EVEN ON A GOOD DAY, making your way from the United States to Wenhai, a rustic community-owned and -operated eco-lodge located at 9,900 feet in the mountains of southern China, is a 24-hour commitment: First you have to fly ten hours from San Francisco to Beijing or Shanghai. Then you continue three hours on to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and catch a 45-minute hopper flight to Lijiang, an aging hamlet with old stone houses and cobblestone streets. And you still haven't arrived.
"From there, you take a half-hour bus ride up to the village of Baisha, where you start hiking for five hours, first through rural communities, then up through pine trees, then into oak and rhododendron forests," explains Graham Bullock, coordinator of the Ecotourism Program in China for the Nature Conservancy, which has been sponsoring the Wenhai project. Only then do you arrive at Wenhai Ecolodge, a refurbished log house with sloping roofs and hand-carved window frames. Although the inn has only 20 beds, it is becoming a maverick example of ecotourism in China.
The lodge is owned by a village cooperative of 56 families who bought, renovated, and now staff the property, dishing out rural cuisine in a rustic courtyard. Equipped with solar panels, bio-gas equipment, water purifiers, and a greenhouse, the place proves that small-scale ecotourism can thrive. Plus it donates 10 percent of the profits to conserving nearby Wenhai Lake and its surrounding forests, which are threatened by unsustainable agriculture and illegal logging.
The extreme geography of Yunnanwhere Asia's three great rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween, rush among five immense mountain rangesmakes for varied trekking. It also accounts for the region's wildlife diversity, which ranges from protected black-necked cranes to Asiatic black bears. From Wenhai Ecolodge, visitors can take a three-day hike down to Tiger Leaping Gorge along a difficult, narrow path. But if the long journey to Wenhai has already wiped you out, there's always the option of chilling on the patio as the sight of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, a cluster of 13 peaks that top out at 18,467 feet, unfolds like a private Imax screening. Contact: The Nature Conservancy's Ecotourism Program in China, 011-86-888-515-9917, www.northwestyunnan.com. Cost: $20 per person per night, including food; hiking guides extra.