Ahead lay the tip of Hainan, China’s southernmost extremity, and for a while the Anahita sailed close enough to the island that Bahram was able to study it through a spyglass: it was not much different, in appearance, from Singapore and some of the other islands they had passed on the way, with steep hills, dense forests and fringes of golden sand along the shores. Shortly, after the sighting, the officers called all hands on deck and put them on high alert: the waters around Hainan were notorious for pirates…Lookouts were posted agil and peechil and the topmen were sent scrambling aloft.
—River of Smoke, Amitava Ghosh
If Bahram Modi from Ghosh’s iconic novel—set in the mid-19th century, just before the Opium War broke out between China and Britain—were to train his spyglass on Hainan today, he’d still be peering (mostly) at green quilted hills and golden shores across the geopolitically choppy waters of the South China Sea. The only discernible ‘development’ he’d likely see, after a brief interlude of 300 years, would be the jagged teeth of highrises, international chain hotels and giant Buddhas on the bay, with the tropical sun glinting off them at the most fetching angles. The pirates too, he’d discover to his relief and everybody else’s dismay, had traded their sabres and eyepatches for flip flops and beach towels; their evolution now near complete as snowbirds in the tropics, with butlers in Hawaiian shirts posted agil and peechil.
And yet, until a few weeks ago, it hadn’t occurred to me even once that made-in-China beach towels could be found anywhere but at a bed-and-bath store. Or that China could have an entire island, half the size of Sri Lanka, bobbing up and down at the exact same latitude as Hawaii. An island that has hosted more Miss World pageants than anywhere outside the United Kingdom. In hindsight, it all seems to fit perfectly well though: the snowbirds, the retirees and the honeymooning couples, the swimsuit rounds, and the ‘Hawaii of the Orient’ calling card for Hainan. But when I first landed in Sanya, the second largest city on the island (after the presumably poetic Haikou), I didn’t know what to expect.
Prepared to spend the trip in wordless, Mandarin-less equanimity, I felt surprisingly sanguine about finally arriving in a land that was truly foreign to me. This would be a real adventure, I thought. A historic parting of the Bamboo Curtain! An ORIENTAL ODYSSEY in All Caps! A great escape! The kind that’s served well in the 21st century by overconfidence and a smartphone. Armed, thus, with a Virtual Private Network (VPN), that digital wrecking ball for the great invisible wall of China which bars Google, Uber and Facebook services, I was a bona fide snowbird-pirate in Hainan from day one.
A pirate’s life, though, can be hard work. Of the five bays in southern Hainan, I could only (dis)cover three in as many days: Sanya, Haitang and Yalong Bay. All equally beautiful, and looking out longingly towards the clear blue seas. The bay at Sanya is closest to the urban centre, abuzz with markets, street food and dreamily lit bridges for lovers; Yalong Bay preens from its ‘bottomless’ viewing decks and glass walkways in the woods; and Haitang, with some of the most exclusive keys in town, prefers its own company, sipping cocktails on the beach. It’s all quite delightful, really.
So much so, that it’s impossible to believe that Hainan was once called ‘the end of the earth’ by mainlanders, with rebels and dissidents once banished to its ‘gates of hell’. Boondock and battleground by rotation, it even turned into a graveyard for one-third of the adult men on the island during the Japanese occupation in 1939. Much later, in the late 1980s, China decided to reevaluate its charms, gave it the status of a special economic zone, and followed it up with a Mai Tai-friendly makeover. Then came the waves of Koreans, Russians and wealthy visitors from the mainland and Hong Kong, crashing on its 1,000-mile coastline to order yet another round of ‘Monkey Business’ or ‘Nuts Island’—names that somehow sound only half as ridiculous at a bar on the beach, especially after the third round of drinks.
But the tipples and frangipani, the beach and the pool by the beach must all wait, as I head out to meet the most important resident in town—the enormous three-faced Buddha of compassion, Guan Yin, lording over Sanya Bay, ‘suspended’ in the sea at the sprawling Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone. At 108 metres, the Chinese bodhisattva is two full metres taller than the Statue of Liberty, and quite impressive. That seems to be the point—even on its southernmost edge, China must stand record-breakingly tall. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Zone, Buddhist chants rise like ribbons of incense through the green-tiled roofs of the temples. Set against the backdrop of the Nanshan, or ‘mountain of the south’ facing the sea, the temples are designed—like everything else here—to impress too. Not to forget the order and efficiency with which visitors are carted around in golf carts from temple to temple; it’s almost a team sport for tourists, and a truly Chinese experience.
