Human life has long since departed this place, as have all signs of industry. In this eerily quiet abandoned village, nothing moves – unless the wind blows it. As a result, greenery has spread across rooftops and pathways, even reclaiming empty houses once filled by families. The vegetation is so thick that open windows are often the only indications that buildings stand underneath at all.
Some mesmerizing images have been captured of this Chinese former fishing village. The photographer who took the snaps was Jane Qing, with her wonderful work being shared online in June 2015. Consequently, it was suggested that her pictures offered a snapshot of how urban centers might look if humans disappeared.
Despite the potentially ominous implications for mankind, though, these images are undeniably wonderful to behold. Indeed, they represent a seamless blend of architecture and nature – yet they still beg an important question. That is, how could such intense overgrowth happen within a 21st century urban center without anybody taming it?
While the area seen in these shots is relatively remote, it’s not like the settlement is completely off the grid. It’s located on Gouqi Island, which is one of roughly 400 small pieces of land making up the Zhoushan archipelago. As a matter of fact, the abandoned village is actually only around 40 miles from Shanghai, China.
Gouqi is broadly situated within the vicinity of the point where the Yangtze river flows into the East China Sea. The Yangtze is an important waterway, having played a vital role within China’s past and continuing to do today. At around 3,900 miles, it’s the longest river in all of Asia.
Gouqi Island itself is surprisingly far from deserted. Despite its verdant appearance, it’s also home to many residents and a clutch of amenities. In October 2017, for instance, one visitor to the island reported that travelers to Gouqi could expect to partake in ocean swimming and enjoy a variety of seafood eateries.
But people and businesses aren’t altogether prevalent and thriving in the overgrown village, which is named Houtou Wan. Yet from the buildings beneath all of the magnificent foliage, we can decipher that there was once life there. But exactly what caused the settlement’s population to flee, and when did they do so?
Houtou Wan was apparently an affluent community during the first half of the 20th century. Its relative wealth, apparently, was down to a flourishing fishing industry. But the village’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when its modest bay failed to cope with an ever-increasing number of fishing vessels.
The growth of other industries in the Zhoushan archipelago also had a substantial effect on fishing villages like Houtou Wan. For instance, Zhoushan has an economy which is supported by activities such as shipbuilding. So, ultimately, increased opportunities elsewhere reduced the desirability of Houtou Wan as a place to live and work.
Perhaps some vessels were also attracted to larger ports in the area, such as in an area called Dinghai. And where some ships lead, others are likely to follow in a search of the best possible prospects. This could then have caused fishing craft to abandon the area near Houtou Wan in their droves.
Over time, Houtou Wan ultimately became obsolete as a fishing village. Indeed, residents seemingly had no other choice but to relocate to other places. Yet considering how the village currently appears – almost completely reclaimed by nature – it might be a surprise to learn that this actually all happened relatively recently.
CNN reported in 2018 that Houtou Wan had a population in excess of 3,000 people as late as the 1980s. The broadcaster also claimed that the village’s residents gradually deserted the area due to “its remote and hard-to-access location.” This significant population departure, though, apparently only occurred in the 1990s.
But when the people decided to leave Houtou Wan, they seemingly did so en masse. After all, as CNN has related, the previously thriving fishing community had actually been designated as “officially depopulated” by 2002. Around this time, Houtou Wan became a part of another village in the local vicinity.
So this mass exodus – believed to have begun just 30 or so years ago – slowly left Houtou Wan nearly totally deserted. Yet in the short period of time since then, Mother Nature has nonetheless left her green mark on the place. But this hasn’t been the final nail in the village’s coffin.
The reason for this is seemingly – at least partially – down to the proliferation of the sensational images online. The pictures apparently first came to the attention of the internet in 2015 – and they quickly made an impact. The viral phenomenon then led to an avalanche of interest in Houtou Wan as a possible tourist destination.
So, if you wanted to see the splendid green vistas of Houtou Wan for yourself, how would you go about it? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, the village still isn’t that easy to get to – by 21st century standards, at least. But the first step, of course, is getting yourself to mainland China.
China is a pretty big place, so you’ll specifically need to get to Shanghai. Once there, you’ll only really have one option if you’re hoping to seek out Houtou Wan. That is, you’ll probably catch a bus down to the waterside and then hop onboard a ferry to Shengshan island.
You’ll need plenty of enthusiasm, too, because the ferry journey alone apparently lasts up to four hours. And by the time that trip is done, you’ll still only be part of the way towards Houtou Wan. That’s because Gouqi Island is joined to Shengshan by a bridge – so you’ll need to find a taxi to escort you the rest of the way to Gouqi, and then on to Houtou Wan.
There’s one other thing that aspiring Houtou Wan visitors need to be aware of, too. The island is, of course, devoid of most of the usual amenities and comforts of travel. Tourists, therefore, cannot stay overnight in a hotel in the village. They’ll have to arrange any lodgings in another local community.
So, while it’s not impossible for people to seek out the abandoned settlement, it does take determination. Yet that’s not to say that people haven’t successfully made the trip before. On the contrary, the little village initially received such an influx of tourists that officials were seemingly somewhat peeved by their presence.
