Port Moresby - Papua New Guinea
Las Vegas Home
21 November + 2014
Greetings from Haikou on Hainan Island China,
On 21 November I boarded a plane in Guilin headed for Haikou on Hainan Island just off the southern coast of China's Leizhou Peninsula. The Internet is full of hype about this "tropical paradise," so I determined to see it for myself. The oval shaped island is roughly a hundred and thirty miles in both longitude and latitude with a total area of around 13,000 square miles. The terrain is mostly flat with the highest mountain having an elevation of about 6,000 feet. The tropical climate means this time of year in the north is quite humid, but not really hot.
When the airport bus expelled us at its terminus near the city center I spotted a KFC restaurant and paused for some of the colonel's secret recipe before starting a first night hotel search. The chicken came with one of those thin plastic gloves used by food handlers and momentarily puzzled me. Then I realized someone figured out diners might like to keep the grease off their fingers while eating their chicken. The solution works splendidly! It is clearly a better idea than offering diners a pile of paper napkins or one of those packaged wet wipes, in my opinion. Other stores might learn from their example!
Discovering the nearby four star Xinyuan Hot Spring Hotel I eagerly dashed in to check on rates and availability... BUT, no one spoke much English at the reception desk. About to leave, I spotted a hotel staff member wearing a uniform sporting those famous crossed golden keys! They mean every guest's problem gets top priority! So began my encounter with Zhang Jia Peng (Eddie) who speaks English like a first language. After the registration formalities I asked him about the "hot springs" part of the hotel name. He explained the hotel is built on top of a hot springs and in fact, pipes the hot water into the hotel spa for which he provided two complimentary guest passes.
Unable to find an ATM with English displays the next day, I asked Zhang for advice, where upon he immediately walked me out of the hotel and around the corner to an ATM where he interpreted the Chinese display coaxing the machine to spit out a fist full of 100RMB notes (each worth about $17). When we got back to the hotel I asked him if I could take his picture for my records and he responded with his own request that I also take one of us together.
My second day in the city I headed for an intriguing park across the busy boulevard. Pedestrians must use a fly-over and on reaching the first turning platform found crowds of people gathered around some unseen action on the floor blocking my way. Always mindful of pickpockets in such situations, I gingerly maneuvered my way through the throng grabbing a glance at the noisy activity on the floor.
A Chinese version of the shell game in progress provided the entertainment. Bright red RMB bills passed unnaturally from hand to hand and the main "performer" barked his challenges at would-be marks to guess which of four square boxes covered a coin. Anyone foolish enough to be roped in tossed his red 100RMB bill on the box he believed covered the coin. Sometimes a shoe (of a confederate, no doubt) moved on top of the money placed on a box... ostensibly to prevent the slight of hand man from moving it. Familiar with other similar scams I knew many/most of the players were shills and confederates, just waiting for the occasional, gullible sucker to show up.
I also knew any noisy activity that gathers a curious crowd like this is a common situation for pickpockets. So, I stood back out of the way and watched the action trying to spot any devious culprits. Adding to the bizarre situation, a deformed crippled man in a ragged loincloth lay sprawled out across the rest of the passage way with his begging bowl, making it next to impossible to pass without pushing people out of the way or stepping on the poor nearly naked guy on the floor. To be fair, the beggar loudly complained about being jostled, so I doubt he had any part in the "shell game" scam.
Watching carefully I could detect no one working the perimeter of the distracted crowd, though the confederates around the moving boxes on the floor revealed themselves by their unnatural interested involvement in the "game."
Finally, I'd seen enough and started up the second flight of stairs, but paused turning around for one parting view of the activity from the new, higher vantage point. It then occurred to me that the situation might make a good photograph, or at least a photo would provide evidence my story had some basis. Messing with the camera settings for a few seconds I began shooting... at least 5 or 6 pictures! After the first few some weasel-like guy approached me from the crowd below and softly muttered: "No photos... no photos." I pretty much ignored him and continued shooting a couple more final pictures. By then I'd lost all interest in the park and headed back down the way I'd come up to escape the ongoing confusion.
Passing the now scattering crowd, I saw the shell game setup had evaporated! Finally back down on the hotel side of the boulevard I maneuvered my way through motorbikes, Saturday revelers and dashing shoppers to head back towards my hotel.
Then, off to the side on a path paralleling mine I spotted him. One of the guys I'd seen around the crowd watching the activity like me was apparently following me. The minute he saw that I recognized him he broke eye contact and changed his pace and direction, but not before making eye contact with someone else behind me. Ducking into a store I waited for the hand-off guy to move ahead and then followed him for a short distance before dashing down a side street near my hotel after he had passed it. A third guy (might be my imagination now!) crossed the side street at the same time I did and loitered looking away, mirroring my actions. Now behind the hotel, I knew of a back door and with no one obviously watching quickly entered, joined a newly arrived group of Chinese tourists in the elevator and got to my room... where I remained for the night.
