Going to the beach in China? They are not what you may expect, but the beaches around Lianyungang are some of the best the country has to offer — well, if you’re into the facekini.
China is not known for its pristine beaches, and this is for a reason: from what I can tell there aren’t any. Simply put, China is not a country to go to for a beach holiday. But when you’re living or traveling here through the summer months when it’s so hot and humid that you find yourself covered in a mucous layer of sweat, particulate matter, and grim 24/7 the lure of a trip to the beach sometimes becomes too hard to resist. So you put your trepidation aside, hop on a bus, and take a ride east until you come to the rolling sea. Hopefully, you’ll be in a place where the coastal factories and industrial ports politely give way to a beach or two.
I’ve been on the beaches of China before, namely up in Qingdao, and in intermittent other places on the coast down the country’s eastern seaboard, so I knew what to expect when my family and I made our way to Lianyungang in the northeast of Jiangsu province. We heard that there were beaches to be found there. I expected to find crowds, garbage, obnoxious people recreating obnoxiously, men in speedos doing exercises, more garbage, the ominous sight of factories off in the distance, cargo ships from every corner of the world, the telltale red cranes of industrial ports, a facekini or two, and, yes, dozens of young men and women in bridal wear getting their photos taken in the sand and surf.
I flagged down a taxi and we made way for the beach. I was being a cheap-ass and told the driver that I wanted to go to a beach near the port that did not have an admission fee. The guy looked at me like I had no idea what I was talking about and waved off my request. With a laugh he told me bluntly, “That beach is very bad.” I thought for a moment and figured that if a Chinese guy thought a beach was bad then it must be horrid. I gave him the okay to take me across the artificial land-bridge to Liandao, an island just off the coast that has been made into a nature preserve which is touted as having the best beaches in the area.
It would cost me 100 RMB ($16) for my family to enter the beach on the island, but given the circumstances I figured that it was probably worth it.
It was. As we rode past the free beach I could see why it was free: it sat right after a string off massive industrial ports, it appeared to be have more mud than sand, and there was garbage washed up everywhere. Onward, taxi driver, onward. We crossed the bridge to Liandao and I looked out over the inlet at one of the most prominent ports in China. There was an almost endless procession of gigantic cranes, warehouses, yards packed with shipping containers, and giant ships hovering around it all. This was not a place I would want to swim.
In that moment I felt very appreciative that I was going to a place that sits out in the sea beyond the port, and by the time I arrived on the island the monstrosities of industrialization were left in my wake. I looked up at a small mountain blanketed with fir trees and greenery, and breathed a big sigh of relief. I couldn’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many trees in one place — it was certainly before I returned to China five months ago.
The main beach on Liandao, called Dashawan 大沙湾, was packed — of course. After an initial gut-drop and moan of “What am I doing here?” I recovered and adjusted my perspective to meet the paradigm that was before me. The wide sprawling, mildly-developed beaches of Oaxaca and Colombia simply do not exist in China. The sparkling postcard beaches of the Caribbean are also mere fantasies here. China is a country that seems to comfort itself by turning natural areas into man made amusement parks. It’s a country that slaps a fence around anything of interest, develops it to the hilt, and then floods it with an almost unending supply of people. When in China, expect nothing more than China.
We spent a day on the main beach. It stretched for perhaps 1800 meters from edge to edge, providing enough room for the assembled crowd. Most of the people just huddled under the protective shade of umbrellas, even though the sky was fully overcast. This beach was alright and, in my opinion, better than those of Qingdao. Well, the beach was alright for China. The waves came in high enough to be fun swimming in, but not so high that they created a perilous undertow; the sand had relatively thick grains and did not cling to the body or clothing with voracity. It wasn’t even exceptionally crowded by Chinese standards — there was enough room to move and relax within the fray of hundreds of people bobbing around on inner-tubes and taking photographs of each other posing in the surf. But I’m sure that the grey sky and intermittent showers helped keep the number of beach goers in check.
Sumawan Eco-reserve and beach
It wasn’t until the next time we visited Liandao that we went to the private beach in the Sumawan Eco-reserve. The walk there took us through a wooded area along the coast that provided habitat for peacocks and other wildlife. There were very few other people, the air was fresh, and the scenery could be deeply enjoyed. After a 45 minute walk along the boardwalk which skirted in between the coast and the hills that rose above we stood on a cliff looking down upon the beach. It was a lot smaller than the main beach, but its arrangement was perfect: a gentle crescent of light yellow sand served as a transition between the dark blue sea and the cradling green mountains that rose sharply above. Was this really China? I had to ask myself as I looked down upon a beach that would not have appeared out of place in SE Asia or Central America.
