Think you’ve never heard of Qiandao Lake? Think again. Chances are you have drunk a bottle of Nongfu Spring water and on the label it features the hilly islands of Thousand Island Lake.
Qiandao Lake is located in Chun’an County in the western part of Zhejiang Province near the border with Anhui. The name Thousand Island though is a misnomer. There are actually 1,078 islands and it is not a natural lake. Back in 1959 the Xin’an River was dammed in an 845MW hydroelectric project. With a surface area of 573 km² the project forced 290,000 people to be relocated and the islands seen today are actually the top of hills in the flooded valleys.
29 towns and a further 1,377 villages were submerged as part of the dam project. The plan was to level the settlements but the waters rose faster than anticipated and much of the job was abandoned. Today remains of five ancient market towns lie in the cold depths of the lake. Exploration revealed that three of these are beyond the range of scuba diving at 60-90 meters and of the remaining two, one is heavily silted with near zero visibility.
However, Shi Cheng (Lion City) lies between 26 and 40 meters below with sufficient visibility and is relatively easily accessible by experienced divers. Founded in 208AD during the Eastern Han dynasty (much of what remains dates back to the Ming Dynasty) the town was a center of politics, economics and culture with a population that peaked around 6,000.
“It’s not like anything else I’ve seen underwater,” says Steven Schwankert who became the first foreigner to dive the site in 2003. Around half the town remains with the other half “looking like it was hit by a bomb” claims Schwankert the founder of Beijing based Sinoscuba.
“The most amazing thing you can see is an archway which is more than 300 years old. The archway is about seven meters high, ten meters wide, and it’s full of carvings,” says Leigh Chen who has led many dives on the site as part of Shanghai based Big Blue.
Divers are treated to in places a time capsule of life in the town. The city walls remain along with the walls of some dwellings. In some cases even staircases and roof tiles are intact. Schwankert talks of an imperial tablet covered in scenes of daily life and superior to anything he has seen in Beijing. “The quality of preservation is amazing. I haven’t seen anything else that’s been underwater that long that’s in such wonderful condition.”
This level of preservation is due to the remains being exposed to less stress underwater and being a reservoir there is no real current. The depth and limited light leads to less biological activity and the temperature hovers around 10ºC for most of the year.
“Diving is spectacular and creepy” says Schwankert “you don’t see things until you are right next to them.” Visibility on a good day may reach up to eight meters but with large amount of silt being stirred often becomes around half a meter. “Fantastic and amazing are the words I hear most from our guests” says Chen. “Many divers have
dived a reef, wreck, or cave, but they have never dived an underwater city before.”
Diving on the site has recently been banned by the local government. “They want to ‘protect’ the underwater city, so they closed the dive site – to be honest, I have no idea how they are going to protect the town since it’s at 25-30m underwater” says Chen. Schwankert thinks it’s a shame adding “I hope it’s not just being preserved for no one to see.”
Various ideas have been put forward to open the site for mass tourism. One proposal calls for building a wall and draining the city which would defeat the allure of China’s Atlantis. The local government actually built a 23.6 meter submarine with seating for 48 passengers at a cost Y40 million but this has never been used due to licensing problems. An Archimedes bridge has also been proposed by a Sino-Italian consortium. This would create a walk through tunnel suspended in the water. However, anchoring the tunnel would likely result in damage to the site.
Schwankert scoffs at the ideas “the water will never be good enough for people to walk through a tunnel or go by a submarine and see anything.” Both Schwankert and Chen lament the lack of dive sites in China and hope to see regulated diving allowed in a sustainable manner. Chen points out that Big Blue operated a strict “do not touch and no recovery rule to preserve and protect the site.”
Qiandao, with or without Shicheng open to the public, is already popular with tourists. The islands themselves along with the surrounding hills are heavily forested creating a spectacular albeit manmade vista. A number of the islands are open to the public with regular boat services connecting them. Meifeng (Plum Peak) situated in the central part of the lake has the highest peak which commands a view over more than 300 islands – there is a cable car to the top. Many of the islands have themes, such as Lock Island which has a museum dedicated to locks! Some of the other islands with performing animals might not to be the taste of foreign visitors.
There are good opportunities for hiking and swimming. Braised fish head is a local specialty using wild fish from the lake. The surrounding hills are used to grow walnuts and tea. September to November is the best season to visit as it avoids the extremes of summer and winter.
Nongfu Spring itself uses lake water piped from a depth of around thirty meters, a similar depth to the Lion City. So the next time you take a sip remember the lost city those waters have flowed over.
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