The Lion City – China’s Atlantis
Shi Cheng also known as the Lion City, named in honour of the surrounding Lion Mountains, was once a centre of politics and economics in the eastern province of Zhejiang. In 1959, the Chinese government undertook a project to build a hydroelectric power station in the area. 290,000 people were relocated and 1300 villages plus 2 ancient cities flooded, by building a dam and slowly filling it with water. This manmade waterbody is called Qiandao Lake, or Thousand Island Lake, as a result of the 1078 islands which can now be found in the 573 square kilometres of fresh water.
The birth of the Lion City dates back to the Tang Dynasty and it is believed to have been constructed around 621 AD. Larger than most of the other cities of the era, it was built with 5 gates and towers instead of the usual 4. The structures which were built during this period, including traditional Chinese statues, have mostly been beautifully preserved as a result of the water it sits in.
After being flooded, the Lion City was forgotten and remained so for 53 years. In 2001, it was rediscovered completely intact by divers, and the way to the ruins mapped out. Affectionately called China’s Atlantis, the city has a maze of white temples, memorial arches, roads, houses, and remnants of the trees that grew while it was above the water. Away from the sun and wind, even the wooden structures in the city have been frozen in time preserving its original essence.
The entire city lies between 85 and 131 feet underwater, and has become a popular tourist attraction with many guided dive tours available each week. After its rediscovery, wooden beams from the city were removed and became dehydrated and shrank. Protective measures have since been put in place in order to ensure that the ruins aren’t damaged by visitors and, in January 2011, the city was declared a historical relic under the protection of Zhejiang Province.
There is a big difference between the lake dive to view the underwater spectacle and a regular ocean dive. The visibility beneath the water is poor and unpredictable due to the silt at the bottom, and many divers find it disorientating. Not paying close attention while on a dive means that they may become separated, and tourists are urged to take the necessary precautions. Dive lights are mandatory and the first glimpse of the city is amazing as the structures appear suddenly out of the darkness. The lake’s water magnifies the exquisite carvings of animals and Chinese characters, and exploring the city as it is now is definitely a more memorable experience than walking through its streets while it was unsubmerged would have been.