points out. But my hope is that Winchester’s illustration of the doctor will touch a bit more on the heart of this latter question, and on the mysterious qualities in people that lead them to ramble far from home.

From Green to Black: The Environmental Movement Lost in Translation

calcutta traffic jam. photo by yumievriwan.

THE LOOMING THREAT OF GLOBAL warming and the ever-climbing cost of gas have made options like cycling to work, using mass transit and car sharing trendy in the United States. Green is our new mantra, however far removed our true habits may be from our ideals. But on the other side of the globe, entire populations of consumers that have long gone without are now snatching up cheap automobiles, and you can bet they won’t be slapping “carbon offset” bumper stickers on the back.

As car ownership increases in nations like South Korea, China and India, manufacturers are looking to churn out vehicles at even lower price points; today the BBC reported that Renault-Nissan has announced a joint venture with Indian firm Bajaj to create the world’s cheapest car, at an estimated $2,500.

And while the West and even internal environmentalists shake their heads at the possibility of millions of new drivers throwing tons of CO2 up in the air, the sentiment held in the Eastern hemisphere is perhaps best reflected by China’s “you first” stance — and these nations have a point. Many Americans still drive tank-like SUVs every day, and the US is the only developed nation that has not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, what pedestal do we have to stand on?

But here’s the problem: with more drivers and more roads, these booming Asian nations are unwittingly fostering an auto-culture from which it will take ages to untangle. Right now they’re feasting on the fruits that developed capitalism can afford — the luxuries that Americans have enjoyed for decades. It’s understandable that Western criticism of these trends now would draw resentment and cries of hypocrisy.

The crucial point that must be conveyed, though, is that owning a car does not constitute the good life. Yes, we’ve been driving cars for decades, and the American road trip is indeed a sweet thing. But the majority of drivers are not freewheeling travelers blasting down I-90; we shuttle to and from suburban homes in frustrated bursts. Look at the faces of drivers inching along the snarled roadways in and out of Chicago, LA, Seattle, etc. Driving is convenient only when we have no better option. If American big business and city planners had had more foresight, we’d be riding on trolleys and trains (and probably wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic).

The mayors of Asia’s biggest cities should be regarding the difficulties the US is encountering as it attempts to move away from car culture as a lesson, a cautionary tale, instead of blithely allowing cars to choke their thoroughfares. Because once you go down this road, it’s a long way coming back.

This Week’s Wandering News

  • Ex-presidents often retain their fame after leaving office, but few ascend to the status of tourist destination. Choe Sang-hun reports on how South Korea’s Roh Moo Hyun has become a popular sensation after returning to his hometown — never mind his poor ratings while he was commander-in-chief.
  • I might have to eat my words about the likelihood of Bush’s skipping the opening ceremonies; CNN says the White House has left the door open for a symbolic protest of China’s recent crackdown.
  • This is a few weeks old, but if you missed the NYT article about how Japanese Haiku is still being written in South Korea despite the taboo, it’s worth a read.
  • The IHT’s Roger Cohen explains why Europe wants a democrat in the US, while Asia is pulling for a republican.
  • And this just in from CNN, a former Lonely Planet writer brags to an Australian paper about how he plagiarized material, accepted free travel and sold drugs to supplement his income. Laziness, questionable ethics — does this guy think he’s cool?

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