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The Last Chinese Campsite

Happy New Year one and all! Almost exactly a year ago today, I nervously went public with my plans to get hold of a campervan and drive around China before the end of 2012. I figured by telling you of my intentions I would be embarrassed – in moments of weakness – into following through. Thank goodness I did, because those moments of weakness were many and my willpower and tenacity were sorely tested by trying firstly to find a campervan, then by the nightmare of getting a Chinese driving licence, followed by a weekend test drive that showed us just what we were in for, before finally setting out on July 1st for the Great China Roadtrip. 
It was an epic year and an epic adventure, and today’s post and the next few will continue to chronicle the last few weeks of our trip through some of the most spectacular scenery in China as we headed home to Shanghai. 
But before I tell you about our last Chinese campsite, I also remembered in that same post I made a bunch of predictions. So let’s see just how many I managed to get right:
Fiona’s 2012 Predictions
1. I will pass my Chinese exams next week, motivated by the desire to avoid being the first student over forty to fail and the need to speak enough Chinese to cover vehicle breakdowns and other minor emergencies.
CORRECT
I passed! My 6 months of university Chinese ended well after getting off to a hilariously bad start, thanks to my three brilliant teachers and a lifelong habit of extreme cramming. I did wish the textbook had a chapter on ‘Replacing a Campervan Battery’ rather then ‘Applying for a Credit Card’ because it would have been way more useful, but perhaps not for the rest of the class.
2. The ratio of Chinese:Western meals my family is willing to eat will decrease from 1:3 to 1:10 by year’s end, decreasing exponentially with time spent on the road away from supermarkets full of Western food in Shanghai. I will be forced to resort to making congee for breakfast when we run out of cereal. They will hate this.

INCORRECT
Bravo my family! After an initial unhappy month in which my two children complained non-stop about the amount of Chinese food they were having to eat, and I complained non-stop beside them about the opportunities to eat interesting new Chinese foods I was missing out on thanks to them, my very clever husband came up with a solution that suited everyone:
Lunchtime every day would be an exploration of local Chinese food. 
Dinner in the campervan would be western food, cooked by me (I got very resourceful at making western meals from Chinese village market ingredients) 
Breakfast was free choice, and would be cooked by him. Pancakes would be offered most days and occasionally french toast, pending bread availability. Congee would not be offered at any time or under any circumstances.
3. I will pass my Chinese driver’s license test without having to bribe any officials, or have a Chinese stand-in named ‘Fay-ah-na’ sit the test on my behalf, for a pre-arranged fee.
CORRECT
In my greatest examination triumph to date (even greater than passing my neuro-anatomy exam in 1989, a minor miracle of mnemonic memorization), I passed my Chinese Driving Test with an unbelievable 96%. I promise that no money changed hands. And I still got the first aid question wrong.
4. We will finaly get to visit Tibet, provided there are no more monk self-immolations in 2012.
INCORRECT
My heart sinks as I re-read this. A year ago I honestly thought the worst was over on this front. Not so – since January dozens of individuals have set themselves alight in Tibetan regions of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan in protest against the Chinese government’s rule. These grim and violent deaths by apparently devout Buddhists including monks and nuns continue to occur. The Chinese government response has been at times laughable – installing fire fighting units inside monasteries, and tightly controlling sales of inflammables. Recently it was announced that those found to support or incite self-immolation faced prosecution.
Tibetan areas we visited in these provinces are now off-limits to foreign travellers for the time being.
5. My iphone app, the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour for Crimson Bamboo, despite being extremely niche, will go totally viral on release causing the entire Chinese internet to collapse and making me an overnight app millionaire.
INCORRECT
Still not a millionaire. But wait…the Chinese internet did kind of collapse in November…..was that me?
6. The hare-brained travelling campervan scheme will take more money, wits, patience and cunning than I currently possess, but because I’m not a quitter I will make everyone’s life hell as I try to source solar-powered portable water heating and a compostible travelling toilet in a country that hasn’t yet heard of camping.

