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Chongming: Shanghai’s Secret Island

We visit the wetlands of Chongming Island on the eve of the construction of China's first eco city

03·15·2012

Chongming: Shanghai’s Secret Island

We visit the wetlands of Chongming Island on the eve of the construction of China's first eco city

03·15·2012

March is not the time to visit Chongming Island—or so I was told by a friend who works there. By the time I stepped off the bus onto the marshy soil of the island’s wetlands, I had to admit that she was right. Though winter’s cold had subsided, a steady drizzle had turned the usually lush landscape into a vast expanse of watery gray. But never mind the weather—I was here on a mission: to spot some of the exotic migrant birds Chongming Island is famous for. Before, that is, they’re all gone.

Once regarded as a quiet weekend getaway for outdoorsy Shanghaiers, these days Chongming Island (崇明岛) is best known as the future site of China’s first “eco city,” Dongtan (东滩). Chosen for its strategic position in the Yangtze River Delta, along with its largely untouched natural wetlands, Chongming has long had a reputation as an unspoiled natural preserve; but all of that may change once construction on the eco city goes into full swing.

Still, it may be awhile before that happens—there’ve been more articles than progress on the eco city since 2005, when the developer was first contracted to build it. However, word on the street (or more accurately the friend who works in the Chongming Information Office) suggests that things are finally being put into motion, and the groundwork for the eco city’s infrastructure is already underway.

Arup, the developer behind the project, will be pleased. But the sleepy crabs and numerous birds who populate the Dongtan Wetlands (东滩湿地) nature reserve may not be. Voted the best ecological reserve in the country by national officials last year, this unique wetland environment is well worth a visit, particularly as it’s impossible to predict how the hundreds of species of migratory birds that visit the area will react to a massive eco-city appearing on their doorstep.

Ornithological interest aside, Chongming Island, which lies at the mouth of the Yangtze River, offers a welcome escape from the suffocating urban environment of Shanghai and is just two hours away from the city by car.

Undeterred by my friend’s warning against an early March visit, I set off to see if I could spot any birds in the wetlands open to the public on the island’s eastern tip. Some of the regular visitors to the area include hooded cranes, black-faced spoonbills, whistling swans and great knots.

Arriving on the island I experienced that rare sensation in China of being almost entirely alone. With only the sound of the reeds swaying in the breeze for company, I focused my energy on attempting to pick out the forms of the shimmering black dots on the horizon that I assumed were birds. It was after about two hours of walking around that I realized bird-watching on Chongming is not an activity one can pursue without some kind of high-powered photographic or binocular equipment.

Feeling thoroughly disenchanted with Dongtan, and perhaps beginning to feel some kind of sympathy with all those who had written huge pieces on the site and its as yet unrealized potential to be a “world-leading” eco city, I tramped off to join my friend in the Chongming Info Office for a lavish working lunch.

As a vast array local dishes emerged from the kitchens at the Jinxiu Hotel (锦绣宾馆) restaurant, a typical local Chinese eatery on Xinchongnan Road (新崇南路), my mood began to recover. The yellow catfish and tofu soup (昂刺鱼豆腐汤), wine-cooked alfalfa (酒香草头), boiled tiny white shrimp (白米虾), cold Chongming pumpkin slices (凉拌崇明金瓜) and Chongming rice cake (崇明米糕) were delicious, not to mention the sweet-smelling rice dish that accompanied them, which seemed to bring with it the aroma of freshly harvested paddies.

Late that afternoon, I visited Chongming County Museum, located nearby other visitor draws like Yingzhou Park (瀛洲公园) and the Yangtze River bank. Originally a xuegong (学宫, an official feudal school similar to a Confucian Temple), the humble museum chronicles 1,300 years of the island’s history. Most interesting is an exhibit on ancient boats that focuses on the legendary explorer Zheng He (1371-1433), a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) navigator renowned for seven mammoth voyages that spanned 28 years and more than 30 countries.  According to local official records, Zheng’s fleet anchored off the island several times to take shelter from bad storms after emerging from the Yangtze River.

My final image of the island before I boarded a bus to return home was of the boundless Yangtze itself sliding by behind a huge stone inscribed with an introduction to the island along the river bank. Turning away, my head bowed against the bleak, gusty weather, my friend sent me a text message: “Do visit again when it’s getting warmer and the flowers blossom. We can bike across the lavender plain.”

I may not make it back for May when spring strikes the island, but for those who can, take a Shen-Chong Line 1 (申崇一线) bus from Wenshui Road Station on Line One of the Shanghai subway.

Photo courtesy of the Chongming Information Office

Read about Kaitlin Solimine’s visit to the island here