China’s Atlantis of the East
Often called the “Atlantis of the East” by travellers, the underwater city of Shicheng is a magnificent, mysterious time capsule of Imperial China. Stone architecture dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties (which ruled from 1368 to 1912) stands perfectly preserved 40m under Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang province, 400km south of Shanghai.
Unlike the mythical Atlantis, Shicheng – which means Lion City in Mandarin – was purposely flooded in 1959 to make way for the Xin’an Dam and its adjoining hydroelectric station. Nearly 300,000 people were relocated for the project, some of whom had families that had lived in the city for centuries.
The city was “rediscovered” in 2001 when the Chinese government organised an expedition to see what might remain of the lost metropolis. Interest and exploration increased further in 2011, when the Chinese National Geography published some never-before-seen photographs and illustrations hypothesising what the small city, which measured about half a square kilometre, might have looked like in its heyday.
Expeditions and underwater photographs have revealed that the city had five entrance gates, as opposed to the traditional four – with two western-facing gates as well as gates in the other cardinal directions. The city’s wide streets also have 265 archways, featuring preserved stonework of lions, dragons, phoenixes and historical inscriptions, some of which date back as far as 1777; the city walls are believed to date back to the 16th Century.
Despite being underwater, Shicheng has remained well preserved; the water actually protects it from wind, rain and sun erosion. Today, advanced divers can get up close to the ruins with dive operators such as Big Blue and Zi Ao Diving Club, which run regular dives between April and November. Since the ruins have yet to be fully mapped, the dive is still considered “Exploratory” and is limited to divers with deep water, night and buoyancy experience.