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September 18, 2019

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Isles of ghosts, sun’s first rays, fruits of the sea

Thinking of islands, people tend to conjure up visions of sunshine, beaches, bikinis and swimming. The Zhoushan Islands in neighboring Zhejiang Province have something different to offer.

More than 1,300 islands scattered over the sea comprise China’s largest archipelago. Boats link the main islands, taking visitors to Buddhist holy sites, an ancient “ghost town” and the homes of local fishermen.

Here are some spots that visitors won’t want to miss.

Shengsi Island

In the past, Shanghai residents considered Shengsi one of the best — and closest — venues for feasting on seafood. While that is still true, many visitors now go to the island to tour a deserted village.

Houtouwan Village was once one of the largest settlements on the island, home to more than 600 families. Most of the residents were fishermen. However, when fish numbers declined in the mid-1980s, villagers packed up and left. The village emptied out, but its buildings were never demolished. Almost by accident, it has become a sightseeing attraction.

Kudzu grew rapidly and covered most of the houses, creating a beautiful setting in a somewhat creepy way. Vehicles can get to the top of a nearby hill. From there, visitors can walk to Houtouwan.

Near the top of the hill is a graveyard, which adds another layer of mystery to a visit. In the beginning, outsiders who first discovered the place called it a “ghost town,” mainly because of the cemetery.

The most significant difference between Houtouwan and other villages is probably its eerie silence. In a typical Chinese village, everything wakes up early. Before dawn, roosters crow and kitchen smoke rises. But here, there is dead silence.

Some of the houses are not locked. Walking inside, you find them empty of furniture. Kudzu, a plant that is elsewhere used as fodder and erosion control, grows from both inside and outside the houses, burying the windows and doors.

Walking further into the village, you find that not everyone has left. One or two families bravely soldier on. They are not the original villagers, but rather people from other places who are seeking solitude. They grow vegetables to feed themselves and sell the surplus to neighboring towns. They appear like hermits in a pre-technological age.

However, the tranquility they sought is now being disturbed by visitors, as word about the town spreads. A travel service company has even renovated a viewing platform on a nearby hill and charges visitor fees. Fortunately, these developers haven’t touched the village itself, perhaps out of fear of destroying the charm of Houtouwan altogether.

Dongji Islands

Four islands on the east of the archipelago are called Dongji because they are at the easternmost point of China, except for Heixiazi Island in northeastern Heilongjiang Province.

Among the four, easternmost Dongfushan Island is believed to be where “the first ray of sunshine” falls on China.

On the island, there is no sandy beach but a wide shore reef. Climbing on one of the reefs, you find nothing blocking the view as the rising sun covers the sea in silky gold.

The sunset is just as beautiful. Faraway from city lights, stars glitter like jewels in the dark blue curtain of night.

Miaozihu Island is the busiest among the four. It is surrounded by rich fishery grounds, which generated a developed chain of catering and accommodation businesses.

People who enjoy hiking can spend hours there climbing the mountains and visiting historical sites, including a lighthouse and a gravel beach.

Mount Putuo

The most popular place in the Zhoushan Islands is Mount Putuo. Some visitors never get beyond there.

The mountain is believed to be where Tibetan Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara — also known as Guanyin in China — cultivated his believers. Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the mountain has been a holy site for Buddhist pilgrims from all over the country.

Three main temples there include Puji Temple, which has a history of more than 1,000 years and hosts all formal Buddhists. The main entrance is usually closed to the public. In ancient times, it was opened just once every 60 years, probably under some emperor’s order.

A huge lotus pond in front of the temple presents changing views in different seasons. The lotus bloom in June, but even in other seasons, the green carpet is picturesque, set against pavilions, trees and temple houses on the banks.

A bamboo forest named Zizhu is another must-visit spot in the area.

Inside the forest lies the earliest temple of Mount Putuo. It has a somewhat odd name, Bukenqu, which means “not willing to go.”

It is recorded that during the Tang Dynasty, a monk from Japan tried to take a Guanyin statue from Mount Wutai, another Buddhist holy site in China, back to his country. But when his ship reached the sea near Mount Putuo, a tempest lingered and his journey home was blocked for a long time. The monk reckoned it was a sign that Guanyin didn’t want to leave, so he handed the statue over to local people and asked them to build a temple to house it.

Although the current buildings of the temple were rebuilt in 1980, many visitors still believe that this place is Guanyin’s chosen spot and he will bless them if they are devout enough.


Early autumn is probably the best season to enjoy seafood in Zhoushan. Fish stalls line a street, beckoning visitors to buy freshly caught fish, shrimp, prawns, crab and shellfish.

Portunid crabs are the locals’ favorite. The crabs available in Shanghai markets are frozen; here they are freshly caught.

The crabs are very delicious, with a taste of sweetness in the meat. Locals usually cook them simply, by steaming or stir-frying with spring onion and ginger so that the original flavor of the crabs is not overpowered.

Yellow croakers and hairtails are other specialties in Zhoushan. Again, just simple steaming and a light dressing of soy sauce are all it takes to create delicacies.

Apart from Shengsi, the Shenjiamen area on the main island of Zhoushan is another popular seafood resort. On “seafood street” there, nearly 70 stalls vie for customers with signature dishes. It’s best to read comments online before choosing one. Some serve low-quality seafood, cheating tourists not familiar with the area.

There are direct buses from Shanghai to the main island of Zhoushan, over cross-sea bridges. From there, visitors can take boats to other islands. The buses leave from the Huangpu Tourism Terminal under Nanpu Bridge in the city.

Accommodation is available in various destinations, including the Dongji Islands and Mount Putuo. If you want to watch sunrise on Dongfushan Island, you can book B&B accommodation near the spot where “the first rays of sunshine are cast,” which is on the southeastern side of the island.

Even in autumn, sunscreen and mosquito repellent are recommended. And one last tip: make sure that your seafood is fully cooked.


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