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Shengsi on my mind

Updated : 2021-08-30 (chinadaily.com.cn)

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The fishing boats drift quietly like guardians of the sea's beauty. [PHOTO BY ZHANG LEI/CHINA DAILY]

A city dweller flees the summer heat and heads for an island-and is soon longing for another helping

When the summer heat starts becoming oppressive within the confines of a big city it often seems that taking the quick exit to the sprawling spaces of the countryside is the best solution.

So one recent weekend, in early July, when Beijing was sweltering and a faint moldy odor seemed inescapable, the exit lights lit up and off I went-not in this case to the countryside but to something even more idyllic, an island.

Normally when the number 404 flashes up, you're looking at a computer screen being told you've taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. But when I arrived on Shengsi, an island county in the northernmost part of the Zhoushan Islands in Zhejiang province composed of 404 islands, I knew I was definitely in the right place.

Of those islands, 16 are inhabited, the most well-known being Sijiao, Gouqi, Shengshan and the delightfully Flower and Bird.

A group of three of us drove to Shenjiawan Wharf in Shanghai for a ferry ride to start our journey to Gouqi (wolfberry) Island at 8 am. After two and a half hours we disembarked on Gouqi Island. The endless sea, the turquoise water, the forests and the stone houses were layered on top of each other, as if inlaid on a cliff.

One of my friends surveyed the scene, turned to me, nodded, and said: "This is the ultimate." This guy is an inveterate traveler who can sometimes be extremely demanding when it comes to rating, food, hotels or scenic attractions, so this accolade was akin to an Academy Awards judge handing over an Oscar for best film after having seen only five minutes of the movie.

Across the wharf we walked 100 meters and arrived at a little hut nestling at the foot of the green mountains to where our guesthouse owner greeted us enthusiastically and drove us from there straight to our lodgings.

Having set off on our trip in the early hours, we were already feeling the effects of sleep deprivation, but that did not stop us enjoying the views along the scenic route, including the island's summit, its head protruding elegantly through a shroud of mist and cloud.

We were taken through lush forest that against the backdrop of the sea appeared as a fine emerald embedded in blue silk, the fishing boats drifting quietly like guardians of the sea's beauty, fulfilling their duty to the very best of their ability.

The guesthouse owner, having volunteered to work as our tour guide, said the island had been settled as far back as the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). In centuries past it had been named after the wolfberry shrubs on the island, but these have since been displaced by houses made of stone. However, I barely had any patience to digest this fact because at that moment my stomach was crying out for food, egged on by a display board we passed that vaunted the local seafood restaurants. So forget wolfberries and think rather of wolves that have not eaten for days.

We dropped off our belongings at the guesthouse before the owner brought the first dish, a seafood mixed platter. Having spent the past few hours eyeing the scenic beauty of the sea, we would now let our mouths delight in its exquisite flavors. Anyone who has seen a bunch of seagulls on a beach trying to outdo one another to get their beaks onto a tasty morsel will appreciate that someone as mild mannered as me was going to come off second best in this food fight. The next rounds produced the same result, and I was left to complain later about how unfair it was that I could snag only a bite or two.

We then repaired to the beach, thankfully with few people on it, enjoying the fine sand below our feet and running happily to and fro. As waves broke over the golden sand, the vista ahead composed of the sea and the sky was a seemingly horizon-less azure blue. Waves crashing on the beach and swishing over the sand, coupled with the joyful screams of frolicking children, provided the perfect soundtrack to this picture-another Oscar nominee perhaps.

However, soon enough the novelty and excitement of all this was beginning to ebb, and vague capital-city impressions began to form in my mind: yes, the sweltering heat we had sought to escape had caught up with us, even if it was in a slightly different form and attenuated by the occasional sea breeze. So now it was time for a nap before we freshened up to come out to see the setting sun.

We would undertake this one-and-a-half-hour ritual by first going to the largest mussel breeding center on Gouqi Island. We climbed up a col on the island, facing the sea, said to be one of the best spots for sunset gazing, and were able to see white foam floating all over the sea. From a distance, the foam boxes for cultivating mussels looked like sea pearls. The sun's rays turned the previously blue sea into a blazing canvas of red hues, a landscape painted with the most affirmative brushstrokes.

We had planned to stay for another day or so, but that night the owner told us that because of a typhoon alert we would need to leave the next morning.

So Shengshan Island, connected to Gouqi by bridge, would be the last place we would visit during the trip, the main attraction being Houtou Bay Uninhabited Village.

This village, in the island's northeast, has been called a Chinese version of the Wizard of Oz, and in the 1970s and '80s more than 1,000 people lived there. However, with the pressure of economic change, they all left, and photos of this former fishing village being swallowed up by the lush creeping plant mountain tigers were seen by many on the internet. This Wizard of Oz, as if abandoned by the world, is like a fairyland wrapped in a fairytale. It is no exaggeration to say it is the most beautiful uninhabited village I have seen in China, and now it has become a popular spot for internet celebrities.

There are a few things you should look out for. The mountains and plains are full of vines and creepers. The roofs, walls, houses and gravel roads are all infested with green. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides and faces the sea on the other. At the bottom of the village is a small sandy beach with a safe haven, on which remain traces of the fishing trade.

Next to the village is the Precipice of the East Cliff that stretches into the East China Sea, overlooking the mussel growing areas and fishing boats on the sea. Any picture you snap here will be worthy of being more or less permanent computer wallpaper. Shengshan Island is the first occupied island in China's furthermost east that basks in the first rays of sunrise. The East Cliff is famous for its steep walls and rare rocks.

Along the rugged mountain road on the top of the cliff are steep cliffs everywhere, some with drops of tens of meters. Walking halfway up the mountain, you feel that the surrounding mountains were cut out with a huge ax. Perhaps it is no surprise that a poignant love story is attached to these cliffs. Legend has it that this place was smashed down by the Dragon King with a sword, so it is to the supernatural craftsmanship of nature that we owe our eternal gratitude.

Unfortunately we just missed the sunrise, but glancing downward I spotted a small fishing boat creating wavelets that glistened in the sun's rays, the gleaming ripples disturbing an otherwise still expanse of blue. It was then I realized how entranced I had become with this island's poetic and sensuous glories.

Soon it would be time to leave. We arrived at the pier and boarded the ferry, over which hung a sullen quietness, as though the magic spell had been broken and leaving the island had jolted everyone into returning to their self. Like an ebb-tide wave my heart rejoiced in going home, but at the same time sorry to farewell Gouqi so soon.

As the Beijing heat does its best yet again to torment me, the sea breeze, the beaches and the sights and sounds of a fishing village linger in my mind, leaving me panting for more.