Category Archives: China

Finding art in the Paris of the East

Don’t bother with Shanghai if nature and fresh air are what you’re seeking. However, if you desire nurturing your artistic side, Shanghai offers many creative oases dotted among a concrete jungle of glitzy skyscrapers and shiny shopping malls. During my first four months here, I’ve found refuge in art exhibitions, serene neighborhoods that captivate, and even a foreign bookstore.

I knew at the onset that my transition to Shanghai would be rough. I left behind friends, subtropical weather, and plentiful hiking opportunities I had while teaching in Shenzhen for two years. Finding an activity to soften the blow of the move was necessary. Enter art. My inner explorer’s compass and new people I met pointed me to the city’s numerous art attractions.

BeeHome Hostel (No. 210 Dongyuanercun, Lane 498, Dongchang Rd – 90rmb for a dorm bed) was my base for two weeks in August before I moved into my school’s dormitory. The quiet hostel has a perfect location in the middle of a bustling community in Lujiazui, the city’s world-renowned CBD known for its futuristic skyline. Shanghai’s clean, efficient metro system first took me to the West Bund (Middle Longhua Road Station), anchored by the Long Museum (50rmb) which hosts contemporary art galleries. The area, which is being developed as an arts district, has a wide riverwalk that makes for a nice escape from the city’s crowds.

Also facing the Huangpu River is the Power Station of Art (free admission), a short walk from Exit 2 of South Xizang Road Station. PSA — mainland China’s first state-run museum dedicated to contemporary art — is an imposing structure as it was formerly an actual power station for Shanghai until 2007. For modern art with a bit more edge and my personal favorite in the city, M50 is an eclectic  cluster of art studios, dealers, and shops near Jiangning Road Station. Be sure to walk down Moganshan Road to see the graffiti-covered wall that leads to the mural-adorned arts district. Most recently, I visited China Art Museum (free admission; own metro station on Line 8), which focuses on Chinese modern art and is currently hosting an eye-catching exhibit on local artists.

Looking for more creative inspiration? Get off any metro station in Xuhui, Shanghai’s French Concession district, and simply walk down the inviting streets, which are lined with broad-leafed, mature trees and grand 1920’s and 1930’s French lane houses. Most foreign expats call this neighborhood home so plenty of Western restaurants and cafes can be found. Of course, no visit to Shanghai is complete without a visit to the Bund, the city’s famed Art Deco-inspired strip on the river facing the skyscrapers of Lujiazui. When the tourist crowds and souvenir hawkers wear you out, head back to East Nanjing Road Station or the nearby Foreign Language Bookstore (390 Fuzhou Rd) for a coffee and the city’s largest selection of books in English.

After being greeted by August heat, I now seek respite from the city’s coming winter in a cafe, reading a good book or planning the next day’s lessons. On my to-do-list is a return trip to PSA to see the 11th Shanghai Biennale, which is getting rave reviews (click here).

 

Coming full circle in Kunming

There’s nothing like a nature trail to put everything in perspective. I’m walking under serene pine trees on what I think is a Buddhist kora — a circuit around a sacred site — on a mountain by Caoxi Temple (草席), a short walk from my hotel. I indulged myself by staying at Jinfang Forest Spa Resort in Anning (安宁) — a short drive west of Kunming — to conclude my motorbike trip that started nearly three weeks ago in Kunming. In that span, I covered over 1,500km of good (and terrible) road, mingled with friendly foreigners and locals, ate and slept on the cheap, and experienced sensory overload. Thus I needed peace so I splurged on my last night at Jinfang (it’s the low season so I negotiated for a 650元 king-size mountain view room with private hot spring pool).

