Taking the Back Door

Written by Dec 9, 2006 19:12
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In the Light of Morning

It was another glorious morning on the tropical beaches of Sanya, China’s southernmost city and the jewel of the paradise island of Hainan province. Already the streets of pretty Dadonghai were crawling with foreign faces, and I was out amongst them, enjoying a cheap Chinese breakfast and the warm sunshine with my new Indonesian Chinese friend Jenna. She’d knocked on my hotel door that morning and woken me up a little earlier than was my habit, hoping to convince me to accompany her on a little sightseeing later in the day.

We were dining across from the Chuanya Hotel, where I was staying, in a small streetside restaurant that offered fresh, fast food for a few kuai, and it was the second time I’d decided to have breakfast there thanks to the perfect, strong coffee they serve for only six yuan. Although the dou jiang (bean milk) was a little too smoky and the you tiao (deep-fried breadsticks) were cold and stale, I was having a great breakfast for far less that the travellers over at the nearby continental café were enjoying. The Russian guy on the next table was getting frustrated though, and kept calling the proprietor over - an elderly, doddering fellow - and pointing wildly at the menu and chattering indecipherably. He eventually got so angry that he and his wife stood up just as his breakfast was being served and walked straight off for a taxi, clearly quite flummoxed at the inability of Chinese people to understand his language.

We took another walk along the lovely stretch of white sand that is Dadonghai beach - possibly Sanya’s easiest to enjoy, although reportedly quite crowded in peak season travel periods - and then headed for the bus stop from where we hoped to find our way to the north of the city where can be found some of Sanya’s premier tourist attractions - Tianya Haijiao and Nanshan Dongtian Gongyuan. Both are prime resorts, essential viewing for local visitors to Sanya, and situated relatively close to each other at about 45 minute’s drive away from the central city. Furthermore, the latter is where an impressive 108-metre statue of the Guanyin Goddess of Mercy stands out in the ocean, something I’d been hoping to see since arriving in Hainan.

However, given that both Jenna and I were independent travellers, and given that neither of the guide books we were using had any detailed instructions for getting to the northern resorts, we were a little lost on how to make our way there. The best information that we had suggested we take a bus heading along the same coconut coast we’d strolled the previous evening - a beautiful coastline right in the city centre called the 'Long Coconut Walk' - kilometres of palm trees along the sandy bay. It went on to say that minibuses heading north regularly pass by - the guide suggested we flag one down and ask if it would be going to Tianya Haijiao.

The bus we took from Dadonghai went along the coconut walk for a short way and then turned off towards the West Station, and Jenna and I decided to stay on until we got there, because it seemed reasonable to assume that there might be busses clearly marked as heading to the tourist resorts from the station. We were very wrong - there was nothing at the West Station to be seen at all, and we found ourselves right in the middle of what is probably the least attractive part of Sanya - a dusty district of broken pavements and littered gutters.

On The Bus

There were a few busses going past, absolutely packed with passengers - one eventually pulled up and a young woman wearing a headscarf leant out from the door and asked where we wanted to go - I inquired if they went to Tianya Haijiao, and she practically pulled the pair of us aboard.

Most of the female passengers on the bus were wearing similar headscarves - this part of Sanya is home to Hainan’s only Muslim population. The bus, far from being a tourist vehicle, was delivering passengers home to Sanya’s outer suburbs - little towns filled with the same kind of small houses I’ve seen in Islamic Malaysia, which made me wonder if there was a direct connection between the two communities.

Cramped on the bus, I wondered if this was the only way to get to the resort without taking a tour - most of the foreign tourists I’d seen on the island were certainly on organised tours, and I suspected that the Chinese travellers were too. It certainly seemed as if independent travellers like Jenna and I were a rarity on Hainan.

We hurtled, chugged and bumped our way along Sanya’s village roadways, passing a few other luxury resorts, some of them claiming to have natural hot springs, others with elephants and ‘intelligent pigs’ doing circus acts. In general, the whole area seemed to be very lightly attended - but when we finally reached Tianya Haijiao, we were quite surprised to see crowds and crowds of tourist busses - we were obviously at one of the most frequently visited places in China.

The attraction to Tianya Haijiao is an unusual one - a very ordinary looking rock. The reason it’s important is that for whatever reason, a picture of the rock made it onto the Chinese two yuan note, probably to celebrate the vast extent of the nation’s territory. The billboard in front of the resort carpark featured a picture of a couple of Chinese tourists having their photo taken in front of the rock - and I suspected that this posing position was about all that visitors come for. I felt a small pang of stinginess as we got off the bus as I began to face the possibility that I was about to fork over RMB65 only to have my picture taken with a rock.

