I had heard a lot about Hainan Island – mostly from Chinese friends praising its beautiful scenery, using the usual rhetoric that you find in Chinglish tourism publications. I had met few people who had been there. For a land filled with so much potential – all the good things about China, without the cold and pollution, but with blue-water ocean, a little bit of surf and a lot of sun to boot – why was this place still not on most international tourist radars? It was in April 2006 that I found myself in Kunming, Yunnan province, with three weeks left on my tourist visa extension (equals plenty of time to get to Hong Kong). I decided to embark on a curiosity-satisfying mission to find out.
Coming from the altitude of Kunming (1,894 meters) down to sea level at Zhanjiang, in the far south of Guangdong province, I felt like I was stepping out of the train into a sauna. Technically, it was only mid-spring, but this far south, they were already into summer. Mangoes and other tropical fruits were being hawked on the side of the road everywhere I looked. I followed my nose onto a bus that would take me further south, down to the southeastern peninsula of Guangdong, from where one can board a ferry to Hainan Island.
An Island and a Province
Hainan, both an island and a province, is the “tear-drop” that you can see on the map off the south coast of China adjacent to northern Vietnam (it's also known as the feet of the rooster, if you think of the map of China as a giant chicken). It is at the same time a slice of SE Asia in China and a wannabe version of Hawaii, owing to its latitude, the same as Hawaii's. Hainan now boasts many five-star resorts and has played host to the Miss World competition for the past three years (although admittedly, there are a lot of people wearing Hawaiian shirts there). For the western visitor, this is probably where the similarity stops.
China's domestic tourists have lapped it up. The mainland's nouveau rich fly south for the winter in large numbers, sporting their Hawaiian shirts, bright tour group hats, jostling with each other for prime photo opportunities. Even as I boarded my bus in Zhanjiang, I could see I was already in tour-group-with-hats territory. Several of them were whinging that their tour guide not accompanying them on the bus (that someone would be waiting for them at the other end was not good enough, apparently).
I couldn't understand why natives would need a tour guide in their own country, when they could speak the language fluently. What could possibly go wrong? You get lost? I mean, just ask someone, lady! That the concept of independent travel was definitely still in its infancy in China became more apparent throughout my time in Hainan, when I would often be asked while stopping for directions, “Oh, so where's your tour guide, then?”
After a trying, stop-start ride to the ferry terminal (one of the old biddies on the tour got the runs, and the guy next to me was spitting on the floor the whole way), the sea breeze on the open deck and a cold beer or two freshened me up – what I needed after having been in transit for over 24 hours. The slow bus ride was possibly a blessing in disguise, as it meant that I caught the sun setting over the South China Sea while I strummed my guitar with a group of young Chinese whom I'd met on the deck.
We chugged into Haikou, the capital of the province on the north side of the island, with its skyscrapers and bridges lit up against the fading light. I found the night streets of Haikou to be bustling with street vendors selling seafood at crazy prices, like 10 barbecued oysters for about one Euro. To celebrate such a discovery, I decided that some more cold beers with which to wash them down were in order.
More like North Queensland
My walk around the old centre of Haikou the following day revealed a sleepy tropical city that was more like something I'd expect to find in North Queensland (Australia) than Hawaii. (I say “old centre” because most Chinese city planners, rather than rejuvenating their original city centre, tend to pick a patch of farmland just outside the city and build a brand new, sparkling, high-rise business district on it instead, in the process creating a “new centre”. This is probably not such a silly idea, as the old part of the city can then be promoted as a historic tourism site, generating many jobs for postcard sellers, more more tour guides and out-of-work “minority-race-in-traditional-costume” actors.)
The tropical fruits, palm trees, crushed-ice fruit salads, oppressive heat and unforgiving sun all contributed to the laid-back feel. Some of the surprise finds of the day were Haikou's numerous hole-in-the-wall shops that sold, rather than tea and dumplings, thick, black, sweet, locally-grown coffee by the pot, as well as croissants and other freshly baked delights – at local Chinese prices. Sure, the Starbucks of Beijing and Shanghai were new for most mainlanders. Marketers dreaming of a billion customers were furiously trying to convert a tea-drinking race to coffee, but it seemed that the Hainanese had already discovered it long before the foreign investors started flooding in during the nineties.
Sanya – The Cairns of China
If Hainan was the North Queensland of China, then Sanya, the tourism capital at the southern end of the island where the above mentioned five-star resorts and Miss World competitions are found, would have to be the Cairns (the coastal city in far northeast Australia that thrives almost entirely on tourism, famous for the Great Barrier Reef, Japanese tourists, near where Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, recently died). The backdrop of a blue sea (as I hinted at before, a somewhat rare find in the rest of China) and green, densely vegetated hills rising sharply out of the narrow coastal plain, did indeed look very similar to the North Queensland landscape, even gave a hint of Rio De Janiero, except for the Chinese characters on top of the resort buildings.
Instead of the Japanese who flock to Cairns' sun drenched climes, however, Sanya had Russians and Japanese. The shop signs and menus in Dadonghai, the main hotel area, were conveniently translated into two unintelligible languages instead of one. I had found the answer to my initial question – this place had obviously been on Russia's (to a lesser extent, Japan's) radars for some time. With respect to western travellers (a handful of backpackers and Miss World judges aside), Sanya remained a fairly well-kept secret.
The Chinese Nouveau Rich
Though the Russians were the dominant foreign minority, hat-wearing Chinese tour groups were more prevalent. As if dutifully obeying the government's “Hawaii of the East” mantra, the Hawaiian shirt had been extended to what I like to call the Hawaiian outfit – standard collared, short sleeve shirt with a pair of slightly-too-short shorts, both with a loud, floral or palm tree based, matching design, causing the wearer to appear as if they were sporting their pyjamas. Usually, this would be accompanied by an oversized pair of sunglasses, and a bright red or white cap, to identify them as a member of their tour group. The Chinese nouveau rich might have been good at making money, but they sure didn't have much fashion sense.
On my first night in Sanya, I met a busker called Awei outside a restaurant near my hotel. He carried a portable amplifier and song list and charged patrons 10 Yuan for the song of their choice. He invited me to play a few tunes. After he finished work, the restaurant owner fed us beer and prawns while Awei told me his story.
He was in his early thirties, had graduated from university, began in a white collar job, started his own business, then left it all behind to play guitar. Now, a competent, but not an outstanding musician, he earns almost as much as he would in an office job selling songs to the tourists in high season. If you want a model example of leaving the rat race and “unplugging” yourself from society, this guy is it – he doesn't own a mobile phone, doesn't even have an ATM card, still withdraws money with a bank book! Who would have thought that I'd find such a refreshing example of someone rejecting the materialism of China's younger generation in a place like Sanya, China's capital of “flash and cash”?
I spent most of my time hanging around with Awei and his music mates, playing guitar, eating more seafood and mangoes, getting sunburnt (as an Australian, getting sunburnt in China really was a first for me) at the beach, until it was time to head back to Haikou to connect with an overnight boat to Guangzhou. Despite its external veneer of tacky, neon-lit Chinese tourism, one need only dig a little deeper to find Hainan Island's “South East Asia in China” charm, a charm that left me wanting more.
I highly recommend a side-trip to Hainan Island to anyone who happens to be passing through that part of the world. I'm happy to offer some “travel logistics” advice to those who might be interested; however, it would come with one condition: just don't go telling everyone else about it before I get back there!