Chongming Island

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2006, 12:00am

As the old Joni Mitchell song goes, 'they paved paradise and put up a parking lot'. Such sentiment could soon be applied to Chongming Island, a remote county under the jurisdiction of Shanghai scheduled for big changes in the near future.

The island, China's third-largest after Taiwan and Hainan, is a remote wilderness made up largely of small farms, an enormous bird sanctuary and some excellent attractions offering the opportunity to commune with nature - a difficult task in the concrete expanses of Shanghai.

Next year will be a milestone for what is also the world's largest alluvial island (at 1,942 square kilometres) with the completion of a 17km tunnel, which will open up Chongming and end its relative isolation.

With the connection to the mainland, the plan is to reposition it as a so-called green island, with - the authorities promise - the utmost attention paid to ecological planning. New communities will spring up as part of an extensive development plan being implemented in the run- up to the 2010 World Expo.

Today, you can take a 90-yuan taxi ride to Chongming from Baoyang Port in Shanghai's northern Baoshan District. Ferries (28 yuan one way) run every hour. After a 45-minute ride across the water, disembarking in Chongming's relatively car-free centre is like arriving on a day trip to Shek O or Tai Mei Tuk.

The main street, the pedestrianised Bayi Road, with its sea of bicycle taxis, is lined with restaurants and shops. It's a good idea to stock up on supplies or sit down for lunch before venturing out across the island. Spicy Muslim soups and other treats from the vendors are highly recommended. So too is the fare from the numerous seafood eateries. Of particular note is the Boss' Wife restaurant, a widely lauded Ningbo establishment.

The proximity of Hanshan Temple (21 Dongmen Road, above) provides a good excuse for a post-meal stroll. The 400-year-old Confucian temple, in a courtyard setting watched over by imposing rows of statues, dates from the Ming dynasty. It's one of four temples on the island.

Next stop are the Dongtan wetlands, 55km away from town and best reached by taxi. The 240sqkm zone is an important stop for 100 or so species of migratory birds that arrive from September to April. Herons, sandpipers, gulls, ducks, egrets, cranes and hawks can be spotted on a sea of tall grasses. Visitors are no longer allowed to wander through the marshes, but may take advantage of the zig-zagging viewing corridor that stretches into the habitat (below).

The Dongping National Forest Park sounds like another natural attraction, but is eastern China's biggest artificial forest. Opened in 1989, it's more akin to an amusement park with trees, its attractions including fountains, rock climbing, grass skiing, a golf driving range, horse riding, paintball, a zoo and a convention centre straight out of the movie The Shining. Entry costs 40 yuan and a whole day can easily be spent there.

Meanwhile, the Yingdong Ecology Village, one of three in Chongming, has just the thing for those in the market for more local attractions. Under its 'be a farmer for a day' plan, visitors can pay a few yuan to live like locals, sharing the farm work and fishing, and staying overnight in a farmer's house.

If you're leaving the same day and find yourself back in town for dinner, order the drunken crab, the Chongming chicken and the Chongming cake - all island specialities.