Hong Kong is one of the world’s top travel destinations. So you might be surprised to discover that nearby mainland Shenzhen, offers as much if not more in the way of culture, extensive shopping and vacation activities.
I’ve lived here now for nearly a year and am enjoying what the city has to offer, and it’s more than you may have expected!
Here’s my latest article for Sapore di Cina, where I highlight 20 of the top attractions in Shenzhen.
A visit to Shenzhen can leave you wondering if there’s any culture or history that hasn’t been miniaturised and replicated in a city theme park. So, we were very excited to discover the existence of an “ancient palace museum”, just two metro stops from our home at Sea World.
It was easy to find on Google Maps (with a VPN) and we could hop onto a local bus which, if our understanding was correct, would stop right outside our intended destination. The bus drove past Shekou Port and into new territory. Towering docks and an industrial landscape left us wondering if this palace was still in existence, however, our spirits rose when the bus dropped us outside an old building with traditional Chinese decoration and a couple of large stone lions in attendance.
As we approached the gate we realised happily that this was not in fact a palace – it was a temple! For the first time since arriving in Shenzhen seven months earlier, we were finally getting a fix of Chinese history and culture! We eagerly handed over our 15 Yuan entry fees and entered, keen to explore our new discovery.
This isn’t a Buddhist temple – it’s dedicated to Tianhou, goddess of the sea, and was built originally during the Song Dynasty in 1410. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt several times since and even now is undergoing another revival. The museum areas are being renovated and many of the exhibits had been removed for safe keeping.
The temple overlooks the massive shipyard at Chiwan Port and you can instantly appreciate its importance, offering the promise of protection to sailors venturing out on long journeys across the South China Sea.
The legend of the Tianhou temple
It is said that a famous Ming admiral, Zheng He, was commissioned by emperor Zhu Di to sail west. When he approached the Pearl River Delta near to Chiwan, the fleet was halted in the wake of a ferocious storm. Goddess Tianhou appeared to the emperor, saying that she had saved his fleet and that he should build a temple close by as an expression of his thanks. It seems Zheng He was in agreement and so he and his men built the temple, and he personally planted the original “wish giving tree” in the courtyard.
The legend of the goddess Tianhou
Tianhou (or Matsu as she is commonly known to the coastal people of South Asia), protects fishermen, sailors and others whose lives are dependent on the ocean. She’s worshipped in Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
In the main hall at the back of the inner courtyard, you’ll find the goddess herself. A large, golden, ornately decorated statue that dominates the (presumably) lesser deities of Caishen (Chinese god of wealth), and Guanyin (bodhisattva of compassion). In the corner is Tianhou’s bed and furniture, used in the annual celebration of her birthday.
She was apparently born in 960AD on an island off the coast of China, into a family of fishermen. She gained her “goddess” status in part after saving her brother from drowning in a typhoon. An excellent swimmer, she lifted him effortlessly from the sea. Legend has it that she either died while then searching for her father, who died in the same storm, or that she flew from a mountain top to be with the gods. In any case her fame spread and you can now visit more than 1500 temples dedicated to her in 26 different countries.
The temple is still a popular place of worship. During the two weeks before Tianhou’s birthday (23rd day of the 3rd month of Chinese Lunar calendar), the temple celebrates, and visitors get a chance to witness tradition and history in action.
The temple courtyards
To the right of the temple, Zheng Hi’s “Celestial Tree” (possibly its second or third reincarnation), is weighed down with lucky red cards and ribbons, requiring the support of modern day scaffolding.
You can ease your troubled mind by inscribing your prayers and wishes, before tying them to the branches of this ancient tree.
In front of the main hall, incense burns in huge containers and walkways lead to further courtyard areas.
A decorative portal is guarded by two loyal generals, Chien Li Yen and Shun Feng Er. Their postures demonstrate protective abilities – they can “see” and “hear” from a distance anyone that might prove troublesome for their goddess, Tianhou.
In the main courtyard you are able to explore the two storey drum tower, but the bell tower is closed, as are the museums until the renovations are complete.
There’s been some remodelling here too of the original moon and sun, yin and yang shaped pools. They’ve sadly been replaced by a single, more modern carp fish pond. Similarly, the original statue of Tianhou is also missing – hopefully not lost at sea!
Behind this pool the original sea wall towered, protecting the temple from the backlash of the ocean. Now a newer wall simply blocks the view of the shipyard. Alongside the pool you’ll find a small well, allegedly home to the spirit of a young boy who drowned in it.
Chiwan is still an important port on the Pearl River Delta. Close to Tian Hou temple you can also visit two other historically significant sites, the Left Fort and the tomb of the last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty. All three sites can easily be visited in a morning or afternoon. We really enjoyed our visit and will return when the museum renovation is completed.
Address: 9 Chiwan 6th Road, Nanshan District. Chiwan 6th Road runs along the north side and back of the temple. The bus stops outside this entrance where you’ll find the ticket office.
Take the orange metro line to Chiwan and walk right along the road until you reach the temple. Alternatively you can take bus numbers 226, 355 or B819. A taxi from Sea World should cost you no more than 15 Yuan.
The temple is open from 8:00am to 17:30pm each day.
