It was raining when we arrived at Fuzhou's airport, but then that was no big surprise. We'd been expecting it. The forecast was for three days of cloud cover, heavy rain and possible thunder storms with one redeeming feature. Wind.
Granted, it's not exactly the ideal recipe for a weekend island getaway, but when we'd booked our flights from Shanghai to Fuzhou two weeks before, Pingtan Island was a toasty 28 degrees with the stiff sea breezes hitting up to 25 knots—perfect kitesurfing weather. Though things had deteriorated over the last week, our group of four remained upbeat—it was a new destination and a new adventure, albeit a somewhat soggy one.
The fifth largest island in China, Pingtan lies just off the Fujian coast, about 120 km from Fuzhou and 160 km from Taiwan. Given its close proximity to the latter it came as no great surprise that it was announced a Special Economic Zone in 2008 in a bid to strengthen cross-Straits industrial cooperation nor, with a 408 kilometer long coastline that twists and turns in an endless series of sandy bays and rocky peninsulas, that it'd been pegged by the government for development as a major tourist destination.
A crucial step toward both these ends was the construction of the Pingtan Straits Bridge connecting island to mainland. Completed in November 2010, it was just six months old when, after arriving late in the night via the new highway from Fuzhou (a road as yet not shown on Google Maps), we crossed it onto the island, making our way through sheets of pounding rain to Pingtan Town.
Urban development has swept across this little town like a tidal wave, leaving its edges a ragged mix of scaffolding, red sand and muddy clay. The rain collected in deep potholes on a road that had become little more than a bumpy track, lined either side with construction debris and the ghostly skeletons of half-built towers, the tops of which were lost from sight in the murky skies above. A left turn took us around a makeshift wire roundabout and onto Xihang Lu, a proper road and the location of the hotel we'd booked a few days earlier.
Dark and dusty with one of its shabby faux crystal chandeliers flickering in and out of life, the hotel lobby had an eerie feel. "Liu lou" —sixth floor, said the wan receptionist in response to my request to see our rooms first. The elevator was dead and with a flick of her chin, she indicated the curving staircase beside the desk, at that moment peopled by two young guys and a girl, staggering their way down after a session in the hotel's second-floor K-TV.
The thought of lugging all our gear up and down the stairs was as enticing as the hotel itself, and within ten minutes we found ourselves checked into the somewhat newer, cleaner and more pleasant feeling Minhang Grand Hotel opposite (Tel: 0591 2315 1888, RMB 268; double room), where the lifts, and lights, were in full working order.
At breakfast the next morning we watched with dismay as water two inches deep rushed down the street, and attempted to formulate a plan of action; Pingtan's main beach, Longwangtou was less then a kilometer away, so it would be stop one. From there, we could head south to where onshore winds were forecast to hit later in the day.
It was the May holiday weekend and in spite of the bad weather, holiday makers were still arriving by the coach load to be deposited in a muddy car park from which they'd make their way, huddled under umbrellas, across the rubbish-strewn strip of construction zone that would one day be a promenade, to the long, sandy beach beyond.
Wet sand sucked at our shoes as we looked across to the rocky islands out at sea, and though a heavy mist lay across the hills inland you could see why the spot had been selected as the site of a major beach resort... though it's quite a few years from five stars.
Outside of Pingtan the countryside quickly opened up, the town's boxy buildings and cookie-cutter apartment blocks replaced by granite block, slate-tiled houses in the Fujianese style, some of which had the gently sloping saddle back roofs or decorated swallow-tail eaves we'd seen on the Taiwanese island of Jinmen and at Liu'ao further down the coast.
Tiny shrines and temples were everywhere, thin tendrils of smoke curling up from the few sticks of incense that hadn't been extinguished by the rain, and fertile green swathes of meadows and terraces were rich with vegetables, grass and wildflowers.
The southernmost beach was a disappointment on the kitesurfing front—the wind failed to materialize and besides, it was a no go for the boards. A fishing beach, its waters were punctuated with bamboo traps, floats and nets and the sand, though relatively clean, was a maze of makeshift shelters and black plastic tarps under which were hidden mysterious, misshapen mounds that we later discovered were salt.
Every now and then a band of fishermen and women on ox-drawn carts would pass us by on their way to tend the oysters beds, a slow look of surprise working its way from their eyes down to their open mouths as we came into view, finally transforming into broad smiles as the four waiguoren looking out to sea nodded a greeting and a friendly "nimen hao."
