Beidaihe, Hebei Province
For me there are three main activities which make a trip to the seaside so much fun. Firstly there is building sandcastles, secondly there is skimming stones and thirdly there is watching other people. In Beidaihe, northern China’s premier beach resort, the sand is entirely the wrong consistency for structural endeavours and there isn’t a pebble anywhere in sight. This means all your time is free to concentrate on watching your fellow beach dwellers as they flit undecidedly between the beach and the sea. It was a splendid way to spend a weekend. Political Escape
Beidaihe is only 2 hours by fast train from Beijing. It is known for its sandy beaches and has been a favoured get away for communist politicians over the last few decades. Mao himself spent much time at his retreat here. Since 2004, though, the communist party decided using a resort town for conferences disagreed with the image of efficiency and frugality they wanted to cultivate and now leave it to purely for tourists to enjoy.
Recently development money has turned the peninsular into a fashionable and desirable location for Chinese holidaymakers to bask in the summer weather. The town’s development
has led to a well run, clean and efficient place which nonetheless retains its character as a bustling sea side town. I loved the place. It feels like the future of small town China.
There’s a definite air of Europeanness in its architecture and mood. Beidaihe doesn’t take itself too serious - faux European style shop fronts and spires are twee but nonetheless somehow charming in their surroundings. Restaurants have large areas of outdoor tables and the town even has a little square with street seating for those wanting a catch a couple of leisurely drinks. In its feel it is owes a lot to Western seaside towns. The Brighton of the East.
It was also refreshing to go somewhere which has no particular cultural entities to visit. When you can only spend a weekend somewhere there is often the pressure to “do it”. With Beidaihe to “do it” means embracing what it’s famous for - i.e. plonking your arse on the beach for a few hours before sidling over to the nearest sea food restaurant. I could handle this kind of pressure. There are two sides to every peninsular
Our hotel was on the North of
the peninsular where we found a rather quaint beach complete with picturesque old fishing boats. It was all but deserted (for Chinese standards anyway). We wondered where the catch was but nonetheless enjoyed it for an afternoon.
On the second day we headed towards the centre of town and found a beach that met our expectations - sandy and chock full of people. We hired an umbrella and three deck chairs and made ourselves comfortable for a long day of observation.
Despite having an excellent book in my paws for most of the day, by the time we had to leave I’d only achieved 90 pages of progress. What I had achieved is a better understanding of who frequents a Chinese beach. It turns out there are three distinct types of people who occupy the beach and they can be found in roughly equal numbers. Type 1: The Russians
The town attracts a lot of Russians. Street and shop signs are in Cyrillic, restaurants have Russian menus but no English ones. We guess they fly in from Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and other eastern Russian cities for a cheap getaway.
On the beach they are easy to spot,
in fact they stand out like beacons. Glowing, bright red beacons of pulsating flesh. Middle-aged blokes with stern expressions and cigarettes in hand stand around sporting the effects of a hard week getting frazzled. On a Dulux chart they would be somewhere between “Lobster” and “Spring Poppy”. If they stood still with their mouth open outside a Royal Mail Post office you wouldn’t think twice about pushing your letter through the slot. Though it must be said how much of the hue is due to the sun, and how much is due to liquor is up for debate.
The men are accompanied by women who are either tall, skinny and bikinied or are on the other end of the scale entirely (there is no happy medium) and who resemble Soviet versions of Miss Trunchbull. These are women who look like they could easily shot put you a couple of fathoms out to sea if you muttered the wrong thing. Type 2: The Chinese who are dressed for the beach
The next type are the Chinese who look like they are at a beach. And they are. The style for men is fairly consistent, namely navy body-hugging trunks that
start around the belly button and finish at the top of the thigh. I don’t know what it is about beaches, be they Blackpool, Bournemouth or Beidaihe but they attract the finest bellies that the local population has to offer. Chinese are not naturally fat, but nevertheless the beach was heavily populated by fleshy barrels of tummy. The men who visit Beidaihe winter well.
The woman are more stylishly dressed (you may find this hard to believe from such a lofty starting point) in swimsuits that incorporate frilly skirts and shawls.
Each small cluster of adults will be centred around one child. If less than five the kid will probably be in the buff and will definitely be having a whale of a time splashing water at its parents and grandparents in the shallow sea and generally lapping up all the attention. The only time they don’t look exuberantly happy is the inevitable occasion when they try eating sand. Type 3: The Chinese who aren’t dressed for the beach
Then there are the Chinese who seem completely unprepared for where they are. Men in brown slacks, linen trousers and long sleeve shirts. Women in long flowing flowery
dresses and expansive hats you could easily lose a small European country under paddling in the sea while clutching their high heeled shoes.
This group tend to spend most of the time taking photographs of each other. Chinese girls in particular are experts at cutesy poses. It’s no doubt all the practice they get. Every group of friends will take photos of every combination of friends in every possible pose. It occupies the entire day.
Sometimes the unpreparedness goes further than just dress. One family had found themselves at the beach with their pet mouse, and for want of a better cage had him sitting in a plastic cup. The adjacent family had a tiny dog in a bucket; the kind of dog which I’m convinced is closer genetically to a bat than a wolf.
Perhaps I should add a fourth, less populous group of miscellaneous characters. This would include the pale and scrawny English guy with ice-lolly in one hand, book in other and feet buried in the sand.
But all the different groups were united in their pleasure for what is such a universal and simple human past time. Why exactly is sitting on
a load of finely ground yellow rock by some brownish/blueish water so appealing? Everyone was happy, relaxed and enjoying life. Beaches probably shouldn’t be as fun as they are, but I for one had a swell time.
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