China’s Tropical Capital – Haikou

Hey, firstly I’d like to give a big ‘你好’ to all those visiting my blog for the first time and welcome back the Follow Morris veterans! As I am sure you know, for the last six months I have been studying Chinese at Hainan University in Haikou. I have been asked on numerous occasions what Haikou is like for living in and travelling to and when I am going to write a blog about it; well here it is!

When I was researching Haikou before moving here, I found little about Haikou, so I hope that this blog can help answer some of the questions which you might have about Haikou.

Tropical China

‘Tropical’ and ‘China’ are probably not two words you’d put together, but Hainan island has for a long time been a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists. However, outside of southern Sanya (三亚) the rest of the island has had very little tourism at all. That lack of tourism includes the provincial capital Haikou on the north coast.

What to do in Haikou

Haidian Island 海甸岛

Accommodation

Haidian, in the north of Haikou is the home of Hainan university, which is probably the best university in Hainan. I arrived in Haikou a week before term started and I needed somewhere to stay which was close to the university, cheap and willing to store my stuff from Dongguan.The Banana Hostel filled all of these criteria. Their friendly, English speaking staff even helped me get a taxi to move my gear to the university campus.

The rooms are 50 RMB (£5) a night for the dorm and 90 RMB (£10) for a single, which includes a shower. There is also free wifi throughout the hostel. To top it off, the hostel also has the best pizza in the city – same price as Pizza Hut and 10 times better, its worth the money!

Eating

I had always loved Chinese food, and when I was making my decision on what to do after graduation my gut played a part in my decision to come to China!

Some of my favourite cuisines are Beijing Duck and Xinjiang. But, of course they would have to be the two most difficult types of food to find! But – as luck would have it, Haidian has both!

The Beijing Duck restaurant is on Haidian 4th East Road (海甸四东路) taxi drives know it if you tell them you want to go and eat 烤鸭 kaoya. A whole duck with the pancakes and sundries comes to about 120RMB (£13), a whole duck is enough really for 2 people, even a greedy git like me and my mates can only just about finish one between us.

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For Xinjiang grub, head to Haidian 2nd East Road (海甸二东路), as you go down the road from the university, the restaurant will be on your left. You can’t miss it though, there is a huge traditional BBQ outside and tables set up for evening diners (there are just a couple of tables at lunch, it may look shut, but it is still open.) The 馕 nang, traditional Xinjiang flat bread are all made on site in their kiln – which is pretty cool to watch. There are loads of different skewers on offer, but my reccomendation is the Chaomian and Ding ding mian (炒面, 丁丁面), this is completely different to the normal Chinese chow mien and reflects the middle-eastern culture of the Xinjiang. The ‘chow mien’ is actually almost the same as pasta with a really healthy (天呐!) sauce of tomatoes and various veg – really great if you are missing western food!

The South Gate Food Street is really cool and draws in people from all over the city. Located as you might be able to tell from the name, at the road running along the university’s South Gate, the food street comprises of over a hundred meters of food stands selling various food from all over China.

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One of my favourites is rou jia mo 肉夹馍 best ones are from here '土耳其烤肉'

One of my favourites is rou jia mo 肉夹馍 best ones are from here ‘土耳其烤肉’

What a lot of people do is buy some different things from different stands and then go and sit down, the atmosphere here is friendly and relaxed with people eating and chatting with their friends. As the food street remains open until very late, often people will order some food, and pre-drink before going out.

Beaches

Hainan is a tropical island and from the University you are just 1km from 白沙门 baishamen  beach! Baishamen is similar to the Mediterranean… yellow sand, cold water and really good for sunbathing. The Chinese culture around sunbathing and tanning is very different to the West’s, the Chinese prefer to stay white, rather than roast to a healthy mocha colour, so in the middle of the day expect to see most people all covered up, except the old boys in their speedos ! When the sun goes down, the Chinese start to head to the beach, so after 6pm it will start to get busy.

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The promenade here is good fun – there’s a fair ground, shooting range, restaurants and shops which makes for a nice stroll in the evening when it is all lit up and buzzing with people.

Hospital

Apart from being an awesome modern twist on the traditional Hainan ‘boat house’ style, the People’s Hospital (人民医院), directly opposite the East Gate has foreign doctors working there. So if you want to see a western practitioner and/or talk over a problem in English then this place is the place to go.

Qilou Old Street 骑楼老街

China has been developing at break-neck speed for the last 30 years and all too often economic developments have come at the detriment to China’s ‘5,000 years of history’. In the town where I grew up, in England the church is 1,000 years old, and it is such a crushing shame that almost everything older than 20 years old in China seems to have been demolished. Haikou does however offer a couple of refreshing exemptions to to this Chinese norm.

