Peace amid hills and waters
The tranquil waters of Thousand Island Lake in Zhejiang province, bathed in the golden glow of sunset. (Photo source: China Daily)
Outdoor sports, such as hiking or mountain climbing, may have gained increasing popularity among young professionals in big cities, particularly Shanghai and Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. But they are certainly not for everyone. For those who enjoy the outdoors but dread the backache and sore muscles after a day of hard sports, follow me. I spent a weekend in the gentle hills and on the idyllic waters of Qiandaohu, or Thousand Island Lake, to the west of Hangzhou, about five hours by bus from Shanghai.
Most guidebooks suggest that summer is the best season to visit the lake area. But like me, you won't be disappointed if you make a short trip there anytime of the year. Along the way to the resort hotel, my companions and I were treated to a cinematic view of rural Zhejiang, which stood in sharp contrast to our common perception of this highly industrialized province.
It was the harvest season in early winter. Huge haystacks stood on the vast expanse of the drained rice paddies, crisscrossed by narrow dykes like a giant chessboard where buffaloes grazed and flocks of birds gathered to feast on the leftover grain. The gentle light of the setting sun behind the low rolling hills beyond cast a golden glow on everything it touched.
The journey took us to hilly country with clean air and lush forests. The seemingly never-ending road that winds its way up and down along the hill sides reminded me of the expeditions that Jack Kerouac related in his novel On the Road.
The journey took us to our destination, a five-star hotel in Chun'an, a county-level city that is not lacking in shopping malls and eateries serving fish harvested from the lake and cooked in tens of different ways. Locals swear by their special wine made from the water of the lake. It tasted like any other kind of Chinese wine to me. But then again, I am not a wine aficionado.
The county is extremely quiet at dusk. If you fancy nightlife, you're out of luck in Chun'an. The town was pretty much deserted after eight in the evening. We asked the taxi driver to take us on a tour of the city. In less than 30 minutes, we were back in the hotel and spent the rest of the evening playing card games.
The next morning, we were advised to relax and take our time because the ferry that would take us on the tour of the lake ran frequently and the docks were close to the hotel.
A leisurely breakfast in the hotel coffee shop looking out to the waters beyond the garden was a real treat for us city folks who were used to eating breakfast in a subway car on the way to work.
We boarded the boat at around 10 am. As its name suggests, Thousand Island Lake has 1,078 large islands and a few thousand small ones with a total area of 573 sq km. It has more islands than any other lake in the world.
Our first stop was Zhuangyuan Island, the one that juts out about 100 meters from the lake. Climbing the steps up to the highest point on the island, Peak Mei, was a piece of cake even for me who seldom exercises. From that vantage point on the peak, I felt like a fairytale queen surveying her magic kingdom of islands and seas.
When the daydream ended, I literally fell to earth by sliding down the grass slope on a rented skateboard. The thrilling experience took only two minutes, but felt like a lifetime.
Lunch was served on the boat, a rare experience for me and most of my companions. The centerpiece of the meal was, of course, fish found only in the lake. But pay attention to the local etiquette when you eat. Turning over the fish is taboo because that action suggests the overturning of a boat and is considered a bad omen by the fishermen in the area.
Anyway, eating on the boat can be quite interesting. Sceneries go backwards as your boat moves on, as if you are watching an animated cartoon. As the waves gently lapped against the boat, making it rock from side to side, I felt like I was being lulled to sleep in a cradle.
We were taken to other islands during the trip. But I, together with a few friends on this trip, preferred to just sit in the sun on the open deck and daydream to our hearts' delight, while an occasional bird circled above us as if to say hello.
Back on shore, we went straight to Xiushui Jie, or the Silk Street, the cobbled street where vendors sell dried fish and other local delicacies at shops housed in buildings of ancient architecture painted in black and white.
The street was not crowded like those in the many water towns around Shanghai and the vendors were never pushy in hawking their wares.
On our way back, we stopped by Chuiyun Tongtian He, an underground canyon in northwest Zhejiang's Tonglu city. We took a boat trip through the dark canyon and watched in amazement the many haunting stalactites under artificial lighting.
By the time we got back to Shanghai, it was already dark and we were rudely brought back to reality by the city lights.