Wanting to escape the chilly temperatures of Zhuhai, while not leaving China, we decided to spend the first week or so of our vacation on the island of Hainan. As Hawaii and Florida are to the United States, so Hainan is to China. Snowbirds from all over China flock to Hainan in the wintertime. While Sarah and I can’t really consider ourselves “snowbirds” as there is no snow in Zhuhai, we are nevertheless refugees from our cold, damp, unheated apartments.
As my earlier comparison would suggest, Hainan is being billed as the “Hawaii” of China, a way to lure tourists and investors south. To be honest, the scheme seems to be working, though of course not without some kinks.
Hainan is lovely in a rugged, dirty sort of way. It’s still China. You can’t escape that. I suppose I was somewhat disappointed at first. The streets are terrible. The public transportation is worse. It certainly smells like China, a weird mixture of gasoline, cigarettes, and the smell that I am never really sure whether its sewage or stinky tofu. Disturbing, nonetheless.
With any tropical island, the beaches are, of course, of primary importance. They’re the main reason I came to Hainan. On the plus side, the beach is all of 2 blocks away from our hostel. It’s sandy and clean, lined with restaurants and palm trees. The water temperature is pleasant, not as cold as home, but nowhere near as warm as Hawaii. On the down side, the beach is relatively crowded. This is high season, as we knew coming in, so this should not surprise us, but it does make things much less enjoyable. Especially when you have children running inches from your head or sand being thrown onto your dozing person.
But what disappointed me the most was the complete absence of any waves! The Hainan beach features only ankles waves, sufficient for the amusement of shrieking children, but not so much for me. I’d imagined great waves when I thought of Hainan, of boogie-boarding or at least diving through them. Hainan is also supposed to have some good surfing which also presupposes the availability of good waves. Dismay was my first emotion when I saw the beach. “Where are the waves?!” I cried to Sarah. As a result, I haven’t actually spent that much time in the water. I usually paddle around in the still still water and then get out after a few minutes. So the beach is being used mostly for sunbathing, reading, and studying Chinese.
As a small aside of interest to the linguistically inclined, the area Sarah and I are staying in is called Dadonghai. The island itself is called Hainan. “Hai” is the same character as the “hai” in Zhuhai—“hai” means sea. Dadonghai means “big east sea” and Hainan means “south sea”. I get little shivers of happiness when I figure out those sorts of things. Don’t you?
What is interesting about Dadonghai is that it is an area that caters primarily to Russian tourists. That’s right—Russian tourists. Now, we’d read about this before coming, but didn’t quite realize how accurate this was. The majority of the signs in Dadonghai are in Russian and Chinese. The menus are in Russian and Chinese. Salespeople on the street talk to Sarah and I in Russian.
We’re not really sure how long this has been going on. Obviously for awhile when you see all the things that have been done to make it convenient for them to come here. We wondered about the political angle. Former USSR and current People’s Republic? When we finally met some Russians at our hostel we had to ask. The curiosity was killing me.
The answer was not what I was hoping for. Apparently for this family, who lives in eastern Russian, near the Sea of Japan, Hainan is quite close. Yes, but what about people from Moscow and St. Petersburg? They still didn’t seem to think it was that far to come. Isn’t Spain and the Mediterranean much closer and more convenient? Eh. Shoulder shrug from the Russians. I was nonplussed to say the least. Who on earth was the first Russian to discover Hainan and start this migratory pattern? We haven’t gotten to the bottom of this yet!
Nevertheless the image that stays with me, that makes me ponder the tourism industry and the lengths people will go to attract customers was the sight of Chinese people speaking Russian. One of those take-your-world-ideas-and-gently-shake-them moments.