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After the Water Splashing Festival, I rode G213, which is the old highway that runs parallel to the Kunming-Mohan Expressway, north out of Jinghong (景洪). Pu’er tea trees and banana plants dominate, and to a lesser extent, a patchwork of colorful orchards, blooming flowers, and other cash crops (watermelon, dragon fruit, sugarcane, maize, coffee, etc. ) appear. Be aware that G213 is currently under varying stages of improvements so dump trucks, potholes, and dust are the norm.  The nearly 100km-stretch from Ning’er to Mojiang almost drove me to madness, and makes it difficult to appreciate the views.

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I decided to take a detour on S218. My sanity and bike thanked me. The section from Mojiang to where the two-lane sealed road meets S306 at the Lishe River was one of the best overall routes (great road condition, light traffic, and splendid scenry). S218 meanders up and down mountains, passing rice terraces before it drops into a river valley full of bananas. On a Tuesday afternoon, all I usually saw on the scenic byway were motorbikes, motor plows, farmers, cattle, water buffaloes, and chickens trying to get out of my way.

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Of course, everything wasn’t dandy — vast tracts of mountainsides were striped of forest to make way for more crops. And I had to make haste to beat a coming thunderstorm. I was thinking,

“No, no, please wait, please wait!”

The rain didn’t wait, and I ended up getting doused, but not nearly as wet as I did at the festival. I sought shelter at a crossroads truck stop where S218 meets S306. The storm knocked out the electricity, so I had a not-so-romantic, candlelit dinner with five local men. It was comical as one man repeatedly tried to speak to me in his local language. Upon failing to communicate, he invariably resorted to “hello” when he wanted me to drink bijiu (白酒) or eat.

Dry and refreshed (albeit surprising so, considering the state of the bare-bones, 30元-room at the truck stop), I took S306 back to G213 and spent the next night at Eshan. To find the Chinese hotels I stayed at in Pu’er (普洱), Ning’er (宁洱), Mojiang (墨江), and Eshan (峨山), look for neon lights or ask bystanders to point the way to a hotel (jiu dian 酒店). The rooms averaged 100元, and twin bed rooms were cheaper for some reason. The four-laned S213 then quickly took me higher and higher until I was on the high plateau that Kunming and Anning rest on.

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(SIDENOTE: Despite driving an unregistered bike with no Chinese license, I didn’t have any problems with the authorities. I passed through a few security checkpoints (and bypassed one), but I was only stopped once for passport verification. However, if you decide to ride a bike in Yunnan, drive safely with a good helmet, use common sense, smile, and enjoy the ride.)

Ringing in the New Year, Dai-style

Guns are loaded. Battle cries fill the air. Chaos ensues. This is not a war zone, but rather Poshuijie (泼水节) — the Dai people’s annual New Year’s celebration. Known as the Water Splashing Festival, locals and tourists alike flocked to the main square of Jinghong — the capital of Xishuangbana, Yunnan — on Friday the 15th to cap off the three-day festival with wild, wet revelry.

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The Dai sprinkle water on people to bring the recipients good fortune. During the festival, the wetter you get, the more luck you get, and anyone and everyone is fair game. As a foreigner, be prepared to get an extra dousing. Just to get to the square, my group — armed with water guns, bags of water balloons, and plastic pots — had to pass through a gauntlet of water hurlers. Teams on each side of the street would challenge you to get through. Impossible. Water attacks also come from rear ambushes and above from balconies. I was drenched in no time, and I quickly learned the importance of a plastic pot — you use it to shield your face. High-pressure water guns (think Super Soaker 1000) hurt!

My sanctuary and base of operations was Caffy’s Guesthouse (Mengzhe Road No. 20), where I stayed for the three days of the festival. Normally 30元 for a dorm bed, prices were three-fold for the festival period. Caffy made it worthwhile as a most gracious hostess, making you feel at home, and making a terrific cup of Yunnan coffee. She threw a party the night before and lobbed the first water balloon at midnight. Her staff and guests (mostly Chinese, as was the festival in general) quickly joined in the fun or ran for cover.