CORRECT
100% true prediction. By the time we left Shanghai on the afternoon of July 1, having taken delivery of the campervan literally an hour before, I was plain out of money, wits, patience and cunning, luckily replaced by caffeine and bravado.
The solar-powered idea? It came and went, unfulfilled. And the compostible travelling toilet idea showed me just how out of step I was with the rest of the country. Why would I waste our waste by composting it into a bacteria-free product? Farms need fertilizer! And we certainly fertilized a lot of corners of China. A lot.
7. Eighteen will be the number of times my husband will tell me we can just hire a car and sleep in hotels with actual beds instead of campervanning our way around the country.
CORRECT
Eighteen? Eighteen?? More like two hundred and fifty eight times. Two inches too long for the bed in the campervan, my very-tall husband endured night after night of sleeping with his head jammed into a corner, and day after day of showering in a cubicle meant for a hobbit. 
8. Eighteen will be the number of times I reply something along the lines of ‘bugger off’ to his very sensible suggestion. Although sometimes I will really, really want to give in.
INCORRECT
Actually, I gave in a lot. Turns out camping seven days a week is fine for some families, but ours needed a place with bigger beds and more space, constant electricity and hot water about once a week for reasons of family harmony. Usually all four of us crammed into a twin single room and felt like kings – the single beds were way bigger than what we were sleeping in and you could stand up in the shower!
9. China will finally get high-speed internet just as I leave the country, and I’ll be really pissed off because I never got to experience the thrill of uploading a photo in under ten minutes.
INCORRECT
Ha! If only….in actual fact, the internet turned badder than bad at the time of the 18th Communist Party Congress in October, leaving everyone pulling their hair out and forcing our VPN provider to come up with extremely creative software solutions to get over, under and around the increasingly impenetrable Great Firewall. The situation is expected to worsen in 2013 with the commencement of new internet laws in China.
10. After six months of travelling rough crammed into a home-made campervan my children will probably hate me, but when they’re forty-five they’ll tell their kids it was the best holiday they ever had. I hope. 

HOPEFULLY CORRECT
My children amazed me with their resilience, patience and resourcefulness over six long months of things very frequently not going to plan. And they say they don’t hate me for putting through it. I never imagined they were so capable and so flexible, but they were. It was one of the best things to come out of our whole trip.
But as to whether it was the best holiday they ever had? I think it will take them a couple more decades to get to that point. As the youngest said: “Mum, a holiday is where you lie on the beach and totally relax. This isn’t a holiday. It’s travelling, and that’s not the same thing”.
SCORE CARD: 5/10 (no better than chance, really)
The Last Chinese Campsite
In the end, actually, all the girls really wanted from our trip was not to see one more temple or climb one more mountain or visit one more village market. It was simply to be able to camp in one place for two whole days, so they could explore and play. Not much to ask, and surprisingly difficult to deliver.
Which is how we ended up in a secluded dead end road in Fujian Province the week before Christmas, overlooking a bamboo forest and a small stream, with a promise to stay for two whole days, despite our driving schedule being well behind. It was our very last chance to camp because we wouldn’t be permitted to road camp at our final two stops – Wuyi Shan and Huang Shan.  
This, finally, was how I imagined our whole trip, many many months ago. Long lazy days spent reading, writing and cooking in quiet places full of natural beauty. Beside streams, in the shadow of mountains, near bamboo forests.

Those were the camping sites of my imagination, in a time before the less lovely reality of camping in China kicked in. Of stopping beside highways, in rubbish dumps, near towns, and occasionally in carparks. Of crowds of visitors. 

Our campsites sometimes came close, but always lacked one of the magic ingredients on the tick box checklist of perfect campsite attributes – solitude, quietness, natural beauty, trees for hammocks. Or had other ingredients cruelly added – unusual bad smells, livestock passing through, biting insects that descended in swarms at dusk, tourists that descended from nearby tour bus rest stops.

Camping nirvana had only happened twice in our recollection – early on, in Inner Mongolia (foolishly we had only stayed a single night – if only we knew that would be the bar by which all other campsites were measured!) and again outside Beijing. Not often for a country the size of China.

But here we were, tucked away off the road in a place that was quiet, was unseen from the road, and looked out over a rushing rocky stream. The late autumn sunshine shone warm through the tops of the bamboo and maple trees. We were staying put for two whole days and nights.

They were wonderful slow, sunny, lazy days. I sat still for long enough to notice the feathered trail in the sky left by an unseen aircraft. We threw rocks in the stream with the girls. And I wrote, undistracted for several hours, a rare gift in our six months of non-stop movement and frequent exhaustion.

The girls waded up the creek in the warm sun. It was hard to believe snow was falling in other parts of China when here the days were still warm and pleasant. My older daughter soaked two pairs of trousers after twice falling in the creek, but they loved rock-hopping up and down the stream and were having a ball doing what kids do best – playing. 

