Last week, intrepid Shanghaiist intern Kate Ray traveled with a classmate to the nearby island of Putuoshan, most famous for its Buddhist temples and monasteries. After a week of eating seafood and being stared at by tourists everywhere for looking somewhat non-Chinese, she has safely returned to Shanghai to share her hard-earned knowledge about the island…
We left Shanghai on a Friday night, taking the 8 pm overnight ferry to Putuoshan. Ferries leave from Shanghai’s Wusong Port, located at the intersection of the Yangtze and Huangpu River, with tickets costing anywhere from 100 to over 400 RMB, depending on your type of room and where it is in the boat. We paid 159 RMB and got beds on the second of four decks, where we had a small window but no access to the outside decks unless we went upstairs. The room had eight beds altogether and was a little hot, but otherwise comfortable.
Upon finally reaching the island around 9 am, we were delivered into a large cage. First Unpleasant Discovery: You have to pay to get into the island. Because the entire island is considered a tourist site, you’ll be charged for a ticket before you can even escape from the port (tickets cost 200 RMB the day we got there, but the price varies according to the season and students with official Chinese school ID get a 50% discount).
We bought a map for 3 RMB – there are none in English – and paid our way out of the terminal. Outside, we skirted the hotel hawkers and drivers and walked along the east side of the island toward the first “town” which was a small clumping of restaurants, tourist stalls, hotels, and houses clustered around a temple.
Because we happened to be there on the weekend of the May holiday, Putuoshan was full of religious tourists making their annual pilgrimage to the island and it wasn’t easy to find a hotel. After bargaining with hawkers up and down the streets, we landed a 300 RMB double room at the “Manor House.” The hotel appeared to be made up of about four older buildings hooked together with staircases and strange unused courtyards, which gave it some character (it didn’t have much else). Restaurants in the area were all a little more expensive than Shanghai – dishes tend to cost 20 to 30 RMB and they charge you for the rice. Though I’m a vegetarian, my meat-eating companion complained about being unable to find any good quality meat.
On the second day we attempted to go to the beach, which is where I made a Second Unpleasant Discovery: There’s no swimming allowed on the beaches. When we arrived, I saw a typical Chinese scene of a bunch of people with their pants rolled up to their calves standing ankle deep in the water. Some of them held umbrellas. Figuring that there was no way I could get stared at more than I already was, I stripped down to a bathing suit and a tank top and waded out into the water.
Apparently the lifeguards had scanned the beach for the only foreigners specifically to tell them not to swim. Supposedly, there are some beaches on the island that allow swimming at certain parts of the year, but we couldn’t find them. A little vexed, we decided to spend the rest of the day hiking and visiting the temples. We also found a guest house up in another “town” a little further north, which was much cleaner and only charged us 100 RMB for a double room.
The hikes in Putuoshan are mostly Chinese-style – long paved paths or stairs up to various sites, few wood trails of the type Americans and Europeans are used to – but it was possible to get a little off the main paths and explore on our own. Because the island is so small, it’s fairly easy to walk anywhere, which was useful since the island’s buses stop running at 5 pm.
The main attraction, a huge gold statue of the South Sea Guanyin, is pretty impressive and other temples were worth visiting as well. For us, the best part about the temples was seeing the monks doing their afternoon chanting. We probably stayed for about half an hour watching them one afternoon and the ritual didn’t seem to have any end in sight. Especially interesting was watching the other religious tourists interacting with Putuoshan’s monks – people shaking incense sticks at the statues seem to shake more energetically and everyone donates more when they’re around.
To leave Putuoshan, we decided to take the fast ferry to Ningbo instead of the overnight back to Shanghai. The boat was smaller and there was no way to see outside, but only cost 86 RMB. At the shore, there was a free bus transfer to Ningbo, which took about two and a half hours. If you want to explore an ordinary, non-touristed Chinese city, Ningbo can be fun and very cheap compared to Shanghai. The bus between the two cities was about 100 RMB and took about three hours, including a short rest stop.
Overall, the trip to and from Putuoshan (the way we did it) cost about 900 RMB for four nights, including the overnight ferry. If flying is more your thing, China Eastern Airlines offers daily flights between Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport and Zhoushan Airport, which is just a few minutes by speedboat to Putuoshan. Ctrip can help you book both your plane tickets and hotel room. Call +86 (021) 3406 4888 or visit english.ctrip.com.