Chancy hotels, strangers in dark alleyways, crowded bus rides and an overall lack of planning are all core ingredients of a great adventure. And indeed, Hainan was one for the books, or should I say – the blog.
We had been choking on Shanghai’s crowded streets and thick smoggy air for far too long and it was time to desert its pale pathways once again. A fierce desire to feel the sand between our toes and the sun on our skin was burning in our South African souls. We were anxious to replace the city sounds with that of pounding waves and its unyielding lights with a starry sky. Our upcoming 5 day holiday gave us the perfect opportunity to slip away.
While doing some research on surfing in China, I came across Riyue Bay. A small town on the island of Hainan considered the centre of the surfing scene in China. The research I did, portrayed Riyue Bay as a surfer’s paradise with gnarly waves, white sandy beaches and chilled vibes. Everything two city escapees could ever want.
Being as predictable as we are, excitement took hold of us and instead of researching and planning our trip further, we jumped right in. We booked plane tickets using Ctrip and a place to stay on Airbnb and that was that. Our outbound flight was scheduled to land at 01:00 in the morning, but instead of booking a hotel we planned to just tough it out at the airport. This was the full extent of our planning.
When the holiday finally came, after two months of exhausting summer school classes, I was delirious with anticipation. The excitement had kept me awake for the previous two nights and I was quite fatigued, with only the promise of waves keeping me on my feet. During the 2 hour flight, we kept ourselves busy by partially solving a hand full of crossword puzzles and indulging in our stowaway snacks.
The plane finally touched down at 01:30 and my sleep deprivation was really starting to take its toll. The idea of toughing it out at the airport started to seem more and more like one of my worst ideas in recent history. So, we instead decided to look for a place to spend the remainder of the night.
Like two lost children we wandered through the airport, following an array of signs promising a hotel. The signs ultimately lead us to a dead-end. After dealing with the disappointment, we decided to abandon the search inside the airport and started looking for nearby hotels on Google Maps. We identified a potential place of lodging that seemed to be just across the road leading past the airport.
The problem, however, was that we couldn’t find our way out of the airport. The only clear way we could find was the taxi pickup zone. But we didn’t really want to take a taxi because we still weren’t exactly sure where we were going and there was an awfully long queue. So we did the only other thing we could and climbed over the makeshift barriers and slipped out the back into an alley. Exactly what any other self-respecting traveller would’ve done under the circumstances.
As we made our way out of the dingy alleyway, we stumbled upon a group of Chinese people standing close to the road. One of the women approached us and in a rather strong Chinese accent uttered the word “Hotel?” with raised eyebrows. Naturally, my first response was, “How much?”. A long and tedious negotiation ensued. The bulk of it took place on translating apps, which ensured a high frequency of terrible misunderstandings. We finally agreed upon a reasonable 130 RMB for the night, which also included the taxi ride to the hotel. The Chinese women then escorted us to the side of the road and made an inconspicuous phone call. I assumed it was to the taxi driver, but in retrospect, it could’ve been the Queen of England and I would’ve been none the wiser.
A few minutes later a maroon SUV pulled up next to us and popped the back door. With little hesitation, I loaded our bags and got into the stranger’s car. After getting in, we were suddenly nipped by an unconscious concern. We had just gotten into an unknown man’s car at 2 am, in a city we were unfamiliar with, on our way to a hotel whose existence we were yet to confirm. Maybe not the smartest way to travel, but definitely more exciting than the norm.
Fortunately, it is relatively safe in most of China and we made it to the hotel without any trouble. In fact, it was a pretty good deal for 130 RMB. The price also included a wake-up call and a ride to the train station the next morning.
Not knowing exactly what time we would be departing from Haikou to Wanning, we didn’t book train tickets ahead of time. So, when we got to the station the next morning, we were left with two tickets in separate coaches. On top of that, I had to stand the entire trip, because there weren’t any seats left.
Initially, we planned to take the bus from Wanning to Riyue Bay. On arriving, however, we were told that there weren’t any buses. This meant that we had to get a taxi. And so, the unapologetic haggling began. After almost 10 minutes in the rain, we finally reached a compromise. 5 minutes into the ride I came to the shameful realisation that I had been haggling with metered taxi drivers. To be fair, the original offer was indeed overpriced, though not quite as much as I’d initially thought.
We finally reached our destination. Even though it was still raining, the beach and the ocean looked promising. We arrived on the backend of a typhoon, which meant that waves were pounding the shoreline with unrelenting resolve. It was a sight that had been tormenting my dreams for months. And at last here I was, on a beach with clear blue waves rolling in from the horizon.