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Earlier in the day, I unsuccessfully searched for the festive parade of locals in colorful, traditional dresses so I relaxed at Manting Park before a sunset at Xishuangbana Bridge, which crosses the Lancang River (Mekong). For souvenirs, go to Ganlanba, the site of a giant golden tower and a huge night market.

The festival officially kicked off on the 13th with dragon boat races on the Lancang. The countdown to the new year occurred at 8pm on the banks of the river with Buddhist monks chanting scriptures, and people setting off river lanterns and paper lanterns that filled the sky. New year’s wishes are written on the lanterns before they float away. The sheer spectacle of light, fire, and chanting was mesmerizing.

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For most of the activities, I was joined by a rotating cast of good-natured Chinese and foreign hostel mates. We ate Dai food together (you must try the sticky rice with powdered seaweed, and the pineapple rice), enjoyed Yunnan’s exotic fruits, and washed everything down with Beerlao. I didn’t do any of Caffy’s recommended day-trips out of Jinghong as the overpowering heat discouraged activity. Plus, I didn’t feel the need to as I passed through minority villages and gorgeous countryside on the drive from Yuanyang to Jinghong. Rice terraces gave way to landscapes dominated by banana, rubber tree, and Pu’er tea plantations. I camped for two nights (once overlooking terraced tea trees near Luchen and another in a mountainside rubber tree clearing by Xishuangbana Tropical Botanical Garden) sandwiched around a hotel stay in Jiangcheng. It proved to be a wonderful stay as my bike received a repair and I was treated to dinner by the boss and his family.

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The road conditions often made for slow travel — S214 is a twisting, mountain-hugging affair with light motorbike traffic on the way to Luchen, and it becomes 20km of rocky, dirt road when it meets S218, north of Jiangcheng. Similarly, G213 — slicing through Xishuangbana National Nature Reserve on the way to Jinghong — is currently under construction so dump trucks, heavy machinery, and clouds of dust obstruct jungle scenery and stop traffic. Regardless, when you stop for a break, you get a glimpse of Yunnan daily life: farmers working their rice terraces, sugarcane being readied for market, roadside watermelon stands awaiting customers, dried tea leaves being sorted, a cobra snake being captured, local men lazily smoking cigarettes from a bong, female laborers lugging heavy, blue bags of bananas up mountains, fresh tea leaves being picked and put in woven baskets, and to cap it all — a wild water festival to wash away the old year.

From rice to riches: Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

Birds chirp. A woman in dark blue and black garb works her field. A farmer leads his water buffalo. Just after sunrise, I’m sitting by a bubbling drainage ditch that is giving and taking water from flooded terraces as it makes it’s way to a fog-filled valley.

The otherworldly place is the Duoyishu rice terraces — one of many in the UNESCO-listed Honghe Hani Rice Terraces — roughly 365km south of Kunming, not far from the Vietnam border.

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It’s taken me five days to get here since I left Kunming by motorbike. It wasn’t easy to leave knowing full well what happened to my last bike (Click here). Once I got out of the city and on the open road though, thrill replaced paranoia. I used the side road (bikes aren’t allowed on toll roads) that cuts between Xishan Forest Park and Dianchi Lake. For outstanding panoramic views of Kunming, take a cable car (40元 one-way) across the lake to Xishan and hike past Buddhist and Taoist temples to Dragon’s Gate (Longmen admission 40元). If you’re interested in community living projects, drive 15km further south then turn right and follow big butterfly signposts to Spirit Tribe. I went there for their 3-day electronic music festival where I camped, met fun-loving people, and cavorted for the first two nights. The beautiful valley location, west of the city, is perfect for nature escapes.

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The natural scenery only got better as I continued south. I took S215 to Yuxi, passing fields of you-name-it (onions, potatoes, cabbage, etc.). I stopped for the night in Tonghai, 30km east of Yuxi on S304. I caught the tail end of a sunset at a hilltop pagoda in Xiushan Mountain Park. A clean, comfortable hotel will cost you around 90元. The hotel guard might even escort you two blocks to the best Chinese BBQ joint, like was done for me.

