(Last updated on: 02/04/2020)
Qiandao Lake, also known as Qiandaohu, Thousand Islands and Thousand islets, is the perfect get-away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Hangzhou or Shanghai. We spent three days here with the children and had a wonderful time!
When researching Qiandao Lake beforehand, however, we found there to be a dearth of information on the Internet- in English anyway- perhaps there is lots written about it in Chinese! So in this post I will share with you what I learnt about Qiandao Lake and the Thousand Islands area during our trip.
What is Qiandao Lake?
Qiandao Lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Zhejiang Province, China. Whilst most Western tourists have never heard of the Thousand islands area, it is well-known amongst the domestic tourist market. As such, thousands of tourists flock here from the nearby cities of Hangzhou and Shanghai for short breaks, weekend get aways and national holidays.
Qiandao Lake is not technically a lake. It is actually a man-made reservoir that was created in the 1950s. In attempt to solve the power shortage issues that were present at the time, the area was transformed into a reservoir to facilitate the biggest hydroelectric project that China had seen at that time.
An area of 573 km2 was flooded to make way for the hydroelectric dam. This resulted in more than 290,000 people being relocated to alternative homes, and dozens of towns and villages were submerged beneath the water, the most interesting of which is the 2000 year old ancient city of Shi Cheng, also known as Lion City. Many of the buildings and city infrastructure remains intact beneath the water. You can learn more about this ancient city in the video below.
Not only is the lake not really a lake, but the islands are not actually islands! In fact, the islands are actually the tops of the hills, or mountains, that have been submerged beneath the water. They call these islets and there are 1078 islets in total.
Since its creation in 1959, the area has thrived from tourism. Whilst there are the obvious sustainable tourism issues that comes from said development, it has brought great economic value to the local community; providing jobs and improving public infrastructure in the area.
The opening of the high speed rail link connecting Shanghai and Hangzhou to the area in just a matter of minutes is said to have had particular value to the area; opening it up to a tourist market that was not previously easily accessible.
Things to do at Qiandao Lake
There are lots of things to do at Qiandao Lake. Whilst most things are in Chinese only and communication isn’t always easy when you don’t speak the language, it is possible to arrange tours and to explore the island without too much difficulty.
Here are some of the popular things to do at Qiandao Lake:
Take a boat trip to the islands
Taking a boat trip when visiting Qiandao Lake is a right of passage! Almost every tourist will take one of the many boat trips available to take a closer look at some of the islands and the spectacular Thousand Islands scenery.
Whilst I did not come across anybody who spoke English, buying a ticket for a boat trip was relatively easy. There are a few docks around the lake, but I recommend visiting the main dock near the town centre as this is the busiest and has the most departures each day.
Finding any information online is very difficult as the only information I could find was in Chinese, broken English that was difficult to comprehend or several years old and outdated.
You will need to go to the dock on the day that you want to do the tour and buy the tickets. 8am-9am is a good time to go. This allows enough time to purchase a ticket and get through the security checks in time to board a boat that departs between 9-10am. Alternatively, there do also appear to be afternoon boats that depart at around 1pm, although there doesn’t seem to be as many options.
Whilst purchasing a ticket is relatively simple, knowing exactly what you have purchased is a bit more challenging! All of the large boats appear to cruise around Qiandao Lake in tandem, stopping at the same islands at approximately the same time. As 99% of tourists visiting Qiandao Lake are Chinese, all tours are naturally in Chinese. If you want to go know you are looking at, I suggest reading up in advance.
Most boats will stop at three islands. The morning tour incorporates an extended stay on one of the islands to allow time for lunch. The majority of tours will stop at Meifeng Island, Yule Island and Longshan Island, although there are some variations.
Don’t expect a peaceful, natural setting. The islands are loaded with things to do, stalls selling gifts and food outlets. Because the boats largely stop at the same places at the same times, there will likely be lots of tourists, crowds and queues.
Tip- make sure that you ask what time the boat will depart again and from where!
Sometimes the boats will dock for an hour and pick you up from an entirely different place. Other times they may stop for only 20 minutes and remain in the same dock, where they dropped you off. They take no prisoners here, if you’re late, they WILL leave without you! In my opinion the stops were rather rushed, so be prepared to take a quick look and move on again to allow enough time to be back when you should be.
