Dongguan Island Hopping

island1Exploring Our Pearl River Delta

Dongguan is not often listed among Frommer’s top tourism destinations, but with fabulous natural scenery or historic environments, there are some tranquil parts hiding from the prosperous factories and honking cars and there is no need to be a local to go on safari in these locations. Many are worthy of a weekend day trip experience. With all of the cement, we often forget we are in the subtropics, and when in the hotter parts of the world there is little that is more memorable than a tropical, island hopping adventure.

Located at the estuary of the Dongjiang River as it advances into the South China Sea, Dongguan is surrounded by winding and crisscrossing streams and rivers in the north and faces the mouth of the river in the west. Although no official count of islands is available, floating on the edge of the city there are definitely a couple of dozen. Many of the islands are less developed, preserving large pieces of raw, fertile land to be cultivated by villagers for all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Some islands have managed to create their own charac- teristic one-of-a-kind features, attracting from time to time the more adventurous, looking for the off the beaten path option.

The HERE! expedition sailed out and explored different destinations through pounding thunderstorms and scorching sun. After experiencing unexpected findings and discouraging dead ends, we present the most valuable islands to cast a glance.


For the Sportsman

Dawangzhou 大王洲 (King Island)

Nestled in the middle of the south branch of the Dongjiang River before it splits and flows deep into Wanjiang and Wangniudun Town in the west, the island has the most hospitable entertainment facilities of the islands, with a golf driving range, seafood restaurant and a decent resort. It administratively belongs to Dongcheng and faces Shijie Town to its north.

Over 200 villagers take care of the vast farmland equal in size to over three quarters of Guancheng District where they cultivate fruit, vegetables, roses, fishes and poultry.

After getting off the ferry, running over 15 hours a day, a short path leads to four shady rows of stone BBQ stoves on the left. A number of ingredients such as chicken wings, beef, ribs and vegetables, tools and coal are provided from the service booth with RMB 80 per stove.

Walking to the right along the trail with fruit heavy longan trees on one side, it’s not far to see the red roofed restaurant building and resort complex with KTV and mahjong rooms set beside a long and narrow pond, with a scene of playful ducks chasing each other and indulging themselves in the paradise.

To the end of the pond is King Island Golf, housing 68 lanes stretching about 300 yards to the end of another fish pond, and half a dozen VIP rooms on the second floor with A/C, tea and mahjong tables, and private toilets, good choices for parties or leisure business meetings. The price is pretty reasonable too, with RMB 50 for a bucket of about 120 balls, RMB 100 on a weekday and 150 on the weekends for limitless buckets.

Exploring the rest of the island is quite a relaxing activity as well. Neat leafy vegetable patches, clusters of papaya trees, rows of local bitter melons and cute little cane seedlings greet you, yellow or black Chinese dogs lounge in the corner lazily, chickens appear from nowhere looking for worms. If you are lucky, you may see how the villagers work together in harvesting big fat fish from the pond with fish nets. Try to go in July and August, when longan are ripe and are allowed to be picked by tourists.

How to go: Find the dock on the Binjiang West Rd. in Shijie Town (石碣镇滨江西路), RMB 5 round trip. King Island Golf: 8866 0998 Hours: 7:30-23:00 Restaurant: 2261 1298 Resort: 2306 3118


For the History Buff

Weiyuan Island 威远岛

This island in Humen Town along with others across the river make narrow the Pearl River route from the ocean towards Guangzhou, reasoning that Weiyuan Island is a naturally strategic location and a perfect spot for the Humen Bridge as well. It was Dongguan’s last line of defense from the British gunboats of the First Opium War in 1841. The island is already a popular destination for the Weiyuan Battery and a modern museum devoted to the historic events. As the second biggest island in Dongguan, it is bigger than the Guancheng District with hills, farmlands, parks, villages, schools and factories.

The fort is located directly under the Humen Bridge built behind a wall of crumbing whitish stone blocks above the water, several hundred meters long. Cannons center in the evenly-spaced rooms with a window facing the sea. Peering from the shaded rooms through to the bright ocean water outside, the view today is crowded with container ships, so it can be hard to image how it looked to the Qing defenders, facing a British frigate and landing vessels full of British soldiers preparing to storm the defenses. The walk up to the hill is pleasant, with a few steep steps and low arches, and away from the present-day crowds there is a quiet connection to the past.

Close to the Weiyuan Battery, the Sea Battles Museum is a reasonable introduction to the First Opium War, presented with artifacts, historical images and displays alongside captions in Chinese and pretty well-written English.

How to go: There are two bridges, Weiyuan and Zhenyuan, connecting the island from downtown Humen. The blue sightseeing bus L1 goes from the Keyuan Garden, located in the center city, to the museum. Weiyuan Battery: 8552 7154 Sea Battles Museum: 8552 7783 Hours: 8:30-17:30


For the Seafood Lover

Xidatan 西大坦

Located in the joint of the Pearl River and the South China Sea, this area in Shatian Town stretches over kilometers of coastline with rich resources for seafood from both the river and the sea. It creates a seafood gallery along the bank where a complex of four long-legged, green- roofed buildings project above the water to face the broad river that is dotted with small fishing boats and red or blue container ships with a view of green hills. It is a pleasing experience, eating seafood while enjoying the scenery of a busy ocean and the bustling Humen Bridge.

