Surfing in Taiwan Pt.2 – Jici beach and the bike trip

Despite having over seven hundred miles of coastline and a huge swell window for catching waves and swell, the history and surf culture in the country has not had very long to develop and is still very young and emergent. After losing their territory in mainland China during the Chinese civil war in 1949, the opposition to the current Chinese communist party fled to the island of Taiwan. From then, all the way until 1987, suspicions of the sea meant that the government prohibited civilians from accessing the beaches, swimming was illegal and the majority of the coastline was sealed off. These restrictions and beliefs explain much of the attitude and inaccessibility that we have been experiencing on our travels of the island so far. However, since the lifting of this ban surfing on the island seems to have started developing with surf shops sprouting up and creating surf spots in places like Yilan in the North and Taitung in the south. It now seems like a few locals are beginning to take to the water. For the last few years there has even been an international surf competition held in Taitung in collaboration with the WSL helping to give the island more international recognition for its waves. So waves are plenty, we just needed to be patient and wait for the conditions to arrive and search out the best places to surf.

Back in Hualien there was still exploring to be done. As agreed, Una took us on a trip down the coastal road to visit Jici beach, the closest beach to Hualien and known in the area for its surfing. The main route down the east coast is a small road that hugs the coastline offering vast ocean views for the entire journey including a view of Jici beach from the other side of the adjacent cliff top. We stopped here enjoying the views and learnt there was going to be an entrance fee to the famous Jici beach, which was confirmed on arrival a few minutes later. The sandy beach was long and golden, a handful of vans strapped with boards and salty Taiwanese surfers walking around the beach giving the place a colourful surf vibe. All seemed good but for the fenced off beach and serious looking local sitting in the shade demanding the 100$ entrance fee, although this didn’t apply if you were a local. There were no boards to rent but this wasn’t a problem today. Despite over twenty surfers in the small sectioned off ocean, the waves were non-existent, rolling under the surfers in the water and gently flopping on the shoreline. Sadly for us this wasn’t the reception we were expecting and none of us were excited about paying the fee to enter.

 

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View of JIci beach from the cliff top

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View of JIci beach from the cliff top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for a way past the fences and barbed wire we suggested to Una driving just up the beach to avoid the entry fee and have a swim. She seemed strangely surprised by this, reminding us of the local attitude of only surfing and swimming where you are explicitly allowed to do so. We stopped the car a few hundred metres up the beach and dived into the cooling ocean, escaping the hot sun while Una observed from the rocks.

With the sun dipping low behind the mountains turning the sky over the water into red and orange flames, we began our journey home catching sight of a handful of surfers silhouetted against the sky bobbing up and down in the water beyond the cliff. Opposite, on the other side of the road, a surf shop with boards racked up along its wall waiting to be borrowed. Me, Celia and Elisa, a fellow hostel volunteer, vowed to return on our next day off.

The day off soon arrived and operating on a tight budget we took the hostel’s city bikes and loaded up the baskets, completed with a big bunch of fat, sweet bananas from a lady on the roadside. We headed south out of Hualien ready for our 16km cycle to the surf shop following the coastal road towards Jici beach, prepared to find what we could along the way. The sun was already hot in the sky, and although the ocean was spread out in front of us, no matter how hard we looked, at each hopeful swim spot we were unable to get to the water. It is amazing that despite the ban on entering the water being lifted so long ago, so much beautiful coastline along the east coast is inaccessible, with steep cliffs offering no path down to the water, or equally steep concrete walls and concrete blocks littered over the beach to break the waves and prevent access to the water.

 

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View of JIci beach from the cliff top

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View of JIci beach from the cliff top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot, sweaty and tired, early that afternoon we reached the surf shop. Except for the friendly dog waiting for us by the gate, the place was completely deserted and we could find no one. After snooping around for a few minutes we sat down on a hammock and had lunch overlooking the sea. No surfers and no possibility of surfing the small but rideable waves, we finally found a path leading down to the beach close to a hotel and were able to freshen our tired body’s before the cycle home.