Morning trips will generally return to the dock at around 3pm and afternoon trips generally run from approximately 1-5pm. Tickets cost approximately 200rmb each for the boat and then you will be asked to pay extra if you want to sit upstairs when you board. In addition, you will need to buy entrance tickets for each island, these are sold onboard. Children under 1.2metres high are free.
Take a luxury boat trip
If large tour groups are not your thing then there are a range of luxury boats that you can take instead. These are generally speed boats, that accommodate small groups of tourists. These depart at various times throughout the day and cost in the range of 250-500rmb per person, depending on the boat type and itinerary. Many of the major hotels will be able to book this for you to save you going to the dock.
We thought the luxury boats were more appealing than the larger boats, however were told that we could not buy a ticket. We think this is because we had a baby, but because nobody spoke English, we cannot be entirely sure. They offer a child rate, so children are definitely allowed.
Remember I told you about the ancient city that was submerged? Well you can actually see it for yourself by diving!
There are not many dive options available and you will need to do some research beforehand, because I certainly didn’t see any dive schools in the area. Big Blue Scuba, based in Shanghai, offer dive trips to Qiandao Lake, so if this is something that you are interested in I would recommend checking them out.
There are probably other operators who offer dives too, but seen as the Qiandao Lake area serves predominantly Chinese tourists, there isn’t much information presented in English. As such, I haven’t found any other operators yet.
Visit Monkey Island
One of the major tourist hot spots in Qiandao Lake is an island famed for its monkeys. We had assumed that this would be a stop on the boat tour, but it wasn’t.
At the time I was quite disappointed, because Isla would have loved to see some monkeys. I have since read, however, that the monkeys have been artificially placed there to entertain the tourists. I’m not a fan of animal tourism, I prefer to see animals in the wild. So I’m actually quite glad we didn’t visit this island in the end.
I’ve read that the monkeys can be a bit aggressive, so if you do choose to visit this island, be careful not to touch them or feed them.
Visit Snake Island
Sources such as Wikipedia and Top China Travel indicate the Snake Island is a popular place to visit when staying at Qiandao Lake. This is supposedly an island with lots of snakes. However, I have been able to find out no information other than this (I told you- there is a serious lack of information available in English…).
Visit Bird Island
Another popular island on Qiandao Lake that tourists enjoy visiting is bird island. This is one of the few attractions in the Thousand Island area that comes up on Trip Advisor, but unfortunately it’s not very helpful because the half dozen reviews are all in Chinese.
The most I have managed to find out is that there are lots of birds to see on this island…. well I could have guessed that…
Again, there are several websites that mention Bird Island as being a popular tourist hotspot, but that is all I can find.
Visit ‘Love Island’
Also referred to as Lock Island, this is a super kitschy island that is decorated with thousands of locks and hearts. A common stop on the large boat tours, this island supposedly boasts the world’s largest lock.
There are photos all over the island of people getting married, I guess it’s a popular spot to do so. Whilst super cheesy, there is nice scenery for the wedding photos!
Go zip lining
Yule Island is an entertainment island. There is lots to do here including taking boat trips, looking at fish in the enclosures (there are way too many fish in a small space- this made me feel a bit uncomfortable) and going zip lining.
It made me laugh because they call the zip lining the ‘Qiandao Lake Biplane Flying Slip’. Chinese translation never ceases to amuse me…
Take the cable car up to the viewpoint
If you want to get some of those ‘Instagrammable‘ photos of the arial view of Qiandao Lake then you will need to get up high. Most large boats finish their tour with a stop at Meifeng Island, this is home to the popular cable car, which take you up the mountain.
We bought a return ticket, although we actually ended up walking down, because it’s really not that far. In fact, had we have known how far it was we would actually have walked up too (with both kids on our backs). The cable car was fun for the girls though. It takes only a couple of minutes to ascend the mountain.
The views at the top are beautiful, although there are a lot of tourists that you will need to contend with. If you wait your turn you might just be able to take a shot without lots of people in it… or you can crop them out, like I did.
Qiandao Lake is said to have some of the cleanest water in China. So clean, in fact, that some people drink it!
I didn’t personally see any dedicated swimming spots, but I’ve read that it’s a great place to swim. Maybe you just jump in anywhere you like?
We stayed in a luxury hotel that had a pool overlooking the beautiful Thousand Island scenery, so we did lots of swimming with the girls there during our stay at Qiandao Lake.
