South China Seas

Even though nobility once wore the feathers and furs taken from its tropical wildlife, and its precious rainforest hardwoods were used to build imperial palaces, few mainland Chinese set foot on the island of Hainan until recent years. Tropical storms and typhoons, a fear of bloodthirsty pirates, and the island’s reputation as a remote place of exile kept people away from Hainan for most of the 20th century.

Part of China for as long as anyone can remember, the province, whose name means “south of the seas,” looks and feels like a world apart. The tropical climate, palm trees and street markets selling mango, tamarind, figs, dragon fruit and cans of coconut milk help to create an atmosphere quite unlike that of the mainland. So too the easy-going speech, the smiling, inquiring faces of locals, and the colored mouths and teeth of those who have spent a lifetime chewing betel nut, squirting it onto the sidewalks, many of which are stained orange.

“This was not a China I recognized,” travel writer Liam D’Arcy Brown observes. “I had never been so far south before and everything I saw seemed to tell me I was elsewhere Ð the Philippines, perhaps, or Thailand, or maybe Vietnam.” Hainan, in fact, is geographically very close to that last country, and there are times when, passing through the countryside, looking at women in conical hats working in the rice-fields, you feel you could just as easily be in Vietnam.

On first acquaintance, Haikou, the provincial capital, with its modern buildings, shopping malls and obligatory traffic jams, is a modern city running amok with capitalism. Closer inspection reveals a more mellow side to the city, an influence no doubt of the warm and steamy weather, palm-lined streets and friendly locals. Sights are few, although there are one or two ancient tombs and temples, dedicated to officials who paid the price for being incorruptible or critical of the emperor, with banishment to the island. Haikou Park, with its tai chi practitioners, chess players, dance groups and joggers, is a good place to get the feel of the human side of the city. It’s also situated at the edge of the old town, or at least what remains of it, a traditional quarter to one side of the lake, where the road called Xinhua Lu runs.

Beware when traveling in China, of highly descriptive, promising names. Hainan’s Seven Fairies Mountain Hot Spring turns out to be a row of mildewed wooden huts fitted with a couple ofenamel home baths that have seen better days. As for the hot water, a genuine sulphur brew, this is fed into the tubs by a garden hose. Two flowerbeds justify the name for the government-run Thousand Pleasures Garden Sanctuary, where the main attractions are a go-kart track and rifle range. Shiling is the biggest letdown, though, because it looks so promising on the map. Thinking, perhaps, of another Shiling Ð the Stone Forest outside of Kunming in Yunnan province, which really is impressive Ð I rented a taxi for what looked like an hour’s journey, but ended up on a four-hour crawl across some of the island’s worst earth roads. A single, jagged rock, lost among lichen and hanging vines, the Ôforest’ is a nasty climb via a series of vertical ladders, many of the rungs perilously rusty, the descent a nightmare made worse by leeches attaching themselves to legs and arms.

One place that more than lives up to its name is the Xinglong Tropical Botanical Garden, a 90-minute bus ride from the southern city of Sanya, followed by a short and pleasant open-air drive by motor-rickshaw. I manage to shake off the mandatory guide with a bribe after she insists that I can’t wander alone, enigmatically justifying the practice of escorting visitors with the comment, “in case there is a war.”

Exploring the spacious, well laid out grounds sans guide creates the kind of spell that draws people from China’s polluted cities to this island. Hainan’s oldest botanical garden, the tree and fruit diversity, the presence of coffee, vanilla, cocoa and pepper, are part of a species gene pool run by a research and education base. For the visitor it’s simply a green haven. Even the gift shops here, selling garden produce and an excellent range of teas, are a delight.

Seaside resorts are not the first things that come to mind when you think of China, but sun, sea and fun are the main reasons for a visit to Sanya city. And for the Chinese who come here from the mainland, Sanya has some very real advantages over foreign destinations. Besides the higher cost of an overseas trip and the language barrier, a vacation in Hainan guarantees the familiar native food, which Chinese seem unwilling to live without for long. Al fresco night stalls, bars, food kiosks and markets serve fresh reef fish, crab, cockles, moray eel and rainbow-A small population of some 6,000 or so Hainanese Muslims, most living in or near Sanya, explain the presence of freshly baked and fired flat-bread, spicy kebabs and tender mutton dishes. Despite an older quarter with tree-lined avenues, motorbike rickshaws and languid teahouses, Sanya is an indefatigably modern city, with department stores, internet cafes and fast food restaurants such as MacDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken to prove it.

All the travel brochures I pick up on the island show pictures of Westerners sun-tanning themselves on the beaches here, windsurfing, deep-sea fishing or feasting on barbeques. I saw very few foreigners during my time in Sanya, though, with the majority arriving from Scandinavia on package tours or in small family groups from the mainland. A recent newspaper report I read does speak of an imminent invasion of beach-obsessed Britons on package tours. With posh hotels such as the Sheraton and Marriott offering rooms at nearby Yalong Bay at a third of their usual overseas rates, it’s a bargain by British standards. In the event that the Brits do manage to turn this strip of coast into an Asian version of the Costa del Sol, the biggest question will be who’s going to suffer the most from culture shock.

It may be cheaper than a vacation abroad for the Chinese, but it’s still costly. “It’s more expensive here than where we live,” Lu Weiguo, a kitchen salesman from the cold northern city of Harbin, informs me. Lu is on vacation with his wife, son and mother-in-law. “We can cut our expenses by sharing one hotel room, though,” he adds. Sharing rooms is nothing unusual in China and rather than objecting to the lack of space, people seemed to rather enjoy the company. It is nice to see the Chinese having fun. After so many years of hard work and dedicated nation building, they certainly deserve the chance at last to really enjoy themselves.

Sanya’s picturesque beach is shaped by the sublime, three-kilometer curve of Dadonghai Bay. Cavorting on the sands, visitors typically wear slightly old-fashioned bathing suits or Hawaiian shirts, although you do invariably stumble across someone in a silk bathing robe with a raffish design of swirling dragons Ð and dragon-women Ð on the back. Locals call the coconut-white sands of Sanya, “China’s Hawaii.” Though the bay, palm trees and fastidiously swept and picked over sands are undeniably beautiful, Sanya is distinctly different from Waikiki Beach.

Seaside life here, in fact, is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Although a little swimming, snorkeling and water sports goes on, the Chinese for the most part engage in the time-honored practices of conversation, cards, games of Chinese chess, lounging on reed mats and drinking tea. Lots of tea.

Visible on the beaches a little further south are giant rocks with names such as Southern Pillar of Heaven and Limit of the Sky. Someone has carved large red letters into them, under which crowds of Chinese flock to have their photos taken.

Like the rest of China, the beach is an open market place. And you don’t have to go anywhere to buy anything, as the goods more often than not come to you. Vendors pass by with food, drink, straw hats and sun lotion; women offer foot massages, or sell souvenirs: traditional handicrafts made by indigenous tribes such as the Li, strings of famous local pearls and Qiong, a red quartzite stone associated with Hainan.

It seems the ideal vacation spot for the Chinese, but I can’t stop wondering if people eventually grow tired of this unaccustomed beach life. Using Lu as a translator, I asked his wife if she likes Sanya enough to come again next year.

“This is our third year running here,” she replies, surprising me. “We’ve already booked the same hotel for next year. Perhaps next time, we’ll be able to afford two rooms.

“But I don’t know. One is really quite cozy, you know.”

Story & photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, December 2007