“Oh, in Sanya, the water is clean!” said Memory.
Memory was dressed in the perfect note of hilarity. A former student of mine, we had run into each other in the hallway, among the hordes of Chinese kids bobbing and weaving around us, their voices drowning out Memory’s cadenced English. It was his appearance rather than his words that held my attention, his thin frame gulped up by a Michael Jackson inspired red, pleather jacket and his compact legs melted into a pair of acid wash jeans. His hairstyle though, was the most eye-catching, a teased mass of orange hair, combed over to one side of his head. It was difficult to picture Memory’s flamboyancy on sand dusted paths, tanning beneath an ocherous sun in Sanya.
“In Sanya, many Chinese go to swim and eat fish,” he uttered with enthusiasm. His moniker fit him — what filtered in his mind — indeed, he had a good memory of his time in Sanya.
And that’s what I hoped to have when I wished him a good day and thanked him for the advice.
Sanya is a fragmentary area of China to me. It’s often referred to as the Hawaii of China,which makes some sense since it’s as far north of the equator as Hawaii is. The southernmost city in the southern province of Hainan, Sanya was a former annex of Guangdong, that is now governed as an independent province. Sanya is hugged by bays of varying exotic names: Dadong Hai, Yalong or Haitang. Travel guides espouse the hyper adventurism of scuba diving or surfing, but these sports are rarely undertaken in my circle of Chinese friends or students.
Sanya just doesn’t enter into the lexicon. The sprawling nature of China’s landscapes and its people have a disharmonious union. Chinese people move either at a frenetic pace or walk with an astoundingly lazy gait — testing my patience as pairs or groups gobble up time and space on a sidewalk, blocking my way. There’s a marked feeling of chaos in malls or shops; people lunge forward in lines, demand things in raised voices. A sort of contained aggression. Everyday scenes involve black haired heads craned down to a 4.8″ screen, a white glowing LCD display blinking with Chinese characters or photos on Tao Bao, things they can buy with Union Pay. A technological pacifier to human engagement. It’s not uncommon to be seen hiking Yellow Mountain in leather shoes, smoking on the way up. The picture of outdoor muscularity, sea air and relaxation does not fit China’s many faces.
Yet Chinese people have strong constitutions, one I envy as I ride my ebike wearing ear muffs, a helmet, gloves and a wool coat, while a woman in a thin nylon jacket rides beside me, her hair flying free, her head uncovered in the cold. Their bodies and minds can take a tremendous amount.
What is Sanya then? A beach dream? Fakery? Or a place for the rising Chinese middle class to flash their yuan? Memory had a point, instead of fussing over what sun hat you’ll pack, the chief worry is whether the water is clean or how bad the smog is.
It was night when I arrived at the Phoenix Airport. My first thought was, this is not China. Our taxi driver, dressed in chino shorts, began to struggle with our bags, trying to lift them in the trunk. His tanned face contorted and his tight, wiry frame conjured a tropical preppy, the collar of his polo shirt turned down. The same thought happened, this is seriously not China.
While the taxi driver hilariously got lost, weaving and nearly hitting an elderly woman (file this under “moments I almost died“ and the elderly woman dying with me), the night scenes were of towering palm trees, and citizens clothed in various styles of tropical wear. The women particularly, swaying in hot pants and thin strapped tank tops, a sacrilegious sight that would burn out your eye sockets in Wuxi. This, most definitely, CANNOT be China.
We careened past roadside eateries with red plastic chairs, dented and bent from heat and use, the scent of oil cooking was strong, an invitation to stop. But we didn’t, kept going, the taxi driver unable to drive a stick shift expertly either, lurching like we had deluxe sized speakers in the back booming out Kanye.
Cities all have a collective presence. A distinct smell and sound that lingers. This feeling stays with you and when you recount your trip to Turkey or Bangladesh, those first few seconds of impressions spill forth in the retelling. Sanya felt like a wave arching and cascading over me. You know it’s coming, so you just accept it. It was humid. Smelled like nature, yet not a manicured kind, but a tangled wildness that demonstrates Mother Nature’s beauty but unflinching power. If Sanya had a sound, it was a drawn out tango beat, slow and hypnotic. People moved at a languished speed, were more expressive, lacking that contained aggression I’d seen a thousand times in Wuxi. Buildings had splashes of color and tile, surprising tones of bright pinks and dreamy blues, tugging at my reference of what Miami might be like.
My friend Beth proclaimed our taxi driver was trying to find a phantom hostel, one that only existed on a confirmation slip. It was doubtful we’d find Captain’s House. With a name like that, it shouldn’t be found.