The Scam

What happened to Jenna and I in Tianya Haijiao was totally my fault. I shouldn’t have paid any attention to the shifty looking chap who approached us with the offer of a cheaper entrance ticket, but to be honest I was already regretting the decision to come to such an expensive and possibly uninteresting place, and when this guy appeared out of nowhere and said that he had good connections with the guard and could get us in for 30 yuan each, I hesitated. It was enough for him to start his hard sales pitch, reminding us that the door price was 65 yuan for non-locals and that there was a 15 yuan ride to the sightseeing point just beyond the gate. As Jenna and I stood looking at each other to see if the other was interested in trying this ‘back door’ method, we both weakened and said we’d give it a try. Within seconds we were swept up onto a scooter-cyclo and being transported away to a remote corner of the park.

Jenna was looking a bit tense, and I realised I shouldn’t have even thought about doing anything to endanger ourselves, and Jenna as a female traveller was unwise to entrust herself to the care of the gruff trio of ‘hosts’ who were taking us to this mysterious entryway to the park. I should have said no before we got on the bike - but I was a little intrigued as to where this was going to lead. Curiosity, as they say, can be fatal.

The ‘door’ we were being taken to was a fence on the resort border with a rail cut out of it, and two of the ‘hosts’ signalled us to go through - Jenna, her face a mixture of trepidation and curiosity, stepped through first and I followed cautiously. I suppose I’d expected there to be some shady guard smiling, nodding and letting us through an actual door - I didn’t realise we would be actually sneaking into the park like this.

We walked down a little path and then got to a short ledge - the guides skipped off the ledge and began to walk along some train tracks that led into a bushy grove, and signalled us to follow. Jenna looked at me unhappily - she didn’t want to go through the dangerous-looking bush cover and I told her that if she wanted to go back it would be OK - but she smiled despite herself and we pressed on into the bush. “It’s only a few metres now”, one of the men said, but a couple of hundred metres later we were still walking along a train line, now in the middle of the forest.

Suddenly, the man leading us at the front ducked into the trees, and the second indicated for us to follow again. I looked at Jenna - she was clearly very scared, and I was starting to wake up and realise that I hadn’t intended to do things this way at all - I wanted to travel cheaply, but not by climbing through fences. I took Jenna’s arm and said, “we’re leaving”. She quickly turned and we headed straight back for the fence.

We were chased. The pair pleaded with us to continue on, claiming to have already paid off the security guard to lead us through. They screamed at us, and when we got back to the fence, one of them jumped into the gap and refused to let us back through. They demanded forty yuan for the money they paid the guard - I tried to get around the guy in the fence and pulled Jenna along too, but she was too scared to get too close to the men - so I threw the money at them and they let us past, but continued to demand more. We ignored them and marched ahead towards the main gates. They gave up, got back on their bike and drove alongside us for a while shouting insults until motoring ahead to look for their next customers.

We didn’t go in the park. Jenna just wanted to get on a bus and go straight back to Sanya. We jumped on the next minibus that pulled up and rode silently, Jenna weeping quietly with her head hanging down.

I wonder what would have happened if we’d kept going on ahead? I doubt that we would have been attacked - in all likelihood, we would have gotten into the park successfully, although it’s also possible that we would have been caught on the way out if they checked tickets at the exit gate. I also doubt that our ‘guides’ were telling the truth about having paid off some security guard to let us in. In any case, I was reminded of a simple rule that all travellers should observe no matter what country they’re travelling in - when people approach you offering any kind of strange service, or selling anything you can’t verify the authenticity of, just walk away. We were cheated at Tianya Haijiao because we let ourselves be cheated, and it’s a mistake I’ll not repeat again.

 More Sanya Travel Reviews
1. The Price of Sunshine MISHEN from NZ Dec 1, 2006 19:12
2. One Night in Dadonghai MISHEN from NZ Nov 25, 2006 06:11
3. Away From it All HELENDANGER from US Nov 10, 2006 01:11
Comments (1)


Jan 21, 2007 09:39 Reply


Hello Mishen,
Last february I was in Sanya and went to Tianya Haijiao; i paid the entrance fee, very expensive. I visited the coast and it was very crowded, and quite dirty. Not a peaceful place as I believed. So after a while i walked along the beach in Sanya direction, and soon I was lonely. Then I met a couple of chinese, the man was fishing and the girl was waiting. I enjoyed my lonely beach, and on my way back I stopped and spoke with the girl. After a while the man also came, and they asked me to have dinner with them in Sanya. I accepted and we left together. But they did not have come in from the main entrance but from the same way as you describe, and we crossed a small forest, and other very weird places before reaching the main road to take the bus back to Sanya:many ways to arrive in Tianya haijiao, and the beach, after all, is all along; there are no fences between the site and the rest of the coast; people leaving there always go to tianya haijiao without paying...Bye!

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