Continued from Part I: On the road to Liu'ao... Planning to conquer the Fujian surf, we'd made it to the stunning and remote beaches of Liu'ao to the south of Xiamen but night was falling and we still had no place to stay.>>> Making our way back to the main road from the beach, we kept our eyes peeled for any sign of a hotel. Tracks and dirt roads branched off to either side as we passed by field upon field punctuated by ramshackle farms and restaurants, the fading sunlight glinting off the sea that was occasionally visible off the peninsula. Gradually the buildings became denser, as did the rubbish strewn along the sides of the road. We'd entered Liu'ao Zhen, the town proper. I'd read somewhere that it was an ancient town dating as far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), but the shabby concrete block buildings that lined the sides of the road were not likely more than a decade old if that. Every now and then we caught a glimpse of broken-down walls, low slung houses and gracefully curved tiled roofs set back among the newer developments, and surmised the old town must have been swallowed up by its younger, and uglier siblings. We followed the road all the way to the land's end where, despite it turning into a dusty track that grew ever smaller and bumpier as it wound its way through the trees, the sight of a sign that included the characters 酒店 (jiu dian) along with a faded picture of Snow beer gave us hope of finding a place to stay, or at least enough cold beer to take the edge off of sleeping in the van. What we found was even better. A tiny restaurant in a sheltered cove where several groups of people were already tucking into tables stacked high with food. A path led to a small stretch of beach and where the grass came to an end, there were three tents set up, their duty to protect daytime merrymakers from the fierce Fujian sun. "Can we sleep here?" We asked a harried looking chap who we took to be the boss, rushing as he was back and forth around the tables. He laughed a friendly laugh and you could see from the expression on his face and the smile in his eyes it was the first time he'd had foreigners as guests. As long as we had dinner there, he told us, we could spend the night and sleep in his tents for free. And so we did. We sat in the circle of light cast by overhead bulbs strung precariously on wires through the trees and enjoyed a delicious dinner of fresh fish and vegetables, those cold beers we'd been after and listened to the waves crashing to the shore as we plotted our attack on the waters the next day. We woke early, emerging stiff and fuzzy-eyed to brilliant blue skies. The powerful waves snapped us into full-consciousness as the sand dropped swiftly from beneath our feet on entering the water for an early morning dip. In the unforgiving daylight the detritus of god-knows-how-many meals and visitors was more apparent than the night before with beer bottles and tissues, prawn shells and polystyrene plates strewn around the edges of the sand. One day, one day, we thought, people here will stop littering like this and it will be as beautiful as can be, but as to when and why and how this would happen we were left scratching our heads. What is so innate to us has yet to reach this remote corner where rubbish and the flies and the smells that go with them are just a fact of everyday life.
The forecast was for an off-shore wind until the afternoon--no good for the likes of a beginner like me who would be washed out to sea in no time. Instead we settled on trying to find what was left of the ancient town and after much thanking and hand-shaking and photo-taking we left our grubby little seaside paradise and its friendly staff, hopped in the van and were off.
The town of Liu'ao spreads out around the foot of a hill and as concrete replaced hard-packed, sandy mud under our wheels, a sharp right turn off the main drag took us into a relatively well preserved section of the old town. We spent a sweaty hour exploring its narrow alleyways and shrines as the sun rose higher in the sky. The villagers looked on in curiosity, wondering what it could be that we found so fascinating about their pigsties and their courtyards. Quiet and peaceful, there were none of the trappings usually found in such idyllic spots and people went about their business as usual, with not a souvenir in sight--tourists are virtually unknown here.
