The next day, about citied-out, we finally set off on our real journey: to the islands. An early-morning bus ride took us out, one last time, across the bizarro world of Outer Shanghai to edge of the Asian mainland. Then we bought tickets for another bus, this one to take us over the 20-mile bridge to Little Ocean Mountain Island 小洋山岛, where cargo is on- and off-loaded from massive container ships that never have to bother entering a cramped port on the Chinese mainland. From Little Ocean Mountain Island we then hopped a high-speed ferry to Si Reef Island, with “Si” （泗）really just a name, but a name that can also be translated as “nasal mucus.” A beautiful place, the locals on Nasal Mucus Reef Island took one look at us and said, shaking their heads, “You’re a month early for tourist season.” It was the sweetest put-down of our travel sensibilities that we’d ever heard.
The place was chilly and windy, but the skies were clear-blue and the beach was empty save for some scavengers, animal and human both. Birds picked at mussel shells while a man dragged in a long piece of seaweed-encrusted driftwood and carried it away. Families harvested seaweed by the bushel and shoved it into plastic bags to cook for dinner. The ocean was icy, but not so cold that Owen and Nick stayed out of it. After the sun sunk behind the green hills, we returned to our guest house to warm up with hot showers and seafood. Now, normally we don’t eat much seafood in China, as we’ve seen the aquaculture farms out in rural Zhejiang province, and they are not a sight to encourage the appetite. But when it’s from the ocean, and cooked in the Chinese style of simple and fresh and very flavorful, it’s delicious. That first night, Owen ate an entire plate of clams cooked in egg custard. After dinner, we chatted with the proprietor about leaving the island the next day, and she assured us there would be both morning and afternoon ferries. We decided to have a leisurely morning and take the afternoon boat; she said she’d prepare us breakfast around 7:30 A.M., and we all said good night.
The next morning, we woke to loud banging on our door at 7 A.M. and heard the proprietor urgently calling, “If you want to get off the island today, get moving! The boat’s leaving in 30 minutes!” I cracked the door and whispered, “We’re going on the afternoon boat.” “No,” she replied frantically, “there is no afternoon boat today. A big wind kicked up overnight and if you don’t leave now, you can’t leave today or tomorrow either. Maybe you can leave the day after tomorrow.” Greedy for more beautiful islands and not wanting to squander our limited days on just one of them, we threw our things in our backpacks and raced to the boat dock. We boarded the ferry (really more of a bus on the sea, with no windows in the passenger section and every other person puking into a plastic bag as the boat rocks mightily back and forth), and were off.
We thought it would be an hour or 90 minutes to Gouqi Island, per our conversation with the lady the night before, but we found out that we’d boarded the slow boat (again, the only boat sailing that day). It would be 3.5 hours before we reached our destination. I reached for my barf bag and settled in for the long ride. Nick tried to keep from jumping for joy, at least in front of me–this boat would have us stopping at a bunch of other little islands along the way, where he could check out the scenes on the piers and chat with the fishermen getting on and jumping off.
Owen threw up and then settled into my sweaty embrace. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate-away the insanely loud movie that was playing on a screen three feet in front of me. Nick cleaned Owen’s mess off the floor and then disappeared.
Gouqi Island, named after those famous wolfberries (or goji berries, if you shop at Whole Foods), was a sight for sea-sore eyes. Again with that bright sky, and we cruised in a cab for 15 minutes before arriving at a small fishing town with a large, wide, sandy beach. Green nets lay in thick piles along the roadside for miles in every direction, and the top third of the beach was commanded by the off-season fishing boats, all in various states of needing repair. Men worked on the boats; women worked de-tangling and cleaning the nets. Everywhere, shop owners did their low-season repairs and maintenance; the salt air hummed with drills and hammers. We walked the sea wall and climbed the hills to the temples to see the ocean from above. I talked to some nuns in one temple who were more than a little surprised to see me, but who were unfailingly friendly nonetheless. Small towns have always been our favorite places in China, and out here was no exception. Because of the “big wind,” we were stuck on Gouqi Island for two full days, and it was wonderful. We ate at the same seafood restaurant for lunch and dinner both days, venturing out to the small morning market for breakfast baozi and that special coffee drink of the Western traveler in China: doujiang (hot soymilk) mixed with Nescafe. Mornings were spent collecting things on the beach, with Owen energetically and quite vocally leading the effort each time until his shivering lips turned blue and it was time to go back. Afternoons were Nick’s time to hike over the mountain in the center of the island to one of the other fishing villages on the back side. Pierside there were always plenty of fishermen available for chatting–fishermen not involved in clam cultivation, anyway. The latter were busy, it seemed, tending to all the stocks that encircled Wolfberry Island and the nearby sister islands. But the fishermen who fished fish, as well as squid, were never busy during our stay in the islands. As they explained to Nick, their season was short: just two months, sometimes less, starting in early summer. And in the off-season? Government subsidies, which keep the fishing fleet intact and these islands, out here on China’s eastern frontier, populated. “Must be nice,” Nick would offer. “Yes,” they’d reply, taking another drag on their cigarettes before reciting the same refrain: “The seafood is the freshest, and the air is so clean!” And then: “Now, why do you allow Japan to occupy our Diaoyu Islands?” Or: “After Boston, will you now attack more Muslims?”