Now comes the really puzzling part. All of the photos I took of the "shell game" crowd have disappeared from my camera! ...or the camera malfunctioned and the pictures were never taken... How much of this is the product of rampant paranoia, I don't know. If it actually happened, who were the people tailing me: part of the scam gang or Chinese law enforcement running a sting... or?
I've added one more Chinese character to my vocabulary, the one for "hotel." In my mind, it looks like a gallows with a box shaped head hanging from it. "If you steal our towels, it is to the gallows you go!" The others include characters for "men" and "women" found at public restrooms, and "chicken" so essential for ordering something passing for real food in restaurants where English is rare.
The second day on the island I rode a #40 bus up to the northern coastal area. The trip takes nearly an hour and ends next to the northern terminus of the island's high speed rail line. Lots of open space and few people make it an ideal place to walk and ponder. Upscale international hotel chains have discovered the temperate coastal areas of the island and I recognized several American brands like the Marriott, Sheraton and Holiday Inn Express located in this idyllic remote setting.
Heading back on foot, I followed the bus route toward the city until hunger reminded me I hadn't eaten since a skimpy Chinese breakfast in the hotel. Buses come along every twenty minutes and stop for passengers who flag them down. Bus fares are miniscule: 1,2 or 3 RMB. that's 17, 33 or 50 cents. The buses I've tried have not been crowded and oldsters always get seats eagerly relinquished by younger people... at least up here in the north of the island.
The Chinese on holiday in this part of the country are boisterous, mirroring the behavior of their unruly kids. It is as if the adults have never "grown up!" Crude people commonly yell while conversing with one another face to face as well as while talking on their cell phones, anywhere and everywhere. However, watching people in the shopping areas from the second floor vantage point of Mac Donald's I can't help but marvel at how like their American counterparts of last century are the Chinese in their dress and mannerisms. Even the local grown popular music is beginning to sound more Western than Oriental. Chinese culture is evolving into a mirror image of the West.
Within a block around the hotel I have found four KFC's, a Mac Donald's and a Pizza Hut. All are outrageously popular with the islanders... as well as visiting Western tourists... who become the day's entertainment for the Chinese who see few foreigners in these parts. Grandparents go out of their way to encourage their charges to wave and say "hello" to foreigners. Trained from birth to be friendly, it is not surprising older kids take great glee in harassing foreign strangers with their behavior learned from grandma... or grandpa. While it is common to see elderly people walking hand in hand with small children, it is less common to see young adults walking hand in hand with the now ancient one who took care of them as children... and touching, but I have witnessed several such tender moments.
On my third day in the city I rode a #38 bus down to the ultra-modern high speed rail terminal located in the city to check on ticketing procedures and schedules. There are fast trains leaving nearly every hour for the southern terminus in Sanya, a popular island vacation area. The Hainan High-Speed Railway has been in operation since 2011. From Haikou to Sanya, a distance of three hundred kilometers the targeted speed is 200 kilometers per hour, but may be increased to 250 kilometers per hour at some future date. The fare for the two hour ride is 100RMB or about $17.
My Caucasian features continue to attract attention, but it is my hair that seems to arouse people's interest the most... perhaps even amusement as they commonly draw attention to the little curl that naturally pops up right in the middle of my forehead. I indicate by gestures and by pushing it back and then shaking my head to show how the darned thing springs back to its assigned location. The encounters generally lead to some good natured nonverbal conversations with smiles all around.
I continue to struggle with the crippled Internet. Anything Google is problematic. Interestingly, Gmail works on my Android smart phone. In discussing the situation with a tech-savvy Chinese guy I learned phones with SIM chips purchased in your home country outside China are subject to different rules than those acquired in China. My Yahoo and Hotmail accounts work after a fashion, but when I tried to test an email with many addresses in the bcc: field both services demanded security checks to insure the accounts had not been compromised. The "Catch 22" is that I must provide a phone number for a text message, but my phones don't work in China!
Finally, after messing with several potential work-around strategies I realized my time in China soon would end and the problems would become irrelevant. So, I stopped struggling with the communications problems and focused on writing my accounts with photographs for later processing. Fortunately, my web host Netfirms has been able to avoid their security interventions which were messing up the FrontPage software package needed for website editing. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that one as it has been a disastrous problem in the past.
Several people have inquired about my various health issues. I am happy to say everything is fine. The rib broken in Sapa Vietnam is mending nicely and only hurts a little if I breath too deeply. The now symptom free diseased gall bladder remains a potential problem; the darned thing eventually will need to be removed, I'm told. To delay that eventuality I try to minimize fats and hope there are no further flare-ups until I get back home... or to Bangkok.
With North Korea no longer an immediate prospect, I'm looking more to the warmer south, possibly Papua New Guinea through Darwin Australia. Nothing is final, of course and it is even possible the North Koreans will lift the travel ban early next year so I can reactivate those plans... assuming I don't unwittingly become the main course in someone's Papua New Guinea banquet! Curiosity has finally prompted me to take the bullet train down to China's southern most city, Sanya tomorrow after only three nights here in the northern capital city of Haikou. More when something interesting develops.
Fred L Bellomy
Hainan China 2014: Map of the major cities on the island.