We ate a a picnic lunch sitting on the rocks with the last of our precious supplies of cheese (from Bakery 88 in Dali) and Scottish oatcakes (tucked away in a box until now) with dried fruit from Kashgar.  

Matt and the girls walked to a nearby village after lunch to buy drinking water, and I stayed behind to make yogurt and explore. There had been a flood through here at some point in the near past – shreds of cloth hung high in the bushes, and an old zipper curled around a branch like a black snake. I found a cache of old liquor bottles buried under dirt and moss, and an old umbrella.

But mostly I enjoyed the quietness, so hard to come by in such a populous place. I soaked the quietness in and fixed it in my memory.
When the rest of the family returned we cooked dinner together, laughing, our spirits buoyed by a whole day of rest and by the feeling we would soon be home. Home. Six months is a long time to be away from your home and we missed it enormously. 
The girls decorated the van with tinsel we had bought in Yongding, near the tulou, and a tiny tree frosted with white polystyrene beads that shed white bits that stuck to our hair and our clothes and eventually had to be put outside. We pooled the last of our sweets and chocolates into a dish and declared we were having a Movie Night complete with cinema snacks, and watched a movie together sitting huddled up, all four of us, on our tiny cramped bed in the back of the van. 

It was the perfect memory for our very last day of camping in China. 

Beijing Jamboree: Camping Near Beijing 中国最好的露营地


Five things I didn’t expect to experience in a Chinese camping ground:

1. Running water and power

2. Tranquility

3. Other campervans (yes!)

4. A 94 year-old camping great-grandmother from Sichuan

5. An old-fashioned jamboree involving as much barbecued meat and cold beer as you could take


Let’s be frank: my expectations of finding a Chinese camping ground at all had sunk pretty low after Tianjin’s camping ground debacle 

But Beijing is the camping ‘ground zero’ of all of China with no less than three – three! of China’s twelve camping grounds, and in our quest to experience at least one we diligently contacted all of them ahead of time.

First was Sister Wang’s Fruit Garden (peach trees! simulated warfare! says her website, as though those two things were born to be together in one place). It turns out that Sister Wang’s doesn’t actually have a camping ground, she just likes advertising on camping websites to attract business. But you can enact great battles in full modern military kit, if that’s your thing, followed by a spot of fruit-picking.

Then there was the Beijing International Vehicle Camping Park, which sounded quite promising. In fact they told us we could definitely camp there, but there was just one small matter – we would need to leave our campervan in their carpark and hire one of their campervans for the night, $250. Seemed like a lot of money when we already had a perfectly good place to sleep…

We struck it lucky with the third, the Beijing RV and Camping Exhibition Ground. Don’t be fooled by the name because it is in fact a vast green camping area in what was once a golfcourse with everything campers could need: power, water, open green spaces, toilet and shower facilities, a shop, and even a village next door with an excellent supermarket and cold beer. Best of all, it has fellow pioneer RV enthusiasts and campers!


Real, live fellow campers with an RV. Fishing. For free.


The campsite is owned and run by Wang Xu Dong, a young entrepreneur and outdoors enthusiast who was first introduced to the outdoor lifestyle when he began selling spare RV parts some years ago. Customers took him on camping trips and the rest is history – he now runs the camping ground, the adjacent RV dealership and exhibition centre, and is the man behind the very successful 21RV website and the annual China RV and Camping Rally.

Wang with Lu, otherwise known as Cam. 
We missed this extravaganza while we were in Shanghai last week, and Wang told me they saw 30,000 visitors over the four day event with more than two hundred RVs from all over China camping on site, an event that is one of a kind and clearly intrumental in building enthusiasm for camping. 

For a man who achieved all of this Wang is a very unassuming fellow who just loves being outside. So much does he love being outdoors in fact, that he named his 5 month old twins ‘Lu’ and ‘Ying’ because their names together make luying – camping. That’s quite a future commitment right there.

I can’t say enough kind words about Wang – he arranged first for a plumber friend and then for an electrician friend to fix a leaking pipe and a broken extractor fan in our van, free of charge, brought us a twenty litre bottle of drinking water, also without charge, and introduced us personally to all the other campers. I hope he’s very successful when RV travel finally takes off in China.


