Wind in my hair, the smell of salt from the ocean and the sun warming my arms.
The grogginess I felt when I first arrived instantly replaced by energy and excitement. I am on a sailboat with 2 friends and an instructor. The boat quickly picks up speed by a burst of wind and suddenly begins to tip, we all instinctively counteract our inevitable capsize by forcibly shifting our weight to the opposite side of the boat, essentially we are leaning off the edge. Thankfully the boat evens out and we all start laughing infectiously, “three minutes in and we almost capsized, great start guys!” my friend Kat sarcastically yells out through a smile. Although the possibility of tipping may be a fun adrenaline rush when you’re close to shore, I can’t imagine the terror of sailing in the deep waters, miles away from land and being that close to capsizing – fending for yourself in the ocean. Especially if those waters are home to sharks. Ahead of us, we notice another sailboat on the verge of keeling over, we all start howling at them in vicarious anxiety of their inevitable tip. Evidently the riders on the boat were unaware that counterweighting the boat will help to stop capsizing, the boat quickly goes over.
Sailing. Not an activity commonly associated with the landlocked city of Beijing. Most of my Chinese friends can barely swim let alone sail. When I think about sailing, I immediately think of a luxury sport, a sport cut out only for the pros – the overly rich pros at that. A sailor in my mind evokes an image of young attractive men, men who wear polo shirts, smoke cigars, laugh obnoxiously and overdo it on the cologne. Men who are confident, charismatic and filthy rich. The Beijing Sailing club is much different than these pre-existing notions of cologne drenched, popped collared lads – it is an affordable activity, and surprisingly convenient to get to. Located in Nandaihe, on the gulf of Bohai, and only a two hour train ride from Beijing Train Station. From the Bedaihe train station the Sailing Club is only 20 minutes away in Nandaihe, in the south. By the time we reach the entrance of Azure Beach Hua Mao it’s the early afternoon and already sweltering. We stop to take a look at a large, 5 foot transformer-like yellow robot. We take our necessary robot-posed photos and carry on to the water, passing by billboards with an image of a perfect, empty beach with pure white sands, trimmed with turquoise blue waters and a woman wearing an oversized straw hat swinging on a hammock, “Azure Beach Hua Mao, Nandaihe” it reads. Right… I think to myself. As most of us know, beaches in China tend to be notorious for being overpopulated and dirty. In reality this beach, to my surprise, is not brimming with thousands of Chinese tourists. In fact, it’s nearly empty with only the occasional Chinese tourist sitting under any crevice of shade they can muster, decked out in spandex bodysuits, a hat, and faces painted white from thick layers of sunscreen. Crystal blue water it is not, a bit more of a murky, greenish hue, but it is very clean and well maintained. No visible garbage in sight, just seaweed. The bathrooms are also surprisingly well-kept and even have clean showers with lockers. Along the beach there is a beautiful long stretch of a boardwalk as well as a pier heading out to the water. The people of Nandiahe are very friendly, they find my lack of Chinese endearing rather than annoying. They smile more and seem more relaxed. Beach life I suppose. The area, much like most of China, is in the midst of anticipating a boom. Big “all inclusive” style resorts are in mid-construction, and there’s even a squeaky clean golf course. Reminds me of a Florida beach retirement area, except the Chinese version.
The Beijing Sailing Center has been open since 2006 and is the first accredited sailing school in China. Starting with only 2 boats, originally in Qinhuandao and moving to Nandaihe, the Sailing Center now has a fleet of 34 sailboats. The founder, Rick Pointin, is a British man with many years of sailing under his belt, “the thing about sailing is, it’s easy to learn but takes years to master” he says. I ask him if he’s close to mastering it yet, “no, definitely not!” he tells me laughing. Although I didn’t see him sail, I’m sure he’s pretty close. He casually tells me he has sailed around the world a few times. Pointin came here in 2006 and decided to open his very own sailing company. “I really enjoy how sailing is the kind of sport that evenly incorporates brains and brawns”. Sailing is about angling the boat in a certain way to maximize the wind’s pull, it involves thinking and planning the next move. I take a boat out to meet two other instructors who are sitting on a small raft keeping track of the members race taking place. I ask them what they do when the winter comes since the sailing club shuts down, “I chase the summer” says Nathan with a big smile, exposing a mouth of full of bright white teeth, a stark contrast to his bronzed skin from endless days in the sun. He’s from England and is only 19 years old. “I’m not a fan of winter so I follow the summers, I taught sailing in New Zealand last year and I think this winter I’m going to try to go to Australia”. Sounds like a dream to me I think, I too hate the cold. Callum, a 21 year old with hair so bleached from the sun its turned bright yellow, tells me he returns to England to find work and heads back to the sailing club come summertime. Both guys speak very little Chinese, I wonder how it works when teaching to Chinese people who speak little English. “It’s very challenging” both of them turn to me with serious expressions. “I have to think of the most simplest way to explain something then simplify it another four times to explain it. It’s made me a much better teacher. Now when I go back to England or teach in English speaking countries, it’s a total breeze” says Nathan with a smirk, Callum nods his head in agreement. “It makes me more patient, for sure.”
After a day of sailing and lounging on the beach, my friends and I make our way to a BBQ dinner taking place on the beach. The dinner is prepared by a mix of different events from the Beijing Sailing Club, to different real estate companies. The beach may not be crowded in the day but by 6:00pm sharp the people are out in groups and everyone is swimming or lounging on the beach. We sit patiently awaiting dinner, looking out at the waves through breaks in the crowds of people staring at us. Lots of staring matches and the occasional not-so-discreet photo taken of us while we are in mid sneeze. It’s dark by the time we finish dinner. Slow, classical music fills the air, and we hear a man with a microphone yell out with a thick Chinese accent “join the party with us in the fire!” Everyone at the dinner, almost in-sync, leaves the dinner table and begin to run full-force behind me. I turn around and notice two massive tipis in the distance that have erupted in fire. Everyone starts holding hands and dancing along the fire. It reminds me of some kind of strange witchcraft, voodoo performance so I decide to join in on the weirdness. Running. Because it seems like I should. By the time I get closer the tipis have dramatically toppled over leaving the remnants of two perfect bonfires. I am instantly brought back to lazy summers at a cottage in Canada, roasting marshmallows by the fire, mesmerized by the flames. Within a few minutes, I look up and notice the beach is almost completely empty, it’s just my friends and I, slightly buzzed from beer and wine and wondering how a party could go from BBQ dinners, to witchcraft lighting tipis to immediate bedtime. We end up walking down the pier sitting at the edge, feet dangling off, exchanging stories, laughing and watching fleets of pirate ship-looking boats in the distance. Presumably trying to find scraps of fish or anything else edible to sell or consume. We finally end up making our way back to the beach where our tents await for us to assemble them. If you plan on setting up camp on the beach, it’s always a smart idea to set the tents up before it gets dark. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to assembled our tents and crawled in for a blissful snooze.
Overall a great experience. One of the perks of living in China is the convenience of traveling by train throughout the country. It’s inexpensive, comfortable and enjoyable. Train rides have always been my most preferred method of travel, especially when you get a window seat, head resting on the window, iPod fully charged and plugged in, it really doesn’t get much better than that. I can easily spend hours watching the world go by, listening to music and envisioning the adventures to come. Although Azure beach may not have crystal blue waters and pure white sand, it has its own charm. Its laid back and calm, its not busy, the facilities are clean and so is the ocean. It’s a an easy getaway with friends on a weekend and a perfect short summer holiday. A great escape from busy Beijing, to unwind, disconnect and set out for the sea.