Daishan. Off the beaten (tourist) path.
Daishan is an island off of the more famous Putuoshan island, amongst the group of the Zhoushan Islands in China's Zhejiang Province. Many people go to Putuoshan to visit the temples dedicated to Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. However, if you have an extra day or two, a visit to the biggest of the surrounding 1000 or so islands- Daishan- is worth the time.
Daishan is the second most important fishing community in China, providing the country with most of its fish. A stone's throw from the harbor is a small night market with tables and stands selling fish and seafood dinners by the main waterway to the bay. Fishing boats float by and some even pull over to the market to supplement the restaurants' offerings. The night market is busy and they sell anything from mussels and crabs to tiny snails and barnacles to steamed fish and fishhead soup. All fresh as can be and delicious. Few vegetable though!
Daishan has a population of about 200,000 and most are in the fishing industry. Few tourists come here, especially western tourists. Most people were quite shocked to see me and I didn't see another Westerner. But even though there are few tourists, there are many places to visit. Daishan has at least 4 museums that they are very proud of, and should be. The museums are very well presented and thought-out. Their themes might be somewhat bland, but the museums do a very good job of exhibiting their paraphernalia for the salt museum, the lighthouse museum, the fishing and culture museum, and the taiphoon museum.
What is amazing is that while the subject matter might not be the most scintillating of subjects, the city has worked hard to make it interesting, from the design of the museum to the pieces on exhibit. The salt museum is a white and glass set of cubes that look like salt spilt on the table. It sits amongst salt flats where salt farmers still work cultivating the stuff that someone thought was worth a modern-looking museum.
The Fishing and Culture museum, on the other hand, is located in an old-style wood building down a small lane in a small village. Here you can learn how to tie a fishing net and learn all about the different knots fishermen use. They even have an art gallery with paintings by Chinese artists depicting the fishing life. More interesting is the exhibit of the ancient fishing life. There are pictures of fishermen on boats and their hardworking female counterparts working ashore. Some of the fishermen on the boats were women as well. Graphs show how many fishing families there were in 1937 and 1949 and how much fish was caught in those two time periods (note: 1937 is before the revolution and 1949 was the beginning of People's Republic of China). They show the discrepancy between how much the fishermen were paid for their hauls by middle-men merchants and how much the fish were really worth. There are a few scene re-enactments with antique knick-knacks and sculptures of people. The sculptures are bronze-looking rather than the scary dusty dummies used so often in Chinese museums. Traditional clothing, tools, charts, and gear are on display. There is a whole exhibit just of boat steering wheels from through the ages, including a fancy one celebrating the anniversary of Columbus' famous voyage of 1492.
In the back is an homage to the fish that are caught in the Pacific: hammer heads, turtles, tuna, eels, sun fish. Life-size dioramas with fish on a coral strewn-ocean floor and bigger fish hanging from wires to depict the fish that swim above in the waters. The coral is real, most of the animals are stuffed, and some are paper-maché. For a Chinese museum it is very well done. Less impressive is the array of fish in jars, the liquid evaporated in some enough to expose some of the animal inside, giving the room a faint fishy smell.
Upstairs they have models showing how the fishing was done, with model boats floating on plastic water and a view of the huge fishing nets below, catching a bunch of colorful plastic fish. It is very interesting to see the size of the nets in comparison to the boats towing them. It is a very large museum and there is even a room with an extensive collection of shells from around the world. It must have been donated by a Japanese group because the shiny brass labels are in Japanese and Latin, but no Chinese! All other information is in Chinese with no English (there hasn't been a need).
The lighthouse museum should be visited at night as it is at the end of a road lined with replicas of famous lighthouses from around the world with their tops lit. The museum itself is a real lighthouse, based on a cute lighthouse in Portland (Maine I am assuming) but with some added neon (this is China after all). Inside there are hard wood floors and photos of famous lighthouses around the world. The exhibit begins with a description and drawing of the Pharos Island Lighthouse-one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. There is an impressive display of various lighting apparatuses spanning from an1880's oil lamp and wick to present day multi-faceted glass. The exhibit is all in Chinese, as well as the tour, but most things are self-explanatory. The most impressive thing was that it is so clean and well-presented-something usually lacking in a Chinese museum, where they have a lot of things together, not necessarily in any organized fashion, and everything is dusty and not well cared for. This museum even has a small café upstairs with tables lit by kerosene lanterns and a room with a ship sailing simulator complete with all of the controls and computer screens showing location on earth, location within the specific region, and a view of the ship's prow as it navigates through waves and harbors. I was really very impressed by this museum.
I would like to return Daishan to do the whole museum tour! Daishan also has yellow temples nestled in its small hills, spectacular views of the surrounding islands, and great big beaches where you can walk for miles on flat sand. The beaches are wide and the water stays shallow for a hundred yards. On the beach I visited there were children running around in the quarter-inch of water remaining on the beach, dune buggies buzzing around the obstacles of discarded shoes and people, and a couple of SUVs whizzing back and forth up and down the beach.
On another island just off of Daishan (a very small island that is connected by a short bridge) in a village of stone houses, the street strung with lanterns celebrating the 1st of October, there is a mysterious land formation that was obviously cut by humans, but no one knows who or when, or why. It was obviously used as a reservoir for water, but the cliffs are a hundred feet high and it is a very large complex of cliffs and reservoirs. The stone cliffs and the reservoirs are cut square, indicating that humans did the cutting. There are several areas of natural stone formation and lichen has grown on the south side of the cliffs, giving it a greenish hue and making it very beautiful. The cutting patterns on the man-made part is the same as what I saw on the caves in Anhui that had been built 1000 years ago, again obviously as a reservoir for water, again with square corners, again no one knows who, or why. But even that information is more than the locals at this Daishan version knew. And this was not caves, but high open cliffs, the water open to rain water and sunlight, so not crystal clear like those of the Anhui caves. And someone had introduced some goldfish to one of the reservoirs. It is really quite a beautiful place and amazing that someone was able to carve this area out. The markings from the tool are even and regular-I thought it was from a machine, but crystals growing in the Anhui caves are over 1000 years old. Also, people in Daishan have been visiting this area for many years and no one knows how it was built, so it couldn't have been a machine as China did not have such machines 80 years ago (it can be assumed that since no one's grandparents know about the place, that no machine was used since then).
Daishan is a busy port town that is not in guidebooks or on most people's must-see list. But being a 2 hour boat ride from Putuoshan's harbor, a visit to Putuoshan can easily include a visit to this museum-rich island. The pace of life is slower, many people get around by pedicab, and the beaches are a welcome respite from the big cities of China. They build ships here, they cultivate salt, they haul in enough fish to feed China, and the island offers a new place to go that really is off the beaten tourist path.
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Getting there: a fast boat to Putuoshan leaves from Shanghai's Luchaogang Harbour. The trip takes three and a half hours.
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Published on 10/23/05