A Tropical Paradise Gone Wrong - February 2016
That was Guido’s description of a 7kilometre white sandy beach but I am getting ahead of myself.
Hainan is a truly tropical Island that is the most southerly part of China. It is a small province – about the size of Belgium.
It was largely ignored by the mainland government until about 250 years ago when they began sending exiles there to die of the various nasty things that can happen in such a climate. Even 80 years ago the majority of native inhabitants were subsistence farmers.
Things have moved on quite a bit since then but it is still a poor province – although you would never guess if you judge by mechanised transport. This is predominantly electric motor scooters and three-wheeler petrol driven tuk-tuks but nobody (except us) appears to travel more than 30 or 40 metres by foot. Myanmar is piss poor where bullock carts are the normal form of transport, in Hainan we only saw two.
Sanya is the city at the south end of the island. This is the destination for the majority of mainland visitors (and quite a few Russians apparently although there did not appear to be lots to us). It is the only genuinely warm place in China during winter - mid twenties Celsius or 70s to the Yanks. It is certainly considerably richer than anywhere else on the island that I have been to
We flew there and had a night there – a four-star hotel cost 35 euros. We sat on the beach, having been driven the 400 metres from the hotel in a golf buggy where the driver, of course, went the wrong way round a roundabout, bought coconuts to drink the milk but kept adding rum and thus we got drunk. For Guido the highlight was lunch in the first real locals’ restaurant he had been in. There was no English menu – the pictures helped – but my Chinese had to come into play – a worrying thought.
We got a bus towards our destination – a National Forest Park. We did the last 35 kilometres on/in a tuk-tuk that was leaking petrol. The guy stopped occasionally so we could look at sites, buy honey etc. but, more importantly, fix his petrol leak and let his 100c.c. engine cool down on the thousand metre climb. Tipping is unknown in China but he did such a good job that we gave him 50% more than the agreed fee – it cost three pounds sterling. He declined the bonus initially but was persuaded to accept it.
The reason we had come to this place was – can you guess - rats. My friend is interested in many things to do with the natural world but one of them is rodents. Hainan has a species of rat that is unique to the island. Guido was hoping to see them or, more likely, catch sight of them on the 4 night-vision cameras that he had brought with him.
We had been brought to a hotel which cost 30 euros but had little to eat and Guido needs to scoff lots and often. This time there was a Chinese menu and no pictures. With a bit of pointing my Chinese was holding up remarkably well. This delay to eat meant that we only had 1 ½ hours to get the cameras and bait set up. To capture images of small animals at night you need to restrict the cameras’ field of vision considerably so choosing suitable areas and then sites within the areas then lining up the camera with the “jiggler” all take time so we only got three set up before dark. I am sure that you all know what a jiggler is with one exception so I will explain. It is simply a device that is a few centimetres above ground that holds the bait and will attract animals.
More scoff and the odd beer followed by a rest and we were ready for the first half of the night’s little trip. Chinese national parks – particularly forest parks – tend to have well laid out wooden walkways. Surprisingly this one is made of wood – many have a large concrete component. G. had also brought very powerful lights with him. These were great – at highlighting the dust blowing about in the atmosphere. We would sit and listen with lights off from time to time (it was so dark I couldn’t see G-man sitting less than a metre from me) but the forest was remarkably quiet – no grasshoppers or cicadas and very few frogs to be heard. We did hear a few owls but the only thing that was sighted was a flash of a bat by Guido – he is a vastly better spotter than me.
Our three-hour walk finished at 12.30 with the thought of getting up four hours later to go again and see the sunrise towards the end. I woke at 4.30 decided I preferred the bed and didn’t wake Guido. He was up at 7.30 and off to collect the cameras before anybody else might come across them. One of them showed a rat but not the one he was looking for.
We then repeated our night walk in daylight and this time we weren’t alone. Chinese tourists have no idea about shutting their gobs in the hope of seeing some animals. What became apparent is that this park is for looking at plants – particularly trees. There is a vast variety, of which I know very little, but some were huge at over 100 metres and with girths of over 10 metres. I have seen the odd strangler fig before in Australia but here they were common as muck. The way it works is that a fig (i.e. the fruit of a fig tree) gets on a branch of a growing tree. It is a true parasite and takes food from the tree whist growing round it and lowering roots to the ground. Once the fig has roots in the ground the host tree is doomed. The strangler develops its own support roots and devours all the nourishment from the tree (as well as getting things from the ground and photosynthesing food) which then rots away leaving the strangler fig with a hole up the middle where you might expect a trunk to be.
