The Subtle Invasion of Paradise

Written by Aug 20, 2007 00:39
Add Friends:
Email 1 Email 2 Email 3

No more than 10 friends at a time, please.


From dozens of launch pads around the city, rockets dance above the rooftops amidst a rising pall of smoke. While rockets head skyward, three penny bungers and the like pop in a constant deafening barrage, like heavy rain on a tin roof during summer storms but there the similarities end. I am only on a plane for two hours but by the time I land, I can’t help wondering if a conflict has broken out – at least it sounds like I have landed in a ‘war zone’. This is my first night in the city and not the last that I lie awake listening to the ‘sounds of war’, thankful that I live in a place of peace and safety. There are casualties here I’m sure but none too serious. Although I personally see none, I do see several small children lifted to safety just in the nick of time as fireworks often behave contrary to expectations.

It is nearly midnight on the Eve of Chinese New Year. This is my first Spring Festival Season in China and I have little idea what to expect. Sanya is popular during Spring Festival and more expensive than any other time of the year so I have made plans to spend only half my time here. I’ve been offered free accommodation by a generous acquaintance and while the place is spartan it suits both my budget and my plans. My room in the bustling old downtown area of Sanya, on the small island in the river, is a short walk across the serpentine bridge to the coastal peninsular. I am just a stones throw from the markets and early morning stalls serving breakfast. Closely packed older style apartment blocks lining narrow streets, act like echo chambers for the fireworks that I will hear exploding almost constantly during the following days and nights. From my seventh floor walk up I have a wonderful view of the sunsets over to Luhuitou, ‘deer turns its head back’ headland and the evening fireworks.

Shaped like a teardrop, Hainan has long eluded attention like the unattractive, growth-encrusted shells in the South China Sea that surrounds her. For centuries the island was considered the ends of the earth for the Middle Kingdom as dissidents from successive dynasties were banished to this far-flung, pestilent ridden backwater. Others fled persecution to make a new home on what was back then a less than idyllic paradise. For centuries her treasures have remained hidden like the pearls of the clamshell that abound in the warm tropical waters offshore. But the word is slowly leaking out and the island now attracts sun seekers from far and wide.

A secret no longer, a subtle invasion of Hainan is underway. Each winter hordes of frozen tourists from the north descend upon the island to enjoy clear skies, sunshine, warm air and sea breezes for a few days, perhaps even weeks before returning to their frigid northern homes. I meet both young and old, the wealthy, middle class yuppies and backpackers from all over China and around the world, all lured by the promise of her precious pearls – the sun, the sea, the sand and seafood. It’s an invasion that is mostly friendly and beneficial bringing with it a new prosperity but there is a cost. Many of the old fishing communities in the rivers and estuaries that have sustained the islands coastal villages for centuries are disappearing to make way for holiday homes and resorts.

Thinking I will spend my first day alone, I sleep as late as I can bear on the thin board bed before leaving in search of the beach. But I have gone barely a few blocks before my generous host calls for me with his daughter. They help me buy my breakfast, a local style egg and lettuce pancake, show me around the neighbourhood a little and invite me to join their extended family for lunch. Preparations are well underway when we arrive and after being introduced to all the relatives, the older couple who are from Lanzhou roll out the pastry wraps while the younger generation sits around the huge tub of pork and vegetable filling. We make more than four hundred jiaozi before we finally run out of wraps. It’s obvious which ones I have made and we all laugh about the poor quality of them. The morning has been fun for me and we are no sooner finished making them when we sit down to enjoy a delicious meal of steaming hot, jiaozi accompanied by a few other simple dishes including a sweet home made sausage.

Sanya, I am to discover is full of surprises. The first one is finding the recently opened authentic Mediterranean Restaurant right outside my host’s apartment block. Since it is on my list of places to eat I will have no trouble finding it later. As I take my leave of this generous family I wander back across the serpentine walking bridge, one of several that connects the island to the narrow coastal peninsular. Both banks of the river are lined with large spreading shade trees and boardwalks with a few remnant pockets of Hong Shu along the islands shore. Known as red trees the humble mangroves are something of a tourist attraction around the island.

