Beach time in Sanya —by Jinny Batterson
The first time I traveled to China, in 1980, there was little concept of vacation or of visiting distant natural wonders among Chinese workers, many of whom had survived the famines and upheavals of previous decades by the skin of their teeth. Most were happy then to be alive, reunited with family members, and not starving. The industrial workers I saw during that visit worked six days each week. Days off were staggered. There was no such thing as a weekend. If the weather was pleasant, groups of workers from the same factory or work unit might visit a nearby urban park together on their one day off—anything further afield was unimaginable. Transportation infrastructure was minimal. A basic national rail passenger network existed between major cities, but getting around for long distances in the countryside was difficult to impossible.
By my more recent visits, much of that had changed. China’s booming economy had created a huge middle class—more than the entire population of the United States. Road, high-speed rail, and airport infrastructure was being built out at a breakneck pace. Many middle-class Chinese now owned private motorcycles or cars. Trips to exotic locales, along with advanced education, were the two luxuries most sought after by Chinese with newly available discretionary income. Nearly every middle class Chinese urbanite has a dream vacation spot, either in-country or overseas. The increasing in-country tourism infrastructure in China has made it possible for them and for me to see regions that were previously off-limits or just too hard to get to.
Some of my Xinjiang teaching colleagues in far northwest China in 2006-2007 were the Chinese equivalent of “snowbirds” (a term used to describe people in the northeastern U.S. or eastern Canada who spend at least part of the winter where the weather is warmer). I discovered, as our long winter holiday break approached, that several teachers at our college had previously been to Sanya, a former fishing village on Hainan Island in the South China Sea now dubbed the “Hawaii of China” and “Forever Tropical Paradise.” Their recommendations that I travel to Sanya, too, fell on willing ears—the chill winds blowing around our edge-of-the-desert campus and through cracks around our windows and doors made this tropical resort sound especially appealing.
My husband and I arrived in Sanya late one night, very tired from a long set of plane flights clear across the country. We would spend most of our stay at an elegant 3-star guest house that was built into a hillside several blocks from a public beach. Over the course of our several week holiday, this seaside town became one of my all-time favorite locales for “beach time.” Our visit started with a first night’s sleep lulled by gentle warm breezes. The following day, I went shopping for a bathing suit—not generally needed in Xinjiang at any time of the year. I found, though I am of average height and fairly slender size for an American woman (5 feet 5 inches tall, size 10), in Chinese sizes I’m an extra-extra-large. Nearly everywhere we went, we saw cascades of bougainvillea, most often in vibrant shades of pink, red, and purple. Twenty different varieties of the trailing shrub, with its three-sided blossoms, grow in the area, I was told. The flowers have become a symbol of Sanya, whose Chinese character name starts with “san,” or three.
We met other native English speakers in Sanya, but by far the largest international group in late January were Russian tourists. Most hotels, restaurants, and tour locations had signage in Chinese and Russian, with occasional English. One was just as likely to hear a rendition of “Midnight in Moscow” in a local nightclub as a version of Elvis’s “Love Me Tender,” as likely to find beef Stroganoff on the menu as hamburger. Sanya tourism officials had encouraged the influx of Russian tourists and their tourist spending, providing on-arrival visa services and several weekly direct flights from northern Russian cities.
Of course, Sanya was not totally paradisiacal —there were occasional signs of urban blight and of the boom-and-bust cycle of construction that seems to plague tourist destinations even more than other cities and towns. Parts of town were off-limits, home to an extensive naval base. Some fishing boats of the former fishing fleet lay at anchor, gradually rusting and/or rotting away. Shops and attractions could be just as kitschy as beach towns anywhere else on the planet. Still, the town had all the amenities to provide a comfortable, welcoming, affordable stay.
A little east of the main part of town was an area of curving white sand beach called Yalong Bay. Site of the poshest resort hotels, the neighborhood was mostly gated and somewhat beyond our tourist budget. However, partly courtesy of a local government official who’d lived with us in the U.S. many years previously, we had a chance to visit one of the luxury hotels briefly and to share in a complimentary lunch on the terrace of the Sheraton Sanya. Its widely traveled general manager plied us with excellent food and drink and regaled us with stories of famous guests he’d had and crises he’d averted. The view of the bay, the wide pristine arc of the beach, and the graceful rolling waves beyond was as beautiful as any I’ve seen.