Houtouwan, China

Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

The houses are overrun with vines. They’ve covered the walls, crept through weathered cracks, blanketed the floors, and strangled everything left inside. Ferns and honeysuckle rule the overgrown lawns. Muddy footpaths are concealed with tangled ivy. A salty mist hangs in the air. While the absolute silence is only broken by chirping birds and crashing waves. Shanghai feels worlds away right now.

Welcome to Houtouwan. The former fishing village sits atop a cliff on the north side of Shengshan Island, the easternmost of the Shengshan Islands. The archipelago, which lies 40 miles east of China’s largest city, contains nearly 400 islands. Though only 18 of them are inhabited, the islands are frequently visited by fishermen, especially during the winter months. As part of the larger Zhoushan Archipelago, they form the largest fishery in the country. So what happened to Houtouwan?

Houtouwan was built in the 1950s. At one point, more than 2,000 fishermen lived in Back Bay. But in the 1990s, it was largely abandoned. Some people note widespread migration to cities. Others blame depleted fishing grounds. Access to food and education are noted, as well. Today, only five people remain.

So Houtouwan is basically a ghost town buried in greenery. Visitors ride a boat to Shengshan Island and a taxi to a cemetery overlooking the village. There’s a hazardous path—obstructed by rain, roots, and wind—down from there. But the reward is one of the quietest and most unique spots in China. Fingers crossed that you’ll have it all to yourself.


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