Our Fellow Travellers


 Imagine this improbable scenario: our first ever sighting of a real and proper RV, and the first person out of the door is a 94 year old great-grandmother from Sichuan, followed by her 65 year old daughter, her son-in-law, her next two oldest daughters (from a total of six children), then the family ayi or helper, and finally, a blue-eyed white cat and a glossy black red-beaked jackdaw in an ornate birdcage.

It wasn’t quite the demographic of camper I was expecting.

We had spent the first night of our stay alone, the only campers on site, and save for a visit from the 21RV crew to interview us it was pretty solitary. So we were delighted when our second night drew campers and travellers from afar – we had been looking forward to meeting these Chinese pioneers and hearing their stories.

All eight human and animal members of this family had been travelling apparently harmoniously for the last three weeks in a campervan the same size as ours, a smallish room on wheels in which four of us find it difficult enough to keep the peace and some personal space.

The three daughters explained they had set off from Sichuan to attend the Camping and RV Exhibition and afterwards take their mother to see the Great Wall and Imperial Palace in Beijing for the first time. By all accounts they were having a marvellous time, including the pets (although the cat took a day or two to adjust to any new surroundings and preferred to stay indoors in her basket until she knew it was really safe to come out).

The bird, hanging from a nearby tree in his enormous Chinese birdcage, was a great mimic who could say his own name, Xiao Gui Gui, and plenty else besides.


Great grandmother proved to be a lover of babies, although I suspect her eyesight was perhaps not what it used to be after she asked if Lu and Ying belonged to me. In a society where the elderly are so respected and revered it was wonderful to see with what care and love her family made sure her every need was met.

It turns out the family own not one, but two RVs, having taken up camping as a hobby when they retired six years ago, and they try and make two long journeys a year in the spring and autumn months. They rarely meet fellow RVers except at this campsite.

We also chatted with a delightful fellow from Taiyuan in Shanxi province, some six hours’ drive, who had just popped in for the weekend with his minivan and caravan. The minivan, kitted out for serious travel with a satellite dish, GPS system and fold-out kitchen, was all he used when travelling solo but the more comfortable caravan he brought along when his wife and mother-in-law were travelling too. 

Then there was a family of day trippers with a car and tent who – you guessed it – produced two frail and elderly parents from their vehicle along with a full-sized barbecue and enough chicken wings to furnish an entire battalion of chickens.

I started to sense that the only people with enough money and leisure time for this kind of travel in China were perhaps retirees whose children were all busy working and who chose to travel with their elderly parents instead.



The Jamboree

As evening fell and we all began cooking Wang Xu Dong rallied friends and family together under the outdoor pavilion to have a barbecue, drink beer and chat. Wang cooked up some wickedly spicy barbecued chicken with ziran and fennel seeds, we cooked a pot of chili, and many, many cold Yanjing beers were drunk and tales were told.

And there we all were – young, old, Chinese, Australians – together enjoying the fresh air, good food and drink, and the stories from other places, all around the proverbial campfire. A real Chinese jamboree.



中国最好的露营地

有五样东西我没想到会在中国的露营地找到:
1、电力
2、水
3、卫生间
4、别的房车
5、一位来自四川的94岁的房车自驾游者。

但是我们在京郊,在我们首个真真意义上的中国露营地找到了这五样事物。露营地由一名户外运动爱好者王旭东(音译)经营,他几年前销售房车零件时首次领略到房车生活方式。
他的一些客户带他到露营地,后来的事就是历史了——现在他经营着中国最好最美的露营地之一,也是中国极具影响力的21世纪房车网和中国房车露营年展的缔造者。
我们甚至见到了他五个月大的双胞胎,男孩取名为,女孩名为合起来就是露营
我们也很高兴见到其他露营者,包括一些开着房车旅行的人。
来自成都94岁的老人和她一个65岁的女儿及女婿,另外两个女儿,一名阿姨,一只猫和一只鸟一起到达。八个个体和谐共处于房车中,正如我们一家人。
这个家庭从四川出发去参加房车露营展(有30000名参展者,由此可见在中国日增的对房车的兴趣)同时参观了长城和北京故宫,每个人包括宠物都度过了极为美妙的时光。
夜幕降临,我们开始煮饭。王旭东召集了朋友和家人,我们一起聚到室外烧烤,喝酒还有聊天。
这就是露营——新鲜的空气,美味的食物和饮料,与因为热爱户外而走到一起的来自不同生活的人们见面。