S214 can take you the rest of the way to Yuanyang. I shared the road, which mostly runs parallel with the toll road to Jianhui, with buses and transport trucks loaded to the brim with crops or construction supplies. I had to dodge fallen cabbage and stones occasionally. Though it became more difficult to focus on the road as dramatic scenery unfolded.  What started as a high plateau in Kunming, followed by spacious valleys, became ravines. The scenic route hugs mountains and overlooks a patchwork of various crops.  As you approach sleepy towns, the air’s a bit thicker from burning trash. Roadside trash dumps are a common sight, but Yunnan’s one-of-a-kind scenery blots out the blemishes.

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Jianshui, with restored classical architecture and famous roasted tofu, made for a relaxing break. I spent two nights at Typha Youth Hostel (60-80元 single room), very close to the oldest Confucius temple in southern China. It has a friendly staff, a rooftop patio with a great view, and comfortable rooms IF you use their mosquito coils. (I didn’t the first night and killed close to 20 blood-filled suckers!)

After a sunrise at Double Dragon Bridge, I slowly made my way on countless switchbacks. Factory towns gave way to villages that dotted the mountainsides. The last 30km before Yuanyang is a treacherous, yet stunning descent to the Red River (Honghe). Terraced rice fields come into view for the first time on the way down. Just pass through the nondescript town of Nansha (aka New Yuanyang) and go another 30km via the road to Xinjie (aka Old Yuanyang) where the spectacular terrace views begin.

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I went an extra 30km to the Duoyishu terraces in order to stay at Timeless Hostel, highly rated by Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor. The host, Richard from Fujian, is extremely helpful and full of knowledge. (He called me “a crazy man” when I told him my mode of transport. I have to agree.) And the hostel is located in the middle of a Hani village called Puogaolaozhai, overlooking the terraced valley. The Hani minority people (and later the Yi minority) have been carving out a livelihood from the steep contours of the land for at least 1,300 years. Their hard labour supports rice, beans, and corn. Coincidently, the local people created a thing of beauty in the process.  Let’s just hope the government — which has invested in new villages, schools, and roads — doesn’t build an airport nearby to make the attraction more convenient for mass tourism.

Connections and spirits abound in Kunming

Flying into Kunming three days ago was a jarring experience. The Yunnan provincial capital, known as the “Spring” city due to it’s subtropical, highland location almost 2,000m high, didn’t offer me a warm welcome. I went from beach weather in Sanya to frigid cold. That aside, I have quickly found warmth in the people and easy-going, mixed culture. Kunming has soul.

An American expat, Kevin, I befriended in Shenzhen quickly plugged me in thanks to the time he spent living here. He put me in touch with an American friend, Charlie, who works at a brew pub called Humdinger. The city has a budding beer-making culture and more pubs are set to open in the near future. Dave and his Chinese wife, Yujia, opened Humdinger (try a pint and homemade pretzel for 25 yuan!) a year ago and also run an outstanding hostel called Lost Garden (60 yuan 3-bed dorm room, 240 yuan single), where I’m staying. The quiet, recently-renovated hostel is in an excellent, central location — off Huanggong Dong Street beside Green Lake Park — a short walk from Humdinger, off Renmin Zhong Road.

After taking the Airport Express No.1 line (25 yuan) to the West Hotel, followed by a short taxi ride, I checked into the Lost Garden and headed over to Humdinger. I braved the cold at Humdinger’s new, outdoor bar to chat with Charlie, and before I knew it, I was tapping into Kunming’s lively expat scene. Charlie took me to his music gig at a Chinese bar and I quickly learned that the foreigners I met came to Kunming on a whim and ended up staying. The city has a year-round mild climate (usually) and unique culture, home to the Yi people and other minorities, at the crossroads of SE Asia, not far from Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

Strolling through Green Lake Park on a Saturday afternoon, you will find large crowds dancing, some in colorful garb. When you get hungry, try Yunnan’s famous rice noodles or minority cuisine (I had a spicy sampler platter of pineapple rice, pork, cucumbers, eggs, and mushrooms, all served on banana leaves at a Dai restaurant). When you get tired, relax at one of the numerous cafés that line the park. Nearby is 1,200-year-old Yuantong Temple (6 yuan admission) and the Bird and Flower Market, where you can shop for souvenirs and walk the old streets (the little alleys off Nanping Street were my favorite).