Then the fantasy ended when I descended on the trail and found that the beach had already been “Chinesed.” The surf contained a floating coat of garbage, assholes in jet skis were trying to show off as they drove full speed mere feet from running over swimmers, dozens of young people were getting wedding photos taken, and mobs of beach goers apparently found standing in a circle gawking at my kid and I more interesting than the beach itself. But this beach was beautiful nonetheless, so much so that I could almost ignore the garbage that girdled my waistline as I stood in the surf peering intermittently from the rising green peaks overhead to the churning sea out beyond.
Chinese beach habits
Sure, they bob in the waves, recreate on inner-tubes, and build things in the sand as we do in the West, but there is one marked difference in the way the Chinese approach the beach: they cower from the sun. While my culture associates the beach with getting some unadulterated sunshine and a nice tan, the Chinese associate suntans with ugliness. Simply put, getting a tan here is not cool. In China, the darker someone’s skin the uglier they are perceived to be. There is an ironclad opinion in East Asia that lighter color skin is more beautiful, and both men and women go to great lengths to make their skin as pale as possible. Tanned and dark skin here is associated with peasants and minorities, and this cultural psychosis is carried to the beach as well.
On the beaches of China umbrellas, long sleeve shirts, pants, big hats, and even pantyhose abound. The adults seem to strive to remain covered in clothing, in the shade, or submerged in the water up to their heads to avoid unnecessary exposure to sunlight that could turn them darker.
“We like to get sun tanned, we think tanned skin is beautiful,” my wife tried to explain to her Chinese co-workers once. They just looked at her like she was nuts and, without a trace of cultural-relativism, firmly disagreed:
“No, tanned skin is not beautiful. It is ugly.”
Enter the facekini.
The facekini, a full face and head cover made from swimsuit material, was even invented in China to allow people to go to the beach without fear of having their complexion darkened. They go over the head like a ski mask, making the wearer look like either a bank robber or a a plastic surgery disaster. Believe me, these facekinis are creepy, but they seem to do the job.
“The first time I saw a woman in a facekini I just thought she has an extremely disfigured face that she didn’t want anyone to see,” my wife commented.
It’s not just women in facekinis, but men too. While my days on the beaches of Lianyungang were cloudy enough to keep most of the facekinis at bay, I did see one man wearing one. It was orange and tightly covered his head, face, and neck, leaving only the slightest openings for his eyes, nostrils, and mouth. The guy was playing in the waves with his kid and everyone treated him like the bright orange, lycra ski mask that he was wearing was completely within the range of normal. But I have to add here that he may have just been a concerned father trying to defend his child from sharks, as one of the additional benefits of the facekini is that they are said to scare away even these fierce of marine predators.
All jests aside, whether the facekini is weird enough that it can actually scare away sharks I do not claim to know the answer to, but I can say that these things are weird enough to scare me away.
Needless to say, sunbathing is not a popular occupation on Chinese beaches.
But getting wedding photos taken is.
The Sumawan beach is also known as Valentine’s Bay for the sheer amount of couples getting their wedding photos taken there. I’m not joking here, going to the beach in full wedding regalia for photos is almost a prerequisite for being married in China. So this beach was full of women in bridal gowns posing for photos on the rocks by the shore and even in the surf itself with their soon to be partners wearing tuxedos. They did not just look out of place to me, but their shear numbers — literally dozens and dozens — creates a scene that could only be called surreal. In my mind, brides and beaches do not go together, but this is not the case in China. I watched as bridal gowns became trashed with sand and dirt and soaked with sea water. I laughed as I watched the soon to be brides awkwardly try to maneuver through the surf with their dresses tucked up between their legs. I shook my head as the couples tried to act comfortable and in love while dressed to the hilt in the most un-beachworthy attire imaginable. It was a scene of contrasting opposites that could only happen in China.
“I hope they have a good dry cleaner,” my wife muttered with a laugh.
Now I’ve heard legends that the beaches of Hainan Island in the south of China can be dubbed a “real beaches,” and even rank on a global scale, and this may be so. But I do know that, as with most everything else in China, beaches here are done the Chinese way — which is a way that is very much its own. The beaches of Lianyungang were very Chinese, but they were by far the best of any beaches I’ve yet been to in this country. Once you accept the fact that you’re going to be swimming with a thousand other people in potentially garbage-strewn waters with jet skis flying perilously close to your head and kids rolling around inside of inflatable plastic bubbles and people with their heads in facekinis, the beaches of China are alright. No matter what, there will always be waves, sand, and open sky: what else do you need to enjoy the beach?