I felt like a well-roasted Beijing duck. Lounging on my hotel room's funky rattan furniture, looking out at the mountain-encrusted crescent of Da Dong Hai Bay, I relished the ease with which I had discovered a tropical paradise in China.
Four days earlier, I was in one of the under heated classrooms of the Beijing school where I teach, staring at a simple map of China with only a few city names printed on it. My finger tapped the capital city and then slid south, past ice-brewed Qingdao and chilled-out Shanghai, past frosty Fujian Province and even lukewarm Guangdong. Finally it came to rest on the southernmost tip of Hainan Island, which seemed to drip off of the glacier of continental China. I turned to my girlfriend, Casey, and asked, "Is there a town here?"
"That would be Sanya," she replied.
"Ah, Sanya..." Moments later, I was booking plane tickets. Now, gorged on spicy, dried octopus strips, I savored that name like sweet coconut candy. I thanked Lao Tian Ye ("The Old Grandfather in the Sky") for my spontaneous decision-making.
The birth of a resort town
Sanya was just a fishing village, like humble Shenzhen, twenty years ago. Both towns were home to sleepy streets and ancient, low-slung houses. Old women chewed betel nuts (binglang) and spat bright red juice like vampires, while the men folk spent their days at sea.
The villagers of Sanya and Shenzhen were probably among the last to know that Hainan Island and Shenzhen had been declared Special Economic Zones, areas set aside as ultra-free market common pastures for foreign and domestic enterprises. Shenzhen quickly surged to boomtown status, boasting China's first McDonald's, first stock market, and more baofa hu (formerly struggling workers who suddenly came into money and bought black Audi A6s) per square centimeter than any other city in China. Meanwhile, developers descended on Hainan and five-star hotels began to fall from the sky, landing neatly along the white, sandy coves that surround tiny Sanya town.
The local villagers dodged the falling behemoths and crept back out onto the newly constructed boardwalks and verandas, peering in wonder as flocks of Chinese nouveau riche with camcorders and Hawaiian shirts strutted onto the beach wearing complimentary hotel slippers. Physically imposing Russians with spare-tire bellies also arrived, baking themselves to various reddish hues in the blazing sun.
A new self-consciousness was born in this village-turned-resort. After recovering from their surprise, the villagers bought sunglasses produced in the newly minted factories that had cropped up in the island's northern reaches. One peasant followed another into sales of pearls, coconuts, shells, cowboy hats and mangoes. Russians and Chinese city slickers devoured these wares at astonishingly urban prices. Overzealous entrepreneurialism created a cutthroat competition to sell tourists everything and anything at a cheaper price than the next guy, who invariably carries the same items in baskets suspended from the yoke behind his neck. Foreign corporations and Chinese tycoons (mostly from Sichuan and Dongbei) also came to guzzle under the corporate cash cow and add to the discount mayhem.
This means options abound in Sanya. At one bus stop, no less than sixteen self-proclaimed taxicabs offered me rides within a half hour. If you're willing to walk away from the first makeshift businessman to approach you, you can often achieve huge discounts on fares and just about everything else.
This holds true for lodging as well. One misconception, fostered by countrywide travel agents, is that there are no cheap accommodations in Sanya. Signboards at hotels along the Sanya resort strips seem to confirm this; they advertise standard singles at no less than 580 yuan per night. The reality is that these prices apply only during national holidays, and that during Spring Festival you would be lucky to find accommodation that cheap. Any other day, however, Sanya travel agents can help find rooms for as little as 100 yuan per night. My room at the Yuhai hotel (yuhai jiu dian), a brand new establishment with a bank of massive windows commanding a lovely ocean view, cost 158 yuan per night. The Yuhai is two minutes on foot from the beach, and prices ascend linearly with each step toward the water. (At a second Yuhai branch 50 meters closer to Da Dong Hai, the same room has a nightly rate of 178 yuan.)
If true luxury is what you seek, Sanya's international style, five-star establishments come complete with multiple swimming pools and restaurants, first class service and spas, and grand staircases and elevators that drop guests right onto the beach. The low-end rates at such places are 250-450 yuan. The question that demands attention, however, is whether, with a world-class beach a few steps away; it is necessary to have access to so many swimming pools? Most residents of the posh hotels apparently decide not; the beautiful oases remain undisturbed, glassy surfaces.The allure of...Monkey Island
Sometimes, you'll find it worth your while to check out the public water closet for your news and tourist information. These filthy restrooms, unlike their private five-star counterparts, are strangely not free in Sanya. The charge is one yuan to use the facilities, a fact I discovered one day on the beach as, on a desperate mission, I sprinted past the W.C. attendant. In something of a hurry, I responded to demands for a fee with, "Hey, sorry, I've only got my swimsuit and these sandals." The attendant glanced at the tiny rainbow sandals I had borrowed from Casey to brave the W.C.'s scummy floors.
"No problem," she said. "Our manager can go back to the beach with you to collect." (Yes, apparently this restroom had a manager.)
On the way out, the W.C.E.O. caught up with me, lighting up a cigarette slipped from a fancy white box with gold lace. The public restroom business seemed to be going well. The manager gave me a wizened, sunburned smile and offered a smoke. I discovered he was from Chongqing. He cast an appreciative gaze up at the wispy clouds, and I could see him thinking back to the cold years in Sichuan. He told me that the way to get between the Sanya Town, Da Donghai and Yalong Wan (another smattering of hotels on a bay) is by an open top, double-decker bus that brushes passengers' heads beneath overarching palms. He argued the supremacy of Sanya's Sichuan restaurants over their overpriced Dongbei competition. He even gave away the top-secret list of proper cab fares to outlying tourist attractions. Finally, the W.C.E.O signed off with an enigmatic tip: "Don't forget to go to Monkey Island."
When we reached my beach towel, I gave the manager his due. Casey was stretched out luxuriously on the white sand, sporting a pair of Jackie Onassis shades and negotiating for pearls from a lady in a traditional silk hoop skirt and wide-brimmed hat. Ten kuai bought seven glittering bracelets: Excellent gifts for Beijing landlubbers. With the pearls came some advice: "Check out Monkey Island." The words became ever harder to ignore.