The city serves as a gateway to the Stone Forest and Lijiang old town — both UNESCO World Heritage sites — for most tourists due to it’s bus/train links. However, I will be using a different mode of transportation when I leave Kunming. Kevin has graciously offered me his motorbike to tour the mountains and valleys of Yunnan!

Visiting Hainan’s fairies without breaking the bank

I had planned to hike one of Hainan’s inland mountains well before I arrived on the island. Initially, it was going to be the tallest provincial peak — Wuzhishan — but I was informed in Haikou that some unfortunate foreigners died there last year so the authorities have since forbid access to foreigners. So I chose Seven Fairy Mountain, which is known for it’s numerous hot springs and lush rainforest.

I decided to do it after five wonderful nights at Sea & Sky in Tianyazhen. It just so happened that a volunteer staff member was flying back home the next day so we agreed to share Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) the next morning. For the last evening, I shared a communal dinner with the friendly staff and then a generous gentleman from Henan treated me and the volunteer to drinks. While drinking Heineken  and smoking his 100 yuan pack of cigarettes, the volunteer — a university student from Sichuan — acted as a translator. The Henan man was a  jolly, 28-year-old with an adorable 4-year-old boy and a beautiful wife. After quite a few rounds, I somehow managed to wake up at 7:30am to catch the ride into the Sanya city center. I later caught a 2-hour bus (20 yuan) from the Sanya bus station (take Bus 10 or 12 to the Qichezongzhan stop) to Baoting, a Li-minority town that’s 8km from Seven Fairy Mountain.

At the Baoting bus station, I asked a taxi to take me to a reasonably-priced hotel, close to the mountain. The ride was 50 yuan. The hotel (188 yuan a night) is to the left of the main road leading to the mountain park, beside the access road to the 5-star Narada Spa & Resort. The 4km-walk to the park entrance is uphill and took 30 minutes. I decided to start the hike at 4pm, but the ticket office refused to sell me a 48 yuan pass because the park closes at 5. Well, I tried my luck and walked through the gate without being stopped. Score!

The hike to the 933m summit of one of the seven “fairies” — which are limestone pillars that look like stone swords — took me roughly one hour. On a non-holiday, Monday afternoon, I passed by a few couples and groups (the biggest group included a Californian and his Chinese wife’s friends), but since I was the last to enter the park, I was the last to come down. Thanks to the clouds, there was no stunning sunset to be had at the top (most of the hike consists of moderately-strenuous steps, but the last 50m is a near-vertical rock climb, assisted by chains). Regardless, the nearly 360-degree view was still impressive. Aside from Baoting in the distance, all you really see is unspoiled rainforest. The park advertises dozens of fauna types, but I only heard and saw birds. Descending the mountain was absolute bliss as I didn’t see a soul on the stone/wooden walkway just before dusk.

Worn out from the hike, I spent the next day at Narada’s hot spring, a 5-minute walk from my hotel. I wasn’t asked to pay (perhaps because the staff assumed I was a hotel guest), but when I ordered a coconut, I was asked to provide a room number. So I had to fork over 35 yuan. As the surrounding area was developed, and is currently developing, purely for tourism, be prepared to pay a steep premium for most things. A coconut at my comfortable hotel (though my room lacked mosquito netting, which was an annoying downside) was 10 yuan. Across the road at a corner store, I was quoted 10 yuan for a mango and a banana. Despite the ubiquitous high prices, you can find little shops a short walk up the Seven Fairy Mountain road that sell normally-priced necessities, like water and beer. There are also a few hotel/restaurants, on the left side, that are slightly cheaper than mine.