As reported by CNN, a government representative from Shengshan released a statement in 2015. The official stance, it appeared from this assertion, was that Houtou Wan was simply not ready for tourists. “Our telephone lines are jammed, and we are getting more tourists to Houtou Wan,” Chen Bo reportedly said.
The statement continued, “Houtou Wan of Shengshan hasn’t been equipped with the conditions to open to tourists… We urge visitors to preserve its tranquility for now.” Ultimately, in fact, it took another couple of years before island officials declared Houtou Wan ready to welcome the world into its green embrace.
But why did it take over 24 months for the island to capitalize on the interest in its verdant landscape? Well, it seems that those in charge were working to put in place a few new features in the area. These were intended to help tourists get the most out of their experiences – and to earn the village a little money, of course.
For one thing, in August 2019 the World Packing Canuck blog reported that it now costs to enter Houtou Wan. And while the price reported was little more $7 per person, it’s still something for travelers to take note of. And there was an optional extra charge for another feature, too.
This new addition is, in fact, a viewing platform. According to CNN, the observation deck was added in 2017 to give visitors a wider appreciation of Houtou Wan. But, if World Packing Canuck is to be believed, visitors could save themselves the $3 fee and not miss out on much. So the question is, then, what do you get for your $7 entrance fee?
Well, the highlight appears to be access to a self-guided hike around the eerily green landscape. CNN reported that notices have also been helpfully placed around the route to indicate dilapidated buildings that are unsafe to explore. Yet these aren’t the only benefits of taking a stroll around the place.
The real reason for visiting Houtou Wan is, after all, to get up close to this off-the-grid ghost town. World Packing Canuck’s blog mentioned, for instance, the area’s ability to “give anyone the creeps.” Yet it also commented on how being in Houtou Wan’s invites you to consider how the past encroaches upon the future.
Speaking of the future, it appears as if the government’s decision to equip the village with the ability to welcome tourists has been a sound financial success. CNN claimed, in fact, that visitors to the area in 2017 brought in around $100,000 from tourists. That doesn’t seem all too shabby.
Yet, intriguingly, it’s not just occasional visiting tourists ensuring that Houtou Wan hasn’t been devoid of humans since the exodus. In fact, a small number of older residents have steadfastly refused to leave the village. That’s fair enough, after all, as these folk have always called the place their home.
Those who’ve remained, though, surely have noticed nature reclaiming the surrounding structures in quite a dramatic fashion. Indeed, it’s as if the village is being quietly devoured by its own landscape. But if they’re aware of the changed views outside their windows, it seems that they’re doing little to combat it.
The plight of Houtou Wan isn’t what we’d call unique within the context of China. This is, after all, a country where numerous other fishing settlements have also fallen prey to widespread urbanization and industrialization. Even shiny, modern developments in China’s more built-up areas aren’t immune to being abandoned themselves.
Take Dongguan’s New South China Mall in Guangdong province, for example. The gargantuan shopping center is big enough to accommodate 1,500 retailers, covering more than a staggering 7 million square feet. Yet it was, for the best part of ten years, labelled a “ghost mall” for being mostly free of shops.
To put its size into some kind of context, the New South China Mall is two times larger than the U.S.’s Mall of America. But it nonetheless managed to end up being mostly vacant. In fact, six years after it held its grand opening, fewer than one percent of its stores were filled.
This must have been quite a shock to the developers, who had apparently intended on attracting around 100,000 shoppers everyday. So, what actually went wrong? Well, according to Culture Trip, it may simply have been that locals didn’t earn the kind of money necessary to keep the shopping center afloat.
But fortunately for all involved, the mall has managed to turn its fortunes around in recent years. By 2018 the New South China Mall had undergone a refurbishment – and a shift in its marketing strategy had taken place. So, rather than aiming to attract society’s higher-ups, the mall now caters to more middle-class residents.
As a result, the shopping center is now relatively thriving. A member of the mall’s marketing staff even told CNN that she expected the center to soon be at “almost full occupancy rate [with] no empty shops.” Yet not every Chinese site that has ever fallen into abandonment has ended up being quite so lucky.
An example of such an unfortunate spot is the so-called “city of the dead” in Beihai. In 2014 it was reported that over 100 of this place’s apartments remained vacant. And this was despite their construction having finished in 2008. Some of these villas were valued at close to $500,000.
Elsewhere in the Inner Mongolia region of northern China, a district known as Ordos Kangbashi has been called “a modern ghost town” by Time. The development was built to accommodate one million residents. The magazine, however, reported in 2009 that “hardly anyone” had taken occupancy there since it was completed six years prior.
So, as we can see, Houtou Wan can hardly be considered unique, at least in terms of its abandonment. After all, several other communities throughout China have had a similar experience. But with a bit of luck and some more visiting tourists, Houtou Wan will be a prosperous community once again.
Yet these images still stand to show the incredible potential of Mother Nature to take control of people-free areas. In fact, the photos offer an insight into how the entire planet might look in the absence of human beings. As television host Alex Trebek once put it, “If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.”