Imagine the thrill of skimming across the water at the speed of the wind, just you and the elements, your arms outstretched as if wakeboarding but there's no boat, no engine. Just the pure force of knots, blowing hard into a giant kite, twenty meters before you. Popping off the water or the lip of a wave, almost in slow motion you sail through the air for seconds of weightlessness, gravity bringing you down an impressive distance away—it's like flying.
This is kitesurfing, and slowly, but surely, it's coming to China. Like most action sports, it's virtually unknown to the general Chinese population, but as disposable income has increased, people have become more mobile and curious about new ways to have fun and spend their newfound wealth.
Kitesurfing (also known as kiteboarding) is itself a fairly new addition to the action sports world, having only really hit the mainstream in the late 1990s. I remember the first time I heard of it. It was 2000, and I was doing my second winter season of snowboarding in the French Alpine resort of Meribel. An ex-colleague had decided not to come back that year, opting instead to stay in Australia where he'd the last few months learning this awesome new sport called kitesurfing. As water sports went, he said, it was the mutt's nuts (his words, not mine).
A decade later, I find myself in China and in the infant stages of my own kitesurf education. Haiyuntai Beach in Xiamen is one of the best places to learn the sport here, being that it is home to 59Fly Kiteboarding Center, one of the country's first beach-side kite schools. I took advantage of a lull in the wind to chat to David Zhai, founder, owner and passionate kiter....
David first came across kite-surfing in Xiamen back in 2007, and he was immediately hooked: "I came here to see my friends. We met in Tibet and they were good people. One of them owned a guest house and I stayed for one year; swimming, beach and BBQs every day. That's when I discovered kitesurfing. There were only two foreigners doing it in Xiamen at that time and there was no school in China. Then I traveled to Vietnam and when I arrived in Mui Ne, one of the most famous places for kiteboarding, there were lots of schools so I took lessons. After that I came back to Xiamen and could do it myself."
After another year in Xiamen, David returned to Mui Ne for four months, this time completing his IKO (International Kiteboarding Organization) instructor's license. With this in hand, it was back to Xiamen to launch what would be China's first beach-side kite school. Technically speaking, there are a handful of other kite schools in China. "I have a few friends who kitesurf in Sanya and they have schools there but they only have small office downtown. They have to get in a van or arrange a pickup with all the gear then drive with their students to find a beach, take the lesson and come back, so it's kind of hard. When you finish kiting you have to find a place to shower and to pack down your kite. It's not so easy on the sand, it's like your trip in Liu'ao!" he says, referring to my recent adventures out to the undeveloped beaches two hours to the south.
Indeed, here they have a grassy bank sheltered from the wind by swaying palms trees, water jets for washing off the destructive saltwater from kites and harnesses and an air compressor to inflate the kites. A cozy little cabin serves as an office and storage space for members to leave their equipment. Just next door is the Rasa Sayang bar and restaurant with a big outdoor terrace and a menu of decent Malaysian and Thai food. All in all, it's a perfect spot.
When I ask about other beaches in China, he tells me he thinks Fujian has some of the best. "In Zhejiang the beaches are so-so, in Shandong, the water is too cold—there are only two months for kiteboarding. Shanghai, no beach, Guangzhou has no good beaches... so I think Fuijan is really a good place. In fact, Hainan is the best place.
"Soon we will open another school in Wenchang on Hainan Island," he goes on to say. "I think that is really good for kitesurfing in China. It has a beautiful beach and flat water. It's better for beginners and also for experts who want to learn new tricks. The shallow water is better than here because the students can stand in the water and the instructor can help them with the board and everything. It's very easy. Most important though is that we have a partnership with a famous 5-star resort there. We're very lucky to have found a someone who is interested in kitesurfing as a new sport. If you look at Sanya and Haikou, the hotel business there is very good and they are not interested in trying out something new, but the boss of Baijin Holiday Resort and Hotel, he's interested and can help give us a cheap price for all kitesurfers. Like in Mui Ne, you can pump up your kite and then leave it on the hotel beach overnight, then when the wind comes the next day you go straight on the water—it's the real kite life."
And what is the kite life? I ask, though in all honesty I know, sitting as we are in camp chairs on the beach, the sun shining down, waiting calmly and patiently for the wind.
"I think you can feel real happiness in kiting," replies David. "You can travel with your kite to different beaches, different countries, different waves. I think it's the best life. I really like Mui Ne, so every year I spend three or four months there. For me that's the real life; sunshine, the beach. Every day have breakfast on the beach, just waiting for the wind and when it comes, you kitesurf."
As idyllic as it all sounds, it hasn't all been easy. David worked for twelve years on the stock market in Shanghai before giving it all up and heading off to Tibet. Here he would spend three years as a photographer and sometime tour guide before discovering kitesurfing and moving to Xiamen to set up his school.
"Since finishing work in Shanghai I had no work, no real income," he recalls. "To set up the school I needed money for the office and to store the kites, so it cost me a lot to start the business and run it for the first year. This year... maybe OK and next year I hope it will be better."
With the recent opening of another school on the same stretch of beach by some of his old students, there is still not really enough business to go around. "There are only around 30 or 40 guys regularly kiting in Xiamen," he explains. "There are some who take lessons and then disappear. Some even buy the equipment, the kite, the board, everything. They live in Xiamen, but maybe they are just too busy."
