The Dongji Adventure

(东, dong–east; 极, ji–the greatest extent/a “pole” (geography))
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After returning to Shanghai and spending the week catching up with friends, we came across Qingming jie, or Tomb Sweeping Festival. Since all of China’s holidays are nationalized, every single holiday involves the mass movement of people as everyone flocks to popular tourist and vacation spots.

This year, my friends Noah, Allison and I decided to join the rat race and head for what we hoped would be a more secluded tourist spot: Dongji Island, or the easternmost of China’s islands (current land disputes notwithstanding). The day we were to leave, however, Noah flew back from Chongqing feeling a bit under the weather, so our Qingming plans became a weekend girls’ getaway. Allison and I began our celebrations by drinking some wine out of a screw-top bottle and eating some french baguette on the 4-5 hour night time bus ride from Shanghai to the Shenjiamen port.In Shenjiamen, we spent the night in a hotel room with three beds (sorry, Noah!) and then woke up at 5:40 AM to get to the port at 6 to buy ferry tickets. However, unbeknownst to us, the vast majority of people buy their tickets on Taobao, and also because of the national holiday, Dongji was not quite as neglected a vacation spot as we hoped it might be. Though the schedule had added more boat times to accommodate the increased travel, we weren’t able to get tickets for the 8:30 AM boat, and got them instead for the 11:30 am one. Slinking back to our hotel, we asked the manager if we could have our room back for a pre-departure nap.

Flipping through the room cards, he handed ours back, and we returned to the room to nap (and I did some work). After grabbing some breakfast nearby, we headed back to the docks to board the boat to Dongji Island!

Dongji Island, is, in fact, a collection of islands which are poorly mapped and named. Dongji includes at least 5 islands, of which we eventually learned the names of 2. Our boat went from Shenjiamen to the port city/town of Miaozihu — but what island was Miaozihu on? We didn’t know. Regardless, instead of disembarking at Miaozihu, we climbed onto another boat and headed towards Dongfushan (the name of the actual island.)

On the way to Dongfushan, we passed Qibin (another island name). When the Baidu maps on our phone (think of Google maps’s much worse and vastly more annoying step-cousin twice-removed) showed us heading past the island we previously thought was Dongfushan, and towards yet another one we hadn’t even realized was on the map, I gave up on figuring out the whole Dongji island situation in general. All I knew was that Dongfushan was the easternmost of the easternmost Dongji Island(s).

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Our arrival at Dongfushan was a little hectic. Disembarking involved a series of five people manhandling everyone off the boat–Allison and I both wondered how many people had fallen off the boat before ferryworkers decided the best way to handle this situation was to grab everyone by the arm and physically pass them to the next person across the gangplank–and then we were suddenly surrounded by crowds of people headed towards people holding signs for hotels and guesthouses.

Allison and I approached one sign-holder.

“Do you still have rooms?” Allison asked (in Chinese — she and I thankfully both speak Chinese, which made our trip possible, if not smooth!).

“Nope,” came the reply. “And all of my friends’ are booked up too.”

The lady did, however, helpfully suggest that we head to the ticket counter where we could find someone to help us find a room.

The dock town at Dongfushan was built up into the cliffs. The ticket counter was fairly central, but up one level: from there, one could see the streams of people leaving the docks and heading up into the town to various guesthouses. We found an aproned woman and told her we didn’t have any rooms booked, and that we’d heard she might be able to help us find something.

The woman eyed us, then leaned over edge of the cliff

TWO PRETTY LADIES NEED A ROOM? ANYONE HAVE ONE OPEN?” she yelled down at the crowd of people.

Various negatives were shouted back. Then: “YES, I HAVE ONE.

Another wrinkle-faced older lady climbed up to us, followed by a pair of other girls. Together, we walked up higher into the maze of the town until we reached her home: The Fisherman’s Guesthouse. The room we were shown had a double-bed, was clean, with an ensuite bathroom, and a little expensive. We were willing to take it, though — there was just one catch.

“This room was already booked.”

“Oh… then why did you say you had an open one?”

“Well, you’re here.”

“What will we do if the people who booked it come?”

“…If you want to rent it, I’ll give it to you.”

A national holiday in China is not the time to be polite: Allison and I took the room.

Leaving our stuff behind, we then started walking along the path that surrounded the island. We passed the Stone House Village, a village of empty stone houses that looked like they’d been built and immediately abandoned, and then ’round the island. It was really beautiful, in a way that China often isn’t due to the masses of people, and we even stopped to enjoy some more wine and (stale) bread on a rock overlooking the ocean. Even though the holiday is literally the busiest time to be at Dongfushan (later, our hotel owner told us this was the busiest year she remembered), we didn’t see that many people. (We did, however, note that a few people had opted to hike around the island and set up tents and camp out–something we wish we’d thought of!)

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Later that night, we had dinner at a local bbq place that also did some nice seafood dishes.

In the morning, Allison and I woke up to see the sun rise on the easternmost of east islands. I wrote a haiku about it:

easternmost of east
islands; the sun rose in haze.
and I slept soundly

In other words, I woke up, took an advil for my headache (I just get them sometimes), and went back to sleep. Allison actually did go see the sun rise, and came back reporting that it was “nice”.

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A little before 7, we had to buy tickets from Dongfushan back to Miaozihu, and then on Miaozihu we needed to buy another set of tickets back to Shenjiamen port. However, we encountered a slight problem: though China is in many ways a glorious place of the future, where the need for cash has been supplanted by widespread and easily accessed mobile payments–even the mom-and-pop fruitstand on the corner of my street takes wechat pay–Dongji was a secluded enough place that one could only pay for ferry tickets by having bought them in advance online, or in cash.

The price of two tickets back to Miaozihu was 60 RMB.
The price of two tickets from Miaozihu to Shenjiamen was 260 RMB.

Allison and I had a combined total of about 77 RMB.With our 77RMB, we bought our tickets back to Dongfushan. Then we wandered towards the eastern side of the island, for some pre-ferry views. We came across a couple that had spent the night in a tent.

“I bet tent people are nicer,” I told Allison.

“Probably,” she said.

We had talked about finding people with extra cash and exchanging mobile money for their cash. While the tent-guy worked on rolling up his sleeping bag, Allison and I approached him.

“Hey… we need to buy tickets from Miaozihu to Shenjiamen and we don’t have cash. Can you exchange with us?”

Hai shao le duoshao?

Hearing this and expecting a refusal (like, why are these two sketch people sidling up and asking us for money?), Allison and I turned away. Then we both processed what he had said: “How much are you short by?”

The tent-couple, being the great and clearly well-prepared and sensible people they were, exchanged 300 RMB with us. Huzzah. We could officially get back to Shenjiamen.

The rest of the day was filled with long, but not unpleasant, travels filled with chatting and napping. In Miaozihu, we had a couple of hours to walk around the town, and back in Shenjiamen we were able to catch an earlier bus back to Shanghai.

In the end, it was a cool getaway that felt longer than it was, in a really nice way. I talk about “bad China days” all the time, but this weekend definitely counted as a “good China day” — filled with casual but not stressful misadventures, grandmotherly old Chinese ladies who are also cutthroat but in a way that finally worked in our favor, and a real local culture that’s refreshing to behold.

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behanabroad

A 60-year-old cat lady disguised as a 25-year-old digital nomad.

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