An open seafood storage room tanking over 100 kinds of live fish and shellfish is presented beside the gate of each restaurant, allowing customers to pick the best ones themselves. Looking at the weird sea creatures like flounder looking back at you with both eyes on one side, can be fun too. We made a game of gambling on the mantis shrimps as they made strenuous attempts at escaping into the crabs’ section of the aquarium.

With reasonable prices and exclusive outdoor VIP rooms with a view, the restaurants are packed with people especially on summer nights, when a rather cool breeze from the ocean brings a puff of zest and vitality.

How to go: Drive along the Gangkou Av. (港口 大道) until the end in Shatian, turn right and go to the end of Jingang South Rd. (进港南路), where you will see the entrance sign for the seafood gallery. Pan Hai Seafood Restaurant: 8880 2268 Hours: 9:00-21:00 Xiong Ji Seafood Restaurant: 8868 8448 Hours: 8:30-22:00


For the Naturalist

Liyuzhou 鲤鱼洲 (Carp Island)

Floating in the Dongjiang River right before it separates into the north and south branches, this island is named after its shape, which resembles a carp with a vivid mouth, an eye and scales. Relying on the relatively unpolluted air and productive soil, the villagers on the island are well-known for their longevity. It is one of the last territories in Dongguan that hasn’t been affected by the rapid-developing urbanization and occupied by smoky factories or fancy villas. Instead, rows of traditional two-story brick and wooden houses built in the 1960s neatly line the head of the fish and gaze at the non-stop changes on the other side.

As the only transportation to the island, the small blue boat hasn’t changed its price of RMB 1 for many years. Following the main trail, with waist-tall wild grass and dragon fruit fields along the way, the village has sat tranquilly on the edge of the island for decades. The only restaurant features locally grown ingredients and stands at the beginning of the path to the neighborhood, beside which a dozen middle-aged men play vigorous games of poker.

This is a great place to bring the family or a group of friends for a fresh nature walk, and then mingle with the friendly local villagers who are certain to have stories of generations past as they still live a play mahjong in their tiled roof houses.

It’s rare to see young people in the village, yet all the farm work gets done, often by these seniors working into their 90s. But the journey and walk are really only excuses to try the food at the locally grown restaurant, certain to please the palate.

How to go: Go along the Dongjiang Av. until reach the Luofushan Bridge (罗浮山 大桥), the island is right below the bridge. Keep going and looking to the left until seeing a passage leading to the dock. The restaurant: 8263 3688

For the Good Samaritan

Si’An Island 泗安岛

Squeezed among the fragile terrain between Machang and Hongmei Town in the west of Dongguan, Si’An Island is well-noted for the Si’An hospital and a history of rehabili- tation for leprosy patients attracting groups of volunteers from China and abroad to bring cheerfulness to the old islanders isolated lives.

According to Mr. Wu, the head of the rehabilitation village, the island had been a quarantine area for the disease for a long time and later became a provincial treatment center in 1965. It housed over 800 patients from all over the province in the 1970s, the most in history. Today considering adequate treatment is available there is no forced segregation, but 79 homeless seniors still prefer the peaceful way to spend their lives in the remote island.

On the walk to the village, views of exotic sub-tropical forest vegetation with bright-red flowers and farmland surround the paths; a two-story vacant hospital from the 1950s sits on the roadside with faded yellow walls and torn windows; shirtless old men chat and cool themselves in the shade on stone chairs, waving enormous palm-leaf fans in front of content faces.

Since the 1980s, people from Hong Kong, Korea, university and domestic charities have come to the island to bring laughs to residents. “Thanks to these good-hearted people, everybody has a good time here,” said Wu.

How to go: Go to Hongmei Town, go across the Hongmei Bridge, a dock is sighted ahead. RMB 5 for a round trip per person. There is also an unfinished bridge on the left after passing the Hongmei Bridge that is passable. The Si’an Hospital of Guangdong Province (广东省泗安医院) is on Google maps and most GPRS. Volunteer contact Mr. Wu: 136 4295 5378


Ride Byes

Xin Zhou 新洲 (New Island)

Located on the border between Dongguan and Huizhou in the northern branch of the Dongjiang River, this island didn’t even exist on Dongguan maps 20 years ago. It is said that a leprosy colony was set up on the island by an early 20th century French missionary. Out of fear of the disease no one dared get close until the end of 1980s, when trucks of policemen arrived to build a modern prison. It soon gained a name and reputation for imprisoning foreigners from all over the province. There are currently inmates incarcerated from 49 countries.

Lisha island 立沙岛

This island in Shatian Town is known as the last shelter of a tradition of boat people. The Tanka people were banned by the Cantonese forcing them to retreat to small boat dwellings for thousands of years. They spread along the coastlines around Guangdong, Hainan and Fujian Provinces, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau. A widely held theory addresses that the Tanka were descendants of aboriginals of Southern China who preserved their separate culture from the Han’s overtaking of the area. They were despised in the old times and not allowed to marry the land dwelling people. Unlike the mountain settlements of the Hakka people, who have a large population and their own community, the boat dwellers scattered along the lengthy shoreline with one family living in a boat and they speak a similar language to Cantonese. The “salty water songs,” performed when they fish, knit or celebrate, is one example of the Tanka’s unique culture.