As the afternoon came around, so did the wind and we hit the beach. Empty aside from a few fishing boats and the tiny figures of cockle collectors far away on the sand, the beach we picked looked perfect. We pumped the kites and geared up, the boys hitting the water first, whooping and hollering at de-flowering the never before kited surf. Soon, two silhouettes appeared at the top of the sand dunes, later materializing into two local men, cigarettes in hand who made their way closer to take a better look. By the time I came out of the water an hour later, once again defeated by the waves which had buffeted me so hard I could not pull myself up and onto the board, a small fan club of young boys had formed around Flo and the giant kites that lay rippling on the sand. Friendly and curious their numbers grew as each new arrival took out his phone to call his friends who came to join them and witness the bizarre spectacle unfolding on their local beach. As always, kitesurfing is a sport at the mercy of the whims of the wind and though it was steady, it was too side-on. Blowing along the length of coastline and the waves it was hard work to ride and so we packed up our gear and moved further north, where the orientation of the next bay would hopefully offer a better angle. By the time we arrived, the wind was picking up strength and daylight fading fast. As Flo and Max raced to set up the kites, Marie and I explored the nearby rocks that are the main attraction of the area and draw a small number of Chinese tourists who come to take pictures and afterward, splash about in the shallows and maybe picnic on the beach. Known as the "Abstract Art Gallery" the granite rocks form a weathered canyon, streaked with rusty orange from the minerals within and creating surreal shapes and patterns. A storm was brewing out to sea and with the purple dusky light and windmills looming up above it was like walking through an alien landscape. From the clifftops we could see the red and green forms of the two kites, darting around in the wind, and beyond them, the thunderous black sky. The wind whipped at our sarongs as we went to meet Flo and Max further down the beach. Once again, we were without a hotel and this time with a storm brewing, the tents we stayed in last night were not an option. Neither, was driving the 40 km to Zhang Pu, the only place we were likely to find a hotel room according to everyone we had asked so far. The Jin Bei rental van was showing its age and its cranky old wiring managed either the back lights or front lights but not the two together--far from ideal when driving on windswept, dark country roads in rural China where a scooter, dog or person is likely to appear unannounced at any moment and dart across the road. Back in Liu'ao Zhen we were eventually directed to a small hotel in a side street but, as rumor had it, there was no room at the inn. As it turned out however, lady luck lived next door and took the form of a tough-looking little woman who had wandered over as we pulled up and subjected us to a barrage of questions. On discovering our predicament she disappeared only to return a few minutes later bearing the best possible news. She had two sons, she said, who were both away. If we liked, we could sleep in their rooms. Our saviour then showed us into her four story home where we were introduced to her husband and one small son who eyed us suspiciously from behind his mothers legs. Though she was adamant the rooms were not used, the giant orange teddy bear he grabbed from one told otherwise, and Flo and I guiltily set our bags down on the floor. The next morning, she helped us find breakfast (a mention of eggs had her tugging us to a restaurant where the forecourt was covered with broken eggshells, discarded by a girl who, although dressed for a nightclub, was busily deep-frying them over a make-shift gas burner and pan). Once we were well-fed and watered, she waved us off with a smile, having refused our offers of money in favor of a digital photo of her surprise house guests to remember them by. We returned to the Abstract Art Gallery beach and immediately began to run into problems. The wind was strong and my 8-meter kite had a puncture. The one we'd used the day before was 13- meters and would be too powerful for me to control. Looking around at the waves which were bigger even than yesterday and the stubs of bamboo poles that stuck up from the sand I decided not to be too disappointed and instead set to work with Marie to build a wind break from washed up debris that would have made Robinson Crusoe proud. So once again, it was a boys only affair on the water. Standing in the shallows, we snapped away as they sped across the water, jumping tens of meters high into the air off the lip of a wave, only hitting the water again far from where they'd started and all the time, grinning maniacally with delight. It was a great morning until suddenly, Flo was limping from the shallows. An awkward landing had twisted his foot badly and with that, the day's kitesurfing came to an end. Back at the van we iced it up with the best that was on hand; a packet of frozen pork from the only vendor around and decided to head back to Xiamen where, should he need them, doctors and medicine would be easier to find. Four hours later we were back in the big city. Having tracked down what were perhaps the last two hotel rooms in town, some bandages and lot of Ibuprofen, it was time to eat. Near by to Zhongshan Lu, one of Xiamen's best known pedestrian shopping zones, we set out to find some grub but the frenetic crowds, loud music and neon was so at odds with our chilled out vibe of the last few days we almost high-tailed it and ran. Just before breaking point, we spotted the "Central Park Cafe". A four-story haven of sofas, books and easy listening music, its rooftop terrace turned the crowds far below into a mellow buzz of background noise that went perfectly with our RMB 58 New Zealand T-Bone steaks and cold, Erdinger beers. In spite of damaged kites and ankles, it had been a great couple of days and tomorrow, we'd hit the kite club beach. I for one could not wait--though the beaches of Liu'ao had been beautiful, their waves had not been ideal for my beginner status and the calmer waters of Haiyuntai beach beckoned...
To be continued... Kitesurfing in Fujian: Offshore in Xiamen (Part III) Kitesurfing in Fujian: On the road to Liu'ao (Part I)China Travel Interview: Waiting for the wind with Xiamen kitesurf instructor David Zhai