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JISHOU, HUNAN — So, here’s a more detailed travelogue to follow up on the post I sent from my cell phone last week.

Yalong Haijiao in Sanya, Hainan

Yalong Haijiao in Sanya, Hainan

As I mentioned, students here in their next-to-last year take a class trip, so four groups of students were planning trips to Hainan 海南, a tropical island in the South China Sea, Beihai 北海, a tropical seaside southern resort city, Guilin 桂林, a picturesque city nestled among mountains and rivers in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region 广西, and Fenghuang 凤凰, the ancient city about two hours from Jishou 吉首. All four groups asked me to join them.

Oy, decisions, decisions!

The Beihai group asked first, but their trip was only four days long. With a half-day on the train each way, they really only had two days in Beihai. The Hainan group asked me, too. Their trip was seven days, with almost four spent in Hainan. The Guilin group asked, but later canceled their trip — some joined the Beihai tour, and the rest went to Fenghuang.

In all, about 100 students went to Fenghuang, primarily because it was much cheaper than the other trips, and required less bus travel. (I’ve noticed that a relatively higher number of Chinese than American students have motion sickness problems, at least from anecdotal evidence. This discourages a lot of them from traveling.)

Now, it would seem to be a piece of cake for me to join one of the tour groups, but as I discovered last year when a similar opportunity presented itself, it’s not so easy. One minor obstacle was my having to make up any missed class sessions – eight in my case. The major issue was the dean’s reluctance to have the college be responsible for my health and safety. In order to join the students, I had to agree it was a personal decision of mine, that I was going not as representative of the college or university but as a private citizen, and that I had to pay my own way.

So, I agreed, and paid my 1,050 yuan ($157) for a seven-day tour, with all meals and accommodations provided. Compared to my last visit to Sanya 三亚, on the southern end of Hainan, it was a steal. (We paid at least four times that much for our air fares and hotel costs alone then.)

The money-saver was taking the train, and not the plane, and traveling with a Chinese tour group. Hotels offer lower prices for local tours than for foreign tourists, too.

The train is much slower, of course, but we all had sleeper berths for the overnight journeys between Jishou and Zhanjiang 湛江, a rail terminus in Guangdong 广东 province. As a bargain tour, the berths were “hard beds,” meaning the cotton-padded mattresses are only about two inches thick. There are six in each compartment, three on a side, and the compartments are open to the corridor. Soft beds are more expensive and more comfortable: four cushier beds to a private compartment. For either kind, on our trains, the toilets and washrooms are at either end of the car.

Students sitting on a hardbed

Students on a hardbed

So, from Jishou to Zhanjiang was almost 20 hours, because we were on the local — the kind of train that stops at nearly every town along the way and has to yield right-of-way to faster trains and even freights.

How do you while away the hours on a train? I came prepared with a book to read (Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding), music and movies, and a willingness to just look at the scenery pass by. The students taught me their version of the party game called “Killer”, which we played for several rounds.

We arrived in the predawn hours of Saturday. From Zhanjiang, we took a bus two hours to Hai’an 海安, where there is a ferry port to Haikou 海口 on Hainan Island. The ferry trip lasts about an hour.

About 20 years ago, Hainan was an undeveloped and neglected island, part of Guangdong province. Then the central government realized it could become China’s version of Hawai’i, made it a distinct province (Haikou is the capital), and set about encouraging the tourist trade there. Now there are a wide variety of places and activities, from snorkeling to Vegas-style showgirls.

Our schedule was not overly busy, fortunately. Though we spent some time on the bus, we also had time to enjoy the sights and relax.

Saturday: Arrive in Zhanjiang. Bus to Hai’an, ferry to Haikou. Rest in Haikou. No scheduled activities, other than dinner.

Sunday: Bus to the east coast, near Wanning 万宁. Visit a barrier island at Bo’ao 博鳌 and play in the surf. Visit a botanical garden/business in Xinglong 兴隆, where they grow coffee, cacao, vanilla, coconut and other tropical plants. Visit the Xinglong factory of Erancafé, a Hainan coffee grower. Stay at resort hotel for the night.

Monday: Bus to Sanya. Visit a knife factory for a sales pitch. Visit a crystal factory for a sales pitch. Spend a brief time at Dadonghai 大东海 (where I visited last year), then proceed to a seaside park, Tianya Haijiao 天涯海角. Afternoon, visit West Island in Yalongwan 亚龙湾. Stay in hotel near downtown Sanya.

Tuesday: Visit Yalongwan beach, Sanya. Lunch, then get on the bus to Haikou. Visit another shopping emporium on the way. In Haikou, we visited Hainan University, which was just 10 minutes’ walk from our hotel.