It is both warm and humid and time to hit the beach – after all that is why I have chosen Hainan for my winter retreat. After a short afternoon nap I'm ready to see if Hainan beaches truly live up to their reputation. Growing up as I did, in one of Australia’s premier beach resort areas, going to the beach has been a lifelong lifestyle for me and my family, but it is quite the contrary for most of the Chinese I see around me. Riding the bus with me are many visitors from the far north of the country. They are friendly and relaxed in matching Hawaiian style floral ‘play suits’. For many others a trip to the beach is just one activity on their very structured package tour to Hainan – stopping barely long enough to get their feet wet and take a hundred snapshots before moving on to the next scenic spot.

It is not easy to impress me but I am not disappointed with my first glimpse of the water and thoroughly enjoy my first swim. But first I sit in the dappled shade of coconuts, take out my notebook to catch on paper just a few of my thoughts before they are gone – there is so much to take in and my mind is racing. I don’t get to write much as I’m constantly interrupted by the curious who stop to look over my shoulder at my funny writing, some of them even asking me a few questions. I enjoy the attention and the opportunity to chat briefly with some of them which is when I discover that most are escaping the cold winter in the northern provinces.

There’s something for the young and old, both day and night, in the water or on the beach. In my search for a quiet piece of the beach I stumble upon one of the Sanya’s odd little secrets. On the deserted end of the beach in front of the Naval Barracks a colony of well tanned gentlemen, like leathery old seal lions, with few inhibitions and even less clothing sun themselves daily, from early morning till late in the day. Taking periodical dips in the water, they are unfazed by the daily invasion by tourists into their piece of paradise. Like me, most acknowledge what we have seen and wander back to the more ‘civilized’ bathing area. Why am I surprised? This is China after all.

The sky is clear, the sun is warm, the water, clear and clean. The sea washes gently but relentlessly against this timeless shore - an eternal ebb and flow. There is quite a crowd on the beach and the boardwalk on the first weekend of the holidays. I rent a locker for my bag and valuables and change into my swimsuit. Standing in the crystal clear water I watch my feet sink slowly into the sand. My skin, warmed by the sun, tingles as the cool water washes over it. I hesitate, stretching up one more time before I take the plunge. It’s the middle of winter but this tropical paradise in southern China offers me a short respite from the bone chilling cold I have left behind.

Of Sanya’s three significant beaches, Dadonghai is the smallest and most popular with the easiest access and best facilities. This beach sports a magnificent tree lined timber, brick and stone boardwalk that she proudly wears like a teenager in a new party dress. The bay is small and crescent shaped nestled in the lee of the multi peaked Luhaitou headland. The beach is narrow and just a few kilometers long with both high rise and low rise resorts along its length behind the landscaped park and boardwalk. Restaurants, bars and discos flank the beach along the boardwalk with comfortable shaded tables and chairs overlooking the water. Timber deck chairs under canvas and palm thatched umbrellas line the beach.

I return to my spot in the shade overlooking the beach, enjoying the familiar coastal vegetation – casuarinas, beach almonds, coconuts, bougainvillea and my favourite, the fragrant frangipani. I sit gazing out to sea, soaking up the sight, soaking up the sun, aware of the ebb and flow of tourists in wave after wave descending upon the beach.

 More Sanya Travel Reviews
1. Taking the Back Door MISHEN from NZ Dec 9, 2006 19:12
2. The Price of Sunshine MISHEN from NZ Dec 1, 2006 19:12
3. One Night in Dadonghai MISHEN from NZ Nov 25, 2006 06:11
Comments (1)


Aug 20, 2007 03:38 Reply


Beautifully written description of Sanya. The metaphorical descriptions really bring home the point that, after all, This is China. Thanks for sharing your insight into the sub-tropical flora found in Sanya. Other than coconuts and bougainvilla, I haven't heard of any of these plants. Did you take a picyure of your favorite fragrant frangipani? I don't see one in the TCG photo album. Anyhow, I think Sanya might make for a good holiday, but it would be difficult coming back to China's interior afterwards.

Write Your Comment

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.

Send me an Email if anyone replies.

Your Reply to

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.