It was just past noon one Friday when I got out of class and ran into one of Anji's three other foreign teachers, who lived and worked at a different school from mine. She was about to set out on a weekend holiday to Ningbo, another large city roughly four hours from where we lived, on the coast of Zhejiang Province south of Shanghai.
I invited myself along and we trekked the hours by bus, arriving to Ningbo past dark. The next morning, we went in search of Putuo Shan, an ancient Buddhist island that lies off Ningbo’s coast in the East China Sea. The name Putuo Shan is a bit difficult to translate. I've heard it called "beautiful white flower" and the "shan" means 'mountain,' because the island, though only 12 km in diameter, is home to a steep mountain peak. It is said to be a place spiritually linked with the bodhisattva Guanyin, goddess of mercy, and it is regarded as one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in all of China. The entire island is still a working monastery, although now heavily-touristed and amazingly well-designed for the throngs that do visit each year, most of them Chinese.
There are some beautiful sandy beaches but they are unfortunately bordered by the rank, fetid waters of the East China Sea, which did little, actually, to damper the beauty of the place. They say that Putuo Shan is the spot where people find the serenity and beauty of China that they came looking for. Despite the lurking sludgy waters, the island itself is kept immaculately clean. We even saw police guards chide a mainland Chinese man who was spitting his sunflower seeds on the ground. When the guard asked the man to use the rubbish bin, he instead went near to the bin and began eating and spitting seeds all over the ground there.
Getting to Putuo Shan was the real adventure. The supposed ferry dock in Ningbo (as per an unnamed guide book) was more of a nasty old bus depot with a ticket booth. Rather than boarding a boat, we were ushered into a sketchy minibus and driven for more than an hour to a grubby dock. During the drive, we came to the conclusion that the end of our ride would result in some Silversteinesque place where, literally, the end of the earth would be a sheer drop. After the long enduring ride, some wrong turns, backtracking, picking up random roadside stragglers in several places, and nearly hitting and killing at least 3 mothers with strollers (not really), we arrived to the mucky dock for the ferry to Putuo Shan. The festering waters were something akin to what you might expect to find filling the canals of Tolkien's Mordor, not what you'd hope to see on your way to a Chinese Buddhist paradise island.
The bumpy-but-fun hour-long ferry ride set us off at Putuo Shan feeling a bit nauseous. Stumbling onto land, we paid the 110 RMB entrance fare to the island. The whole affair, plus a quick stop for lunch, left us with only a few short hours to explore the island - not even close to enough time.
100-Step Beach is the first seashore you come to when circumnavigating Putuo Shan, and at the far end stands a massive bronze statue of Guanyin. We surmised that she was probably constructed around 1986 to attract millions of visitors who undoubtedly marvel at her massive height and tawdry, brazen exterior. Instead, we opted for walking up a long hill into the village centre where we finally found the larger 1,000-Step Beach - a long, sandy facade on the island's eastern exterior. If it weren't for the sm(f)og (and the earth's curve of course), I reckoned you could see all the way to Baja, Mexico from there. After admiring the beach for awhile and reveling in the sound of the crashing surf, we went for ice cream at Puji Si, the largest temple on the island. A lovely round out to our four short hours on Putuo Shan.
Back at the ferry terminal, we were informed that, due to high winds ("da feng"), we would not be able to get back to our point of embarkation and would be forced to take a shorter ferry to Zhou Shan, a larger, neighboring island. From there, it was suggested a bus back to Ningbo would be available. Buying the only tickets we could, we hopped into the ferry, expecting a rougher ride than before thanks to stormy conditions and the glorious da feng.
Zhou Shan was a disaster. Our first mistake was to follow the one other foreigner we'd seen milling around the ferry with a Chinese girl in the hopes that they were going our way. Our second mistake was asking for tickets at a ticket window marked "宁波" (Ningbo). But when we asked, it was a resounding "mei you" ("there isn't one”), Chinese ticket agents’ favourite phrase.
So, there we were, unfortunate foreigners stranded on Zhou Shan, an island for which the unnamed guide book did not offer a map. Around us, the scene was like Chinatown plunked into Cape Cod. Hundreds of dirty, slimy fishing vessels bobbed in the water next to the small road that led up along the shore. On the narrow sidewalk between the street and the water were lined dozens of food stalls: orange tents with brightly-lit interiors that offered an array of fresh fish and vegetables to be cooked and eaten right there, beside the boats that caught them. If we hadn’t been in such a hurry to find a way off the island - it was now dusk and wet and stormy and we were, after all, still on a strange island in the middle of the East China Sea - I would've sat at one of those food stalls and had a glorious meal.
The next best idea was to get into a taxi and say "bus station", hoping Zhou Shan had a bus station, and then later hoping there would still be a bus back to Ningbo. The bus station yielded another resounding "mei you" from the ticket agent, who informed us the next departure wouldn’t be until the following morning. Now we were truly stuck.
That's when my friend remembered that one of her students back in Anji was actually from Zhou Shan, and so she got on the phone for advice. Upon hearing that her foreign teacher was lost and helpless in her hometown, the sweet young student called her father. Within 10 minutes, a non-English speaking man appeared to our rescue, giving us his car and driver as transport to the other side of the island where there would be an all-night ferry.
The driver silently whisked us across Zhou Shan. It was well dark by this time and we were tired and hungry. At the terminal, he generously purchased our tickets and, refusing reimbursement, sent us on our way. The ferry was actually a gigantic ship mostly used for the purpose of bringing vehicles (trucks and tour buses) to and from the island. There was an expansive passenger deck with indoor and outdoor seating and even a food service, which we took advantage of. Sitting on the outdoor deck with fried noodles and corn-on-the-cob, we tried to make out passing islands and peninsulas through the freezing sea air and inky dark evening. The silent water current passed unyieldingly under the boat, making us guess whether it was deep or shallow.
The ship finally slowed and docked at Ningbo on the mainland side and we descended the steps from the passenger deck to make our way off. What we’d stumbled into, though, was the ship's car park where all the other passengers were now sitting in their cars, waiting for the berth to open so they could drive out. Around 80 cars, some small personal vehicles, some huge tour buses filled with people were idling inside the huge concrete box, emitting exhaust. Averting crisis and fumes, we made it out alive by scrambling up the massive ramp onto land before the cars set out.
Our student-rescuer had also arranged for a random man to drive us the hour-long trip between the ferry dock and Ningbo city. The man spoke little English so we used Mandarin to find out that he was the business partner of our student-rescuer’s father. Further proof that everything in China is run by guanxi… relationships. He drove us all the way back to our hotel and then just disappeared, despite our efforts to buy him dinner and thank him mercilessly for his help.
And so ends the adventures of two foreigners lost on Putuo Shan Island.