With its new-city-on-the-block brashness, and gleaming skyscrapers along Hong Kong’s northern fringe, Shenzhen might seem an unlikely place for a weekend away to admire old Chinese architecture, and head to a beach backed by wooded hills.
Yet go east, and you can explore the Dapeng Peninsula, which lies within the Special Economic Zone though is a place apart, clearly rooted in Guangdong province rather than built and still building in a rush to make money.
Wannabe resort town
The main town, Dapeng, is separated by low hills from Shenzhen’s urban sprawl, and occupies a basin on the peninsula’s east coast. It’s named after a giant mythical bird, the peng, and this in turn led to another name for Shenzhen – Peng City. There’s a laid-back atmosphere; locals on scooters cruise along tree-lined avenues.
Along a highway just east of town, a sign indicates Nuclear Power Bridge. Beyond lies the Daya Bay Nuclear Plant, which was highly controversial when built in the 1980s – with a million Hongkongers signing a petition against it, and a discovery of too few reinforcing bars around a reactor leading to a report titled “Hong Kong fears Chinese Chernobyl”.
A thin strip of beach lines the coast, backed by small hotels suggesting attempts to develop a resort here. In itself, the beach can’t draw many visitors, but Dapeng does have a main a main attraction: Dapeng Ancient City.
Once there were warriors: Dapeng Ancient City
Though often used in its English name, “city” is too grand a word for this place, which is more of a walled village, albeit considerably larger and far more rewarding to visit than any of Hong Kong’s walled villages.
It originated as a fort, built in 1394 to help protect “1,000 households” from pirates. Historian James Hayes reported that in 1571, it resisted a siege by Japanese pirates for over 40 days; and early the next century, as the Ming dynasty collapsed, “Tai Pang [Dapeng] was held for nine years against all comers by a band of soldiers.” On 4 September 1839, Chinese troops from here fought five British naval vessels off Kowloon, in the first armed conflict of the Opium War.
Today, Dapeng Ancient City is peaceful – particularly if you visit in the early morning, when there might be only a handful of residents walking or cycling along narrow streets between buildings from a lost era. Small stores begin opening for business, setting out stalls with brightly coloured souvenirs, ready for tourists.
As the morning progresses, visitors begin arriving through the archway of the south gate, where the wall is like castle ramparts, with a low building on top, in similar style to gates elsewhere in China, including along the Great Wall.
People check out stores with traditional snacks. There are tiny restaurants offering spicy noodles, neighbouring cafes with freshly ground coffee. The “city” is laid out in a grid pattern, and side streets lead by more restaurants, shops and a couple of hostels like boutique hotels. But while there are businesses, this doesn’t seem a rapaciously commercial place – it’s far different to Hong Kong’s Ngong Ping Village, or even Old Town of Lijiang, in Yunnan province, which has a UNESCO listing but also fast food joints and brash disco pubs.
Buildings include temples, and a couple of mansions that were built for generals and now serve as museums.
While visitors enjoy eating, drinking and – inevitably nowadays – taking a host of selfies, they seem easygoing, happy to enjoy culture instead of being frenetic ultra-shoppers like many mainlanders who somehow throng Hong Kong tourist sites.
Remote beach pulls the crowds: Xichong, south Dapeng Peninsula
South of town rise the hills of the Dapeng Peninsula. There’s a national geopark here, with a rugged landscape similar to areas of Hong Kong Geopark, which lie to the west, on the opposite shore of Mirs Bay. The scenery is highly rated, and hiking trails include a route to the top of Shenzhen’s second highest peak, 869.7m Qiniang Shan.
But on a broiling hot summer day, it seems better to make for one of the beaches, ranked among the country’s most beautiful by Chinese National Geography magazine.
A road leads between wooded hillsides leads to one of the best and largest of these beaches, at Xichong on the peninsula’s south coast.
There’s a thriving tourism industry here, including at Hesou, a village now dominated by new buildings like outsize versions of the Spanish villas that abound in rural Hong Kong, and where even old village buildings have been transformed into hotel accommodation.
So far at least, there hasn’t been unfettered development here, and Hesou is surrounded by greenery. The beach is around ten minutes’ walk away, and almost 2.5 km long.
Though Xichong is well over 60km from downtown Shenzhen, it can attract throngs of beachgoers, some of whom enjoy daredevil rides on inflatable rafts pulled by jetskis. Surfing is popular, too, as the beach is fully exposed to oceanic swells.
As sunset approaches, lifeguards blow whistles and wave at bathers – it’s time to get out of the water.
While you can travel to Dapeng by bus or taxi from Lowu in downtown Shenzhen, the journey’s relatively long – an hour or more by taxi. It’s far better to travel via Sha Tau Kok in northeast Hong Kong, maybe taking a shuttle bus from Kowloon Tong into the border zone, then walking through Chinese immigration, and taking a taxi.
Oddly, there are no regular taxis in Dapeng, but a hotel concierge may help you book a car to Xichong. Or, bus M232 shuttles between Dapeng and Xichong, passing through Nan’ao, with views to part of Hong Kong – Tung Ping Chau – close inshore.
If you have time for a somewhat meandering journey back, you can take a bus from Dapeng to Kuiyong, then a bus to Dameisha – which mostly follows an old coast road, in parts recalling a bus ride near Stanley. Dameisha is a beachside town, with a new mall area and more to explore, and worth looking for online if you want to see what a really packed beach can be like. It’s also within easy reach of Sha Tau Kok (Shatoujiao, in Putonghua).
Websites including www.booking.com and www.ctrip.com have a variety of accommodation available; the former lists the popular Xichong place that’s converted from traditional housing as “Hesou Hostel”.