The guide books for Hainan are truly dreadful and we swapped to choosing destinations by using the A4 map of the island we had obtained in the hotel in Sanya. Thus, by a trip down the mountain by car (also costing £3), a bus and another tuk-tuk we arrived in Guangcun. This village/town is a real out of the way place and my Chinese was really tested. I think we ended up at the only hotel in town. I don’t think that they have seen any guailos (white ghosts) in months or years. It is the most I have been stared at since I travelled in some other real backwaters of China a dozen or fifteen years ago.
The hotel has modest sized rooms but they are en suite with hot water for – wait for it – 8 euros a night. Food is dirt cheap – even fruit – and beer made in Guangzhou is barely half the price that it is in my home city.
Time for a stroll, after a five o’clock lunch naturally, where the lady in charge seemed to understand that I am not a meat eater. We were looking for mangrove swamps and a beach. We saw both but couldn’t get to either because of walls and fences everywhere but we saw quite a few birds and bats and lots of plants that Guido didn’t know so not too bad. I suspect the highlight of the day for G was the truck so overloaded with bamboo to the extent that it couldn’t get under the powerlines. I should perhaps explain that powerlines are only four or five metres above the ground with a low point when they cross a street. We watched as the driver climbed on to his loads to free things up and, when we passed by again fifteen metres later, he was still beating the bamboo into shape with a particularly thick specimen of that type.
The following day, today as I write, we worked out from our trusty map that the best chance of getting to the beach was taking a different route out of town. With a little help from three 13- year old boys, who wanted a light for their one battered cigarette, on their electric scooter we got to the beach. The boys had followed us all four kilometres but did not follow us up the beach – although we later saw tracks which suggested that they had on their scooter presumably after we were long gone. As I mentioned, here people don’t walk.
This was the white sandy beach that was on our trusty map. It is at least seven kilometres long and we only saw a total of eight other people on it when we walked nearly the length of it both ways. Where we had arrived at was an abandoned hotel or maybe something that had been for party hacks. Clearly it had been abandoned many years ago but looked it like it had been a good idea because the beach was superb. If Hainan ever gets going as a true international holiday destination I can see this location becoming a very high-class place to go.
But, and it is a very, very, very big but, the beach gave rise to Guido’s comment that is the title of this piece. I have never, ever seen a beach with so much shit on it. You expect plastic bottles, plastic sheets and the like but there were lamps, computer bags, backpacks, glass bottles, barbecuing tool. shoes, pill containers, polystyrene packaging, gloves etc. etc. by the thousands. About the only thing we didn’t see was condoms. Clearly so few people visit the place that the vast majority of this crap (excluding the barbecuing tools) must have come from the sea – what disgusting people humans are. I think it is even worse than the desert in Jordan – and that is truly saying something. G finds that looking through this detritus can be quite interesting. I do not.
We saw quite a few birds, G found lots of shells that interested him and we could not identify quite a lot of things – which also interests us. My highlight was a pool on the beach that was made of sand but behaved more like a rock pool – it was teeming with life. We thought it would be very difficult to count just the number of tiny hermit crabs but an estimate would be around 100 per square metre.
As we passed a fishing village we realised that there was some recycling. Or, more accurately re-use. The fishermen had tied lumps of expanded polystyrene together to make rafts to pole out to their boats. Guido was quite keen on “borrowing” one for when we got to the mangrove swamps. When I pointed out that we did not know where they – the mangrove swamps - were (our map is rather large scale) and it was certainly a few kilometres his enthusiasm for the project waned but did not disappear – there was so much shit around we could make one ourselves.
We stopped at the next fishing village hoping for a little sustenance but there were no restaurants so we settled for a couple of beers each and crossed the peninsular we were on. Sure enough a few hundred metres down the beach the mangrove swamps started. The G-man had never been in one and the last time I had been in one properly was forty years ago chasing a thief – I didn’t catch him.