Qiandao Lake is full of huge fish. You might not see them near the surface, but the evidence is all around you! Every restaurant focuses their menu almost entirely on fish dishes and there are huge vacuum-packed fish sold in most convenience stores.
If fishing is your thing you can take a boat out on the lake or you can set up in a quiet spot of your choice. There are steps down to the lake at various points and I saw several people fishing in these areas.
Do some water sports
If you enjoy water sports, then Qiandao Lake is the place to come! The Thousand Island area is home to a number of water sports companies who offer jet skiing, kayaking, speed boat rides, banana boat rides and much more.
You will find various water sports options available on the individual islands and on the mainland.
Qiandao Lake is a popular area for cycling. Whether you’re a biking enthusiast, a keen cyclist or just a leisure bike rider, there is something for you at Thousand Islands.
At 141,591 acres, Qiandao Lake has plenty to offer someone who is looking to explore the area by bike or to undertake some fitness cycling. You would be a bit hard-pushed to cycle the entire lake in a day though, so plan your route carefully.
You will see that many people hire tandem bikes, particularly in the main tourist areas. These are generally old bikes that either come in an in-line style or a cart-style. You can rent them by the hour or for four hours. Beware though, it’s not the most comfortable ride!
Go grass skiing
I’m not really sure why it’s named ‘skiing’ as it’s actually more like sledging, but grass skiing is available in various locations around Qiandao Lake.
Grass skiing is essentially a grass slope that you can ride down on a toboggan or sledge. It’s great fun for kids and adults alike.
There is a minimum height limit, although I’m not sure how strictly this is always enforced. Because nobody spoke English I’m not sure what the height limit is, but we were told that Isla was too small to go on it. She is just under 90cm tall.
There are plenty of places to go hiking around Qiandao Lake. Whether you choose to walk on the islands or around the lake, you will not be disappointed by the scenic views.
There are often steps and uneven ground, so I would recommend wearing trainers or walking shoes, as opposed to flip flops. If you’re taking kids, leave the pram behind. We took the kids in our Tula carriers, which worked perfectly for us.
Get some fresh air at the Oxygen Forest Bar
Contrary to its name, there is no bar at the Oxygen Forest Bar. Rather, it is a pleasant wooded area in which you can follow a dedicated hiking trail, that takes around two hours to complete.
The hike is relatively easy, although there are a lot of steps. Some steps are actually more like ladders and can be quite steep, so it might not be the best place to hike if you are scared of heights!
The forest also offers grass skiing and toboggan rides if you’re so inclined.
Visit a local brewery
Remember that I said the water at Qiandao Lake was really clean? Well the locals think so highly of it that they use it to make the local beer!
You can visit the Cheerday brewery, located in Qiandao Lake and learn about how the business has grown and how the beer is made. You can also sample some of the local delights.
Relax at a beer spa
Cheerday beer also offers a beer spa for anyone who fancies soaking in some beer!
Apparently it’s great for the skin and the spa water (made with beer) contains lots of vitamins and minerals that are good for your wellbeing. They claim that the beer bath of hot spring water is rich in iron, magnesium, zinc and other minerals that can relax the muscles, joints and collaterals, whilst improving heart and lung function, and well as blood circulation.
Well I never knew beer could have so many benefits…. (she says in a cynical manner…)
You can read more about the beer spa and the Cheery brewery here.
Eat fish heads
Qiandao Lake is famous for its fish heads. I even saw one lady sucking a fish head on a stick! Now that is an image that will forever stay with me…
They say that you should try some of the local fish heads whilst visiting the Thousand Island area. Personally, I opted for the sweet and sour pork instead…
Get some R&R
Qiandao Lake is the perfect destination to get some much needed rest and relaxation. There are many luxury hotels, such as the Intercontinental or Sheraton Lake Resort, that provide the perfect setting for a relaxing break.
The main town also has a number of spas and places where you can have your nails done or have a massage.
We spent one day just lounging around the pool and loved it. How can you not feel relaxed when you have beautiful weather, a beautiful view and the people you love around you?
How to get to Qiandao Lake
I was unable to obtain any up to date information telling me how to get to Qiandao Lake when I looked online. This is because things are changing so fast in China! So here is the latest information as of late 2019.
Most people will travel to Qiandao Lake from either Hangzhou or Shanghai. There are four main options:
1- Take an organised tour
Viator has recently started offering transfers from Hangzhou to Qiandao Lake. Whilst you will still need to organise the rest of the trip yourself, this does seem pretty simple and the price is very competitive.
