Where to go in China that isn’t polluted

Island near Dongshan on the Fujian coast.

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Want to travel to China but you’re worried about the country’s airpocalypse?  Head to these 7 clean-air destinations. 

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China’s ongoing struggle with its catastrophic air pollution is widely known.  Every day we see images of masked pedestrians and hazy skies in the news from Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Chengdu.  Tragically, these same cities with sky-high levels of toxic gases in the air are also the country’s best-known tourist draws.  Maybe you want to see the Great Wall but you’re worried your view of the ancient fortifications snaking over the hillsides will be obscured by smog.

China has much more to offer than the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors and pandas, however.  And these alternative destinations often have far better air quality than the major cities.  The trip ideas below will not only take you to places you may never have heard of but you’ll avoid the country’s famous smog in the process.

Beach in Sanya, Hainan Island.
  1. Hainan Island

Hainan, meaning South Sea, Island is the largest island administered by the People’s Republic of China and it also boasts the best air quality in eastern China, particularly the pleasant city of Sanya on the island’s southern coast.  Hainan is something of a hidden gem, seldom visited by foreigners, although it’s been thoroughly discovered by domestic tourists.  It’s most famous for the smooth sand and blue/green water of its beaches and is known as China’s Hawaii.  The island also has opportunities for hiking and visiting nature preserves in the interior.  Avoid the island’s north in the winter since it’ll be shrouded in fog.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province.

2. Yunnan Province

Ask any seasoned China traveler or foreigner living long term in China and they’ll tell you that Yunnan is a must-visit.  The Province is a fount of botanical, ethnic and geographic diversity.  From the dry, cold Tibetan plateau in the North, home of the Naxi people of Lijiang, to the humid, tropical South, home of the Dai people of Xishuangbanna near the border with Myanmar.  From the capital, Kunming and the nearby Stone Forest you can head north to the rolling hills of Dali and crystalline Er Hai Lake.  Further north from there you can visit the old town of Lijiang and hike Tiger Leaping Gorge and check out the Tibetan town touted as the true Shangri La.  Or from Kunming you could head south into the rainforests.  Either way you’ll encounter little in the way of air pollution.

  1. Fujian Province

The province boasts three of China’s least polluted cities, Xiamen, Quanzhou and Fuzhou.  But clean air alone isn’t the main reason to visit Fujian.  Here you’ll find the mighty earthen roundhouses of the Hakka minority in the mountainous hinterland.  Concession-era European architecture graces Gulangyu Island off the coast of Xiamen.  From Xiamen, you can also easily reach the sparsely populated and beautiful but Taiwan administered Jinmen Island.  Quanzhou has China’s oldest mosque and a mountain steeped in Daoist lore.  Nearby Fuzhou is Ping Tan Island, which has pristine beaches undiscovered by foreign or domestic tourists.  Finally, in the north of the province is Wuyi Shan with its towering limestone peaks and tea plantations nestled in lush valleys.

Temple on Putuo Shan Island.
  1. Putuo Shan

If you’re in Shanghai or visiting Zhejiang Province and you want to escape the smog that often plagues these areas, then head to the coast for island hopping in the Zhoushan Archipelago.  There are many more obscure islands to visit here but the most famous and popular destination is the Buddhist island of Putuo Shan, famed not only for its religious community but for its environment as well.

  1. Xinjiang

With the exception of the region’s capital Urumqi, the rest of this vast Autonomous Region, larger in land-area than Alaska, is unblemished by either air pollution or much at all in the way of human impact.  From the Flaming Mountains near the oasis town of Turpan to the sapphire blue waters of Tian Chi (Heavenly) Lake where the the locals are predominantly Kazakh Muslims to the westernmost extremity of China at the old Silk crossroad of Kashgar on the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang will allow you to dive headfirst into a landscape, culture and religious environment completely alien to Han dominated Eastern China.

  1. Tibet

You’ll need to plan well in advance to visit this politically sensitive Autonomous Region but a trip here will likely not disappoint.  Not only can you trek to Everest base camp and the famous Samye Monastery from here but Lhasa has a wealth of architectural treasures to investigate, including the Barkhor neighborhood, the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace.  On top of it all, Lhasa has no air pollution.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.
  1. Taiwan

Political disagreements over whether Taiwan is “a part of China” aside (it isn’t), this underrated island is an excellent place to go to sample Chinese culture arguably at its most authentic.  From the aromatic night markets of Taipei to the beaches and gorges of the island’s east coast, Taiwan has plenty to offer any kind of tourist.

Hopefully this post has made you realize that China isn’t all just crushing crowds and dreary skies.  Air pollution shouldn’t be an excuse putting you off a visit to the Middle Kingdom.

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