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Asia travel

The Chinese island that is so close to Hong Kong, yet very different: Wailingding – how to get there and what to see

About 12km south of Lantau Island, the Chinese island of Wailingding is reached by ferry from Zhuhai. Once a haunt of pirates and smugglers, it is enjoying a tourist boom, with its cafes, bars, seafood restaurants and a thriving seafood market

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 7:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 4:32pm

There’s something odd about looking at Lantau Island from the south. The grandeur of its hills, including the second highest peak in Hong Kong, is almost lost on you as it blends into the other land masses on the horizon – Hong Kong Island and the Chinese mainland.

That’s just one of the things that make Wailingding different. Just 12km away from Lantau, and with a thriving village, a visit to this island – part of China’s Wanshan archipelago in the South China Sea – makes for an entertaining, out-of-Hong Kong experience.

It may be little more than a stone’s throw away from Hong Kong, but getting there involves travelling across the Pearl River Delta to Zhuhai, then taking a ferry that passes under the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, and exits the delta to cruise by islands including Lantau.

Viewed from the approaching ferry, Wailingding has an unremarkable profile, with a couple of central main peaks sloping rather gently to the sea. The greenery of the hillsides is dotted with granite outcrops and boulders – rather as on Po Toi, an island just south of Hong Kong Island.

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Indeed, Wailingding is rather like a sister island to Po Toi, being likewise very roughly circular and with only small bays and headlands. Both islands are around four square kilometres in area – less than a tenth the size of Kowloon. Both have villages limited to the west coasts, sheltered from northeast monsoons and the major typhoon winds. But while Po Toi is nowadays almost uninhabited, Wailingding is enjoying boom times, fuelled by tourism.

The ferry berths at a pier by a new two-storey building with cafes, bars and a tourist information centre. A narrow road leads past a police station, and a cluster of buildings six storeys high that await their finishing touches.

Wailingding’s buildings are not crammed together, and the village has a relaxed, rural atmosphere. This is helped by the paucity of traffic, with just two cars seen during a recent weekend trip, the main vehicles being small trucks with electric motors, electric scooters, and pedal carts for one or two persons.

The village is at the base of a peninsula on the west coast of Wailingding. At the north of this, there’s a beach with a designated swimming area. It’s attractive but tiny, so not a place to make a beeline for if you are used to beaches in Hong Kong, where even Deep Water Bay is expansive by comparison.

Beside it, a path leads to a rocky promontory topped by a pavilion, which is among the best places for viewing Lantau and seeing what other parts of Hong Kong you can recognise from this angle.

A coastal trail starts near the beach, leaving the buildings as it nears the tip of the peninsula. There are steps above the rocky shoreline, and a place where you can drop down past boulders as big as cars, and cross footbridges made from granite slabs to clamber onto another natural promontory.

Outside the village, a slender road leads uphill. A little more than half an hour’s walk along here, there is a small area devoted to Pak Tai, the Emperor of the North – who is akin to the patron saint of nearby Cheung Chau. A concrete platform is dominated by his statue, a gilded figure around two storeys high, with imposing black beard, and stern countenance.

Near the statue is the Morning Bell, a bronze bell close to a metre tall, that rings loud and clear when struck by a wooden post suspended from metal chains.

From here, a sign indicates the way to Lingding Peak Rockery Park, 1,800 metres away. The 311-metre summit of the island may make for an interesting walk on a fine day, but seems less appealing when heavy rain sweeps in from the South China Sea.

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Around five minutes’ walk north of the village, there is a small harbour for fishing vessels, where a sign warns against smuggling.

It’s a reminder that these islands in the Pearl River vicinity have long been a hive of nefarious activity; early Portuguese mariners dubbed them the Ladrones – the Robbers, or Pirates. Also, it serves as a reminder that while Hong Kong is close by, there’s a need to cross from one system to another to return home.

Getting there

Zhuhai is served by ferries from Hong Kong’s China Ferry and Macau Ferry terminals, to the Jiuzhou Port (cksp.com.hk). Ferries to Wailingding depart from Xiangzhou Port, on Lovers’ Avenue in Zhuhai; while they can be booked in advance through local travel agents, tickets can also be bought at the port, costing around 150 yuan (US$22) for a journey taking up to 1½ hours. Note that the island is a popular destination, especially during public holidays and weekends.

While the main village area on Wailingding can be easily covered during a day trip from Zhuhai, it’s perhaps more rewarding to stay overnight. There are several small hotels and hostels, which can be booked via ctrip.com.

Wild Times of the Wanshan Archipelago

Visiting Wailingding serves as a reminder that there are far more islands in the vicinity of the Pearl River Delta than are often be represented on maps of Hong Kong, which give the impression that open sea lies beyond the southernmost tips of the Soko Islands and Po Toi.

The Wanshan Archipelago comprises roughly 104 islands within the administration of Zhuhai; and while quiet today, they have had a turbulent history, mostly intertwined with Hong Kong.

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Early in the Qing dynasty, the inhabitants will have suffered severely from 1662 to 1669, when the coastal area was cleared in the struggle against remnant Ming dynasty forces that had fled to Taiwan. By the late 19th century, piracy was reportedly rife. L.C. Arlington of the Chinese Maritime Customs reported, after a six year stint at the Customs station on Cheung Chau: “Gangs of pirates would get together and attack the villages, even in broad daylight.”

According to a report from the British consul in Guangzhou at the time: “The old freebooting spirit still survives among many who are now apparently peaceful traders and fishermen, of which we occasionally get startling proof in some unexpected daring act of piracy on the high seas or along the coast.”

In the summer of 1950, there were echoes of the demise of the Ming dynasty, as Nationalist forces fleeing the Communists arrived in the Wanshan Archipelago from Hainan. Here they planned to blockade the mouth of the Pearl River, but suffered a naval defeat before losing a succession of islands, including Wailingding, on July 1, 1950 (so says a Wikipedia account that’s evidently based in information from the victors).

In decades since, the islands have been more peaceful, with the recent surge in tourism also including resort hotels on Wanshan and the Dongao islands to the south of Wailingding.