The Silver Dragon: The Qiantang tidal bore hits Hangzhou (and surfers hit the bore)

Qiantang tidal bore, hangzhou, silver dragon 2010 Yesterday I encountered a mythical beast. A beast so powerful it has been feared for two millennia. A beast that in the last ten years has claimed the lives of Zhejiang, engulfing everything in its path. Ok, ok, enough of the melodrama… what I am in fact referring to is a phenomenon that is the Qiantang tidal bore, a.k.a. the Silver Dragon. Due to the particular geography of the Qiantang River where it meets the sea, the narrow bottleneck of the Hangzhou Bay causes the tide to rush in, in one gigantic wave. Though a regular occurrence on the river, once a year around mid-Autumn festival, it takes on epic proportions and has been known to reach up to nine meters in height.

It was a gray, wet and frankly, pretty miserable day. The drive from Shanghai to Hangzhou was two hours of perpetually misty spray as we negotiated around, behind and in front of the Zhejiang holiday traffic. With a rough idea of the tides in hand we arrived to the east of the city and found ourselves on a concrete strip of tired-looking promenade straddled on one side by the stretch of the calm, muddy waters of the Qiantang river at low tide and on the other, a construction site bordered by hotels and exhibition center, somewhere within which was the Action Sports China Expo 2010. Finding ourselves a spot on the almost deserted promenade was easy; there were precious few others around, though the handful there were gave us faith something was on its way. As we waited the numbers grew, though could barely be called a crowd. Jet skis buzzed up and down the river, police boats kept an eye on a foolhardy group who had ventured out on to rocks in the waters, and everyone kept their eyes fixed on the bridge in the distance. 

 Finally, we saw something. So subtle to start with it could almost be a mirage. A crest of white moving so slowly it seemed impossible, but within a minute several tiny black dots became visible– surfers riding the bore, cruising, cutting and slicing from side to side… approaching as if in slow motion. The wave was at least as high as the few boats still on the river (we later discovered it was just shy of three meters) and it broke upon the far side of the river with a force to be reckoned with. A murmur went through the crowd as we looked towards our own bank, the rushing wall of water hitting rock and mud with violent impact before reaching two huge outlets pipes not far from where we were standing, where it threw up a huge explosion of blackened water before filling two meters’ depth of what just seconds before had been nothing but air. It was the tide coming in at high speed, all at once, in one huge wave, and in the midst of it all, four pro surfers. Flown in from the US as part of an effort to introduce the sport of surfing and the surfing lifestyle to the Chinese masses, it was a highlight of the Action Sports China Expo. The first day of the three day event, the surfers would be out every day, taming the beast. Unfortunately, just where we stood, the wave was breaking too close to the sides for any real riding to be done. Instead they were towed behind jet skis, taking up the surge once more just tens of meters beyond, continuing the journey that had already taken them some 10 km down the river.

 We’ll be checking out their efforts again over the next few days, investigating the China Actions Sports scene and visiting Yanguan, a small village 40km to the north east of Hangzhou and famed as the best spot to watch the water rushing in from the river. Stay tuned for more!

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