Travelogue: Hainan, end of 2003 - part 3

One more typhoon day went slowly by, the constant rain and wind blurring the sense of time.

Practically the whole afternoon spent with the splendid girl of the deer-turning-head night excursion, which is the manager of the pension in which I stay. She practices her English and I practice my Chinese, as we exchange stories and impressions about our respective cultures and places. The desire to see more of China grows and grows.. the waterfalls, the temples on top of the mountains, the gorges, the city of kites..

During the night I once more visited the jiuba (bar). When I arrived, all lights were off and I very hesitantly climbed the dark stairs, calling out to check if anybody was there. There was no electricity, that was the reason for the darkness, but the bar was open, few flickering candles creating a very nice atmosphere but not many customers (a single couple was there, chatting at a table). The waitresses invited me on a room in the back, where they were busy playing mah-jong. I regretted because I don't know the rules of the game so I couldn't participate or enjoy watching the game, but observing the players and training my ears to the local hainanese dialect was still quite interesting.

The following day the daifeng was over but it left behind a brown sea of suspended sand that will take several days to clear up. I decided to go visiting Nanshanshi, the temple of the south mountain (in fact located near the southernmost mountain in china). It's located forty kilometres from the city and I planned to reach it with public transportation, avoiding the hassle of having to bargain the ride and getting more chances to learn about the local ways of life.

So I took a bus towards a small village near the very touristic location of "the end of the sky" (that I am not keen on visiting). On the way, I got glances of a Muslim mosque, street markets, ducks, stray hats, cultivations.. I then waited by the road for another quite crammed bus. The bus deposited me at the intersection between the country road and the access road to the temple, one or two kilometres away. A man and a girl had a small stand there at the intersection and I could see their surprise at seeing a foreigner coming in this way. But surprise quickly left the place to opportunity and they offered me a ride on motorbike to the temple. The ride was so funny since the girl was riding, and even with my very limited experience of motorbikes I could understand she wasn't very skilled at it, but still not too bad considering she was fourteen years old..

The temple buildings are scattered on a wide expanse of land; beautiful settings, carefully designed. Lakes, woods, paths, bridges, waterfalls, statues, palms, corridors, gates. Maybe because of the still unwelcoming weather, maybe because after entering I went in the opposite direction to the one taken by most visitors, I had a beautiful lonely experience through the park. I enjoyed peace and serenity there. I could relax, be amused by some cute statues, listen to the sound of water, admire the reflections of roofs in the lakes, project myself under a flower-canopy corridor, caress the muzzle of some young deer, chase a goose in an open meadow with just a few palm trees; a very beautiful and cleansing wandering.

Darkness approached fast and the park closed the gates. I was very lucky because on the way out I met a tourist operator; we exchanged cards and chatted for a while. I enquired if they had some free place on their bus (they were running a tour for some public officers from Sichuan) and in this way got a very smooth and comfortable ride back to Sanya. On the bus several tourists thought I was sixty years old. That was not the first time I heard such a thing and it started to worry me. Do I really look so old to Chinese people? Maybe the very blond hair, maybe the wrinkles at the eyes..

The following day the sun came back and I returned to the beach. The fury of the typhoon had broken the first steps of the stone stairs leading to the beach. My ideas of having a house by the sea might need reconsideration.
In the afternoon I got convinced to reach West Island to join the tourist guide I had met yesterday. I knew I wouldn't have liked the place, and in fact it's too crowded and commercial to appeal me. My main reason for going was the chance to watch a sunset, since I still haven't seen a single one in China and maybe this day I could have had a chance. Since this resort island closes at sunset, I experienced my first Chinese sunset while being herded with a great number of tourists in the queue for the boats that bring people back to Hainan.
I got what I expected in both senses: an uncomfortable and crowded tourist resort and a glorious sunset. The fat oval of the sun, dotted with clouds, melting into the sea.. it gave me satisfaction, happiness, serenity.

I eventually moved to Haikou, "SeaMouth", the capital city of the island, where I was hosted by the family of a good friend of mine. They welcomed me and treated me so wonderfully, like I was part of the family. I felt really at home, although nine thousand kilometres from it. And the food prepared by my friend's mother.. so tasty and at the same time healthy! After all those days eating restaurant food this was the real salvation.

During the weekend Haikou was celebrating the Festival of Joy, a recent addition to the island's traditions, being at its fourth edition. Several events, food stalls, sweets, sand carving, dances..

At some point we reached a square where in the evening there would have been the main show, together with the official opening of the Miss World contest. Right when we were there a huge number of soldiers suddenly arrived and started ordering the people to step back, without violence but with firm decision. Back, and back, and again back, more and more metres away from the road which coasted the square. It reminded me of the movie I had recently watched: Hero (yingxiong). In that movie the bounty killer is granted to sit at increasingly short distance to the emperor, in virtue of his deeds. We, the common people, were pushed at increasingly great distance.

New soldiers arrived, with tough looking dogs, and yet more squads, forming a protective barrier and still pushing people back. They then placed a cordon, a yellow "police" ('gongan': public peace) ribbon, and stood on guard. These poor conscripts probably remained posted there for the following seven hours, until the show would have completed. Happy festival of joy to us all..

The following morning the family brought me to eat dimsum (dianxin, snacks) in a tea-house. Steamed dumplings, chicken legs, hot buns, egg cakes.. all this and more is part of this splendid Cantonese morning ritual.

During the afternoon, although it was on a Sunday, I had a business meeting with the director and professors of a local research institute. The buildings looked a bit battered but the laboratory equipments seemed ok and the people industrious.
They are in great need of a bioinformatics section and could offer me a lot of freedom and facilities. I could teach there, in English, something I thought was not possible here in Hainan. This looks really promising, teaching to graduate students is a great opportunity which could give me lot of challenges and satisfaction.
I thanked them and we concluded we shall remain in touch to define more details. Furthermore, we arranged I shall give a presentation of my thesis work in that institute, next month.

Back to the city, to the festival and to do some shopping. In an exhibition stand I got the possibility to observe with amazement the effective size of the shoes that in ancient times the ladies had to wear. I knew about the custom of foot bandaging to reduce their size, but didn't expect the reduction to be as drastic as the shoes let imagine.

At home I learned to fold huntun (wanton, soup dumplings) in a way which is different from the one I had been previously taught. I also got instructed in how to fold xiaolongbao (little dragon dumpling) but although I understood the theory, the results are quite disappointing. 'Man man xue', literally 'slow slow learn', is the motto for this period. Applied to culture, language, and customs and hence also to dumpling folding.

The evening ended with home karaoke, some songs I already knew by DengLiJun and could hence sing. A great way to practice reading ideograms, and maybe one day I'll learn how to sing properly..

The following day I checked another university, which should be the best of the island. The campus is beautiful, but the same cannot be said for their laboratories.
And there are no post-graduate courses so little chances to teach using English, although the professors there were apparently ready to create some new courses taught in English if I'd join their university.

As I had caught a cold, I spent most of the Haikou days at home. This gave me the opportunity to get some more sleep (in Sanya I was sleeping too few hours per night) and I also learned how to play mah-jong. Once more it's 'man man xue': I will need a lot of practice not to bore my opponents with a slow play.

Although still sick I felt restless and ready to move back to sunny Sanya; eager to see if the sea had eventually turned crystal clear, to watch a new sunset, to swim, to dive, to meet new people.

Joseph A.L. Insana

Last modified: Tue Dec 16 14:13:58 CET 2003 First appearance: Tue Dec 16 14:12:30 CET 2003