Since I came to China, I’ve had two opportunities to visit Beihai, but instead chose to go elsewhere. This time, I decided I should go see whether this coastal city is as wonderful as some of my Chinese friends say.
Well, I hate to say it, it’s not that wonderful. If you want quality beach time, especially in February, skip Beihai and ante up for a more expensive visit to Sanya in Hainan. Beihai is nice enough for one or two days, but after that it’s pretty boring.
Before I get into details, here’s some perspective. Beihai is in Guangxi Province, one of the poorest provinces in China. During the 19th century, Beihai was an important international port, but went into decline during the 20th century as other cities in China — like Guangzhou — became more important international ports.
Development of Beihai as a tourist city is still underway. There’s now a high-speed rail line linking it to the larger city of Nanning; its airport is new and modern; and there are new hotels and condos going up all over the city. In addition, the government is trying to develop Beihai into a passenger seaport, with daily departures to Haikou in Hainan, Macau, Hong Kong and now, even Hanoi, Vietnam.
But, until all this bears fruit, Beihai is only a mediocre place, as tourism goes. Of course, I was visiting during the worst time of the year, weather-wise, and I would hope the place would be a little more bustling during the normal tourist season. On the other hand, Beihai is still pretty rundown in places. Even the ancient quarter looks rundown, with its decaying colonial buildings badly in need of new stucco and paint.My lodging in Beihai was free. I had earlier requested hosting at couchsurfing.com, and Ken Wu offered to put me up in his new youth hostel at no charge for as long as wanted. That kind of offer is hard to pass up, so I decided to spend a few days in Beihai, take my time, and check out what was there. I walked to the north shore, which in high season has many seafood places open, visited the old quarter, which was only OK, and visited Silver Beach, Beihai’s main attraction, twice: once on a blustery day and again on a sunny day.
Aside from that, I found a decent pizza place next to an English training school, and spent some time eating with Ken and his girlfriend at the hostel.
Ken is about 26 and spent several months hitchhiking and couchsurfing around China. He’s originally from Guangzhou, and ended up in Beihai toward the end of his circumnavigation of the country. He and his girlfriend rented a three-story house and turned it into a youth hostel. The other four residents during my stay were not travelers, but young men and women working in Beihai and needing a cheap place to live.
In all, Beihai was pleasant enough to visit, even in February, if you’ve got time to kill and don’t expect much in the way of big tourist attractions. I had time, and free lodging, so I decided to give Beihai a chance. Besides, the weather was better than in snowy Hunan.
The Old Street (pictured above) contains many European-style buildings left over from the city’s heyday as a 19th century seaport. Now, most of these buildings serve as shops offering local snacks and the usual sort of souvenirs you see everywhere else in China. Most of the old houses are also decaying, but I saw one or two renovated top to bottom as bars or restaurants. As I said, Beihai is a work in progress.
I skipped the rest of Old Street, and walked along the new waterfront pedestrian walk for a bit. The two restaurants that I passed were closed and need of repair. In this photo, you can see one of the restaurants and some new development to the northeast.
Silver Beach is Beihai’s main tourist attraction, as it’s one of China few decent beaches outside of Sanya’s. But the climate is not favorable as Sanya, so sunbathing and swimming is really out of the question until summertime. My first trip there was on a chilly day, with a stiff 10 mph wind blowing out to sea, but I spent some time there on the chance the weather might not improve. Then, the weather did improve, and I went again.
Before we leave Beihai, here’s a few other photos of just everyday life there.
Here’s an amusing warning sign from Silver Beach.
After Beihai, I took the high speed rail to Nanning, spent the night in a cushy hotel, the Grand Soluxe International Hotel, for which I paid 409 RMB ($65) for a ginormous double queen bed room. I had really wanted a cheaper room, but once again misunderstood Ctrip’s Chinese mobile website and booked a room with shot term rate of 209 RMB — for two hours! Rather than hunt around for another hotel, I told the Ctrip customer service lady who called me to book the 409 RMB room, figuring I had just saved the equivalent amount staying with Ken in Beihai.
Here’s the room. The bathroom was also huge, with a bathtub.
I didn’t stay in Nanning long, as my train for Changsha left at 8 am. I had already decided while in Beihai that I had to end my travels, despite the temptation of taking the train from Nanning to Hanoi, Vietname, or revisiting Yangshuo to the north. A sea voyage to Hainan was also tempting, but too expensive for me at that time. Besides, I had already arranged to meet a friend in Changsha, so my travels were at an end — for now, anyway.
To end this post, here are some train-related photos. I’ve said it before, but China’s high speed trains are whisper-quiet, efficient, and the best way to travel around the country — if you don’t mind paying extra for the convenience...
NEXT: What all this traveling cost me — not as much as you would think.