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Sun sea & cement: Hainan

When it comes to tropical paradises, Hainan may not exactly tick everyone's boxes but, as Cecilie Gamst Berg discovers, the island province has its fair share of distractions

 

"Warm prompt: Beware of falling objects!" says the sign in the toilet of carriage seven of the Harbin-Haikou train. Showing a picture of a Rolex watch, it is a gentle reminder not to drop your stuff into the toilet.

"Oh, China!" I laugh indulgently as I snap a photo of yet another wonderful Chinglish-ism.

A couple of hours and three beers later I do not laugh quite so loudly when my camera, in its pack, drops from my belt, hits the floor with a sickening thud and bounces into that toilet.

"Ha ha! What, did you have to pick it up and clean it off? Yuck. LOL," will say the few people I'll be able to tell this story to when I return from a 10-day tour of Hainan Island. These people, though, clearly aren't familiar with long-distance Chinese trains. If they were, they would know that on such a train, the toilets are the squatting type only, and that there is no U-bend from which someone who's not too fastidious can fish out a Rolex watch, say, or a camera. No, it's the ground, disappearing beneath you at 90km/h, taking your watch (or camera) with it forever.

That's why the train builders put up the sign; not for my amusement.

Is this how our much-awaited trip to the tropical paradise of Hainan will be?

Ever since we almost froze to death in Guizhou province last Christmas, my travel companion, Andrew, has sworn: "China trip good, but no more cold. Only tropical paradise from now on." And Hainan, only a 14-hour train ride from Guangzhou, seemed to fit the ticket. The photos on the travel websites showed nothing but white sandy beaches and palm trees. To me it looked quite boring, but we could always take day trips into the mountains. "Unless they're too chilly," Andrew added.

But there is no sign of anything tropical when we get to Haikou, the capital of Hainan, which is its own province and (of course) special economic zone. The traffic is unbearable, with incessant honking, pedestrians are made to walk up and down endless steps just to cross the street and it is … freezing. Not Harbin freezing, but thick jacket-and-scarf-freezing. Where are the beaches? Thank God I have packed according to my pessimism and not the official tourism photos.

 

I CHAT WITH THE HOUSEKEEPING lady before entering my hotel room and I like to think she can clearly see, or at least hear, that I am a woman. However, as soon as I close the door and put my bags down I see two business cards advertising the sweetness and purity of scantily clad Ling-Ling (or Ding-Dong, I can't recall), being pushed under the door.

That night, we happen upon a street of big, garage-like rooms, open to the elements but for shopfront grilles pulled down, so they resemble cages. Bathed in pink fluorescent light, gaggles of women with button-popping cleavages, fishnet stockings and skirts the size of belts sit perched on plastic stools, huddled together for warmth. If so cold, why not wear something?

"That is the same kind of light they use in Hong Kong markets to make meat look better," Andrew remarks. Unlike other brothels I've seen in mainland cities, these don't even bother to pretend they are hairdressing salons. There is no hairspray, no scissors, not even mirrors. Just women on stools, shivering behind bars.

Maybe the no-mirror thing is a Hainan idiosyncrasy, though, for when we reach Dongfang, a coastal town four hours' bus ride from Haikou, we find that the bathrooms - two in each room, as we have splashed out on 268 yuan (HK$340) "special luxury" accommodation - also have no mirrors. However, here the cards from the ladies of the night, three this time, have been tastefully displayed in the ashtray, near which a helpful sign says: "Warm prompt: Stop smoking". If I was in any doubt, a note on the inside of the door reassures me that "The pornography, gambling and drug abuse is strictly preserved".

Because Hainan is a tropical paradise, no hotel (we check) bothers with carpets. This must look good on paper; economical, hygienic and what not (I've seen some grubby carpets in my time, what with grooves from burning cigarette ends, chewing gum and other stuff that no vacuum cleaner can pick up) but, though well-appointed, the rooms look sad, bare and cheap without floor covering. Sub-white and shiny like the corridors in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, they are just too clinical, too morgue-like, for a hotel room.

The night is so cold I have to sleep in long socks, trousers, jumper and jacket. And mittens. Apparently, in this tropical paradise, not only do people not need to see themselves in the mirror, they also don't need much sleep at night. And what with the floor and everything in the room being white, when I awake, I feel like I have done so in an igloo.