Before we could dive in and start capitalising on the warm water and gnarly waves we needed to find our host. It was still raining and we desperately required a place to stash our luggage. As luck would have it, we were unable to locate him. He, while we were stuck in the surf club’s restaurant, was soaking up the waves. We ended up waiting an excruciating 2 hours before he decided to make an appearance. And we were off.
The rest of the day was an incomparable fiesta. The saltwater washed away the grey goo of the city, cleansing body and mind. Opening the eyes to the beauty of nature and bringing forth a feeling of satisfaction based solely on being alive. The beach was good and so were we.
After thoroughly inhaling the serenity of the sea, we headed back to Tony’s to face my choice of lodging. We weren’t expecting much from our accommodation, but our first impressions, before going to the beach, were rather bleak. On first entering the humble abode, we were met with the pungent smell of dog urine. So thick that you could cut it with a knife and spread it on a slice of toast. But we hadn’t spent much time there, so we were still willing to give it a chance.
The room itself wasn’t bad at all. It had a great view of the ocean through a large window and a soothing echo of breaking waves resonated off the walls. The ensuite bathroom had everything you could need and a much better smell than the urine soaked downstairs area. All and all the room was more than we could’ve wished for.
The next morning we set out on an exploration mission. Walking south along the coast, towards the neighbouring town. The grey overcast, with occasional drops, was great weather for the 8-kilometre hike.
As we approached the town we noticed a small island, just a kilometre from the coast, with ferries making periodic trips between the town and the island. Our curiosity was immediately piqued, owing to our fascination with islands. We hastened along the beach to get to the town and onto one of the ferries.
To our dismay, there was a small river barring our way to the town with seemingly no way to cross it without a boat. The river was only about 25 m across and seemed more than swimmable, but we were stuck with a camera and a bunch of other devices that we’d rather not get wet. So we scouted along the river bank to find someone with a boat to ferry us across.
We finally found an old lady that was standing around a couple of canoes. After spending about 3 minutes to communicate our desire, we eventually managed to convey our needs. Before I could gather myself to partake in yet another shameful haggle, our boatwoman blurted out her fee. She started off with 500 RMB (R1000). I was so dumbstruck that the only response I could muster was to start laughing. 500 RMB to cross a 25 m wide river! There was no way!
Feeling horribly insulted we turned around and proceeded to the narrowest part of the river we could see. We were definitely not going to hike all the way back and the only other way home was to get a taxi in the town. As we were walking away she got in her canoe and crossed the river to pick up some people on the other side.
To put it simply, this was one the most infuriating things I’ve witnessed in China. The absolute arrogance of demanding 500 RMB as though you’re doing someone a major service when in reality you could’ve done it for free. Not that I was expecting it to be free, but I at least thought we were going to be 50 RMB ridiculous not 500. So in my state of rage, I decided that I would swim across, just to show this miserable little woman that she is not needed.
After packing everything into my bag, putting on the rain cover and covering it with my rain jacket, I started walking into the water. My plan was to balance the 9 kg bag on my head with one hand and tread water to the other side. Initially, I was relatively confident and held up quite nicely. Unfortunately, I’m not as fit as I used to be and the weight of the bag was just too much. About 3 meters before I made landfall I went under and the bag hit the water. Luckily my makeshift waterproofing held up and it floated without anything getting wet.
Still furious at the arrogance of the puny Chinese woman, I turned around and stared in her direction. My expression was one of victory with a slight suggestion to go take a nap on the train tracks. Feeling inspired by our victorious river crossing we made our way towards the town.
It turned out to not be much of a town, but rather a tourist centre with workers’ housing. The town’s only purpose is to facilitate tourists on their journey to Boundary Island. We quickly inquired about visiting the island and after deciding to visit it on another day, we proceded to get a taxi. The taxi hunt ended in yet another strenuous haggle, but at least this time it left us and the drivers with something to laugh about.
One of our friends was also on holiday on Hainan. She was residing in Sanya, the main tourist destination on the island. The lack of waves at Riyue Bay convinced us to take up her invitation and on Wednesday we made the trip.
Sanya is a city about the same size as Pretoria. It’s located on the southern tip of Hainan and is the island’s second-largest city. With its white sandy beaches, blue water and vibrant nightlife, it’s no wonder that it’s Hainan’s most popular tourist destination. The city has a strong Russian presence and there are many Russian businesses throughout.
Our thoughts on Hainan
Hainan is not Hawaii’s equal in any way, but it is a great place to visit none the less. It’s a great getaway if you find yourself somewhere on the Chinese Mainland and you’re looking for a quick trip to the beach. It’s relatively cheap, safe and extremely accessible from the mainland. Moving around on the island itself is also fairly easy. Buses, high-speed trains, taxis and Didis are widely available.
Hainan definitely gets a thumbs up from us.