Beijing RV Park and Campground   北京房公园


Beijing Fangshan Distrct, Daning Village, Shangzhuang, adjacent to Beijing RV Exhibiton Center     
公园地址北京房山区大宁山庄北京房中心

Coordinates: Lat 39.815312   Long 116.212984
Water: available at lakeside area
Electricity: available for all sites
Public Facilities: Toilet and shower block, camping and RV parts and supplies shop
Quietness: Crickets, distant occasional trains
Nearest water/groceries: Daning village, five minutes’ walk, has two supermarkets with fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish. Laundromat. Sports centre with swimming pool open to the public.
Outlook: sites overlook green expanse fringed with trees or small lake

Price: 100yuan/night RVs, 50 yuan/night cars


: 100//
: 50//
    


Phone  话: 010-80364500



The Campground That Almost Was…

In my fantasy world, away from the brutal practicalities of everyday life on the road – camping by the roadside, cold showers in a space the size of a broom closet, sleeping in a too-short bed, wearing dubiously dirty clothes because the clean ones have run out – I imagine us occasionally driving to a real life camping ground where stunning natural beauty sits side by side with toilet and shower facilities, running water, and maybe even mains power. Maybe.
But a dream it remains, because proper camping grounds are in very short supply in China. My good friend JW, who helped enormously with the Chinese language research for this trip (and translates these posts) spent two full weeks compiling a list of Chinese camping grounds for us, then calling them one by one to ensure they were still in operation. 

I won’t labor over the details, but suffice to say that the official list (the one you’ll find on the Ministry of Tourism website) and the actual list differ a great deal, perhaps because there were many camping grounds that accepted hefty government tourism subsidies to open up then closed down a short time later. 

I’ll just tell you how many were on the short list – fourteen camping grounds, in all of China. One for every 93 million people. Not so many huh?
Many of them are clustered around Beijing’s outskirts, but there is one in the area we’re traveling in right now as we head north towards Inner Mongolia, so we decided to make a detour to northern Tianjin Province to stay in it, right next to a remote and mountainous section of the Great Wall – it sounded perfect. I thought we might even meet some like-minded Chinese campers!
I looked on their website and was thrilled by mains power! water! and something that looked like a homemade RV! JW called ahead for us the day before and confirmed. No reservation needed.
Pick the bought one!
The anticipation of staying somewhere actually legal where we didn’t have to worry about being moved on in the middle of the night, spurred us on to a mammoth eight hour day of driving through a fierce storm that saw most other vehcles pull off the highway. Not us. We pushed on. We had a camping ground to get to.

Finally, around dark, we arrived at the tiny winding mountain road of the campground’s address, but somehow missed the entrance the first and second times we drove past. There was a black and yellow bar boomgate across the driveway and the sign on the gateway was a little overgrown. Small nagging worries needled me.

We opened the boomgate ourselves and drove in. The whole place seemed a little low on the maintenance side and there were no other campers at all, but we pulled into a bay with its own electricity and water box just as the caretaker arrived.

“Hello! What are you doing here?” he asked. As if he didn’t already know!

“We’re travelling! We’d like to camp here for the night!” we said. 

“You know we’re closed down? We don’t have any power or water. But you can stay overnight if you really want to.”

CLOSED DOWN? Like, NOT OPEN?? And NO POWER and NO WATER???

Somehow JW had failed to mention this in her text message. I read it again. “Ucan go to the campsite directly, free now, and is not a site for rv but parking is okay.”

I seem to have glossed over the important parts of that message when it first arrived, particulary the ‘is not a site for rv’ bit. I tend to ignore bits of information that don’t fit with my perception of any given sitution, it’s a dreadful flaw and now it had come back to bite me. I guess that’s why I had interpreted ‘free now‘ to mean ‘plenty of space’, rather than ‘free of charge because with no electricity, water or facilities we can hardly make you pay.’ Bugger. Bug-ger.

After having a quiet little weep to myself I looked around me. The kids were running about having a ball and making as much noise as they wanted. It had stopped raining. We were in one of the most beautiful locations imaginable – a natural amphitheatre in the cradle of a ring of pink granite mountains now glowing orange in the light of sunset. It was stunning.

So the electricity box was fake, and the water taps were all dry, and the camping ground was falling apart from neglect. So what. We had a private peaceful spot to sleep and there would be other camping grounds to visit in other places. A whole twelve others to be exact.

