, , ,

JISHOU, HUNAN — OK, so I guess I need to finish the story of my Winter Holiday, with an account of my trip to Hainan, China’s Hawai’i.

My companions for this trip were my neighbors, Grisha, Anya and their son, Nik, 9. Grisha and Anya are Ukrainian piano teachers here on a three-year exchange. I’ve been teaching Nik English twice a week. In December they asked me to join them on a week-long trip to Sanya 三亚, on the southern tip of Hainan.

Hainan is roughly the same latitude as Hawai’i, with a very similar climate. Formerly a neglected part of China (criminals were once banished there), mainlanders realized it was prime vacation spot about 20 years ago, just because of its location. Now it’s the site of scores of hotels and resorts, including swanky places like Sheraton, Hilton and Ritz-Carlton properties.

And Russians. Lots of Russians. Some have settled there, like our tour agency owner, Tatiana , while most just come to bask in the sunshine and swim in the still-clean ocean. There are so many Russian tourists that menus are bilingual, and many shops boast bilingual signs.

Of course, there also many, many Chinese, even at the ultra-swanky places. (We could use the Sheraton’s beach, but not the facilities — officially — so I can speak authoritatively on this last point.)

By way of a preface, I’ll recount my travel adventures before we met to leave for Sanya. One of my friends in the senior class had asked me to visit her in Xiangtan, south of Changsha, during Spring Festival. So, since I had to go to Changsha to meet Grisha, Anya and Nik anyway, she invited me to spend the night in her home instead of the hotel I had already booked.

Naturally, I had no idea how to get to Denise’s home, although I had stayed there last April for a weekend. So, she offered to meet in at my motorcoach’s terminus and then guide me home.

But something happened, and she couldn’t meet me. No problem, she asked a friend who gave us directions on how to get from Changsha to Xiangtan.

Outdated directions, as it turned out. I was supposed to go to the train station (easy, I could walk there, but I took a taxi instead), then go to the bus station next to the train station and find the Xiangtan bus. Despite my careful investigation, all I found was the Changsha city-bus station, not the intercity south bus station.

Denise suggested I ask someone who spoke English for assistance. At the time I was standing next to a teenage girl and her parents, so I figured she was likely to know some English. They talked to Denise on the phone, hailed a cab, and told the driver to take me to the south bus station, a few kilometers away.

Not really next door to the train station.

Oh, well. Once at the right station, I bought a ticket for Xiangtan, got on board the bus, and waited for our departure. And waited. And waited.

After an hour, we finally pulled out of the station around 5, but not before the driver and conductor asked several passengers to get off the bus. These walked out of the station, past the terminal office, and onto the street. Once the driver submitted his paperwork to the terminal office, we then stopped to pick up these same passengers and then waited by the curb another 30 minutes for more to arrive.

[I think the plan here is for the driver to save transport taxes or fees for his company, by shedding some passengers, and passengers to (supposedly) save money. But I paid 13 RMB for my ticket and they paid 14, so I still remain puzzled. I went through a similar scenario when we returned to Jishou from Changsha in another week.]

Once we were finally moving, the trip took only an hour, and after a comical 15 minutes trying to find each other in a crowded bus station, Denise and I left for her home, where her parents had dinner waiting. I had a very pleasant stay, and had a chance to enjoy nice weather the following day.

Our flight to Sanya was scheduled (remember that word) to leave at 9 pm, so I was not rushed leaving Xiangtan. Denise and I left for Changsha later that afternoon, and we met Grisha’s family close to their hotel. Denise went home right away, declining my offers of both her taxi fare and bus fare, and the rest of us had a light supper before we left for the airport.

A friend offered to take us in his car to the airport. It was a sedan, and had plenty of room for all of us and our luggage, but he was concerned it was not comfortable enough. So we stopped by his office (the traffic police station, where he is an officer) to find a larger car. He couldn’t get one, was profusely apologetic, but eventually accepted our answers of “mei wen ti” — “it doesn’t matter” — and we were on our way again.

