A lake dotted with islands and fringed by a laid-back city is a perfect setting, Matt Hodges reports.
Crocodiles, jellyfish and other perils of the deep are not part of the Qiandaohu experience, meaning you can add swimming in the Great Outdoors, in azure waters veiling buried archeological treasures, to your stress-free trip into China's less-industrial past.
Qiandaohu, or Thousand Island Lake, revolves around a township of 45,000 people. It lies about a five-hour drive from Shanghai on the other side of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, but presents itself as a world apart from both.
The air is fresh and the water is clean, despite a recent mine explosion that threatened to flood the lake with lead. The only congestion to be found is on Xiu Shui Jie, or "Silk Street", where locals douse strangers with buckets of fresh water as part of an ongoing festival.
Called po shui jie in Chinese, the water festival occupies the evenings like a less-riotous version of Thailand's Songkran celebrations. Borrowed from the Dai minority, the festival has become this season's main selling point and will end along with China's san fu (hot) season on September 6.
The water-sprinkling festival vies with rafting, island-hopping, scenic walks through China's biggest state park and "dancing fish", which leap out of the water when hauled up by fishermen's nets, for visitors' attention.
At night, Mu opera shows, "jumping bamboo horse" performances and other forms of local entertainment haul in the crowds. Many of these performaces originate from Muzhou culture.
Big city nightlife, or any reference to it, is noticeably absent. You need to dig hard to turn up a karaoke bar and most visitors seem content to retire to their hotels when the sun goes down. Others feast on freshwater fish and ostrich egg omelets at lakeside restaurants. The lake holds over 85 species of fish, making it one of the province's top suppliers.
For our party, the highlight of the weekend's feasting was not what we ate, but where: inside thatched huts perched on poles above swirling black waters. The "restaurant", which we accessed by pulling a rope-drawn raft, had no name.
One of the plus points of venturing to Qiandaohu is that it lets you choose your own adventure. You can elect to stay in the comfort of the five-star Kaiyuan Hotel, perched atop a hillock overlooking pristine islands. Alternatively, you can decamp to the hinterlands, as we did, for a fraction of the 1,000-yuan-a-night cost.
Our guesthouse provided more than comfortable lodgings, twin beds, a TV and a lakeside view for 80 yuan. It was nestled 10 kilometers out of town next to China's premier training center for its national water-sports athletes.
This means we got to swim against a rolling backdrop of verdant hills beside the canoes of men and women who may well be on TV come November, standing on the podium at the Guangzhou Asian Games. As we swan between islands, an old woman in a rustic yellow and red tugboat urged the athletes on with jingoistic slogans about patriotic pride.
During our trip, the hordes of tourists we had been expecting, such as the crowds who skirt Hangzhou's West Lake at the weekend, failed to materialize. The sun-baked streets were bereft of traffic, and time slowed to a snail's pace. In short, it was the perfect serum for city slickers who feel the urban jungle closing in all sides.
The lake is actually a vast reservoir in Chun'an County formed by the construction of the Xin'an River Hydroelectric Power Station in 1959. The flooding of the Chun'an basin submerged mountains, farming settlements and villages, including one 1,800-year-old historical city, forcing hundreds of thousands of locals to relocate. In its wake, it left 1,087 mountaintops poking above the water.
Most of them are uninhabited, overhung with wild foliage. The water is said to run down into ravines up to 100 meters below sea level, but the average depth is closer to 35 meters.
Shanghai diving operators such as Big Blue (tel: 021- 6291-2110) arrange trips to prowl the lake's bottom. The next trip is scheduled for August 20-22 at a cost of 4,300 yuan, including equipment hire. Exploring the buried city requires an advanced diving certificate as it sits at a depth of between 27 and 30 meters in near-freezing climes of 10 C. The certificate can be obtained during the trip for an extra 1,000 yuan.
Qiandaohu also includes China's biggest state park, or "Oxygen Bar". While the reservoir is billed as one of China's cleanest water supplies - Nongfu mineral water is sourced here - the 982-square-kilometer park helps provide six times the state average of green cover.
Meanwhile, the basin nurtures more than 1,700 types of plant life and 2,100 species of wildlife.
Tourism development began in the 1980s and took off in 1998. Now the figures are healthy enough that officials have stopped aggressively promoting the area and its myriad islands. These include Monkey Isle, Ostrich Island and Fairy Dragon Isle, some of which are inhabited by their namesakes or crawling with snakes.
While these make for interesting half-day trips, no visit to the area is complete without hiking, or chair lifting, your way up Plum Blossom Peak, some 10 kilometers from the town center. Here, you get sweeping vistas of more than 300 islands.
If you look carefully, you may even spot an Olympic rower or two, a huge cruise liner, or the odd foreigner reveling in the lake's bounteous waters.