Shanghai has an island? Yes, and it's the perfect weekend getaway!
Shanghai is split up into a total of 16 districts, but even some locals don't realize that one of those districts, Chongming, is made up completely of islands, including China's third-largest. What's even better is you can enjoy the island life there when you need a break, and it's only a short drive away from the city center. Chongming District encapsulates three islands, Chongming, Changxing and Hengsha, with Chongming taking the title of third-largest island in all of China, after Taiwan and Hainan islands. With the 10th China Flower Expo coming up on Chongming Island, I thought I better head over and check the place out before the rest of China arrives.
Chongming District covers an area of more than 1,400 square kilometers and is home to some 638,000 people. Chongming Island is about 80 kilometers in length, and up to 18 kilometers in width. Large parts of the island are protected as national-level conservation sites, including the Chongming Dongtan Nature Reserve, which includes wetlands and mudflats that are important to more than 100 species of migratory bird.
To do or not to do, that is the question
If you're wanting to blob, Chongming Island has you covered, with a multitude of B&Bs, guesthouses and international hotels to rest your wary head. If you're looking for something to do, there's plenty to keep you busy, including enjoying nature and a slower pace, tramping and rock climbing, farming tours, wetland visits, ancient temples and more. I decided to spend my day making food, of course ...
Tofu on the island
Tofu has a long history on Chongming Island, and even though I'm really not at all of fan of the stuff, I was interested to see how it's made from scratch, and to see how China's ubiquitous morning drink, doujiang (soya milk), is made by hand. So I headed along to the Jingting Tofu Museum and Workshop, where you can not only find out the history of tofu on the island, but also try your hand at, well, preparing it by hand. It doesn't sound super exciting, I know, but it is a fun way to spend your morning.
Local rice cake and rice wine
Two of the most famous treats from the island, though, are Chongming gao – a kind of sticky, chewy cake made from rice flour – and rice wine, a wine that's, err, made from rice. I pulled a few strings and got in touch with a local man, Shi Guorong, who has spent decades making local rice cake and rice wine. I was lucky enough to be invited along to help make both at their Yaodong Village base.We started from scratch milling the glutinous rice into flour, adding sugar and fresh fruit and nuts, and slowly steaming the dessert over an open fire oven. It's an intricate process, requiring the mix to be added and steamed layer by layer, with just the steaming process alone taking around 45 minutes. In the end we were left with a huge, 20-kilogram slab of Chongming gao, a tiny part of which we all sat around and ate. Delicious! Rice wine, on the other hand, takes a wee bit longer, needing to ferment for a few days before taking the shape of a sweet, refreshing wine. Both can be bought all around the island, and also make great gifts for your envious friends waiting back in the big city.
Where to stay
There are plenty of places to sleep on the island, suiting all tastes and budgets. I stayed at The Shens' Courtyard, a traditional-style boutique hotel located in an old family home – definitely not your average family, going by the size and grandeur of the place – that boasts hundreds of years of history. The rooms are huge and relaxing, featuring big, wooden furniture and huge baths. There's also a huge, modern swimming pool, if you're looking for a bit of a splash during your summer stay.
Chongming Island used to only be accessible by ferry, but now it's connected to the rest of Shanghai by a tunnel and bridge. The drive takes more than an hour, depending on traffic. There are also frequent buses running between Chongming and the rest of the city. An extension of Metro Line 9 is under construction that will connect the island to the rest of the city by subway.