Unlike forty years ago, the tide was out so we could walk along the sand on the seaside of the mangroves – easy. If you are not familiar with mangroves (and even if you are) these are the basic ideas. They like brackish water at the edge of the sea but in mud not sand. They propagate in two ways – seeds and underground roots that pop up. The thing that really makes them stand out though is the branches drop down stems that become roots so one tree can become a tangle to get through that is only two or three metres tall but can also be as wide as that. One is easy but a morass of them dropping roots of branches and new growth popping up from roots can be a bit tricky. On the seaward side they were not too many.
Having progressed only three or four hundred metres down the beach we realised that the fir trees that were growing on solid ground were now 50 metres from us so we decided to go through the mangroves. Tricky.
I think our polystyrene raft would not have been a great deal of use! We beat a retreat back up the beach and found an “easy way through”
The peninsular we were on had only a gap of a hundred metres or two to the far shore at the mouth of a bay that is a couple of kilometres long – thus providing excellent shelter for fishing boats and…. There were thousands of birds so we looked at a few before we re-crossed the peninsular through a graveyard made of sand hills! If everything is made of sand where do you bury your dead? Only later did I wonder if the bodies rot but I decided that they must – Hainan has a humid climate unlike the desert in Egypt.
A fast retreat down the beach and walk into town on the road in the dark with bats, a nightjar and stars to accompany us. (This reference is for friends I have done a lot of walking with who think that all my walks end up with us walking on the road in the dark. Well you want to use a day fully don’t you?) A truly splendid day.
There had been a cockup at breakfast when my Chinese let me down. We had had a good omelette and asked for more eggs. Chicken in Chinese is Jie, Eggs are Jiedan. When asked for more eggs, our hostess rushed off to shop and produced another dish. She had obviously thought that we couldn’t want more eggs and had bought chicken.
My hair is longer than usual and Guido’s is always a mess. We had been by the sea in strong winds. At dinner mine hostess gave us two combs. A nice touch that redeemed the morning mistake in my eyes. She approved of the improvement when I combed my hair. Guido is Dutch with shoulder length hair, claims he hasn’t combed his mop in twenty years and is proud of that fact. I seem to recall it looking considerably smarter at his wedding so doubt his claim.
Pigs. Not a subject that I often write about but they have been roaming around loose everywhere in the last few days. Almost all are mothers with their piglets in tow - when the little ones are not rushing off playing like kittens. Lovely animals who ferret around for things to eat – Guido gave one a ball of rice enclosed meat – and not at all dirty. The expression “Like a pig in shit” is a reflection of the way that they are treated or, more accurately, mistreated by humans, not a reflection on their natural habitat. Of course, 99% of the males and a good proportion of the female piglets are destined for the pot in a few months. Pig is by far the favourite meat in China.
So what next?
Guido decided that we needed to go to White Shell Beach. Only two buses (although the first one left fifty minutes later than we were led to believe) and we were in Jaitou. A much more fertile area even though it is only a few dozen kilometres along the coast.
We had a little difficulty finding a hotel until the one we got to the one we are in. The price is up to 12 euros but a much bigger room. The only problem is that the toilet is a squatter. This is the first one of the trip and I suddenly realised that, in Guangcun, they are prepared for westerners – at least in one hotel room.
Our host is very affable wanting photos with us and insisting on showing us round and organising our trip to a nearby headland village. This was a short tuk-tuk ride away. What was odd about it was the vast amounts of stuff packaged up for recycling – cement bags, polystyrene, glass bottles but no plastic bottles (we had seen an overloaded truckfull of them in Guangcun). The trouble was that most of it looked like it had been there for weeks, months or years and the village and the beach were still full of shit. I have come to realise that Hainan reminds me strongly of India in respect of rubbish. The streets where there are markets are swept at the end of the day but pretty much nothing else is done to keep the place clean. A good example I saw today was somebody riding along on his motor scooter who did not even slow down as he slung his bag of rubbish off the bridge into the river. We have seen a lot of Guido’s rodent friends in the streets.
We are quite good at finding places to relax and have a beer.
Another trip out to a superb beach – actually with better sand than yesterday. Not quite as filthy as yesterday but far worse than most of you will ever have seen. In twenty years time when China has become a normal holiday destination most trips will have a component to a place like this – huge sandy beaches (cleaned up every tide) trips out to go snorkeling and diving on the reefs, bird watching from beginners to real twitchers plus whale watching obviously. Once the hotels are in place they will attract lots of retail opportunities whether it is food, clothes or tourist tat.