Shivering and with icicles in my eyebrows I go down to reception and ask why there isn't a mirror in any of the bathrooms.

"Because they haven't been installed." Doh!

The government or tourist authorities of Hainan must have warned its inhabitants about Western tourists - our special eating habits first and foremost. Having asked a waiter if his restaurant does yum cha ("drink tea") in Cantonese, then Putonghua, both of which he understands, he sends us to the sixth floor of the building. To a coffee shop.

Down the road we find a dim sum place in a hotel. It has all our favourites; prawn dumplings, taro cakes, fried noodles with strips of carrot and tofu and fishcakes with corn. The staff are chatty and compliment us on our Cantonese, although they too initially try to convince us that a coffee shop would be much more "convenient".

Fifteen minutes into the excellent meal two of them come up to our table, proudly bearing a glass jug of boiling water with forks and spoons in it.

"Er … ? We don't need forks. Cheers."

"But they are forks."

"Yes, we can see that. But we're already using chopsticks. Look!"

"Those are our Chinese chopsticks."

"… OK. And we're using them. So we don't need forks."

A mumbled conversation, then the head waiter pipes up again: "How about knives?"

We should have taken the forks; the staff probably went out to buy them so we wouldn't feel alienated eating all the strange food we mistakenly ordered thinking it was pizza or something. But there is a limit to how much you can inconvenience yourself just to make strangers look good in front of their tourist bureau, eh?

Instead of the tiny mountain village we expected, our next stop, Ledong, is about the size of Oslo, and almost as cold as the Norwegian capital. Well, you know what I mean; not tropical.

Every new building in Ledong seems to have been built the week before and looks shiny but empty, as if too nice to be used. Large, bomb-crater-like areas of broken bricks lay half hidden behind blue corrugated-iron walls, waiting for luxury condos. The main drag has what looks like an upmarket strip mall from Arizona or New Mexico as its centrepiece, all yellow bricks and Japanese and Korean restaurants (maybe to be opened at some stage) … yet the town's residents look like they have been dragged out of a black-and-white photo of a roadless village circa 1982. The navy blue suits with shiny elbows and knees, the hay-like mops of hair cut by a family member and the sparsely toothed mouths smeared with betel-nut juice highlight the dichotomy between the mainland's relentless drive to spruce up and the population's failure to keep up.

Wuzhishan ("Five Finger Mountain") is a real find. A properly small town (not "China small", which can mean up to three million people) with hardly any buildings higher than three storeys, it nestles prettily between green hills and a winding river. We have been looking for a place to spend more than one night in and this is it.

Just a few steps from the bus station and right on the banks of the shining river is the Zhujiang Crystal Hotel, an elegant beauty with mattresses that aren't rock hard, a lovely view of the town and, best of all, a proper balcony with clothes-drying facilities.

The air is relatively fresh, although plenty of car and motorbike owners are trying to remedy this. As always in smaller towns, motorbikes far outnumber cars both as private means of getting around and as taxis. We choose a contraption (some kind of engine - tractor, lawnmower, moped? - with a structure attached for passengers) to take us out for the night, starting with a Sichuan restaurant. The driver seems unable to believe her ears.

"Sichuan?"

"Yes."

"But the food is spicy."

"Yes. Take us to a Sichuan restaurant, please."

She makes a call and discusses long and hard with someone on her mobile in Hainanese, finally grunts and takes off. Just around the corner, maybe two minutes' walk from where we got in, she points to a building: "There. You can eat there."

It is a bakery.

The next day, outside the hotel, I hear angry shouting. Amid much staggering and swearing, an inebriated wedding guest is trying to get onto a motorbike. The driver is by no means sober, but at least he can hold the motorbike upright - the passenger keeps falling off and being put back on again by laughing friends. In the end, they sandwich him between the driver and a third wedding guest, who sits holding the drunk guy's legs up so they don't get caught in the wheel.

Apparently Five Finger Mountain itself, so named because the rock formation looks like - you guessed it - five fingers, is one of the most challenging hikes in China, so naturally we don't attempt it. Instead, we shuffle along to the museum of Hainan minorities, or "nationalities", as Beijing has decided to call them.

