‘Where are you??’ friends eagerly enquired after I posted pictures of Gouqi on my Wechat* Moments (see below). Pristine beaches, the sky and sea dressed in shades of blue to rival the Mediterranean. Surely this was not China, or anywhere near Shanghai where murky brown waters permanently surround the coast, often smothered by the persistence of the grey haze of polluted air. The closest beach to Hangzhou is in Ningbo, one hour South by bullet train, but reports from those who’ve seen it are far from glowing: turbid waters; grimy, dirty beaches – not exactly the kind of place to while away a lazy afternoon..
(*For those not in China and therefore unfamiliar with Wechat … it is the Chinese version of WhatsApp, only a little more versatile and much easier to use than Facebook in China. No need for a VPN to let friends and family know your whereabouts….)
I was on a trip to an ‘abandoned island’, or so the blurb on Travelers Society’s website led me to believe, somewhere to the east of Shanghai. We were heading for the Shengsi Islands, a scenic area, consisting of hundreds of islands outlying the Hangzhou Bay and boasting multiple quality beaches, rocks, and cliffs.
It was definitely an island, only to be reached after a four hour boat trip from Shanghai’s port, but abandoned was best taken with a pinch of salt. As we were making the most of one of China’s few extended ‘holidays’ at the beginning of May (a three-day weekend courtesy of Labour Day on 1st May), long lines of Chinese tourists besieged the ticket booths… We were not the only ones visiting this gem.
Far from abandoned, Gouqi island clearly was very much alive with people whose livelihood depended on the sea. Endless lengths of fishing nets trailed along the narrow coastal road, its verges littered with skeletons of perished fishing boats and other discarded paraphernalia. Whilst thoughtless drivers careered around sharp bends, women and men – too old to be out on the sea – braved the unrelenting sun to mend the nets, ready to be set out into the sea at night for the morning’s haul. Suspended from polystyrene buoys, the nets crisscrossed large squares in the coastal waters and, come early morning, smaller fishing boats took to the sea to pull in the catch.
On Gouqi, seafood is the staple diet and the giant mussel a speciality. Whilst fresh fish is eaten in abundance, the rest is dried in the sun on huge racks along the quayside. Even the local snacks are fish-based: anyone for battered and deep-fried fish backbones??? I tried them – well, only one – after a shopkeeper insisted on handing some to us. Too crunchy for my liking and not sure about the nutritional value, I discreetly let them slide into a dustbin, out of sight.
We did eventually find the ‘abandoned’ part of the trip on the neighbouring island Shengshan: Houtouwan, a small fishing village nestled in the lap of the rugged hills with the sea at its feet. Only established in the 1950s, but hemmed in on all sides and with no room for expansion, the village soon outgrew its inhabitants as the fishing industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s. The now wealthier villagers left in droves and the village was eventually relocated in 2002 to a more desirable and accessible area, leaving the original village to the forces of nature. The village history at the entrance of the ‘tourist attraction’ did not chronicle how it became a magnet for visitors, but as vines and ivy invaded the deserted, crumbling stone walls and steps, and creepers weaved through doors and windows, the village became like a ghost town, eerie and spooky, coming alive with the change of the seasons and the whims of the weather. We were there in the midst of spring, on a warm, sunny morning, the greenery not yet fully showing its lushest.
And of course, no island and beach visit would be complete without spending some time enjoying the sun, the sand and the water… I dipped in a toe.. but left the swimming to a few braver souls as I certainly did not fancy the goosebumps that would follow complete immersion. Instead I joined in with beach volleyball, mainly watching the ball go by rather than being any use on the court, although surprisingly some of my serves ended up going over the net!!! As our night time beach party was gatecrashed by the locals and other Chinese tourists, we beat our retreat and spent the rest of the evening playing 15 man (and woman..) UNO at the hotel…
In the early evening we hiked up to the highest peak of the island, near an ancient Buddhist temple, to watch the sun cast its dying, warming glow over the cliffs and the sea.
And in the early morning, we rose before the break of dawn. Wrapped up warmly for the chill, we made our way to the other end of the island to take some spectacular shots of the sun soaring above the East China Sea… It’s amazing what cameras can do!!