We live in Shenzhen, southern China, and from our home we gaze across Sea World in Shekou, towards Hong Kong. There are no beaches to be found here, but to the east of Shenzhen, around 12km from the centre you will find yourself in the district of Yantian. The coastline stretches for 19km with beaches, mountains, islands and reefs and this is also the closest weekend getaway for locals and visiting tourists.
Yantian district was established in 1998 and it is connected to the urban area of Shenzhen by highways and expressways that offer a quick connection by car. For tourists it’s possible to take the J1 bus all the way from Sea World on a route that meanders through Nanshan, Futian, Luohu and on to Dameisha, where you disembark at the central bus station. It takes around one and a half hours, probably much longer in rush hour and at holidays, but it’s a cheap option for tourists and locals alike.
“Soft sand and limpid sea water”
I was sceptical about visiting Dameisha, but we were keen to see for ourselves whether the beach lived up to the Shenzhen tourist brochure’s claim of having the “longest beech (sic), soft sands and limpid (?) sea water”.
We’d seen the news reports of 160,000 people crammed onto this beach during Spring Festival, and heard locals talk of an alarm that sounds when more than 50,000 people frequent the beach on busy spring and summer weekends. So we opted to visit on a quieter Monday morning.
It was an overcast day, a little stormy with dark skies but the sun was warm enough to attract a steady stream of visitors, and we followed the small procession down through the town to the sea front.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but as usual in China I was surprised. I felt as if I had been transported back to 1970s England as we passed by shop fronts full of beach paraphernalia including a mix of large floats, buckets and spades, bikinis and summer hats.
Dameisha is not a small coastal village, but a large sprawling town. It has an older, more typically Chinese area that leads to a modern mall alongside an equally modern marina with large hotels, including a Sheraton resort style property.
We ventured into a couple of smaller hotels to check out the overnight rates but were told they couldn’t accommodate tourists. This is not because they don’t want foreigners staying in their hotels.
For anyone staying overnight in China you have to be registered by the hotel at a local police station. Some hotels simply haven’t got the licence to enable them to do this. Don’t ever take it personally. There are plenty of hotels where you will be able to make a reservation, but don’t leave it to the last minute at busy times!
The coastal road is lined with trees and you cannot see directly to the seafront, but we found our way to the beach entrance at the more western end of town.
The entrance is masked with barriers and for a moment we thought we would need to pay as is common at some other beaches. By watching other visitors we realised these are the “people counters” used to monitor the number of people entering, and that no payment is in fact required at Dameisha.
OK, if you are used to five star luxury and deserted beaches then you will be disappointed. But by English standards, it really isn’t that bad. The sand is beautifully soft, and despite warnings from locals, the sea looked clean. At least there wasn’t a flotilla of rubbish as I thought there might be. In fact, there were waste bins at regular intervals and everything looked extremely organised.
Dotted along the beach were lifeguards overseeing their own small areas of netted sea for safe swimming. There are activities including diving, (off a small island that can be seen from the beach), jet skis and even paragliding.
Beach angel sculptures
Far in the distance we could make out some unusual sculptures rising off the beach and we made our way along to investigate. Large angel-like figures rose out of the sand providing an interesting photo opportunity.
According to TravelChinaGuide.com –“these sculptures “depict the aspirations for a better life for the “drifting generation” – the young people who had unstable jobs and insecure living conditions during the 1940s to 1980s. Now the sculptures have become a symbol of happiness.”
We ourselves “drifted” to the back of the beach and were surprised to see rows of lockers. What a great idea – it’s always a problem on a busy beach as to what to do with your possessions. This solves the problem in a safe and practical way. There were also changing rooms and toilets, although I can’t vouch for their cleanliness when there are more than 50,000 people on the beach!
The clouds were gathering and the sky darkened ominously, so we wandered back to the local restaurants, most offering a varied selection of fish and seafood.
Here you can select live fish from the stacked aquariums and eat a freshly cooked meal.
We made it into a busy restaurant just before the heavens opened and sat undercover watching the street scenes as we ate our lunch. As we were due to fly out to Abu Dhabi the next day, we steered clear of the seafood and opted for a tasty tofu and vegetable lunch – just to be on the safe side!
There’s enough to do here for a day – a few activities, sunbathing, shopping and a walk around the town, but if you want to venture into a less crowded area I would suggest going a little further along the coastline to Xiaomeisha beach. It’s smaller and less busy, with an entrance fee of 30 Yuan. Camping is a popular activity here and you can rent a tent or take your own.
If you have children you can also visit Xiaomeisha Sea World to provide some variety. You could also visit Wutong Mountain, a popular hiking spot, before arriving at Dameisha.
However, I have higher hopes for the Dapeng Penninsula, further to the east, which as yet we haven’t visited. Here I am told you can hike, visit smaller coves and even the historic Dapeng Fortress, built in 1394.
This is a relatively undeveloped area, by Chinese standards and you will find seafood restaurants in Nanao, as well as small bed and breakfast type establishments at Jiaochangwei. These small inns were formerly homes of fishermen and local families. They are much more characterful and many have been updated along the lines of small western boutique hotels.
As with most places in China you will no doubt hear both good and bad reports about this stretch of coastline, but we found it a pleasant escape from city life and look forward to exploring it further.
For more information take a look at some of these links:
I’d heard a lot about spas here in Shenzhen and how different they were to western versions, and I was keen to see how they compared. One of my students offered to take us to D-Club, a luxury spa in the Futian district and it really was an experience unlike any other!