Our despondent spirits picked up along with the wind when late in the day we came upon tiny but pretty bay surrounded by steep hillsides and a village that spilled out onto the sand. Once again piles of salt lay under their black shrouds but the tide was out and the water free enough from obstruction for a mist-shrouded kite session for the boys, giving a group of amateur photographers on a weekend trip from Fuzhou more than they'd bargained for as they enthusiastically snapped away at the unusual sight unfolding before them.
As night fell we packed up and on the drive home struck gold. A few kilometers down the pine-lined concrete road was an archway leading onto a dirt track lit with fairy lights, at the end of which we discovered a hive of activity centered around a group of closely packed tents and a small shop perched on a wide expanse of sandy, clean beach.
We grabbed a beer from the shop, took a seat under one of the shelters and listened to the sound of the sea and the excitable chatter of the young Chinese University students who had made the camp home for the night and were busy barbecuing, playing volleyball on the beach or attempting to light and fly kong ming lanterns... not an easy task in the now quite strong wind.
The next day we discovered another similar spot at the neighboring bay. The residents of this one were somewhat younger and in the broad daylight our foreign faces caused the kind of reaction usually reserved for pop stars as a mob of young girls and boys followed us around, squealing in delight at every move we made.
After the obligatory photo session on the beach we returned to our previous night's haunt. Another windless day, we spent the afternoon mooching about on the sand, and joined a few other tourists watching a group of fishermen laboriously hauling a hundred-meter long net back to shore, filled with tiny, jelly-like fish to be tipped into waiting buckets like frog spawn and later dried and eaten.
With most of the occupants gone, I had the chance to talk a little with campsite owner, Chen Jun Long, a local guy who'd spent five years in Tel-Aviv as a construction worker, saving money to come back and start his own business, the rather grandly named Leisure Village Harbour Holiday Inn (Tel: 1395 034 5508).
With its rows of matching tents pitched canvas to canvas it's more campsite than inn and not quite what you'd expect to find back home, it works. The tents go for RMB 35 a night and sleep two, or you can bring your own and pitch it where you like for RMB 10. Showers (cold water only) are RMB 5 and barbecues are available for RMB 35, though you'll have to provide your own food and fuel. The small shop has other necessities, including drinks and snacks, and a kitchen churns out a wealth of fresh seafood at a very reasonable price (think flash-fried squid, prawns in garlic, mussels, oysters and host of other fishy things). And, most importantly, it's clean. Due more to a hard-working old chap who constantly wanders the site collecting up the jettisoned waste of the holidaymakers than any heightened environmental awareness on their own part, it made a huge difference in a country where beaches are more often than not covered in litter and waste.
Monday was our last day on the island and the morning arrived dry, the clouds brightening as the sun did its best to break through. A deserted bay edged by sand dunes was today's location, and with a cold north wind ripping onto shore it was a perfect kite spot. The rain held off long enough for a two-hour session though the chill water kept me firmly on the sand... it'll be another month or so before it warms up enough for me to brave without a wetsuit, but we'll be back for sure.
With a few hours still to kill before heading to the airport for our flight to Shanghai, we made one last stop at the Nan Zhai Shan scenic park where the ticket seller shut up shop to escort us part of the way up the hill, pointing out the imaginatively shaped rocks all around, from praying women to monkeys and parrots. When the first drops of heavy rain began to fall he hastily made his excuses and left us with a quickly drawn map on a scrap of paper, with words in Chinese that would likely be illegible even if we'd been able to read it. It was was easy enough to find our way around the rocky hillside, following the path and clambering over granite boulders to take in the foggy views beyond before bundling back into the van for Fuzhou.
Yes, we'd definitely be heading back to Pingtan later in the summer to explore more, and with better weather it'd be one of the nicest China beach destinations I've come across yet. An island caught between two worlds, Pingtan is already on the radar for domestic tourists, and with its many pleasant beaches and improving infrastructure, its popularity will only grow.
However, despite the overwhelming rush to mega-beach resortdom taking place in Pingtan Town, it remains an unfinished frontier where old meets new, and beyond its urban reaches the sleepy villages still move at the same slow pace as always, albeit with a few more fancy cars on the roads. But change is coming in the form of new highways, restaurants, KTVs and more hotels that, in true-to-form Chinese style will likely be finished much sooner than you'd think.... Pingtan's hidden beaches may be some of the nicest in China, but they won't stay secret for long.