After travelling around China for a month, the visa rules required us to leave the country before we can enjoy the second 30 days of our stay. Looking for beaches and surf, we travelled to Taiwan, a mountainous island with a balanced personality somewhere between the western world and china, 100 miles to the west. With a tropical climate, over 1500km of coastline to explore and periodic summer typhoons reaching the east coast, it seemed we were sure to find what we were looking for.
Travelling on an ambitiously tight budget we decided to base ourselves in Hualien city for the first two weeks of our stay, volunteering at a hostel close to the beach on Taiwan’s east coast. However, soon after arrival, hopes of surfing began to test our positivity when we asked a fellow volunteer about the local beach. She informed us that yes, the beach was very close but it was not possible to swim there, let alone surf. Naturally doubting these claims the next day we went to see for ourselves.
The results were not promising. The majority of the coastline along Hualien is made up of steep concrete walls and sea defences, with a shipping port to the left and a fenced off factory to the right. The section of beach between was made up of huge boulders with small but crazy waves breaking on top of them at the shoreline. Although we were able to dispel the myths and have a little swim, it did seem that this was a less than ideal surfing spot.
On return to the hostel, talking with the owner, we learnt some interesting things about Taiwanese culture that were going to put some hurdles in the way of our search for waves. It turns out that the Taiwanese are not very fond of the beach or sea. From a young age children are strongly discouraged from going into the sea by fearful parents who tell stories of sea ghosts to discourage them from entering. I’m sure this doesn’t apply to all locals here but we were told that it is very common for people to never learn to swim. Naturally, therefore the beach is not something people enjoy as they do in Europe and this is obvious in Hualien where the huge concrete walls separate people from the sea. The hostel owner Una was also convinced of the sea’s dangers and agreed to take us the following day to another beach, a short drive north, for its excellent views and to show us how impossible swimming and surfing was.
The views were indeed beautiful. From the cliff top, the long empty stone beach curved round far into the distance, the sun shining over the expanse of ocean to the right and, to the left, the mountains of the Taroko national park towering into the clouds. The ocean and its risks are something to approach with great care and respect but on first impressions the beach didn’t seem particularly dangerous, although, like the beach in Hualien, it didn’t seem like a great surf spot. The waist high waves seemed to build steeply and, suddenly, peak and then crash down on the stones, all at the same time within about one meter of the shoreline before sucking back into the ocean. Not great for riding but good for playing around in, even with Una anxiously watching from the shore.
Relieved that we hadn’t injured ourselves or been taken by the sea and its ghosts I think Una became a little more relaxed and intrigued by our danger swimming and, at this point, we learnt another big difference in Taiwanese attitudes: You don’t really visit a place or do something unless someone or something says that you can. This beach wasn’t a designated swimming beach so the few people who can don’t swim there or even go there by the look of things. Although hard to understand, this did mean that wherever we went from here we would probably have these beautiful beaches to ourselves. Una kindly offered to take us to see the nearest surfing beach in Hualien, Jici beach later in the week. Until then, no surfing but time to enjoy the natural beauty of this rugged island.
To be continued … Pt.2 Trip to Jici beach and the Bike trip