So Hualien was not able to give us the waves we hoped for, with little evidence of any surf culture and beautiful but frustratingly inaccessible beaches it was time to leave the town and head South.

Next stop Taitung!

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Surfing in Taiwan Pt.1 – First stop Hualien

 

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.

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Checking out the beach at Hualien

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.

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Warnings along the empty beach

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View from the cliff, the mountains of the Taroko national park in the distance

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

A good day surfing

 

Surfing is a very unique sport and part of what makes it unique is the importance of the elements whose unpredictability gives surfing both its appeal, and frustration. There are now very sophisticated forecasts available to help you predict everything from wave height and frequency, to wind speed and direction and probably even seaweed per m3 of water, all up to two weeks into the future. However despite all this technology nothing is, and probably will never be, certain. I have turned up to a near flat forecast in the North Sea to find fun sizeable waves that left me grinning from ear to ear. Like wise I have been escorted to promised six foot barrels in Indonesia, only to be washed around in a windy mess.

Since I moved to Pamplona I have been taking regular trips to the Basque coast with some fellow teachers at my school on the hunt for waves. This part of Europe offers endless spots running along the coastline ranging from beautiful town beaches such as San Sebastian and Biarritz, to little coves and secluded spots all with consistent waves and reachable within an hour of Pamplona.

Last week we were headed for Hendaye, a small town on the French/Spanish border with a long golden beach and uninterrupted views of the vast Atlantic Ocean. Looking at the forecast the night before, it was more than tempting to cancel my 7am alarm and wait until next weekend. We were expecting medium size 3-4 foot waves and a disastrous 30mph wind and rain. You don’t need to be an expert to realise that in the ocean, trying to catch waves, probably won’t be a great place to be.

However, we were all committed and at 7:30 the next morning I climbed in the car with my two friends and the journey began. As we crossed the border a heavy rain had begun to hammer down on the car. Along with a temperature drop as we descended the mountains to the town, the prospect of removing our warm clothes and fighting ourselves into a wetsuit was a daunting thought, perfectly illustrated by my friend’s fearful face next to me.

We parked the car and gazed out through the windows shielding us from the wind and rain. The forecast seemed pretty accurate, medium sized sloshy waves being blown around by a relentless wind. My friend was the first to voice the rational response to what we saw, suggesting we wrap up warm, go and have a coffee and maybe head home. But we had come to far now and as bad as it looked I have never been one to decline the opportunity of a surf of any sort. For the next few minutes we all stayed sat in the car conjuring the will power that was needed to venture outside and suit up. In the end it took a communal 3, 2, 1, go! to get us all out and changing as quickly as possible before the cold got to us too much. Car key “hidden” on the wheel, we made our way down to the beach to make the best of what the ocean was offering, despite the lack of fellow surfers in the water being quite disconcerting.

Unsurprisingly the waves weren’t very good, but the rain had stopped, the sun had begun to shine and as always it was great to get into the water after a week in the city.

After a couple of hours being washed around we found each other on the sand and decided to take a walk along the beach to see what else we could find, the strange hope of the waves being better somewhere else always tempting. After striding all the way up to the top of the beach with our boards blowing around in the winds we reached a large man made sea wall separating a harbour from the rest of the ocean, it was quite tall and was creating a little surfers microclimate paradise. Tall, glassy waves were wrapping around the wall that was sheltering them from the harsh wind. These were great waves, and after what we had been in all morning they looked heavenly.

With excitement bursting out of us we all ran across the top of the wall, climbed down the rocks and jumped straight into the line up catching wave after wave in the mostly empty water. Eventually, hours later, we washed up on the beach exhausted but each wearing an adrenaline filled grin of absolute content.

After a long winter I had caught the best waves I have had in a long time, but I had also been reminded of a good lesson for surfing and adventures of any kind. You never know what you are going to find, and sometimes it might seem like the best thing to do is forget it. But the important thing is making the journey and going for it because you never know what surprises you will find!