The official website of Nanji Island (南麂岛, or “South Muntjac Island”– for anyone wondering, here is what a bunch of muntjacs look like on a bad day) describes the little piece of land off the coast of southern Zhejiang Province as a “national-level geopark.” Dramatic weather patterns, abundant wildlife, high cliffs, and gorgeous beaches are all part of the official description–along with many more ostensibly-good things, like “standardized hotels” and “entertainment facilities.” But as we continued down the fog- and rain-sogged coast, from the fishing villages of the Shengsi Islands to the light-industry powerhouse of Wenzhou, with memories of our last five-hour boat journey still painfully fresh, one advertising point above all stood fixed in our minds: Nanji Island is serviced by a high-speed ferry. The pull of the sea is strong for travellers of China’s eastern coast, although it’s apparently stronger for some (Nick) than for others (Bayley and Owen). But when the sea is offering to pull you out on a quick, relatively stable hydrofoil ride, it becomes impossible for any landlubber not to gaze out, past the gray waves crashing on trash-covered rocks, and imagine themselves loving life on a not-so-distant beach with standardized hotels and geopark-quality muntjacs.
We sought out the ferry from Aojiang (鳌江, or “River of a certain mythological giant sea turtle”), after spending a wet but happy day along the rocky beaches and high hills of Xiwan (西湾, or “West Bay”). When we got to the River of a Mythological Sea Turtle ferry dock, it was the morning of the second-to-last day of the May Day holiday. That meant that the boat was packed. Giddy young couples and families, freed for 96 hours from their less-fun normal lives, stood enthusiastically in a long line to buy tickets, living it up (and photographing) every shuffle-step of the way to their island paradise vacation. All the power to them, really, but the combination, as we sat at the dock waiting to depart, of 200 cell phones, 15 simultaneous cigarettes, 30 long-lens digital SLRs, more bright and tight outfits than one could count, and the boat’s TV tuned to Chinese soap operas cranked to the max volume, all made us wonder if it would have really been worse to just puke on a slow boat going somewhere else.
When the 80-minute ride was over, we offloaded gratefully onto the Nanji Island pier. The sun was out, the breeze was mild, and before us was a long bay rimmed by interesting-looking villages and overlooked by hike-worthy hills. To the west were even higher hills, with peaks crowned by an array of radar dishes pointed south, toward Taiwan. Even more hike-worthy. But then someone started shouting at everyone to get on a bus. We followed, and the driver cheerfully informed us that there was one single destination that we were allowed to go to on the island. We were brought there and discouraged further exploration.
Fortunately, that destination was the site of a huge, yellow-sand beach the likes of which we’d not yet seen in this country. And, despite the crowds on the boats, the beach itself was blissfully uncrowded. The water was blue and there was not a chicken bone to be seen. We made the biggest sand castle we could, and as we admired it we were ourselves admired–by groups of young dudes on the beach, whose main activity seemed to be burying each other in sand while wearing competitively smaller and smaller bikini brief bottoms; and by tan-fearing women in long-sleeved shirts and floppy hats. Everyone came to see the foreigners’ sand castle, and some even stood inside and had their picture taken. Truly, we were sand castle celebrities. The edifice itself was nothing special, but for some reason our being foreign and building a sand castle was noteworthy. We finished up our beach time by buying an enormous chunk of watermelon and eating it stickily in the sand. It was the good life, to be sure, and it certainly felt far away from the congestion and grey skies of Hangzhou. It’s easy to understand why the tourists flock here, and we were thrilled to spend the better half of the following day on that same glorious beach before riding the noisy boat back to shore.
From Aojiang, we took the bullet train down to Fuzhou, where we boarded our last boat (to cheers from me and Owen), destination: Taiwan’s Mazu Island.