Sunshine! Blue skies! Sparkling blue water! Time for a day out on the lake, the whopping big one I can see from my hotel window. There seem to be boats of all sizes shooting all over it, so boat trips must be the thing to do at Qian Dao Hu. We make our way to the wharf to check it out, imagining hiring a little private boat for the day to tootle around a few islands, take a swim in the lake’s clear waters, have a bit of a nature walk, and be home in time for tea.
Down at the wharf there is a buzzing, noisy carnival atmosphere, with people swarming everywhere and the whole place covered in coloured bunting and Chinese flags. Surprisingly there are no touts and no private operators hedging for business – the entire lake is run by the government, and is open to tourism in a very precribed and rigid fashion. You may take one of two boat trips. Each trip will visit three different isands. You may purchase lunch on the boat. Full stop.
So we buy tickets to something. A boat trip hopefully. We buy drinks and snacks in case we misunderstood the bit about buying lunch on the boat, and set off down to the jetty. There are hundreds of identical boats in two sizes, and thousands of people in every direction. It’s at this point that it hits us. We are the only foreigners in Qian Dao Hu for as far as the eye can see. It’s a place surprisingly invisible to most non-Chinese tourists, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t make it into Lonely Planet China, Frommer’s, Eyewitness, or any other guide. Tripadvisor – nothing. But clearly every person in China has heard of it, because it looks like most of them are here.
Dozens of people look at our tickets, and helpfully point us to the right boat, which we board in a rush along with about 160 Chinese tourists. Now in Shanghai, foreigners are nothing special. We’re everywhere. But go off the beaten track and you are suddenly a person of intense interest. After about, oh, ten seconds of shyness, there is an all-out bunfight for the seats next to us. The questions begin before we’ve even pulled away from the wharf. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How old are your children?’ ‘Do they study Chinese?’ ‘What kind of school do they go to?’ ‘Isn’t it expensive?’ ‘How do you like life in China?’
The boat guide stands up and the boat is suddenly filled with her voice amplified to maximum. It’s almost painful. There are lots of lake facts to get through, square metreage, number of islands, that kind of thing, then there is a long discussion about the really important part of the tour – lunch. The menu runs to twenty different hot dishes. I can’t imagine where or how they will make all of this food, because the whole boat seems to be taken up with seating space. Then, as another boat passes close by us, I spy the open-air kitchen on the aft deck of the boat. Nothing more than a few pots, and a gas-fired wok burner. Genius. We order fish, soup, and two vegetable dishes.
Before we eat though, we make our first island stop – San Tan Island. There are already twenty-three boats parked, but we just sound the fog-horn and ram in between two others. No problem! As we leave across the tiny gangplank the guide brands us all with a sticker bearing the boat’s number, just in case. But there is no chance of making off on our own because we stand out too much. Everywhere we step we hear ‘Weiguoren! Weiguoren!’ (Foreigners! Foreigners!) We get herded along with everyone else into electric golf carts to what we assume will be a hill-top view over the water. It’s not. It’s a snake park. (Actually, apparently it’s a Sanke Park, but we get the drift). A sadder Sanke Park I have never seen, and the highlight is a snake oil seller, giving away a free cigarette lighter with every bottle. Then off again to a peacock farm. And then a moth and butterfly house. And a fish museum with eight specimens. All of this inside fifty minutes, then back on the boat. The guide looks very relieved that she hasn’t lost the foreigners along the way.
Now it’s lunchtime! When we re-board the boat our lunch is already laid out. A whole lake-fish cooked with chili and scallions, a seaweed soup, a surprisingly delicious dish of black fungus, and a stir-fried cabbage dish. With rice, it comes to 80 yuan ($13). I’ve just eaten the last mouthful when we pull up at our second stop – Monkey Island.
There are just a thousand or so people on the tiny island, and all of them are desperate to feed the few hundred monkeys with popcorn or mandarins. The monkeys are sensibly mucking around up in the trees, to avoid being loved to death by the hordes below. We’re allowed 15 minutes before we have to be back on the boat, just long enough to shuffle along the path and shuffle back again.
I’m feeling a bit like the monkeys at this stage, because we’re attracting just as much attention amongst the tourists from other boats. Information spreads ahead of us between them, and I can hear they already know where we come from and how much our school fees are. At least they’re not trying to feed us popcorn, but instead continually offer up their children to practice some of that English they’ve been learning at school. The kids, of course, hide behind their parents and say nothing until we’ve walked past, then shout ‘Hello!!’ to our backs.
Our last stop is Meifeng Island, and at last, a view. We take a chairlift to the top of Meifing Peak where the view is absolutely spectacular, and for a few short minutes we escape the crowds and find a quiet path along the peak. The islands spread out below us as the sun starts to dip in the sky.
Now, for reasons not yet clear to me, whenever there is a tourist spot high on a hill in China, there is always a fast way to get back down. Like The Great Wall, for example – climb up to the majestic wall, consider Chinese history in all its glory, then take a luge back down the hill. Meifing Peak was no exception – they offered China’s Longest Fake Grass Slide. Now there’s a light you shouldn’t hide under a bushel. It was terrifying hurtling down the hill on a plastic bucket, but there you go. We survived.
And then back on the boat for the final leg home. Our fellow passengers look highly pleased with the amount they’ve accomplished in six short hours. Snakes! Peacocks! Moths! Monkeys! Chairlifts and grass slides! It’s been an exhausting and ever-so-Chinese all day adventure.
Can we have a rest day tomorrow? Please?