To get back to Sanya for my flight to Kunming, I used a Narada hotel shuttle. The van whisked me off for the 2-hour trip — for free. Once again, the hotel staff assumed I was a hotel guest. Of course, I gave the driver a generous tip.

Finding cheap serenity on the edge of Sanya


Following Jack’s invitation, I took Bus 28 (12 yuan) from Dadonghai to the end of the route in Houhai Bay, a super chill, bayside community with a counter-culture vibe. I spotted quite a few long-haired, tattooed Asians looking to surf in the beginner waves, as I walked to Jile, where you can get a bayview room for 300 yuan. It’s out of my budget, but it’s a great place to hang out by the pool or the bar, where you can ask the staff to get you started on the waves. I met a cool biker chick from Mongolia there.

I spent the late afternoon walking/running along the beach, watching the surfers catch waves by a grounded transport ship, flanked by a small cluster of hotels on one side and a strip-mining operation on the far side. While an eyesore to the natural beauty of the area, the mine gives the bay an appropriate fixture for the anti-resort atmosphere. I had an incredible seafood dinner with jack at a hole-in-the-wall spot. Dinner for four set us back 270 yuan, which blew away the overpriced dinner for two I had the previous night at a tourist trap in Dadonghai.

After spending the next day writing (due in part to rainy weather) in my hotel’s comfortable lounge area, I agreed to go to Yalong Bay the following day to meet a friend, who worked at Mangrove Tree Resort. I knew beforehand what I was getting myself into — a sea of expensive, 5-star resorts — but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I took Bus 28 and transferred to Bus 27, which dropped me off at the entrance to the Yalong Bay Tropical Forest. Failing to find the cheap hostel I reserved, 3km from the beach, I asked the English-speaking reception at a charming hotel in the area. The staff called my hostel, which informed me my reservation was cancelled because I’m a foreigner (it’s a common occurrence for Chinese hotels to turn away foreigners). I ended up bargaining to stay one night for 150 yuan at the helpful hotel – Yuan Fang You Ge Cun. I walked by cow pastures on the way to the beach, passing by some local shepherds that smiled and said “hello”. The atmosphere brought back memories of the friendly locals I came across in the countryside of SE Asia. The fields quickly yielded to the resorts, which were a sight to behold — luxurious expanses that cater to your every desire. Of course, you pay a premium for everything, except water, although I managed to get a 48 yuan coffee for free by flashing a smile and dropping my friend’s name.

After resort central, I took Bus 25 for a 2-hour scenic tour (17 yuan) — passing through the city and fields of sunflower, papaya, banana, and rice — to it’s western terminus at Nanshan Cultural Scenic Area on Wednesday. If you want to pay 180 yuan to fight Chinese tour groups for photo ops, it’s the place for you. I had an after-hours lunch at the hillside restaurant by the entrance so I had a great view of the lighthouse all by myself. Wanting to get away from the tourists, I took a shot in the dark by choosing a well-reviewed (by Ctrip) beachfront hotel in Tianyazhen, on the western outskirts of Sanya. The hotel, called Sea & Sky, is located in a genuine, local town, not a tourist mecca like Yalong Bay or Dadonghai. Walking the betel nut-stained streets in the late afternoon, you see locals speaking Hainanese, lounging in plastic chairs playing cards or mahjong, driving scooters/motorbikes/ebikes, and preparing for dinner. I was checking out a huge feast being cooked in three gigantic woks when a bystander offered me a plastic bag of freshly-cooked seafood noodles. From what I understood in my broken Mandarin and his limited Mandarin, I should come back the next evening for girls (my host later said it was a wedding).