To wait – you guessed it — for another ridiculously delayed flight. It was a rerun of my experience in Shanghai Hongqiao airport. Ours was the last flight out of Changsha at 3 am. We arrived around 4:30 am, took a cab to our hotel, and rousted our gracious interpreter, Oksana, out of her bed to help us talk to the hotel operator, who we also rousted out of bed.

(Oksana — her Russian name — is a young Chinese woman from Harbin, in the northeast. She came to Sanya because she has a very marketable skill — she can speak Russian. Perhaps the tropical climate encouraged her, too.)

We slept the rest of the morning, then Oksana showed us around. Then we hit the beach.

Now, I’m used to the summer crowds at Jones Beach and Robert Moses park on Long Island, so it was blessed surprise to find the beach at Dadonghai was not jam packed with people, even for a holiday. The sand and the water were both clean (no trash), and the surf during the first half of the week was really calm — a joy to swim in.

It was cloudy during most of the week, which moderated the temperatures to the mid-20s (that’s the mid- to upper-70s in America-speak) and cut down on the UV radiation. So we didn’t turn into cooked lobsters until Friday. (I am still peeling. Jeez.) It rained only once midweek.

Besides Dadonghai, we also visited the Sheraton beach at Yalongwan to the east. Tatiana advised us that we could use the beach there for free, but not the Sheraton pools or beach chairs. We did anyway, and only once did a Sheraton employee chase us off the chairs. Since the Yalongwan beach was also not crowded, we were not really stealing any chairs from Sheraton guests. The swimming pools were also pretty empty.

The downside of coming after Spring Festival, when it is cold in most of the rest of China and when most Chinese are still hanging with their homies and not touring, are the higher prices. The Ritz-Carlton’s top priced suite was 2500 RMB, or about $367 a night, and the Sheraton’s topped out at 1700 RMB, or about $250 a night. By comparison, our hotel, with no scenic views or fancy accoutrements, was a bargain at 1960 RMB for 6 nights (about $48 a night). We are teachers, after all, not wealthy Russian businessmen.

The beach at Dadonghai was a few minutes’ walk away and Yalongwan was an hour’s ride on a city bus. While there were some pricey restaurants, we also found a cheap little dumpling shop, and of course there were plenty of supermarkets and convenience stores all around. So we could eat cheaply if we wanted to.

Our other excursion was to the hot springs at Sanya Pearl River Nantian Resort, about a half hour from Sanya city. We spent most of the day there, and by the end of it were all very, very relaxed. The entry fee there was about 140 RMB, roughly $20.

For various reasons, I left Sanya before my friends did, and for once my flight was not delayed. I arrived in Changsha on time, spent some time with a friend there, and waited for Grisha, Anya and Nik to arrive so we could return to Jishou together.

My plan was to catch my usual coach at 1 pm , but they assured me their friend had made all the arrangements for our return. I met them near the west bus station, and we piled into a car, which took us … to an entrance ramp on the ChangChang Expressway. Yes, we became one of those hapless passengers who meet the bus on its way to its destination! Their friend assured us that tickets normally would be 100 RMB (true), but because of the holiday they were now 140 RMB. By meeting the bus on the highway, we would save 40 RMB each.

After hearing this yarn, I knew he was probably scamming us, but it was too late to complain. My coach fare to Changsha immediately before and after New Year’s Day was the usual 90-100 RMB. I doubted it would jump to 140 two weeks later. Still, the whole arrangement was not really so awful. We paid 100 each, and although we had to wait on the roadside for an hour, we still met the 1 pm bus and still arrived in Jishou at the usual time. (Though I suspect their friend managed to make some money on the deal somehow.)

So, that’s the end of my Winter Holiday odyssey. Three weeks in the USA, visiting 3 states, one week in Jishou and Changsha, and another week in sunny Sanya. I will not reveal how much money I spent. Suffice it to say I need to stay close to home for a few months to replenish my bank account.