Cruising the Thousand Islands Lake

By | Category: Travel destinations

Thousand Island Lakes

Had you visited the lake holiday hotspot Qiandao back in the early 1950s, the scene that greeted you would have been astoundingly different from the one that greets the enthusiastic holiday-makers of today. The entire Thousand Islands Lake was created in 1959, when the communist government with complete disregard for people, property, landscape and cultural heritage, decided to build a hydroelectric station along the Xin’an River, thus flooding a vast area.

The “lake” drowned 1,377 villages and 27 towns, as well as several ancient cities, and the 1,078 islands now dotting the landscape, used to be pristine hills and towering mountains. You could argue that the most interesting sights are to be found underneath the waters, but although man-made, the lake is one of the most scenic areas in this part of China, government folly notwithstanding.

The Chinese know how to make the most of a scenic location and a variety of cruises leave from the Qiandao lakeside every hour (more frequently in high season). Something akin to a theme park also lines the lakeshore, but it’s blissfully free of tack, at least at the end of the season when I visited (November). Instead there are pleasant gardens with babbling brooks and serene waterfalls, a few stalls doing Chinese crafts such as calligraphy and the odd food stall, mostly selling sweets and nuts, so don’t bank on this place for lunch.

Although there are many shorter cruises to choose from, for a good introduction to the lake, with stops on several of the islands, I’d recommend a longer cruise. The so-called full-day cruise is actually only about five hours, but that includes stops on three of the main islands, with excellent views of many of the others and tasty, freshly-cooked lunch is available onboard. Something that’s not available, whether on- or off-board is information in English (or any other language except Mandarin). This is a resort by the Chinese, for the Chinese and myself and my cousin were the only Westerners to be seen, lending our excursion something of a pioneering feel, even though we were by no means the only people taking the cruise. Luckily for me, my cousin speaks Mandarin, but for those of you who cannot call upon a multi-lingual relative to help out, I’d recommend hiring an English-speaking guide, if you want to find out more about the place.

Longshan Islet entrance

Commentary once onboard is blissfully brief – most of the Mandarin guiding via megaphone takes place on land – and the passengers are free to roam the decks and enjoy the views before the first stop of the day. The lake is surrounded by one of China’s largest national forest parks and most of the islands are richly forested with many exotic tree varieties. Our first stop for the day was Longshan Islet, home to one of the few buildings that have actually been preserved and relocated to higher ground to avoid the flood waters – the Longshan Hai Rui Memorial Temple, built to commemorate a former ruler during the Qing Dynasty. A lovely walk through bamboo forest led us to the temple grounds, complete with golden statues, and there was ample time to explore the surroundings on this small island before moving on.

Next up was a stop at what was referred to as Golden Turtle Island, where a steep climb up Plum Blossom Peak took us to a tea house with a view, to sample refreshing brews, during a tea ceremony that brought a whole new meaning to the word “sloshing”, contrasting rather violently with the Japanese equivalent.

Plum Blossom Peak teahouse

The peak also offered some of the very best views across the lake and islands, and had a rather quirky way of getting you back down to the boat again – a grass slide. Having seen the concrete toboggan with no straps to actually keep you in it, I opted to walk down… The third and final stop, after a very tasty lunch onboard, was called Snake Island, apparently home to 10,000 snakes, although the only ones we saw seemed to be somewhat drugged and sluggish, used as they were to be placed around the necks of eager, squealing tourists. The island was also home to one of the most cringe-worthy live shows I’ve seen in a long time, featuring some very male-looking lady boys from Thailand mouthing the words to Euro trash pop hits.

The combination of beautiful scenery, long-standing history with added government-provided atrocities, excellent nosh and a good dose of culture, admittedly in a language I don’t understand, made for a remarkably potent mix of gorgeous, tacky and tasty all in one go. Really not bad for a day out in rural China.

Qiandao can be reached by bus from Shanghai in 4-5 hours (stopping service 5 hours) and Shangai is served by direct flights on British Airways, China Eastern and Virgin Atlantic from London.

For more information about Shanghai, click here.

First UK Rights and images © Anna Maria Espsäter

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