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-by Ernie Diaz
Here’s the thing about the Chinese – they want China to be number one for everything possible. A disturbing ambition, especially to Murricans. Tourism is a great stadium for China list-topping performances; longest this, oldest that. But one jewel lies far from the travel crown – best beach.
Bad news for the hospitality industry and other granfaloons, good news for the wise. Honestly, how pre-Crash can you be, flocking to the world’s most-hyped tropical paradises, only to find that heaven is a one-way boulevard of golden-tan people catering to your every spoiled whim?
Ah, who are we kidding – Bali will always be a better choice than Beihai, for those who must absorb as much premium pampering as possible in a short window. But one day, and that day may never come, but if you’re a frequent flier then it well may: what happens when you at last tire from the wallowing, self-indulgent rut of Samui, Kuta, Poipu? Where do you go then?
You go to Myanmar, of course, but if your way back home lies East, or your way back home from Guilin lies West, and you want to add a feather to your cap, one whose color none of your travelers can quite match, add Beihai. C’mon! Haven’t you ever had the wild, working man’s impulse to jump off the Euro-Rail at Marseilles instead of poncing off to Cannes? In the Anthony Burgess-worthy future of travel, Beihai will be number one for something the Chinese can be proud of. Right now, it’s number one for taking a lateral hop off the conventional, predictable path of beach vacations.
You can’t do it, can you? You can’t pass up Haikou, just to the south of Beihai. Hainan has China’s number one beaches now, a fact much evident in the victorious atmosphere of Russian cologne and raucous touting that defines the place. So let’s assume you’ve been escorted to the Haikou airport: Departures, by policemen, yet have a few days’ paid vacation still owed you. Or the parents are entirely disenchanted with their long-planned Guilin experience, and wish they’d gone somewhere nice and quiet by the sea. Beihai’s your place, in both instances.
Beihai, a curious horizontal cape pointing to Vietnam and all things balmy, lies on the twilight zone strip of coastline separating Guangzhou from the Capricorn latitudes of Southeast Asia. Chinese with sailing, not beach fun on their minds departed from Beihai to ply maritime Silk Road trade, back when the Romans were going from republic to empire. More recently, a murdered white man in Yunnan simmered down to the Chefu Treaty, which turned Beihai into an orifice for European economic exploitation – not that anything’s wrong with that. China is built on symbiotic exploitation.
Do you love about China that there is no shame in going for the greatest bargain? Do you remember most about your Middle Kingdom trip the Silk Market girl you reduced to tears, lamenting the time it took her to sell you a Folex watch? Beihai is your place, too. Pearls will be nearly as viable as gold after Greek rolls out of EU’s bed and wakes the world from its reserve ratio fantasy. In Beihai, there is no B.S. about the pearl’s elegance, only its value. This will be where a woman learns the cynical realism of the jewelry trade, as far from Nordstrom’s as she could be.
It’s not like nothing much is going on, just that it’s going on in an entirely native manner. But Chinese native nowadays means global ambition and influence. Eight million Chinese tourists accounted for the vast majority of the five billion RMB Beihai took in for the year ending 2009. Only 61,000-odd foreign tourists anted up. But that was ten percent more than the year before.
The locus of Beihai tourism is Silver Beach. You’ll only visit Wenchang Pagoda or Dongpo Pavilion if grandpa is along, and simply must absorb every last bit of cultural significance to take into the next world. Silver Beach is buttressed by a slim, sinuous park chock-a-block with Greek statues and pre-fab Roman pavilions. The beach itself is gentle, bright-hued, and stretches away with a finality which makes the gangs of tiny crabs fleeing your steps a delight.
Sea air and salt water produce appetites innocent and voracious as lion cubs. The fried clams & bamboo shoots will be an easy culinary check in your win column. The fried sea worms, your toughest challenge. Try yourself first on the beach-side gauntlet of Beibu Gulf Road, where the sea has been culled and strung up for quick dispatch into Chinese bellies: oyster to urchin, shrimp to horseshoe crab. Your authentic dining venue – sidewalk al fresco, at misshapen plastic tables, shell middens a testament to the tastiness of Tonkin Gulf’s bounty. If you absolutely must have tablecloths, and wine rather than beer with your fish, Waisha Seafood Island in the north marches of Beihai will serve, at prices that will please.
And that’s about it for Beihai: a big, Hainan-ready beach with a fraction of the foreigners, pearl shopping, and all-night seafood scarfing. You don’t need more; you need even less, less chance of a wifi connection, for starters. Less crowding is always nice, too. For deserted beach tripping, the ferry awaits for Weizhou Island, a queasy three-hour voyage away, or a bumpier hour-and-twenty-minute ride, depending on which vessel you choose. Unspoiled tropical scenery, and all the seafood choices of Beihai await. Hell, you can even go out in a sampan yourself, catch your own fish, and have it fried up beachside. No spas, no night clubs, no outlets, no bother.