Seaside memories

By Chen Chenchen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-10 5:03:02

This week's destination

Beach view in Wenchang, Hainan Province Photo: IC

If you want to avoid the cold in China's winter, Hainan, the southernmost island province of the country, is the only choice. Recently I traveled there, and before I departed from Beijing, I checked the temperatures in Hainan's nearly provinces. The great mountains in Fujian can get extremely chilly even in the daytime, and Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, both of which boast an untouched wild ecology, are cold at the moment due to their location on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Hainan is literally the only choice left this season for the cold-intolerant.

The most famous tourist destination in Hainan is undoubtedly Sanya, which is instantly evocative of seaside villas, luxury yachts, sunny beaches, and hot girls ceaselessly taking pictures of themselves. But the city has become too commercialized nowadays and I avoided it as much as possible.

The most splendid seaside views in Sanya have been divided, privatized and locked up by high-end hotels. I booked a room at a highly recommended four-star hotel, but found out the beach there was occupied by throngs of guests from the same hotel. Maybe the situation with five-star hotels is a bit better? I don't know, but it turns out the most comfortable thing I did in the well-known Yalong Bay of Sanya was sleeping in my room.

Hainan is definitely much more than Sanya. Turning to other places in the island, especially those that haven't become overdeveloped, brings you unexpected joy.

Haikou's grace

It was raining when I arrived at Haikou, the capital city of Hainan Province. I imagined it would be riotous with color. It might be on regular days, but during my stay its colorful facets were diluted by the damp weather. But that didn't matter at all, as the city's grace was highlighted by the quiet rain.

The flight I took from Beijing arrived at midnight. Beside the baggage belt, there was a row of dressing rooms. People walked in wearing coats and boots, and walked out in T-shirts and crocs. The city, immersed in darkness, didn't look special, save for the tall coconut trees shaking in the wind.

The next morning I was having breakfast at a nearby restaurant. The rain didn't stop. Outside the window, an old woman arrived and sat down under the eave, with a couple of baskets of tropical fruit. Occasionally a couple of passers-by stopped and came over to buy from her.

I decided to get some fruit after finishing breakfast. But I was about to go out, and was hesitant if I should buy now since I didn't want to take along them with me all day long. I asked the woman whether she would still be there in the afternoon when I came back. She smiled, with white teeth exposed, "I'm just here to shelter from the rain, I'll leave as soon as it stops." I thus asked for two pawpaws. Her knife flew over the fruits smoothly, and within a blink of an eye, the flesh was neatly wrapped in a bag and delivered into my hand.

This is one of the biggest advantages to traveling in Hainan. Fresh fruit is both rich and cheap there, and it is a great joy to have a sip of fresh juice, with ice added in, made by any street corner store. And the prices are way cheaper than those in northern cities like Beijing.

The very first place I went to was the Hainan Museum, which is a compound of artistically designed buildings. Exhibitions in different halls told stories about the island's history. For most Chinese, this southern island is still mysterious. This is probably the charm of the borderland regions, where you see the clear legacy of history and mixture of different cultures.

In ancient China, Hainan was seen as a barbarian land, and a place to punish fallen or exiled officials. Su Shi, a famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet, was once exiled here and became a local official, where he continued to write touching poems. The museum is a good place to get a historical overview of the island and a glimpse of the lives and traditions of Hainan's many minority groups.

The Temple of Five Lords, where the sculpture of Su Shi stands, turned out to be a big surprise in my Haikou trip. It memorializes five exiled officials in the Tang and Song dynasties. Su Shi was one of them. All of them, though exiled to this remote, "barbarian" part of the world, greatly boosted local cultural and economic development. Many domestic celebrities would like to come to this place when they arrive at Haikou. But beside the historical stories, the place itself is a very tranquil spot despite its location in the downtown district.

It is a typical pre-modern Chinese compound with three sections, left, central and right, stretching far along the two alleys in the east and the west. In the drizzle, rain drops occasionally fall off the old mansion's eave. The special aroma of incense floats in the air. There are few people wandering there. Walking along the stone steps and looking up, you see the massive green of high trees.

In the compound, tall bronze statues of historical figures, mostly officials exiled from the north, had been erected to memorize their persistence and integrity. Some carry a sword, while others have a book in hand. Their faces, enthusiastic, ambitious, or immersed in thought, have merged with the massive green around them. I stood right by them, just as if there was no historical distance in between.

Beside these two scenic spots, Haikou's Overhang Old Street brings people back to a nearer part of history. Its emergence was closely related to China's semi-colonial history in the 19th century. The opening-up of Haikou as a trading port led up to local blocks integrating European and Chinese features.

Even today, from the details of window ornaments, you could still feel its historical way. Walking all the way down under the overhang of the cream-colored buildings, seeing miscellaneous signboards of shops, and steaming food on vendors' stalls, the bustling commercial atmosphere of the 1900s doesn't seem far away.

Seafood served in Wenchang Photo: Chen Chenchen/GT

White gold beach

One regret after arriving at Hainan was that I didn't bring my driving license. It's very convenient to rent a car at the airport, drive it around the vast island, and return it at the airport before you jump onto your flight. Since I forgot the license, I rented a car and a driver. It turned out to be a very pleasant day. Due to the bad weather, the famous local hill had a landslide, and a police car blocked the way up to prevent adventurous tourists. The popular local stone park was closed for repair. But all these didn't matter, since my local guide was still able to show me the best facets of Wenchang.

The most impressive part was the 10 kilometers long greenway in the thick mangrove forest. I walked all the way, enjoying the game of wandering in this mysterious forest. Those who live by the seaside probably do not find it a wonder. But as I had never seen the exuberant roots of trees, I was still astonished by the roots almost completely exposed due to long-time dashing by sea waves. A note hanging on a very bulky tree reads: more than 1,000 years old. I felt like I shared a secret with this millennium-old tree.

The beach in Wenchang is no less gorgeous than that in Sanya. The only difference is probably much of it hasn't been developed and thus remains in its original shape. And wherever you go, there is no group of people; it's just you and the sea, and the familiar salty smell of the wind.

Right beside the beach near Wenchang's stone park, there is a simple temple funded by a Chinese resident of Thailand who left his hometown of Wenchang and went south in his youth era. An enormous statue of Buddha sits on the highland, facing the sea. The place thus has a beautiful name: Light of Buddha. There are some blurry photos of the philanthropist exhibited in the temple, together with some poems he wrote. His lifetime dream becomes even more dreamlike in this little temple.

Standing on your hotel balcony, you see through the swimming pool downstairs, the tall coconut trees on the beach, and ultimately the misty sea not far away.

Rules of Thumb

What to bring: You can forget everything but your driving license. All other things, like swimming suit, bath towel and flip-flocks, could be easily acquired in local shops. But if you do not bring your driving license and do not want to rent both a car and a driver, you'll have to tolerate the long distances between different scenic spots and the inconvenient public transportation of the city.

What to eat: Seafood and fruit are local specialties. You can buy extremely fresh seafood at a local port, and find a nearby restaurant to cook it. The smoothness and strength of the fresh seafood are beyond imagination. And about fruit, I still remember the introduction of my private guide in Wenchang: "Choose little coconuts if you want to enjoy the flesh, and big coconuts if you want to drink the juice."

Where to stay: Hotels by Wenchang's white gold beach are worth trying.

Posted in: Adventures

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