In fact, time and money represent two of the major obstacles to the growth of kitesurfing (and other similar sports) in China. It costs money to learn, and then to set yourself up with all the equipment it is upward of RMB 8,000. David tells me that the majority of their members are in the 30-40 year-old age bracket. They have a good income and are in the position to drop it all when the wind is right. "When the good wind comes we call them up and they say OK! I'm coming. Young people in China, they're not so rich. They have to work hard and they don't have the time."
Culture also gets in the way, with many local wealthy Chinese simply uninterested in sports, and Xiamen's rich population preferring to "just drink tea all day and relax on the beach" rather than try something new... for now. David is confident that change is coming in the next couple of years as more and more local people become aware of it. At the moment, his students are about half and half, foreigners and Chinese. Most of them come from cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, and though occasionally people do just come across them on the beach in Xiamen and want to give it a try, about 80% find out about the school online first and then come down to do the course.
But as enthusiastic students tell their friends, and the tourists and locals on the beach watch in awe as David and his crew pull high-flying stunts several meters above the waves, the word is slowly spreading. The small community that already exists is working hard to develop the sport with competitions taking place throughout the year in Xiamen, nearby Dongshan Island and even further afield.
The highlight of this kitesurfing year will come on 25-29 November with the return of the annual KTA (Kiteboard Tour Asia). Last year the China edition took place in Xiamen, this year it will be in Wenchang. Bigger and better than before it will be a boon to Hainan's newest kiting destination and to David's new club with 60 riders from 12 countries already confirmed to take part.
As for the rest of China, it seems that things are also looking up: "More and more local government are realizing the beach is important, more important than seafood restaurants or resorts, and now they are starting to protect it. Like in Dong Shan, one of my friends has a scuba shop there and he told me the government have already cleaned up the beach and closed some factories so I think it will improve. More and more governments, they're changing their minds to see factories are not everything."
The word on the beach
This is Henry from Shanghai. October holiday was his first time kitesurfing. He'd driven all the way from Shanghai to check it out—a journey that should have taken eight hours but instead took 24 due to damaged and closed roads. The long and arduous journey didn't dampen his spirits though!
"My mother and father have been friends with David for a long time so knew he had the school. I started on October 3rd and am learning quite quickly. Two days ago I was training to do body dragging and I feel very good. I'm looking foward to my on-board training."
He'll be back again for sure, he tells me, though admits that before he arrived, he didn't exactly know what he was in for. "My friends, they don't know kitesurfing and actually before I came here, I didn't really know what it was—I told them I was going to do surfing and they all said, hey that's really cool. Not many people even surf in China as there aren't many beautiful beaches and waves for surfing. I think kitesurfing can be even more popular than surfing though, as you don't need big waves to do it."
Next up was Dennis Wong. A Hong Kong native who now dwells in Shenzhen, he's been kitesurfing for five years now. Having tried his hand at all other water sports over the last 30 years; from windsurfing and diving to sailing and Jet skiing but at the end of the day it's kitesurfing that has come up trumps. "There's just nothing like it in terms of fun and excitement," he explains.
In fact Dennis is a freelance kitesurfing instructor down in Shenzhen and the sole China distributor for Blade Kites. He doesn't have a school but all manner of students find him through friends or on his Hong Kong. There have been a number of people interested to learn but the wind hasn't been very good for the last six months but starting from autumn to spring next year it should be good."
In his opinion, the immediate restrictions facing kitesurfing in China are firstly, that many Chinese people cannot swim and secondly, the cost can be prohibitive. Echoing David's sentiments he says: "The small community that can afford it are not very sports-oriented so their reaction to take it up will be slower than in other places. It won't take long though, I think in five years we'll see a lot more kitesurfing on the beaches in China. For sure the kitesurfing scene will get bigger, it's like everywhere in the world—it's growing and growing. I don't see how it would not... anyone who touches the this sport will love it!"
Yoyo, a bundle of energy from Shanghai, is a professional trainer for Technogym and understandably sporty by nature. This is her first time doing something quite like this though, a sport where you get to enjoy a lot of time on the beach and relax, get to know new people and then do sport together. The beach life appeals to her but would it appeal to some of her friends at home? Without hesitation she replies:
"Yes, yes I think so, and what's important as well is we have met a lot of friends for traveling. It's very easy to talk to people. We relax, we talk about the same thing and enjoy the same thing; we share, it's so good. Even though today the wind is not great for practice, we still sit on the beach, talk and share. It's really great."
Yoyo tells me she didn't really know what kitesurfing was until "one of my friends showed me on the internet. He told me that not a lot of Chinese girls do it and that he thought it would be great for me! So I just went online to find some information, connected with the instructor and then came down to Xiamen.... I can't imagine the feeling when I can do some real surfing and jumping on the sea, it will be fantastic. So free, you can do everything you want... I will be back very soon, maybe in one month."
If you are interested in learning how to kitesurf in China, then David's schools in Xiamen or Hainan are a good bet with a ten-hour course from an IKO certified instructor starting at RMB 2500.
Fly59 China Kiteboarding Center
K5-K9, South Huandao Road, Xiamen
Tel: +86 (0) 592 8811 177 / 1586 073 2702
More about kitesurfing in China on ChinaTravel.net