An ancient city is frozen in time at the bottom of Qiandao Lake, China. Carolyn Wang had the chance to dive and photograph this site before it was closed to the public.
I move steadily, panning my lights ahead of me, surrounded by the dark, cold waters of Qiandao Lake. Without the rhythmic motion and sounds of ocean waves and surge, the water here is eerily silent. The sound of my own breaths are a jarringly loud soundtrack in my head. As I descend deeper, I feel the pressure increasing. I feel it compressing my drysuit, and I feel the pressure to find the Lion City quickly as my bottom time becomes more limited.
Through the gloom, a face emerges from the dark. I move toward it, but it is not the friendly face of one of my fellow divers.
The fierce dragon stares back at me, its eyes bulging, mouth agape, and serpentine body coiled. Even at nearly 1,400 years old, its face is in sharp relief, its stony gaze unwavering and undulled by time as we take each other’s measure.
Nothing I read or researched has prepared me for my first look at the ancient Lion City.
Moments before, standing on the edge of Qiandao Lake in the Zhejiang province of China, I looked out across the misty, calm surface of the man-made lake. It was difficult to imagine the ruins of an ancient city 100 feet below.
Qiandao Lake, also known as Thousand Island Lake, is a sprawling body of fresh water, covering 221 square miles. Thousands of emerald-forested islands — both large and small — speckle the turquoise-blue lake. Created in 1959, when the valley at the base of Wu Shi (Five Lion) Mountain was flooded to become the Xin’anjiang Reservoir and Xin’an River hydroelectric station, this massive government project forced 290,000 people to relocate as more than 1,300 villages and tens of thousands of acres of farmland were lost. Shi Cheng (also known as Lion City), the political and economic hub of the region, was also submerged. This once-majestic ancient city, believed to have been built during the Tang Dynasty — nearly 1,400 years ago — was sacrificed to the steady march of progress. A second city, He Cheng, was also flooded; it’s believed that it is even older, dating back to the Han Dynasty (25 to 200 A.D.).
For more than 50 years, Shi Cheng — a maze of white temples, memorial arches and houses decorated with classical Chinese statues such as guardian lions and intricate carvings of dragons and phoenixes — slumbered undisturbed at the bottom of the Qiandao Lake until it was rediscovered in January 2001 and later declared a historical relic under the protection of the Zhejiang province.
The cool waters of the lake offer the structures protection from the sun, and the city’s architecture remains largely intact. Since much of the city is still unmapped, dives on the site are considered exploratory.
Topside, the warm 70-degree air temperature is a misleading precursor to the dive ahead. I’ve been warned by our guide that the water temperature will likely drop into the 40s below the thermocline this time of year, which will make this my coldest dive yet. Since I often dive in cool California waters, I opt to use my drysuit and have my photography gear set up with strobes for wide-angle still photos and video lights to capture the sights throughout the dive. The guide and two other divers opt to dive wet, each using 10 mm of neoprene total — a 7 mm wetsuit with another 3 mm suit over it.
Vastly different from a standard ocean dive, Qiandao Lake diving requires a thorough understanding of the conditions we’ll encounter. Our initial dive is in the lagoon, in 25 feet of water, to allow us to acclimate to the dark world below the lake’s calm surface. Visibility at the surface is 5 feet at best, dropping to a mere 6 inches in some places and reduced to zero when a fin disturbs the fine sediment on the lake bed. Even with strong lights, visibility quickly deteriorates and becomes disorienting if someone in the group accidentally silts out the dive site.
With the briefing fresh in our minds, we change tanks and make the short 10-minute boat ride to the first site. As we descend, the warm, almost uncomfortable surface temperatures give way to startlingly cold water, and the lake itself quickly becomes dark as night. Even though it’s late morning, below 40 feet the lake is pitch black, with only the descent line in my hand visible as we drop deeper and deeper. I keep one hand on the line, with the other pointing my lights down, trying to peer through the darkness for, well, anything.
My first glimpse of the ruins of Lion City takes my breath away. Around 85 feet, a manmade structure of stone emerges out of the dark waters into the very edge of my dive light’s beam. Shi Cheng is known to have 265 arches within the city, and incredibly, I’m now looking at the top of the Jie Xiao Memorial Arch. I continue exploring, finding intricate carvings of lions and dragons as well as Chinese characters carved into the stone structures. Intact archways and doorways are discernible in the gloom as I descend to around 130 feet, what was once street level. Visibility is, at best, 25 feet, and as I pan my lights around, I can see the particles and sediment in the water winking back at me. Not wanting to miss a moment, I remain at depth until no-decompression limits require me to ascend.
We only have time to make two more dives, so I choose to revisit the arch, then venture along what was once a city path walked by long-dead citizens. Stacks of stone bricks have formed a low wall, some toppled, and the trunks of trees are still intact.
Based on records of the region’s history, Shi Cheng is thought to be quite large, possibly the size of more than 60 football fields in length. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and it would take many years to explore all of it.
As I ascend from my last dive, I have a slightly unsettled feeling and realize that I have seen little visible life in the lake, which is rare on a dive. In fact, the only life I saw were a few small crabs on the top of the arch; I did not see any fish at all. I feel eerily like a trespasser. I suppose we all are, diving among the ghosts and empty streets of an ancient abandoned city, trapped in time 100 feet beneath the surface.