When it comes to the environment, China is known mostly for its smoggy cities and its use of coal to power much of its rapidly growing economy. While controversial projects like the Three Gorges Dam and other alternative energy inroads have given the country hope for a green-fueled future, the present remains, for the most part, hazy.

Of course, China is a vast country, much larger than Western media coverage focused on Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong would suggest. In fact, a majority of the Middle Kingdom’s regions are rural. Yunnan Province is home to some of these impressively natural landscapes. This mountainous, forested area in south-central China features some of the country’s best scenery. Yunnan is a haven for fresh-air seekers and those who want to get away from urban China and see how both Han Chinese and the country’s ethnic minorities live.

Kunming is Yunnan’s capital and largest city, but the (relatively) nearby town of Dali is a true breathable-air eco-tourism destination. Dali is one of those East Asian towns that has become popular with the youthful budget-backpacker set. It is growing in popularity because it has all the natural Yunnanese traits mentioned above but has not become a mainstream destination for Westerners.

This is a positive for green-minded travelers who want to get a taste of China’s natural side and who want to understand life beyond the hectic cities of the country’s Eastern seaboard.

See green

Dali’s Old Town (which is actually only a small portion of a 3 million-strong metro area) is the most popular spot for foreign tourists. Dali is also a hugely popular domestic tourist destination. However, most Chinese travelers tend to choose hotels in the newer portions of the city, meaning that the crowds in the central areas of Old Town dissipate as the evening approaches.

Natural sites like Cangshan (Cang Mountain) are located within eyeshot of the city. Cangshan’s 12,000-foot peak and alpine slopes are ideal for trekking and scenery-seeing trips. Er Sea (Erhai, usually mistranslated as Erhai Lake), situated at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, has long been used by the ethnic Bai people as a source of fish. Its easily accessible shores are popular with visiting trekkers. Erhai Lake Park is a pay-to-enter facility. There is a slightly touristy vibe, which is made up for by outstanding views of the lake and by an on-site arboretum.

Boat cruises on the lake are also popular. Cruisers can witness cormorant fishing and visit villages of the Bai ethnic minority. These tours (especially those that feature the cormorant fishing) have a strong element of performance (as opposed to authenticity) and are best taken as interesting tourist attractions rather than authentic experiences. It is worth noting, however, that the tours do help bring income to a traditionally overlooked ethnic group.

Cang Mountain (Cangshan, often made redundant in translation as Cangshan Mountain) is a popular venue for multiple-day hiking tours. A well chosen tour, available for booking beforehand or once you arrive in Dali, can lead to some great backcountry experiences and visits to more authentic villages (compared to Dali’s popular day trips).

Wind turbines are part of Dali’s man-made landscape. These structures take advantage of the alpine winds that are especially strong in the spring and fall. The turbines are part of China’s Green Great Wall project, which seeks to make the country a leader in sustainable energy technology and manufacturing of green energy products.

But eco-tech is not the only hue of green in the city. Because of its progressive vibe, Dali has been the site of events like a recent eco-friendly fashion show . The highly publicized event featured models wearing clothing made from Earth-friendly materials. The show was not unlike the hundreds that take place every week across the country, but few others had the environment as the headliner.

Sleep green

Dali is filled with backpacker havens . These venues offer cheap rates and small-scale sleeping experiences. Some of them are themed hotels built and decorated to look like the buildings inhabited by China’s Bai or Tibetan minorities. Others are hostels with beds in shared dorm rooms that are available for a few dollars a night.

Camping is a possibility if you are a part of a tour group. There are budget backpacker treks led by local guides and luxury tours with treks through Cangshan. Some of these include mountain biking and climbing along with the usual array of sightseeing walks.

Go green

Hiking is the greenest way to go in Dali. There are also buses and mini-buses, which are the cheapest ways to get around the region of Yunnan and to get from the hub of Kunming to the Dali area. There is train service as well.

Once you reach the city, bicycles are the cheapest and greenest form of transportation (besides foot power). Rentals are readily available at bike shops and guesthouses.

Eat green

Some of the guesthouses offer quality vegetarian fare. There are small cafes that also feature non-meat menus. Vegetarian food is not scarce in China, but can sometimes be difficult for Western tourists to find. That is not the case in Dali, where they are part of the tourist restaurant scene.

The expat-run eatery Bakery 88 is one of the most buzzed about places in Dali. It features German-style baked goods made from organic, sustainable ingredients.

While Dali is not the easiest destination in China to get to, it is one of the least polluted and one of the most attractive for trekkers and nature-lovers. While the backpacker boom has fueled lots of faux authentic tours, it is possible to get beyond the tourist scene and experience the natural landscapes of rural China.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

Destination of the week: Dali, China
This backpacker haven offers some of the country’s best scenery.