Beihai: the working man's beach paradise

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: June 3rd, 2011 | Updated: March 5th, 2012 | Comments
China travel_Chinese cities_China travel destinations China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>> Beihai is to Hainan what Port Charles is to the Caribbean; what Blackpool is to Brighton (what Dallas is to Miami?): Forever the shabbier cousin to the island "paradise" that managed to escape the grips of the mainland. But there are advantages to being gritty. And there are advantages for the traveler who visits first one and then the other. Because what is traveling but the search for and exchange of knowledge? If you stay in paradise forever, you'll be silly and ignorant and that's not what this traveling stuff is all about. If you've spent your week-and-a-half with the fam in Hainan, then instead of skipping off by plane back home, consider a stop in Beihai and, if you really want some stories to tell, an overland trip either north to Guilin or south to Vietnam...

Gritty and proud

So what can Beihai offer to someone who has stayed at one of gorged on lobster and shrimp? Answer: The same lovely attractions, beaches and meals, only cheaper and with the working class. Beihai's Yintan (Silver Beach) is one of the best beaches along the entire southern coast of China and is surprisingly less crowded than you might assume, being within range of  both buses and Foshan, Shenzhen and the surrounding satellite towns that combine into one great Pearl River megalopolis. Naturally you will be hard pressed to walk the sands alone, with only one pair of footprints at your side, but it can be done. Something about the beaches make the crowds gather together and if you walk far enough in either direction, you will find yourself more or less alone with the breeze and your thoughts. The great thing about Beihai (and for me the major advantage over places like Sanya) is the fact that seafood restaurants hug the beaches pretty much the entire way. Not only does this lend a bit of life to the strand, but it also makes the whole experience seem complete. Unlike other beach resort areas, Beihai is proud of being a fishing village-turned-international port-turned-budding tourist destination. That's what gritty gets you: a beach attached to a real city, and not a beach attached to a dream resort that you'll have to leave at some point.

Seafood and expat bars

  • two steamed fish, one with spices and one with a sweet garlic sauce
  • two plates of mussels, one fried with green peppers the other steamed with garlic
  • a platter of steamed shrimp
  • another fish, this one deep fried
  • a plate of crabs on the half shell
  • a plate of special Beihai fried sandworms
  • three or four veggies plates
  • many beers
My two buddies and I laid down RMB 500 for that list above. It might sound like a lot of money when you just read it in text, but believe me, we spent all night messing with that table underneath a visible moon in a bamboo bungalow just off of Silver Beach. It really doesn't get much better than that (and definitely not much cheaper). And this was during the Spring Festival, when prices around China rise by 300% to 400% because... they can. If you are not into the bungalow thing and would rather sit on a tiny plastic chair slurping seafood from a tiny little plastic bowl at a table covered in plastic wrapping, then you are in luck my friend. The night markets in Beihai were made for the likes of you. Night markets have the best food for the best prices anyway. You can get all manner of seafood steamed, grilled, fried, boiled, stewed and/or roasted and when you're done you can grab a stick of pineapple and wipe sticky juices off of your chin as you head for the bars... For some odd reason, Beihai has become a favorite retirement spot for old China hands who've "seen it all" and just want to spend a few years running a bar on the Old Street and setting up Hash House Harrier events. Drink and party holes like Tommy's Place and the Holland Bar provide a bit of community in this town surrounded on three sides by jungle and on the other by the ocean. Perhaps the ghosts of old colonial counting houses have something to do with it. Beihai was one of the first Treaty Ports after the English (rudely) forced open China's doors to the world wide web of mercantilism. Eight countries set up shop here, building their beautiful European banks and trade missions and sending silk and tea and pearls out of the port and around the world to European ladies in need of good material for their ballroom gowns.

It's still China

This is an image that will stay for me forever... Spring Festival in Beihai, near the port. Horns and cymbals and chanting echoing in and out of the lanes separating old counting houses and suddenly, a glimpse of four skinny men: two carrying a Buddha figurine in a carriage on their shoulders, one in front with cymbals and another in back with a horn. They are running through the lanes. I jog to where they are but they have already turned a corner. I can only see the fourth man, horn upraised as he scampers away. I stand there wondering if it's an acid flashback, and they come barreling down the alley I was just standing in, going the opposite direction. I chase them again; miss them again. Not once do I catch a clear shot of this procession amidst the old colonials and when it seems like I might have guessed their next turn, a thousand firecrackers go off at once and red confetti hides them from my view. That's what Beihai can give you and that's what Sanya cannot.
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