A Night in Changdao

I’ve been outside of Jinan this week, traveling about a bit. Yesterday I caught a ferry from Penglai (蓬莱) to a group of islands known as Changdao (長島) county which I had been told were well known for their scenic beauty. I had a day left of traveling with no specific plans and it seemed like a nice quiet place to spend a day before I head back to Jinan for my last week in China. I arrived in Changdao late in the afternoon and after checking into one of the only hotels open before the summer tourist season starts in May, I wandered about the town a bit. I didn’t ever get outside the sleepy fishing town in the south of the islands either that evening or the next morning when I caught the ferry back to the mainland. Instead of making it out to see the Changdao National Forest Park and Changdao National Nature Reserve, instead I mostly roamed about the back streets of the town and port.

I couldn’t help noticing that the locals gave me more than the usual amount of attention with a much higher frequency of gasps, cries of “Laowai!” and in one case a mother in a grocery store giving a short lecture to her child, surely too young to understand, about what this monster in their midst was (“You have never seen one of those before, have you? Don’t be scared. A foreigner is someone from another country and they don’t all look like us…”). This is nothing new, of course, to those who have traveled outside the major cities of Asia and I simply attributed this to the natural curiosity for non-Asians I have experienced throughout the countryside of Japan, Korea, and China.

During that first evening, though, I learn something about Changdao almost by accident. Walking back to my hotel late in the evening I passed by a TV shop where my iPod detected a wireless internet connection. I stopped outside the shop to download some email, and, since I really knew nothing about the place I was visiting, at least downloaded the Chinese and English wikipedia articles for the islands on my little offline Wikipedia client on my iPod. When I read the article later that evening, I found the English page had these two surprising paragraphs:

Changdao Island is closed to non-Chinese nationals. Westerners found on the island are swiftly taken to the passenger ferry terminal and placed on the next ferry back to Penglai by the islands Police service. Islanders promptly report all “outsiders” to the islands police service. (First hand experience) Police explain the reasons for this, due to the high number of military installations on the Island.

The Changdao Islands are now open to non-Chinese nationals, including westerners This was agreed by the local and national governments as of 1st December 2008.

Given the fact that non-Chinese nationals have apparently only been permitted on the island since December, and the tourism season hasn’t really started, the relative isolation of these islands may not have been the only reason there was extra surprise at the sight of a (visibly identifiable) foreigner in their midsts.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel, and made my way back to the ferry terminal. On the way, I walked over to the nearby TV shop to download my morning email (I know, I’m an addict). A middle aged man across the street yelled at me to stop. None of the many townspeople I had come across the day before had stopped me but armed with my new knowledge about the island I nervously complied. He came up to me and asked me if I had registered with the police. I told him I hadn’t. He asked me what I was doing on the islands, where I had stayed, etc. I answered honestly. Although he was polite, he said he wouldn’t let me go until he had called the police to ask if I had registered yet. I explained I hadn’t registered but I had only arrived the night before1 and, at any rate, was now on my way to the ferry terminal to return to the mainland. “Ah, he said, but why are you going this way, when the ferry terminal is that way?!” Fortunately, a little more explanation made him understand that I simply wanted to walk a few more meters up the road to steal a wireless connection I had come across to check my email before hopping into a cab and going to the ferry terminal. At any rate, I avoided this concerned citizen’s detention, and the potential time-consuming process of going to the Changdao county police station to register myself.

Two notes to the Changdao authorities:

1. If I hadn’t downloaded that Wikipedia article, I never would have known there was any special status for the islands or any kind of military installations. Only the English wikipedia entry, and this 2005 blog entry from someone who was blocked entry some years ago alerted me to the fact, and only after I had checked into my hotel on the island. If foreigners need to take care to register when visiting the scenic islands or are subject to other restrictions, perhaps a sign anywhere in the ferry terminal2, or perhaps somewhere on the nice English language website for Changdao county where I am welcomed to the, “peaceful, sincere, civilized and beautiful Changdao for business investment and holiday!” If there is some kind of required registration procedure, can I recommend that one be able and asked to do this upon arrival at the ferry terminal or when one checks into the hotel (the hotel didn’t even look inside my Norwegian passport when I checked in). Finally, if a potentially military adversary like the United States really wanted to send a spy to reconnoiter your military bases on the islands, do you really think it would be a good idea to send an easily identifiable caucasian instead of one of its many citizens of Asian or similar complexion or even better, a hired local?

2. Is it just me or is it possible you asked to have your islands erased from Google maps? Your large islands are all invisible from medium zoom levels even when much smaller islands like Liugongdao near Weihai are visible at the same zoom levels.3 If so, I can sort of understand why you might ask Google to completely erase this large group of islands from Google maps, even if they can be found on any regular Chinese map:

The invisible Changdao county on Google Maps.
The Changdao islands on a map found on the Yantai city government website.

However, if you are going to erase the islands from Google, you might want to erase them at all zoom levels. Zoom in a little bit and the islands suddenly appear out of nowhere, at least when I looked up the GPS point I marked at the ferry terminal:


Since this is a somewhat surprising omission, I assume it is a google imaging issue.

  1. I think foreigners are technically supposed to register with the police everywhere in China within 24 hours of their arrival, and I did register in Jinan soon after my arrival, but almost no tourists traveling in China register in every city they stay in, At any rate, this registration he spoke of is not thus a Changdao specific requirement. Technically though, I hadn’t yet reached the 24th hour and I was off the island before my time ran out. []
  2. I confirmed there is no special information in either Chinese or English posted about the status of the islands when I returned to Penglai[]
  3. It is possible however, that this is just a google technical problem: it could be that Google just faded to the blue of the ocean too quickly. These islands are further out in the sea than Liugongdao which is right off the coast before Google maps fades the image to blue. []

4 thoughts on “A Night in Changdao”

  1. I thought that hotels in China automatically register any foreign guest with the police. When I’ve been to register with the police for the various apartments I’ve lived in, it would have been impossible without a Chinese speaker to help me out. The police stations didn’t have anyone who could have handled the registration in English. I assume that the automatic registration by hotels avoids foreigners having to trouble the police with their poor/non-existent English, while providing a higher percentage of registrations than leaving the task to the foreigners alone would.

    So you probably were registered, but hadn’t realised it.

  2. It makes sense doesn’t it? Ya, you are probably right, but I doubt it gets registered right away, they probably turn all those slips in at the end of the week or something. In which case this guy on the street wouldn’t have been able to confirm much by calling the police!

  3. Hi there,

    We are just back from China. I relatively frequently travel to Yantai, Shandong (once a year) and this year I had the opportunity to visit Changdao (Long Islands). There were four of us with my colleagues and our Chinese host decided not to let us go alone to Changdao, no matter how confident I felt about touring on our own. Now I understand why. We spent 3 days, 2 nights on the island. Not in a hotel, but with one of the fishing village families (arranged by the Chinese fellow in Yantai City). They knew beforehand about us and registered us with the police immediately upon our arrival. No sweat. We had a great time and the old Chinese couple was very nice to us. I asked them if they ever heard about other foreigners staying in the village. They said yes, they heard about two Koreans who came to stay in the village, but apparently (?) we were the first Westerners to do so. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but gives me the impression that Changdao is still fairly unknown to Western tourists. I’m not sure I would like this to be changed as we had the pleasure to spend three wonderful days on a truly virgin ground with a fisherman and his wife unaffected by Western people :o)
    It was good to read your blog before going there. Thanks a lot!!!

  4. Sorry, I forgot to say that we were visitors from Hungary. Not if this would matter, just out of curiosity :o)

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