Morning brought sun and clear blue skies and we set out to explore our surrounds. The campsite had been glorious until quite recently with an attached Mountain Sports Centre complete with obstacle course, groves of apricot trees, a camping field, a picnic terrace overlooking the valley, a rope bridge and small huts. A terrible shame it closed down, but like all businesses there has to be money in it, and clearly camping hasn’t yet reached that stage in China.

Luckily we’re on a mission to change all that!
Looking a bit overgrown since the last photo.

Giant rock-climbing wall and massive skate ramp to keep you busy when you’re bored with blowing up the air mattress

The tent camping field, lush, level, and ringed with trees.

And the rusting home-made RV, up on bricks, forever in the same spot

The entrance – just in case you ever decide to make a visit.
黄崖关长城
在历经了十一天驾车从一个野外宿营地到另一个野外宿营地的旅程之后,我们终于准备在第一个真正意义上的露营基地——天津市蓟县下营镇山野运动基地露营地停留几天,基地位于天津北部,紧挨着黄崖关长城。我曾期待见到一些中国的露营者并从他们那里获得一些水电等可靠资源,同时写点什么。
当我们风尘仆仆驾车八小时后,最后一小时是在一场暴雨中行驶,我们最终发现露营基地是在一条狭窄的乡间小路尽头。四周有苹果园、桃园、杏园和梅园,风景秀丽,岑峦叠嶂,苍翠欲滴。让我们大为失望的是露营地已经停业了,但守卫很友善,他允许我们在那里过夜。太失望了!
清晨时分此处的美景变得清晰起来——我们处在被群山环绕的小山谷中。
我们花了一整天沿着黄崖关长城攀阶而行。我敢肯定你一定同意:景色美得让人窒息!!

Campsite Notes: Northern Tianjin Jixian Village Mountain Sports Ground

The campground is technically available for overnight ‘parking’ although the caretaker turned a blind eye to outdoor cooking and other camping activities. We weren’t charged for our overnight stay, but it was made clear this was one night only.


Name: Tianjin shi Ji xian Xiaying zhen Shanye Yundong jidi campsite
天津市蓟县山野基地露 
Address: Jixian Xiayingzhen Qianganjian cun
蓟县前干村 
Co-ordinates: Lat  40.227401° Long 117.429789°
Water: nil
Electricity: nil
Public Facilities: nil
Quietness: High echo factor. Evening karaoke session in neighbouring valley crystal clear
Nearest water/groceries: Jixian Village <2km
Outlook: In the cradle of a ring of mountains. Unbelievably beautiful.

Lian Island, and the Art of the Perfect Beach Wedding Photograph

The beach makes my heart sing. The smell of the salt water, the burn of the hot sand getting hotter and hotter with every step as you dance across the sand to the closest shade, then the feeling of complete freedom as you dive under the water, salt water stinging your eyes.

In the last forty years of my life I have never gone more than three weeks without a visit to the beach, and I mistakenly thought China with its long eastern coastline would have plenty to choose from, but much of the coast is beach-less river delta where rivers widen dramatically to meet the sea over a broad flat tidal expanse of mud. Not ideal for swimming.

When I began to plan our trip I desperately wanted to find a beach, somewhere beautiful and not crowded. I asked around, I consulted maps and guidebooks, but other than the beaches of Qingdao (too crowded) and the beaches of Hainan Island (too far south, and inaccessible without a plane or boat) I drew a blank.
Wasting time one day last week I opened Google Earth and scrolled randomly up and down the east coast, just looking and hoping. Near the town of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province (a place I’d never heard of) was a small island connected to the mainland by what looked like a causeway. As I zoomed in I felt building excitement –  the island had two perfect crescents of sand separated by lush green hills, and other than a small resort development at one end appeared largely uninhabited. Even more promisingly I could see rows of beach umbrellas lining the smaller beach. Yes!

Lian Island turned out to be even better in reality – a laidback seaside world. The island’s entry road is lined with little shops selling retro shell souvenirs line and rows of fresh seafood restaurants, fronted by outdoor tanks of live fish, shrimp, molluscs and crayfish just waiting for customers to come along and choose their own catch of the day. Bypass these if you’re not hungry and drive past the fishing harbour to the island’s northern side where an exquisite small cove called Suma Wan awaits, the lush green jungle tangled with vines and flowers tumbling down the hills to the blue sea. Peacocks wander in and out of the gardens, occasionally showing magnificent plumage and calling their distinctive call through the jungle.