With some panicked phone calls to a hostel Beth had stayed at before, we were deposited at Dadong Hai.
But the beach, where was it? With the window rolled down in the taxi, I caught whiffs, depending if the driver turned right or left, a salty aroma clung to the moist air before disappearing at the next turn.
With only a few days to get a bead on Sanya, we decided to put our bags in the room and venture out for a night stroll. The owner of the hostel assured us it was a short walk.
Out on the streets, skirting around cars and motorbikes, storefronts began to form. The signage on many were strange — both in Cyrillic and Chinese. This pattern repeated as we covered two blocks. So did each store’s contents. Fruit store. Store to buy glazed shells and beachwear in dizzying floral or tropical bird prints. Store to buy freshly caught fish, many looking otherworldly, alien creatures trapped in water tanks with jelly skin and orbs for eyes. Two or three of the same stores appeared from block to block. China consumerism can be a revolving assembly line of repetition. If one store can do it, why not 5 others.
Then there were the luxury hotels. As you turned right onto the uneven, paved path towards the sea, many were littered down the boardwalk, some with intricate gardens, others with wide concrete courtyards and fountains. Beyond the courtyards were the health spas, where they’d make you lie on a table beside a broad Russian woman who was naked from the waist up, red, angry marks raised on her back from a thorough cupping procedure. With the staff clothed in starched, white uniforms and the presence of modulating instruments to tug or scrape the skin and clipboards that were scribbled on, I kept seeing the health spas that sprouted along the Black Sea, catering to the same Russian clientele.
Dadong Hai reminded me keenly of Goa. A chunk of land plunked down by the mischievous gods to be the contrary force in that country. Sanya, like Goa, had attracted Russians. Similar to the middle class Chinese, well moneyed Russians are traveling more than ever now. Cheap flights to Goa; cheap flights to Sanya. It all completes a circle.
It was the sea I wanted. I hadn’t noticed any smog pressing on my chest, that hesitant draw of breath that readied my body for the environmental assault. That salty air returned and we took a sharp left towards the beach. The boardwalk extended out with wooden planks, but I cared little for slivers as my feet slipped out of my sandals and grains of sand rubbed against my insteps.
Though it was night, I could already see the water was clear. Memory didn’t lie. So I sunk my buttocks into the pliant sand and watched the rush and roar of the South China Sea.
The short days moved forward and I spent time renting beach chairs at 150 RMB and drinking coconuts for 30 RMB. I ate at restaurants owned by Chinese and staffed by Russians, or the reverse. The water was even bluer in the daytime, but once in a while I’d be swimming beside a plastic wrapper for noodles.
It’s a place of transitions. While the sun blazed, Russians appeared in bikinis, overtaking the umbrellas and loungers, baking until 4 p.m. Then by 4:30, the Chinese descended in their modest swimsuits, latex caps on, the husbands blabbing on their cell phones in Hawaiian print ensembles that could be found in those repetitive stores. Weary of the heat, they’d come at dusk and swim into the night. Sometimes Chinese women were plain stubborn, covering what they could with cotton shirts and jeans, a hat planted on their heads and the final accessory — an umbrella blocking any opportunity for the sun to touch them. Yet they came, still digging their feet into the powdery sand and making their boyfriends take photos.
There was talk of the indigenous tribes of Hainan, yet their presence was far and I wondered if at one time they had treaded on these same beaches, hacking down coconuts and spearing fish before they were driven out for the new light — development and progress.
As I spent my last evening in the darkness and with the sea, I finally saw Sanya. It’s a pocket of paradise, but also an oddity that provides further evidence to the diversity of China.
How to get to there: By train, bus or air. C-Trip is a popular search engine to book flights or trains. To take a bus, it would be best to go from Haikou, the capital of Hainan (north of Sanya).
Where to stay: I stayed at Sanya Backpackers, owned by a really nice Singaporean guy named Chris and his wife, Linda. Be sure to pet their dog, Mimi. It’s in the heart of Dongdai and 5 minutes from the beach.
Things to do: Sanya Backpackers offers scuba diving and surfing lessons, which are often done by foreigners more than native Chinese. You can also go bay hopping, jet skiing, snorkelling, biking or visit Nanwan Monkey Island, where you can walk among over a 1,000 endangered Macaque monkeys.
What to eat: Seafood, seafood, seafood! Many restaurants have barbecue options and fish tanks to choose a squirmer. The most tasty way to eat it is slathered with garlic. I also loved the fresh fruit, couldn’t get enough of it.