Wednesday: Leave Haikou in the morning. Return to Zhanjiang, board the train in the afternoon.

Thursday: Arrive Jishou at 7:00 am

Now, perhaps you noticed the business and sales pitch stops. Tour agencies here have a very slim profit margin, especially for a low-budget student tour. So, one way to supplement their income is to take their tours shopping, where I imagine the guides get a small commission on the products the tourists buy. I experienced this last year when the faculty took a tour of Shaoshan 韶山, the hometown of Mao Zedong 毛泽东. We also visited a knife factory, where we got the same live infomercial as I saw in Sanya last week.

After you walk around the botanical garden and look at the plants (which are not labeled very well), you’re taken to a cafe where you are given samples of their products to taste — in this case, cocoa, coconut milk, vanilla and coffee. (They market a tea made from vanilla plant leaves. Our consensus was, yeech!) Then, in order to leave, you walk through a labyrinthine retail store, where sales associates ply you with samples and entreaties to buy, buy, buy.

The coffee factory tour was not really a tour of the factory, but a brief introduction to coffee and the company. We only saw some windowed work rooms showing unattended roasting and grinding equipment, and a few workers packing products by hand for shipping. I suspect the real factory operation uses machines for the packaging — the workers were literally window-dressing. Then, to exit, we once again walked through a retail labyrinth.

And yes, I did buy some things that I figured I couldn’t get in Jishou, like freshly roasted and ground coffee.

The knife factory was a straight-forward sales pitch, with a free paring knife as a “prize.” The crystal emporium was a glitzy monument to the miraculous powers of crystals, with showcase upon showcase of high-priced jewelry that to my unprofessional eyes looked identical to the low-priced trinkets sold in the small mom-and-pop booths that clutter every tourist trap in China. I don’t think any of us bought anything at the crystal place.

The shopping trips were boring, but not as annoying as it might seem. Most of us were in high spirits, with a long holiday away from classes and pleasantly warm weather to bolster our moods. Most of the students had never been to Hainan, or even to the seashore, so the retail excursions were just minor annoyances, like the many mosquitoes at night.

Happy campers at the beach

Happy campers at the beach

The beaches in Sanya are remarkably clean, and the water is very clear, though sometimes clouded with fine white silt. West Island, where we spent one afternoon, has even nicer beaches and many aquatic activities, like parasailing, sea-doo rentals, glass-bottomed boat trips, and the like. Two students and I opted to try scuba diving, while most of the others just headed for the beach. We paid 320 yuan ($48) each for an hour and half of reef diving.

It was our first time diving, and more experienced divers would probably be appalled at the relative lack of preparatory instruction offered us: a brief look at a poster of the hand signals, a few short words about equalizing ear pressure, then off to the dock to don your weights and breathing equipment. On the bright side, each of us had our own personal instructor (mine of course spoke no other English than “OK”), who allowed us time to get used to being underwater. We all found that the instructors were too much in a hurry to get us to dive deeper. We all forgot the ear pressure equalization and motioned to came up to the surface pretty quickly. So, in the end, our teachers sent us back to the dock after just 40 minutes in the water. (I was the last to return, though.)

LingLing remembered to order photos for herself, but Jack and I forgot. So I have no photographic evidence of me in a wetsuit. You’ll have to use your imagination.

While I can swim, I am by no means a fish in the water, so I wondered how I would adapt to diving. To my delight, I found I really enjoyed the whole experience, and took to the scuba gear quickly. To my dismay, I just plain forgot to deal with my ear pressure in the excitement of trying something new. Next time, I will know better. Having an English-speaking teacher would be a plus, too, I’m sure.

So, all in all, it was a great trip. I made friends with one of the new teachers in our college, with whom I shared hotel rooms, and spent time with about 20 of my students in a different venue than the classroom.

[Accompanying college students on a class trip is so much easier than chaperoning high school students. While we teachers were responsible for their safety, we did not have to monitor for alcohol use or co-habitation in the hotels. (There was one student couple. I made no inquiries as to their sleeping arrangements.) On the other hand, Chinese students are less rowdy (one may also say adventuresome) than Americans. On our first night, we had the entire evening to ourselves and there was at least one dance club and a bar within sight of our hotel. What did our students do? Stayed in the hotel to watch TV and play cards.]

I’ve posted some photos to Facebook, and most are in my Picasaweb site, which mercifully is working again. Considering some of you are either being sucked up in the air by tornadoes or washed away by the Ohio River, I hope you enjoy looking at my less drama-filled surroundings.

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