I knew that Hainan's indigenous population, the Li, had been driven from the coastline and up into the southwestern hills when the Han started to come over from the mainland to settle in earnest in the late Ming dynasty. We have been looking for people who look a bit different from the Han, sitting around weaving their own underwear while singing and dancing, perhaps - which minorities in China do incessantly, according to the official tourist sites, but apart from at a big Han Chinese opera blowout in a park in Haikou, we haven't seen as much as an embroidered head ornament on the whole trip. Everybody looks and dresses more or less the same.

In the museum, large photographs show us the truth about the minorities. They did indeed dance around dressed in colourful embroidered clothes, in between living in huts made of palm leaf and sowing skins together, apparently so badly that they needed guidance from a Communist Party member.

We have been a little apprehensive about going to Sanya, internationally the most (or only) well-known city on Hainan due to its Miss World pageants and proliferation of upmarket resorts. We thought the place would be all vast, empty lawns manicured to death with some scattered palm trees and white glittering statues of Greek nymphs around the edges.

At first glance (albeit a very short glance, through half-closed eyes) the city does look a bit like some Mediterranean town, what with the beach and the red sunset framed by palm trees. Even the toilet signs speak of a different world, showing a couple, he with early Beckham-esque spiky hair and she with long flowing locks, standing under a coconut tree.

But then I see a local giving the five-finger salute (blowing his nose onto the pavement) and I breathe a sigh of relief - yes, I am still in China. And in a charming, laid-back, slightly chaotic town of winding, narrow streets at that, where young people walk around drinking from fresh green coconuts instead of Starbucks paper cups and stern and forbidding Beijing feels a world away.

After a warm snap it has managed to get cold again, but that doesn't stop people from Harbin and elsewhere in the north, dead set on enjoying this tropical paradise, from wearing top-to-toe neon orange Hawaiian outfits with up to three floppy hats. It said in the brochure it would be warm so they are jolly well going to dress as if it were.

Food-wise, the only problem is proper yum cha - as it was in Wuzhishan, where our otherwise excellent hotel served the worst dim sum this side of hell. Shengyi Holiday Villa (I walk into it as if sleepwalking, with that special radar I have for dim sum), however, is the most beautiful yum cha place I've seen anywhere: a large airy, beautifully decorated room overlooking the ocean and with outside-terrace dining.

One of the waitresses speaks Cantonese, and she and I stand in front of the steaming baskets of beautifully executed dumplings shaped like rabbits and little fish, discussing the ins and outs of dim sum. I tell her how much I love it and how I've been looking for it all over Sanya while she nods and smiles.

Then she seems to wake up and realise who she is talking to. "But you must go to the ground floor. That's where the breakfast is." Yes. It is indeed where the coffee shop is.

Along the beachfront, across the road from the hotel, dozens of musicians have set up their instruments. You can find retired people in all mainland parks and city squares playing and singing the favourites from when they were young and revolutionary and suffered hardship together. What makes this scene so incongruous is that they are playing not the erhu and yangqin (Chinese dulcimer) but saxophones and clarinets - and the backdrop is sand, sea and palm trees.

Mr Li is the oldest, at 86. He took up the saxophone two years ago and his teacher was Mr Wang, 85. Wang must be a good teacher (he is certainly an excellent musician) for the love songs to Mao and the Communist Party these ageing heroes play are flawless, if slightly surreal; think New York beatnik bar from the 50s meets the Cultural Revolution - under coconuts.

 

AS AN ENDING, wouldn't it be fun to say, "And guess what! I was reunited with my camera on the train on our way back to Guangzhou. A blind, one-armed beggar had found it on the track and handed it in with his last breath." But, strangely enough, that would be a lie.

I just hope that whoever found the camera saw the irony in the fact that the one photo it contained was of a sign saying: "Beware of falling objects."

 

 

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minetteyam@hotmail.com
I laughed so much when I was reading this article that my usually very laid back partner actually walked into the room and asked me about my new found happiness. Great entertainment for 15 mins on a grey and cold Sunday especially when I will have to face my beloved comrades with their particular habits again tomorrow.

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