Bookending the beach are two rocky promontories topped with traditional Chinese pavilions. I often forgot where I was as I swam out to deep water, unti I looked up and saw the gracefully upturned eaves in the distance.

The beach itself is perfect – a sheltered cove with fine, shell-strewn sand and lines of thatched beach umbrellas. The only major oversight as far as I can see is the distinct lack of a cocktail bar, but other than that you can keep yourself busy with water bicycling, tumbling around on the water in an inflatable hamster wheel, jetski touring, or just floating around with a fluorescent life preserver around your middle.

What strikes me is that swimming is not a skill possessed by most Chinese visitors to the beach, hardly surprising given China’s massive internal land mass, far from oceans. Mao though, famously swam every day when able in rivers, the ocean, or lakes.
The unfamiliarity with swimming becomes clear from people’s dress – most are wearing bathers bought from the small shop on the beach, and a quite a few are swimming either fully clothed or in their underwear. Adults and children alikeare protected from the waist deep dead calm water by wearing life preservers or clinging to the floating guide ropes in the water. 
The few who can swim do so ostentatiously, dressed in full and proper Olympic swimming kit – short, close-fitting trunks, bathing cap, goggles and nose clip. They go out just deep enough for everyone to see they know what’s what and with great sense of purpose swim a few strokes in no particular direction, then emerge striding from the water. 
It’s a lovely relaxing day, everyone is enjoying themselves in the sun….and then the brides and grooms arrive, all fifty-eight of them, over the next few hours.
江苏省连岛——海滩露营

我的家乡澳大利亚,最让我怀念的事物之一就是海滩。在我人生过去的四十年的岁月中,我最多三个星期就要去海滩一次,而我误以为中国拥有绵长的东海岸当然也拥有很多海滩,但事实上大多数海岸是海滩稀少的广阔无垠的三角洲。

当我开始计划我们的旅行时,我十分迫切地想找到一处美丽但不拥挤的海滩。我四处询问,借助于地图和旅游指南,但是除了青岛的海滩(非常拥挤)和海南岛(位于遥远的南方,且必须搭乘飞机或船才能到达),我一无所获。

上周某一天我为了消磨时间打开谷歌地图随便浏览了一下东海岸,无意中发现,靠近 江苏省连云港市有一个小岛。随着我将画面推近,不由得有一丝兴奋——岛上有两处沙滩,中间隔着郁郁葱葱的小山,而且仅有一小部分得到了开发,在另一头则大部分无人居住。更令我充满希望的是哪里有成排的沙滩阳伞。太棒了!

连岛与大陆由中国最长的长堤连接在一起,当你通过长堤时你就会进入一个悠闲的海边世界。进岛公路上卖贝壳纪念品的小商店零次栉比,成排的海鲜饭店提供自家当日捕捞的成箱的鱼类,贝类和虾类水箱被放在室外供客人自行挑选。

途经这些,如果你尚不觉得饥饿,可以驶过捕鱼码头开往小岛的北边,那里有一处精致的小海湾在静候您的光临,郁郁葱葱的丛林沿山蜿蜒融入蓝色的海洋。孔雀们在花园中闲庭信步,时不时展开美丽的尾巴,引得周围的人们欣喜不已。

海滩被设为游泳场所,这个地方有干净清凉的水,柔软的沙子,并且为每一个人都准备了充分的活动——独木舟、快艇、水上摩托或者就在水中悠闲地呆着放松。

很搞笑的是,当我们都很努力地要把我们苍白凄凉的皮肤晒成古铜色的时候,我们身旁的中国游客们从头到脚都裹得严严实,还打着伞来保护他们美丽的白色肌肤免受日光侵扰。当我 今晚躺在这儿,皮肤被晒得又红又烫时,我倒是也希望自己能有白白的肌肤。


Beach Wedding Photography, Chinese Style

The clutch of brides, more beatiful than the white peacocks roaming the beachside gardens, spill out of a minivan in full wedding regalia, long white dresses sweeping the ground, hair arranged in sleek black chignons topped with dramatic headpieces crusted with flowers and pearls, and ears heavy with long pearl and diamante drops. 

