The first time we stopped was to watch the huge frenzy of color overhead. But the second time it was because we realized that if we weren't careful we would soon be treading on lighted packets of gunpowder. It was the last night of the New Year celebration in China's southernmost province of Hainan Island, and locals and tourists alike were serious about their pyrotechnics.
Children, parents, aunts and uncles swarmed the dusky beach, lighting hand-held sparklers or setting off Roman candles and the heavy-duty floral explosions that you'd need a license to light in most parts of the U.S. Fireworks seemed to be everywhere — in front of us, behind us, streaming out of posh hotel windows, glittering and popping before they dropped into the warm South China Sea.
This 13,600-square-mile chunk of Earth was once a destitute land, dubbed "the gate to hell" by a prime minister sent here in exile during the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907. But in recent decades, the island's mild winter climate, lush vegetation and colorful ethnic minorities have begun to lure tourists from mainland China and overseas. In the 1980s, the government designated the island a "special economic zone" and stimulated the economy with favorable regulations. Fancy hotels such as the Sheraton Sanya Resort in Yalong Bay, where the 2003 Miss World competition was held in the fall, and Sanya Shanhaitian Hotel in Dadonghai have opened.
Because it is at the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands, Hainan is called China's Hawaii. The comparison is exaggerated. Tropical island it may be, but even Sanya, Hainan's pricey and heavily touristed beach town, is still a part of a developing country, as the occasional crumbling sidewalk, uncovered manhole and overly assertive trinket hawker will attest. The island has a reputation as the "Wild West," where many of mainland China's strict policies are simply winked at. This is also where, in 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and its crew were held for 11 days after the plane's much-publicized collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
Despite the luxury hotels and resort feel, Hainan's unpolished nature makes the island interesting. Many of its cultural oddities haven't yet had the intriguing grit smoothed out.
Michael and I, who had arrived from colder Chinese climes, hoped that five days on Hainan would help banish the chill we'd been fighting all winter. When we reached Hainan, I peeled off my heavy coat.
Downtown Sanya is unexceptional and didn't look promising. But the five-minute taxi ride out to Dadonghai beach revealed a surprise: It was like an instant resort town had been dropped from outer space, complete with neon lights, mammoth hotels and beckoning surf.
The nearly 80-degree weather I awoke to the next morning tempted me into a bathing suit and sarong. So I took a walk to Dadonghai beach, risking a slight chill to bathe in the South China Sea.
Most of the sleepy community was just beginning to wake, and I had the fairly clean and warm, bath-like ocean nearly to myself. Bobbing alone in the water, I watched senior citizens doing tai chi and young people jogging barefoot along the sand. A group of local women, identifiable by their straw hats topped with bun-shaped knobs, washed baskets of huge shells in the ocean, preparing for a day of hawking the treasures to sunbathers.
After a late evening watching and lighting fireworks, Michael and I wanted to relax a little, so we resolved to check out popular Yalong Bay, a 4 1/2-mile stretch of beach 30 minutes away.
Yalong Bay sported a small boardwalk, where visitors hovered in clumps, buying snacks, playing games or renting small four-wheelers to buzz around a demarcated area. But for me, the attraction was walking along the long, lonely strip of powdery sand speckled with interesting shells and bordered by cactus-covered dunes and the green jungle of hills beyond.
We paused for a drink at a pile of giant coconuts beside some crude tables. We both got a coconut, at about 35 cents each. Two young women wielding axes whacked a hole in each fruit and handed them to us with brittle straws so we could extract the mildly astringent milk.
When our stomachs started rumbling with hunger, we headed up the dunes to a thatched hut, where we chose from tanks fresh crabs, clams and a mysterious fish in a pretty shell about the size of my fist. When cooked, the crab and clams were tasty — but I won't try the odd shellfish again, which was bitter and slimy.
Nanwan, the monkey island
We planned to spend the next day at Nanwan, or Monkey Island, a nature reserve on a small bit of land off the coast of Hainan where more than 1,000 macaque monkeys live. A fitting way, I thought, to help usher in the Year of the Monkey.
For fun and to save money, we thought we'd forgo the prearranged tours that most tourists take to the park and give it a go on our own. The journey proved entertaining, and we discovered just how primitive transportation can be.
First, we fought through a crowded bus station to get tickets to Xincun, where we could catch a boat or cable car across the short stretch of water. Frequent stops to pick up villagers and allow herds of cows to cross the road lengthened the journey. To our surprise, after about an hour our bus driver paused in a small town, shouted back and forth with the driver of another bus, then shooed us off.
"Get on that vehicle," he instructed. "Only 1 yuan."