Knowing far off brothers climbed the heights, Dogwood branches in hand, missing mine.”
Chinese polymath Wang Wei (699-759) could have been writing about 2020 when he inked his lines for the Double Ninth Festival, where traditionally people eat cakes, drink chrysanthemum wine and climb hills. The longing for loved ones hits hard this year, no matter which side of the borders and quarantine we find ourselves.
But as we’re now free to travel across all of China, why not take the ancient advice and ascend one of the country’s gorgeous mountains? Mount Qiniang, in Shenzhen’s Dapeng Peninsula, is a wise choice for sweating out the stresses of this plague-begotten year. The Double Ninth festival may have passed (October 25 this year), but we’ve just begun the ideal season for hiking and travel in this tropical region, tucked away just east of Hong Kong.
Unlike the tourist-riddled island province of Hainan, the parks and towns of Dapeng remain somewhat underpopulated, granting us greater room to enjoy the sights and sensations of the place. The sandy beaches of nearby Xichong attract sizable crowds, but the area in and around the Dapeng Peninsula National Geopark remains a comfortable balance of developed and undiscovered.
Named for the miles-wide bird described by Zhuangzi - the old Daoist is revered as ancestor to one of Shenzhen’s local villages, if you trace back some 48 generations - Dapeng is a gorgeous series of scenes, from blue sea to misty mountain and great swathes of green between. In the mountainside museum with regional geodes and a child-friendly primer on earth sciences, they claim some semblance between the outstretched wings of the legendary bird and the two regions of Dapeng separated across a bay. It’s a stretch. But it’s nice to envision that avian adventurer - soaring 90,000 li (a li is around a kilometer) on migration to the Celestial Lake - as you climb to heights normally outside our reach.
The ascent up Mount Qiniang climbs nearly a kilometer into the sky, along a straightforward series of steps - not knee-knocking cement, but a gentler mix of stone and packed earth.
Somewhat steep in parts, it’s perfectly feasible for anyone in relatively good shape, with many spots to rest or enjoy the vantage. The bay bathes brilliant below, while surrounding spires of long-extinct volcanos hold misty sentinel.
The top, I’m told, is a two- to three-hour hike from the ground... but the curfew got in our way. Last-call for the mountain is 4pm, and all must descend around then; teens in military camo stand along the path to dissuade rule-breakers. We started too late to reach those Dapeng heights, but still took comfort in the leg-labor of the climb and the glimpses we snatched from the mountain’s middle. In Zhuangzi’s Dapeng tale, didn’t the turtledove take pride in being able to fly as high as an elm? To each their own heights.
Our descent was troubled only by that quintessential Chinese hiking hazard: the guy with the loudspeaker. His was tucked in a blue backpack, like the loudest purse-dog in the world, and they approached from behind, blaring chords of a Mando-rock power ballad as our shins started to sing from some steep steps. We let him pass as the singer’s voice faded in the post-climax, lending us the peace of the place again, until, further down, another chorus swelled with hard-driving noise. He was behind us again! We’d passed him when he stopped to stretch. So, once again, we let the music flow forward and fade as we lingered to wait.
My hiking buddy turned to me at some point and revealed big news: She’s moving back to the US. “For love!” Despite so many things to love about China - the feeling of safety, the optimism about the future, the value placed on teaching - this topsy-turvy year saw her reconnect with a college sweetheart over Zoom. Silver linings even in the darkest of days.
Back at the base of the mountain, seemingly everyone was gorging on KFC, bags and wrappers covering every surface of the little park. But that’s not what we’d come for. Foregoing the Hakka fare of the nearby villages, we ambled north from our inn to Dongshan wharf along the bay.
There you’ll find the usual seafood fare of the Chinese coastline, but while you’re there you really shouldn’t miss the chance to eat on the water. No, literally on the water, in a floating restaurant in the middle of the bay, surrounding by the homes of Tanka people and the pens of fish they farm. (Just don’t think too hard about the plumbing system.)
Haishang Lao Chen’s is a clean collection of floating buildings, connected by gangplanks that sway mostly in sync beneath your feet. You get your sea-legs pretty quick, after a bit of psychic frisson as your mind tries to decide whether or not you’re moving.
To get there, you head to the wharf, past the security station where guards ask you to scan the QR code that reveals where your phone has travelled. Add your name and info to the contact tracing list, then head to the dock. Look for boat 707, which takes you to that particular restaurant.
The flounder there was excellent and the crab succulent - though damnably hard to open up. The same was true for the mantis shrimp, with spines along their armored bodies warning you to abandon your prey. If you didn’t happen to pack a cracker, squeeze a pair of chopsticks around the shell and apply some hand strength to outwit that little bit of Darwinism. We had to try the sea urchin rice, a local specialty speckled with brilliant flecks of orange. But ultimately, it’s just fried rice.
A sound sleep follows a big climb and a big meal... or it should. We chose to stay in Xinda Village, about three kilometers from Qiniangshan. It avoids the expense of the seaside hotels or the townhouses right near the entrance, but the accommodations are rather rough-and-ready. Next time we’ll opt for Yangmeikeng Village, with closer access to the slightly-shorter Mount Dayan.
That mountain offers an even more gentle ascent, with nearly the same height and views of Mount Qiniang which you obviously can’t get from that peak. It takes work to start that climb - cars can only travel so close, then golf carts ferry you the remainder (or e-bikes if you’re an early bird). As the less famous sibling of Mount Qiniang, Mount Dayan is less crowded but no less enjoyable. Give yourself roughly five hours, round-trip, for the four-kilometer trail to the peak.
We might not all soar as high as legends, but we can take heart and take flight to the places that call to us. Let Dapeng Peninsula be that for you this winter, thawing your wings and letting you fly as high as you can. It might only be as high as an elm, but sometimes that’s just right.