Mao Zedong loved the place so much that he was moved to write a poem about it. Deng
Xiaoping often brought his family here for their summer holidays.
More than a few state leaders have “grace and favour” homes here.
Many of the big decisions that have shaped modern China have been made here, not in Beijing (the National Congress
pre-meetings were held here for years). And numerous Beijingers have spent at least
a weekend here in the summer and told millions about it.
Of course! It could only be Beidaihe, a small town on the coast of Hebei province.
If you were the marketing director of Beidaihe’s tourism board,
you could be forgiven for thinking that the job has already been done, and for putting up the “gone for a stroll along
one of Beidaihe’s famous sandy beaches” sign on your office door.
Most visitors who make the 280km trip from Beijing (in three and a bit hours – if you’re lucky
– via the G1 expressway; or two hours via one of the many scheduled high-speed trains from Beijing’s central railway
station) head for the beach. And today, a Saturday with temperatures here forecast to be ten degrees cooler
than in the oven that is Beijing, Beidaihe is bulging with cars with “jing” number plates and local taxis ferrying
Beijingers from the railway station.
The most popular stretch of beach is the Tiger Rocks section, which costs 8
yuan to enter. Here, people are packed together so tightly that the only sound that can be heard is the
incessant Beijinghua-accented chatter of excited holidaymakers (with a sprinkling of Russian).
If you have come to Beidaihe in search
of the sound of the sea gently lapping onto the shore, then you have chosen the wrong beach. But if, like
me, you’re here for a bucket and spade day with a young child, then it’s the place to be.
And if you’re not
quite at the bucket and spade life stage then, worry not, there are plenty of other beach things you can do with your friends
(see photo). Whatever activity you have in mind, however, make sure it doesn’t involve swinging a
cat – there simply isn’t enough room.
I was determined to get it from the horse’s mouth as it were – and hear
why people, who live in a packed city of about 20 million, endure jammed motorways or a crowded train to be on a beach that
would make a sardine feel claustrophobic. As is often the case in China, the truth is stranger than fiction:
Mr Hu, a salesperson who worked in Chaoyang, Beijing’s central
business district, put his finger on it: “Here, I really feel free from the pressure,” said
Mr Hu, as he took another swig from the bottle of Yanjing beer (Beijing’s favourite beer brand). “I’m
free to do what I like, when I like, without worrying about work or my clients… I can be myself.”
I mused that the communal sense of this – thousands of people
in the same boat (or, in this case, on the same beach), with most of their clothes off (stripped of the masquerade of suits
and ties… and left with the essence of the “real them” as it were) somehow made the feeling of “liberation”
that bit more intense.
Mr Hu offered me a swig of his beer, as well as inviting me over to meet his mates
from the city. Alas, I had my bucket and spade duty to get back to, so had to decline.
It was a tempting offer though. As I was walking back through the crowds, I came to
the conclusion that wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, and whatever clothes they’re wearing, there are
some things about Beijingers that will never change: their friendliness and wonderful generosity.