Like most island-turned-island destinations in Asia, Hainan too has several man-made attractions (or distractions?). Each holds up an invisible placard that says, “Should you choose to part from your beach towel at any point this Tuesday, or next, or tire of all that ‘Monkey Business’ by the sea, there’s plenty more to do here”. But that’s not always a bad thing, is it? Not least when the path to modern entertainment (and tourist dollars) is mostly paved with the noble intention of amusing visitors who have the attention span of a gnat.
Some have curious names too. You can take a leisurely stroll, for instance, in a Tropical Paradise Forest Park in Yalong; pinch someone’s ear (the harder the pinch, the deeper the love, apparently) while learning about the ancient Li and Miao tribes at the Binglanggu Cultural Heritage Park; or watch an absolutely fantastic show about the old Maritime Silk Route at the Sanya Romance Park, with seas parting and mermaids swimming over your head like it’s the most natural thing to do. Forests, museums, theatres, ersatz villages, life, everything is a park in Sanya. Stay a while, or take a walk.
And so I did, walking this time in the general direction of the night market (a non-park!) in Sanya. Like any other night market anywhere in the world, it’s packed with trinkets, toys, oversize hats, fake pearls, fake oysters, fake watches, and real bras in lurid pinks and reds, overflowing from the stalls and on to the streets—with two notable exceptions; okay, make that four. Placed strategically at the mouth of the market is a bakery that smells like vanilla and looks like a sponge cake. Whether by design or by accident, this is the best marketing ploy in town, surely; a physical reminder of how the Chinese economy brings the world (or the hungry tourist) to its knees. Down the street, just when the scent of vanilla begins to loosen its grip, past the obstacle course of middle-aged women playing cards on makeshift tables, follow the smoke signals of the grilled meats and porky ‘popsicle’ barbecue stalls. Remember to also pick up a kumquat and calamansi lime bubble tea from the shop right across the street. Then, head back to where you started, opposite the bakery, and find the doorless, ‘nameless’ (no, I still can’t read Mandarin) restaurant and settle down to a supper of chilli crabs, buttery lobsters, Hainanese chicken and giant green coconuts that each need a chair of their own. If you’re smart enough, you might also manage to find a fellow diner adept at pointing to images on inscrutable menus, or to the food on the next table, before deciding to rely entirely on a combination of flailing arms, internet searches, translator apps, calculators and sheer luck to ensure that the waitress can get at least four out of five things right.
Driving back to the hotel late that night, well-fed and slumped at the back of a cab, I thought I had finally found world peace on a seafood platter. The only thing that could make it better, perhaps, was a walk on the Beach Park at midnight. I could tell the full moon approved, but the lone lifeguard didn’t; he was confused by my presence there, watching me like a tired hawk. The sea kept drawing closer and closer to the loungers now, crashing on the shore like it always has. In the distance, the stars twinkled, as did a vessel fading out of view. I could have sworn it was Anahita, with Bahram looking through his spyglass and wondering, a tad belatedly, if he really should have braved those pirates once to trade places with me.
There are no direct flights to Sanya from India. China Southern offers one-stop connections from Delhi via Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport as do China Eastern (via Shanghai’s Pudong Airport) and Air India (via Hong Kong International Airport).
China has its own Uber, called Didi. If you’d rather not download it, hail a cab off the street, take a bus or ask your hotel for a shuttle service. Ask the reception for a card; the Chinese address on it is crucial to finding your way back.
Where To Stay
The Wyndham Sanya Bay
offers great value for money (from approx. ₹
4,200 for doubles). On Haitang Bay, check into The Royal Begonia
, a Luxury Collection Resort (from approx. ₹
8,500 for doubles). In Yalong Bay, the party is clearly at the MGM Grand Sanya
(from approx. ₹
8,500 for doubles).
What To See & Do
>The Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone offers sweeping views of the sea, mountains and shrines, and is known for its three-faced Buddha
>Theatrical performances are a big draw at Sanya Romance Park
>The Binglanggu Valley celebrates the heritage of the island’s Li and Miao tribes via tattoos, textiles, breweries and dance
>Wuzhizhou Island is wonderful for adventure sports, is Instagram friendly, and even has a robot-manned ice cream shop
>The Yalong Bay Forest Park is ideal to view the sea from bridges, decks and endless glass walkways. It reminds tourists that Hainan is also a biodiversity hotspot.