YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Sensing the Adventure on China's Hainan Island

September 14, 1986|JOHN KING | King is a San Francisco free-lance writer who has taught English in China.

SANYA, China — The shrill of cicadas is tropical heat made audible, and here at the southernmost point of the People's Republic of China it is in a traveler's ears before he is fully awake in the morning.

The sound and the dry heat come from everywhere at once, and are the body's keenest memories of Hainan Island.

About the size of Taiwan and about 300 miles southwest of Hong Kong, Hainan is home to large communities of the colorful and independent-minded Li and Miao people, two of China's largest officially designated ethnic minorities.

The majority Han Chinese population, concentrated on the coasts, demonstrates the central government's interest in this former backwater, as a military outpost, a "Special Economic Zone," and now a tourist magnet.

Travel in Hainan is not for the soft. Although its largest city, the northern port of Haikou, has several large and comfortable hotels (the Hua Qiao Hotel and the Haikou Guesthouse) and some adequate restaurants, the real attractions of the island are elsewhere.

Sense of Adventure

Those with a sense of adventure, a few basic Mandarin or Cantonese phrases, and a willingness to make arrangements as they go will find year-round warm weather, splendid beaches, good food, and the robust and friendly Hainanese.

Sanya is a small port on the southern tip of the island, literally and figuratively "away from it all." Sanya's main street is lined with little cluttered shops, sleepy government offices and vendors of everything from papayas to plastic sun hats, from traditional medicines to transistor radios. You can get a shirt made or your shoes repaired. Everywhere are the three-wheeled motorbike-rickshaws which, along with the dusty, lurching public buses, are the standard public transportation.

The best of Sanya is in the heat and buzz of its back-street markets. Miao girls dressed in kaleidoscopic colors will sell you mangoes, custard-apples, and their own jewelry. Strapping young men hawk fresh shellfish and "specialty" meats, or crouch over a game of Chinese chess.

Brown old men, ancient as parchment, daydream behind trays of herbs, roots and dried land-and-sea creatures that have no English names. Black-clad old women, some glassy-eyed over huge bamboo water pipes, offer plugs of betel nut; their own teeth and lips are stained red from its juice.

Most tourists here are Chinese. Westerners, especially fair-skinned and fair-haired, still generate astonishment. You may straighten up from savoring the aromas of a herbalist's stall to find 20 or 30 men, women, and children observing, from a polite distance, your every sniff, shuffle and scratch. But an honest smile will break this staring squad into grins, and a few words of Chinese may earn you some new friends.

Scenic Attractions

You may stay at the austere Sanya Hotel in the center of town. Buses and the ever-present three-wheelers will take visitors to the scenic attractions, the most popular being Dadonghai (Great Eastern Bay) and Tianyao Haijiao (Edge of the Sky, Rim of the Sea).

At Dadonghai, east of town, is perhaps the most beautiful beach in China, several miles of clean white sand facing the azure South China Sea upon which are fishing boats, navy cruisers, oceangoing sampans under full sail. The beach is nearly deserted, the water is warm, and the waves are big enough for body surfing.

The legendary Monkey-King, hero of the popular Chinese adventure classic, "Journey to the West," is said to have visited, and named, Tianyao Haijiao, a large seaside rock formation. The place therefore swarms with gawkers and hawkers, and public buses make the trip every hour from Sanya. Its beach, while no match for Dadonghai, is long, clean, and mostly empty.

A foreign traveler may eat well here for $2 a day and extravagantly for $4. Fish, lobster, crab and octopus dishes are common.

If you have enough Chinese or enough confidence, you may buy these right off the boat and have them prepared at a restaurant, modestly seasoned with garlic, onion and ginger. The light, sweet pastries of southern China are in numerous bakeries; with these and the spectrum of fruits in the market, you can make yourself a 50-cent picnic you'll remember for years.

At dusk, mini-restaurants materialize along the sidewalks and serve cheap and delicious one-bowl meals till late at night.

Just east of Sanya, the Luhuitou Peninsula is checkered with cane fields and mud-brick houses, and large stretches of nothing but palms, pines and prickly pear cactus. On its flanks are modest and pretty beaches, deserted at high tide, at low tide swarming with villagers harvesting mussels from the coral beds.

Sands Are Alive

The sands are alive with tiny crabs, the trails with frogs, grasshoppers and iguanas, and the sea with transparent jellyfish, and plankton that glow at night.

Los Angeles Times Articles