Few people have heard of Dongji, the collection of 28 islands which comprise China’s easternmost edge, let alone set foot there. Most traffic is headed in the opposite direction, with the ageing population and urban decay of the small archipelago obvious to anyone who pays even the most fleeting of visits. Despite efforts from the government to increase tourism and boost the islands’ economy, seemingly the only people under the age of 60 in the islands’ population of around 6,000 are the soldiers based at the military outpost here, while numerous houses, schools and other buildings abandoned by their owners have long succumbed to creepers and erosion.
The islands, only four of which are inhabited, are near-deserted in off-peak season (which it’s tempting to suggest is year-round). But even during the relative ‘high’ season of July and August, tourist numbers are miniscule compared to the crowds that swarm over nearby Putuoshan.
Of course, this is precisely why most visitors come here: for those looking to ‘get away from it all’, Dongji (whose name literally translates as ‘east pole’) is an area that revels in its remoteness.
Getting here feels suitably adventurous: if you don’t hold a Chinese passport, you’ll need to apply for a special permit to travel to any part of Dongji, and before we leave the Zhejiang port of Shenjiamen, the woman at the Public Security Bureau warns us that ‘the islands aren’t properly open to outsiders’ and ‘may not be entirely safe’. While her safety concerns prove unfounded to us at least, there is certainly evidence to support her other claim.
Only one boat a day makes the journey from the mainland, but it can be delayed or even cancelled depending on the weather reports that are boomed around the islands on megaphones suspended above the narrow streets. Checking the weather before you leave is therefore crucial – on days when the mist rolls in across the islands’ hills and the waves splash over the walls of their harbours, a trip to Dongji can start to feel like a huge mistake.
When the sun shines however, it’s idyllic. Brightly painted fishing boats bob in blue waters in the harbour of Miaozihu – the main island – while the waterfront streets are dotted with elders threading fishing lines with their backs to the spray. At Qingbang, the next inhabited island in the chain, the dwellings stagger up the hill in a manner that has seen enterprising tourist officials dub them the ‘sea-top Potala Palace’. From Dongfushan, the easternmost island, you can watch the first sunrise of the day in China.
The ferry from Shenjiamen deposits you on Miaozihu, where the lack of a proper jetty necessitates a leap across a gap between the boat edge and land, aided by a soldier. Locals crowd round the ferry when it arrives – some offering accommodation in their homes, but most to grab supplies ranging from instant noodles to pieces of furniture – amplifying the feeling of distance from the mainland.
The small harbour makes for the focal point of Miaozihu and the area where you’ll spend nearly all your time on a trip here. In the summertime, the waterfront road hosts a night market with stalls serving that day’s catch. The rest of the year, it’s dotted with locals preparing nets for the fishermen who arrive in the evenings, causing a relative commotion. In the daytime, aside from the chugging of an occasional boat motor or the odd military vehicle, the only sound comes from the waves lapping against the harbour walls.
Given the peaceful setting, it’s easy to get the feeling that not much has changed here in decades. Yet the islands’ history hasn’t been completely without note. On October 2, 1942, the Lisbon Maru, a Japanese ship carrying 1,800 British prisoners of war from Hong Kong to Japan was mistakenly sunken by a US submarine just to the northeast of Dongji. Woken at dawn by the explosion and shouts from drowning soldiers, the islanders set out in their fishing boats and managed to rescue 384 of the prisoners, who had been left to drown by the Japanese.
All but three prisoners were subsequently recaptured (the lucky few holed themselves up in a cave on the coast and eventually gained passage back home), but the key rescuers were offered lifetime residency in Hong Kong by the government there. After a few months however, they all returned to Dongji professing homesickness. In 2005, a British group of family members and retired soldiers visited Dongji to commemorate the islanders’ efforts and to lay a wreath at the small monument that stands on Qingbang.
The story of the Lisbon Maru now forms the main exhibition in the little museum on Miaozihu which, together with a small display of local fishermen’s paintings next door, is one of the island’s few distractions. Otherwise, activities are limited to walking the surrounding hills. Miaozihu’s peaks feature a ‘sunrise-watching pavilion’, a Confucius temple, a PLA monument and a statue of Chen Caibo (one of the first settlers here, now worshipped as a god of fishermen), though none of these ‘sites’ are really quite as interesting as they sound and the real attraction is being surrounded by birdsong and fresh air as you admire the picturesque views out to sea.
Once you’ve exhausted the routes up and down the hills, the only thing to do – other than indulge in some karaoke at the rowdy OK Ting (the only bar in town during off-peak months when the rival Rock Jetty Bar is closed) – is eat some fresh seafood. While more makeshift eateries open up in the summer, most of the year dining options are restricted to the kitchens of the numerous ‘guesthouses’ (almost every home doubles as guest accommodation with very basic rooms available for around 100RMB/night) or three main restaurants: two small noodle houses on the harbour-front street, and the Haizhiyuan Hotel(0580 604 8888).
Of the two noodle houses, the pick is Xiaolin. Here, a bowl of noodles – fried (chao mian) or in soup (haixian mian) with your pick from that day’s seafood – is 20RMB. The dishes, environment and hygiene standards are what could politely be termed rustic, but the generously-portioned food is tasty and the owners friendly. The Haizhiyuan Hotel meanwhile, beside a small church at the very western end of the main harbour-front road, offers more comfortable surrounds along with various seafood and home-style dishes (try the battered shrimp, zhaxia, 35RMB). The accommodation here is also the best on the island, with hotel-style rooms available from 300RMB/night.
Getting here may not be straightforward, but provided you come with a sense of adventure and aren’t looking for a luxury getaway, Dongji can be a rewarding destination. The lack of any real activities or sites, combined with the basic or non-existent facilities, mean that it’s not for everyone, but for some, therein lies its charm.
Regular buses run between Nanpu Bridge Tourist bus centre (1588 Waima Lu, near Inner Ring Road; 3376 5779) and Shenjiamen port every day, taking around four and a half hours and costing 138RMB each way. The daily boat to Dongji town (Miaozihu) leaves Shenjiamen at 8.30am, returning at 11am. The trip lasts around two hours and costs 100-150RMB/each way.
The early start for the Dongji boat means that you’ll almost certainly have to stay the night in Shenjiamen. Hotels line the harbour front offering rooms from 150RMB/night, with better (and more expensive) options the further away from the ferry terminal you walk. At night, the Shenjiamen harbour front hosts a fun night market with small restaurants cooking up a wide range of seafood, while Zhujiajian (a 40RMB taxi journey away from the harbour) has a pleasant park with a beach and sand sculptures (entry is 30RMB).
If you don’t hold a Chinese passport, you’ll need to obtain an Aliens’ Travel Permit before going to Dongji. The Public Security Bureau in Shenjiamen can arrange this for you free of charge, but you’ll need your passport and proof of your employment in China (an Aliens’ Employment Permit should suffice). Their offices are located at Room 113 in West Building 4 of the giant new government offices complex at 169 Changzheng Jie, a hollowed-out cube of a building that dominates the skyline as you enter the town. Office hours can be unreliable, so call 0580 366 4087 before you travel.
Time Out Shanghai