Their eyes, heavily rimmed with kohl, turn towards us oddly dressed foreigners in our swimming costumes and towels as if to question the suitability of our attire for attending the beach, and then with one long sweep they scoop up the trailing trains of their dresses over their arms, revealing scuffed plastic Crocs and cutoff denim shorts. The illusion dissolves immediately.
We follow them down the wooden stairs, all six bridal couples accompanied by a brace of photographers, assistants, make-up artists and gophers carrying assorted props – bags of fake floral bouquets, rainbow-coloured windmills, a violin in a case, a red and white life buoy, and six reflector screens covered in foil.
The Chinese wedding photography industry is a mysterious country of its own, with its own government and bylaws, its own ethnic factions, and its own currency and festivals. Couples enter into this land through the portal of glittering shops with names like Paris and LoveWedding, where they sit for days with wedding consultants poring over style books to decide on the style of wedding they would like, the only irony being there is no wedding and they’re not actually married. 
The actual wedding, compared to the splendor of the wedding photography, will be a drab affair months later involving five hundred guests in a fancy Chinese restaurant surrounded by life-size images of the couple as they appeared in their wedding dream, as realized by those magician photographers on a memorable day in the distant past.
Like all magicians, there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors involved in the transformation of a pair of short-sighted graphic designers from Lianyungang into a romantic beachside vision of true love. Here’s how it’s done.
The wedding dresses are made of machine-washable synthetic, one size fits all, and are fastened with bulldog cips at the back if you’re on the small side, or an infinitely expandable corsetry lacing if you’re not. The grooms, in white suits with ruffled shirts and enormous collars chosen to match the wedding dress, look stiff and uncomfortable as they’re directed into position. But the suits are completely wrinkle-free.

The make-up, lavishly applied to both bride and groom, is made from heat, sun and sand-resistant polymers that probably last for days afterwards on your skin.

Props are chosen, poses are positioned, and then the couple strip down to their underwear right there on the beach and change into Bridal Ensemble Number Two, usually a brightly coloured version of Bridal Ensemble Number One. And the whole scene is repeated in blazing technicolour polyester.

After watching this magic for two whole days and more than forty couples on Suma Wan’s tiny and now very crowded beach I have realised there are five standard poses in any Magic Beach Wedding photography set:

1.  The Standard – bride and groom side by side at the shore line, dress draped artfully on the sand. Variations include props placed artfully on the draped dress, such as dried starfish or the jaunty red and white life preserver.
2. The Distance Shot – often the groom stands behind the bride, facing away but looking back wistfully at her over his shoulder
3. The Happy-Go-Lucky shot – this involves hands in the air, or kicking water, or jumping simultaneoulsy. It doesn’t usually involve a group of swimmers and four other couples in various stages of dress/undress, as shown here.
4. The Groom Solo Shot – embracing married life, as it were.
5. The Novelty Shot. This involves the couple bringing something of their own personalities to the scene – crazy glasses, funny hats, or in this case a pair of bunny hand puppets. I know, I know – you wish you’d thought of this for your wedding photos too.

So there you have it, Chinese wedding photography for the uninitiated. Dusk falls, golden hour is over and the couples traipse in a straggling column back up the steps. The dresses and suits have been stuffed tightly into bags for washing.
At last, the beach is empty and the only sign of the photographic love fest that has just taken place is a lone pair of false eyelashes, marooned on the sand.

Suma Bay Eco Park
suma gang shengtai yuan
苏马港生态园
Admission: Adults 50 yuan, Children 25 yuan, Vehicles 15 yuan
Open daily 9am-6pm
Beachside overnight cabins available for rent
小贴士:
连岛有两个公共海滩。大的海滩(入场费50元)最靠近长堤。小的海滩,——苏马湾,在岛的北边,可以搭乘小公交或者私人小车前往。
苏马湾:大人50元,1.3米以下儿童25元,轿车15元。
海滩活动100-200元。


Campsite Notes: Lian Dao

We camped in the small secluded carpark just west of the Suma Bay Eco Park ticket office and entrance – the park closes at 6pm so the nearby carpark is empty at night. Between 7pm and 8.30am next day there were no other cars.
We considered overstaying closing time within the park itself but all the suitable parking sites have CCTV cameras so it seemed likely we would be moved on by the staff as they left for the day.

Co-ordinates: Lat  34.757590° Long 119.492593°
Water: nil
Electricity: nil 
Public Facilities: nil
Quietness: Crickets and breezes
Nearest water/groceries: Liandao village, at the entry road to the island (limited supplies)
Outlook: overlooks ocean