The Diaoyu Islands were even more at the forefront of peoples’ minds out here than elsewhere in China, perhaps with good reason. The fishing fleet from these islands isn’t the one that occasionally makes the news by swooping down toward those disputed rocks; those fishermen, who are not-so-secretly following government orders when they initiate such confrontations, are based out of Zhoushan. (In fact, as the fishermen on Gouqi explained to Nick, China’s fisheries bureau exerts control over many of the details of when and where all the country’s fishing fleets go to fish.) And in the minds of most Chinese, the Diaoyu dispute is about justice, about China’s right to regain the last of the territories that the Empire of Japan greedily stole when China was at its moment of weakness. But talk about competition for resources also tends to come into the conversation, although not in the way that most Western newspapers present it. Surprisingly, it’s not hydrocarbons that the average Chinese person brings up as an example of what China has at stake, materially. It’s fish. And the way they see it, in addition to the injustice of Japan’s occupation of what is rightfully China’s, there is the added injustice that Japan, a “small” country, has used this illegal occupation to extend its claim to innumerable fishy creatures that China, with one-fifth of the world’s mouths to feed, should by all rights be able to harvest for itself. For the fishermen on Gouqi who wait around ten months out of the year, it was perhaps no wonder that this indictment of Japan was held with particularly strong conviction.
We wandered every last little lane and footpath over our 2.5 days, and on our last night we ended up in the local “park,” a basketball court where kids would congregate at dusk to don their flashiest sports gear: light-up roller-skates for the older set, and lit-up singing cars for the toddlers. Those without any gear to show off jumped on a makeshift trampoline: a discarded mattress, its fabric peeling in areas to expose springs. Owen joined in the ruckus, and when he jumped on the mattress, an older girl held him under his armpits so he wouldn’t fall on the springs. Then the fireworks started, a few streets away. Nick went to investigate, and heard a woman screaming at the revelers, “A piece of hot plastic landed on me!” They were setting off the fireworks in the middle of town, and burning fragments were falling on everyone. In their Chinese way, the men with the fireworks instantly obeyed the angry older women, and all pyrotechnics stopped until she’d stormed away and a good two minutes had passed. Then they went back at it, raining more burning fragments down upon us all.
The next day, the slow boat to Shen Family Bay 沈家湾 was predicted to take five hours. This is a relative eternity when you and your child are both prone to seasickness. It’s even longer when you end up waiting a chilly, rainy, fog-enclosed pier for two hours wondering if the ferry is coming or not. We managed (by being the first ones in the ticket office in the morning) to score sleeper berths, so we’d travel in the most comfort possible on the rocking seas. Unfortunately, once we boarded, we found out that our first stop was the island fifteen minutes away, where we’d wait again to see if the winds died down. After another hour in our bunk, playing with dinosaurs on the swaying table, we lifted our green heads and asked, “Are we going, or what?” The other people in our cabin had heard rumors that we might not go today (again, this was the only boat that day), but that the crew would wait an hour to make their decision. When the hour passed, all three of them got up and got off, not even bothering to talk to the ship’s crew. Nick did, and thank goodness, because fifteen minutes later, the ship’s horn blasted and the engine started up. We wondered what our former bunk mates were doing as we pulled away.
Fortunately, the seas calmed by about halfway through our journey, and by the time we got to Shen Family Bay the skies were again clear, although now tinged around the edges with the brown/yellow pollution of nearby Ningbo and Shaoxing. Unfortunately, however, we were now at the start of the May Day holiday weekend. Public security was tightened, prices were up, and we found ourselves trying in vain to find a cheap hotel that would accept foreigners on one of the bigger nights of the year for this place. Shenjiawan is home to the Boat Island International Aquatic Products City, eastern China’s biggest seafood market. The only draw to this place most days of the year is the business of filling distribution orders, but International Worker’s Day meant that all the seafood-loving petite bourgeoisie were here, on this weekend, for the business of filling their bellies. Hotel rates were inflated–and fixed, it very obviously seemed–beyond all expectations, and the police were limiting foreigners to just a couple bad hotels. After our idle days spent living thriftily and unmolested out on the tiny islands, it was an unpleasant shock to come back to the mainland, with its too many people and too many rules.
Next: down the coasts of Zhejiang, Fujian, and Fu-chien!