China’s Leizhou Peninsula: undiscovered gem rich in history, natural beauty and rural ways
Once you get beyond the modern port city of Zhanjiang, the peninsula in eastern Guangdong is a natural delight, boasting a gentle landscape, traditional rural lifestyle, wetlands that attract waterfowl, and a culture all its own
The Leizhou Peninsula is a spur of land thrusting south from the China coast towards Hainan Island. Lacking major tourist attractions like soaring mountains or renowned historic sites, and with only modest transport links by modern China standards, it lies apart from the tourist trail.
But with its expansive landscape, wetlands with a host of waterbirds, traditional lifestyle and blend of typical southern Chinese and local Leizhou culture, the peninsula makes for a rewarding visit, and is perfect for a long weekend.
Driving into the peninsula from its main city, coastal Zhanjiang in its northeast, the landscape is surprisingly flat, with little hint that there were volcanoes active within the last 10,000 years – long after Hong Kong’s last volcano erupted.
There are expanses of rice fields, too. On a recent visit, farmers were seen preparing fields for spring planting. Another farmer strolled by a paddy, herding a flock of ducks that waddled ahead of him.
Approaching the west coast, there are extensive fish ponds, each about the area of a football field. Here, too, can be found scenes typical of life in rural China, such as water buffalo grazing on a grassy bund or being escorted by a man in a bamboo hat.
Mangroves fringe the coastline. At the Leizhou Jiulongshan Mangrove Wetland Park, egrets and night herons gather to nest in spring. Jiulongshan means Nine Dragon Hills, yet if you look around there are just gentle hillocks nearby.
In the northeast of the peninsula, beyond the mangroves at Leizhou Bay, low tide reveals vast sand banks and mudflats teeming with shellfish and crabs. The thriving ecosystem here led to the Beijing-based Society of Entrepreneurs & Ecology ranking Leizhou Bay among China’s 10 most notable coastal wetlands.
That ranking came in December 2015, a year after birdwatchers counted 38 spoon-billed sandpipers in the bay. The tally made news among birdwatchers internationally, as this sandpiper is among the world’s most threatened birds.
It isn’t easy to find spoon-billed sandpipers, which are little bigger than sparrows. During my visit, I searched with He Tao – a Leizhou native and an assistant forestry engineer with the Zhanjiang Mangrove National Nature Reserve that covers much of the bay – and we found only one, despite walking what seemed well over a kilometre.
The search was rewarding in other ways, though, as expansive tidal flats like these are wonderful, wild places. Hundreds of metres from the shoreline, with the tide receding, a sheet of water across the flats made it seem like you were walking on a gigantic mirror reflecting blue sky and clouds.
The peninsula has remained a place apart from much of China, nurturing a unique dialect. Today, the city of Leizhou in the heart of the peninsula is something of a backwater, home to only around 300,000 people.
At the eastern edge of the city, the 57-metre high Sanyuan Pagoda soars above fields and neighbouring buildings. The Ming dynasty pagoda is set in a small park with pavilions and fruiting trees, and feels tranquil.
Nearby, a warren of narrow streets is lined by typical southern Chinese buildings of the kind that are now hard to find in Hong Kong. They look solidly built, with overhangs sheltering walkways below, and shops open to the street sell traditional steamed buns.
Leizhou means “Place of Thunder”, and since around 3,000 years ago, locals have made simple stone dog carvings that serve as totems to guard against natural disasters or storms. There might be 20,000 or more of these statues scattered across the peninsula, and around eight of them have been placed by a geopark museum at Huguang, north of the peninsula. They’re rather cartoonish looking, the tallest standing little more than knee-high, and fashioned from volcanic basalt.
During the Sui dynasty (AD581to 681), Buddhist monks built temples including Lengyan Temple, which remains active today, with monks chanting in the main building and nearby statues in grottoes hewn into the cliff.
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There are more grottoes at the nearby White Clothes Nunnery, one of which has a surprising twist – it’s around the size of a pedestrian subway, with Buddhist statues in two chambers, but these lead to a chamber with rows of seating made to look like a tank where surreally visitors can watch virtual reality war films.
In the Earthquake Museum beside the geopark museum, a room shakes vigorously and erratically to simulate a quake. There is also a model of the world’s first seismograph. This was invented by Zhang Heng (AD78 to 140), and was a copper instrument with eight dragons arrayed in a circle, facing outwards; when an earthquake occurred, the dragon facing it would drop a ball into the mouth of a bronze toad below.
Huguang is in an area where a volcano once stood. A ring of raised land encircles a lake that is roughly 2km long. Information boards tell of this being a maar lake – formed as a result of magma rising, meeting water, and exploding. In places there are low cliffs of tuff, a rock made by incandescent volcanic ash that settled and fused into layers.
Sightseeing vehicles stop at various attractions around the lake; a temple and nunnery, cliffs, and a wood described by a sign as a natural oxygen bar. The sign gives tips for enjoying the natural ions and oxygen: “Deep breathing, singing, laugh loudly, and intentional coughing.” Grand advice for enjoying life itself (except, perhaps, for the coughing).
On 27 May 1898, the northeast of the Leizhou Peninsula, together with some nearby islands, was leased to France for 99 years – much as the New Territories were leased to Britain a month later. Japanese forces moved in during the second world war, and after this the concession was returned to China.
This period of French rule evidently helped lead to the emergence of the port that has become today’s Zhanjiang, where there are still some colonial-era buildings. Among them is the Cathedral of St Victor, also known as the Xiashan Catholic Cathedral, which boasts two towering spires and was, when finished in 1903, the largest Gothic cathedral in southern China.
For the most part, though, Zhanjiang does not reflect its colonial past; it is a thriving, modern Chinese city, with wide boulevards running between medium-rise buildings and abounds with stores selling the latest fashions and hi-tech goods, plus restaurants, banks, and hotels.
A strip of neatly manicured seaside park, with grassy areas planted with palms and banyans, extends around 8km along the coast.
Zhanjiang was ranked on China’s “2014 China Winter Resort List”, and praised as an “azure dreamland”. While there are beaches in the area, reports suggest they are not as pristine as you might hope to find in a dreamland.
There are also new industries, including a massive steel plant, as the local government strives for an unlikely balance between construction, industrial development and ecological protection.
For now, however, Zhanjiang remains worth a visit, albeit a brief one, as a gateway to the fascinating land of thunder.
Shanghai Airlines operates a daily flight from Hong Kong to Zhanjiang, taking around 1½ hours. A new high-speed rail line is due to open this summer, slashing the time of a rail journey from Shenzhen to around three hours.