Oh yeah, and the beach and surf are perfect! Just the occasional couple or group along the long, golden strand. The hotel has a wide veranda and mini-pool with commanding views of the sea — the Nanshan giant statue of Guan Yin on the west and Tianya Haijiao (a popular rock formation for newly-weds and couples) on the east. At night, all you hear is the soothing sound of crashing waves, even from my “mountainview” room, which I negotiated for 125 yuan.  If you’re looking to relax on a quiet, non-touristy, beach and mingle with locals, come here.

 

Going with the flow in Sanya

The fast train from Haikou to Sanya took 2 hours (86.5 yuan) and I arrived at the Sanya Backpackers Hostel in Dadonghai Bay an hour later thanks to Bus 15. After checking in with Ina, a very sweet Chinese lady who manages the place, I strolled along the highly-developed beach. I wanted to meet people, which is why I chose the well-situated hostel, a stone’s throw from the favorite beach of foreigners (namely Russian). Sanya is the No. 1 tourist destination in China, but due to my post-CNY timing, the crowds were sparse. The lack of sun kept more at bay.

After reaching my limit of watching girls using selfie sticks in the water and only finding boardwalk restaurants and entertainment that catered to tourists, I headed back to my laid-back hostel enclave. I had drinks and chit-chatted with the hostel staff, who were anxious to practice their English. Ina then pointed me to M2, the go-to mega club in downtown Sanya, where foreigners can basically drink for free. That’s where I met a girl, who exemplifies China: smart, beautiful, strong, shy, and traditional, thanks to parents that want her to stay in Hainan and marry a local boy.

How will the world come together if that tradition continues? I admire the strength of Chinese families and, I must admit, I’ve sacrificed my family due to my love of travel, but the right way must be somewhere in the middle. There must be a balance between family and an individual’s life pursuits.

The next day at my hostel, I met more fascinating people: An Irishman, who has been studying Wuxi Taichi for four years and recently relocated to Sanya with his Shufu (master) to escape the northern cold; A German transplant from Chengdu, who’s a rare Chinese free spirit and studied music in university; and a Chinese man who has lived in Canada for 15 years and recommended I go with him to Houhai Bay, a quiet, relaxing place in Sanya that is a reach for most tourists.

 

Mistake or serendipity in a small world?

My second tour of Asia began in earnest Tuesday when I flew from Shenzhen, where I finished my second year of teaching, to Haikou.  The plan was to spend a couple days at Banana International Youth Hostel (run by a Belgium expat named Pete for the past 10 years) before hitting the road with a rented motorbike for two weeks. The isolated, central highlands of tropical Hainan were calling. Before leaving, I befriended an interesting character from South Carolina, who was looking for teaching gigs on the island. I admired his tenacity; he talked up Pete and any foreigner he came across for possible job leads. I inquired with Pete about a bike, and lo and behold, he had one!

Two problems came to light: the weather and the law. The overcast, threatening weather, while an improvement from chilly Shenzhen, wasn’t ideal for idyll relaxation on the beach or motoring. To make matters worse, the traffic police recently began a city-wide crackdown on petrol motorbikes. Yikes. With mutual awareness of the possible pitfalls, we agreed on a 400 yuan rental fee and 2000 yuan deposit, which I would forfeit if I didn’t return the Chinese-made 125cc bike in two weeks. Pete recommended I leave before day break to beat the morning rush hour and police checkpoints.

Well, I decided to wait until sunrise the next morning to eye the weather. If it was raining, I would cancel my ride. If the coast was clear, I would make a run for it. It was cloudy, yet dry.

I rolled the dice and… lost.

My motorbike trip lasted five minutes as traffic police swarmed around me at the first, busy intersection on Renmin Boulevard. As the police chained my bike in a row with others that befell a similar fate, it dawned on me how ill-prepared I really was. I didn’t do any recon or plan the best, least-busy route out of the city or even consider how I would approach a checkpoint.

So after sharing the bad news with Pete and taking the financial hit and drinking my sorrows away, I took the fast train to Sanya the next afternoon.