2- Drive (either hire a driver/ take a DiDi or drive yourself)
Hiring a driver in China is a lot more affordable than it is in many countries. If you want the flexibility to determine your own schedule then you can easily call a DiDi or negotiate a price directly with a driver.
There is also a car sharing scheme in Hangzhou, whereby you pay by the hour and collect the car from a local pick-up point (a bit like the many bike sharing schemes in cities around the world).
The journey from Hangzhou to Qiandao takes 2-3 hours. In peak times, such as weekends and national holidays, there may be traffic.
3- Take a bus
There are many buses that run between Hangzhou and Qiandao Lake. Here are a few for you to choose form-
From Xiaoshan Airport buses leave at 10:20, 11:50, 13:20, 15:10, 17:10, 19:00 – cost 90 RMB
From West Bus Station there’s a bus every 20/50 minutes between 06:00 and 18:50 – cost 65 RMB
From Passenger Transport Central Station (Jiubao Passenger Transport) buses every 30/50 minutes between 7:00 and 18:20 – cost is 73 RMB
From East Railway Highway Bus Station between 7:20 and 19:15 with an interval of 30/70 minutes – 73 RMB
From South Bus Station at 7:45, 8:50, 9:55, 10:55, 11:55, 14:55, 15:55, 16:55 – cost is 70 RMB
4- Take the train
In 2018 a brand new train station was opened in Qiandaohu. The train line connects Qiandao with Hangzhou and Shanghai and there are regular trains every hour or so. Seats sell out quickly if you are travelling in peak times, so be sure to book ahead.
We took the bullet train from Hangzhou to Qiandaohu. Journey times differ depending on the stops. It took one hour 20 minutes to get there and exactly one hour to get back. Many websites claim that the journey can be done in 30 minutes, although I am yet to see a train that offers the journey at this speed.
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When you take the train you will need to take your passports with you. I recommend buying your tickets on Trip.com, which is easy to use and states clearly whether seats are available, unlike some other sites. It is also in English. Make sure to either collect your tickets from the train station in advance or arrive early because there are always long queues at the station at the collection booths.
When you reach Qiandaohu station you are still a taxi or a bus ride away from Qiandao Lake. The journey time is around half an hour and buses and taxis are readily available at the station.
We paid around £50 each on Trip.com for our 1st class return train tickets and then another 40rmb for a taxi each way to our hotel.
Where to stay at Qiandao Lake
There are plenty of accommodation options at Qiandao Lake, however, as always in China, many hotels do not have a licence to accept foreigners. I recommend that you book your accommodation using booking.com or Trip.com to ensure that you don’t end up arriving at your hotel only to be told that you can’t stay there…
We stayed at Greentown Resort, which I would highly recommend! It was located right on the lake and close to the town centre, so it was a great location. The hotel itself had amazing facilities. There is an infinity pool overlooking the spectacular Thousand Island scenery, further pools indoors, kids playgrounds, a soft play area, kids bumper cars, karaoke, a large buffet restaurant and a pool bar.
When we arrived we were upgraded to a suite, which was fantastic! It had its own kitchen area, two bathrooms, two bedrooms and a HUGE corner balcony. This was just perfect for us because it meant that we didn’t have to creep around in the dark after the toddler went to sleep and we could make her bottles of milk in the kitchen without any problems….
We’ve also heard great things about the Intercontinental Resort. Located in the same resort area as the Greentown hotel that we stayed at, this is a luxury hotel that has all the mod-cons and excellent facilities including an infinity pool, children paradise, spa, gym, exercise classes and more.
If you’re looking for something a bit less flashy, the Hanting Hotel Qiandao Lake Plaza is a good bet. It has simple, clean and modern rooms at affordable prices. It is located right by the national forest, so it is a good location for anyone interested in hiking.
The Thousand Island area is pretty big so make sure to check where your accommodation is on the map before you book. You can take a look at the full range of accommodation options available on your travel dates using the map below.
So, there you have it- everything I learned from our short break away at Qiandao Lake! I spent a lot of time struggling to find information online and in person (significantly hindered by my inability to communicate in Chinese…sigh), so I hope that this post will prove helpful for other non-Chinese tourists visiting the Thousand Island area.
Know something I don’t? Please do share any travel tips etc in the comments section. Travelling in China isn’t always easy so the more we can help each other, the better!