海口钟楼

海口钟楼

In the area near the Clocktower 钟楼, which was once the tallest building is Haikou is the Qilou Old Street. Historically Hainan was a poor area (it didn’t become a province until 1988) so many Hainaners went abroad to make their fortune – some made it. When these wealthy businessmen returned they often built elegant buildings in the style of where they came back from. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were popular destinations for these Chinese and the buildings are in this style. From my own travels I think the style is most similar to that of the former Portuguese colony, Macau.

Along Xinhuan Nan and Dong lu (新华南/东路) the buildings are still in use and have not been renovated, they are as they are. Some are in a healthy condition, some are looking worse for wear and some have been replaced. Normally cultural alarm bells would be ringing that this whole area will soon be torn down in favour of a modern shopping centre, but that flies in the face of the changing reality of Chinese development. As Chinese people get richer, and the government is looking to diversify the economy, and this type of area is being cultivated into a tourist site.

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Same road, newer rebuild, the words which have been painted over in white read “Long live the Communist Party of China”

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Currently a Lanzhou beef noodle restaurant

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From Xinhua Nan lu, turn on to Zhongshan lu, where you can see how the local council is actively protecting the area’s unique cultural heritage and see the buildings restored to their former glory. The Tourism industry in Haikou is still very much in its infancy, so you’ll see as well as the trendy coffee shops selling expensive coffee and 清补凉 qing bu liang shops (the traditional Hainan desert for keeping you cool in the hot climate) there are also those that have always been there, the hardware stores, clothes shops etc.

The historic centre of Haikou

The historic centre of Haikou

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Once a hotel, now a very cool coffee shop

Once a hotel, now a very cool coffee shop

The slogan in the middle reads 'long live the CCP', the two running vertically refer to Maoism and Leninism

The slogan in the middle reads ‘long live the CCP’, the two running vertically refer to Maoism and Leninism

Bisecting Xinhua Lu is Jiefang Xi Lu (解放西路), this busy road leads to Youyi Plaza 友谊广场 which is good for shopping and eating. There are sushi restaurants here as well as McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

Xinbu Island

Xinbu island is the island next to Haidian with  a bridge connecting the two along Haidian 5th Road.

Xinbu has seen very minimal development and has kept the traditional culture and traditions. The temples in this area are intricate, beautiful and real. They actually are old, not just built to look that way. But I think it is important to remember that although they are pretty awesome, for the locals they serve as the hub of their community. When you get to the temples you will see old folks and sometimes kids sitting in the temples. These guys use the temples as a place to meet, play cards, watch tv, nap and chat. So treat it as such, don’t go in trigger happy on your camera as it won’t be appreciated by the locals.

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Traditional dragon roof ornament, people relaxing in the temple

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Saying that, if you want to go in, have a look around and sit down they really don’t mind and it is all the better to have a look. Walk down the old streets, many of them not even signposted!

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Haixiu and Holiday beaches

White sand, sapphire seas and palm trees blowing in the breeze, this is the tropical ideal. From Hainan University, it costs about 35RMB in a taxi, biking takes about an hour, but it is a lovely ride along the seafront.

There are two beaches here, the first you will come to is 海秀海滩 Haixiu beach, and the next being 假日海滩 Holiday Beach. Unlike at Baishamen, the beaches here run for at least 10km going all the way up past the luxury hotels and on towards the dock. It is therefore possible even in the middle of a busy holiday, to still find an area of seclusion.

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Something a bit different

When I got to Haikou, through a friend I found out about ‘the Hasshers’. The Hasshers are a Chinese running group which put a lot of effort into making running really good fun and best of all, all are welcome! Every Saturday they will pick an interesting area to go and run. The course is cross-country and varies in difficulty, there are short and long courses, of about 10 to 20 km.

For 50 RMB you get return transport (leaving and returning to Haidian Island), dinner and all the beer you can drink! For Hassher virgins, there is an initiation which involves sitting on ice, chugging beer and singing – don’t worry if you are the shy type, you won’t be the only one doing it and everyone else has done it, too.

The first time I went, we went to the Haikou volcano, where the course took us up the extinct volcano, through farms, banana plantations, villages and brambles (ouch!). For the less adventurous, the park, about 20km from the centre of Haikou is well worth a visit and there is no need to run it.

For something completely different, head to 名门广场 ming men guang chang for ice skating! I had always wanted to do it, but had never found an ice rink, the last place I had expected to find one was in tropical Haikou! But there it was and for 50RMB (£5.50) you can have a go… and for me it really was having a go, I was pleased not to have fallen over, but on the 10th time I was lapped by an 8 year old girl, I must admit that my pride was more than a little damaged.

Drinking and Clubbing

There is no foreign bar in Haikou! Quelle horreur ! But, there are other places to drink. Along the university North Gate there are many bars, as well as various others scattered across the city. For me, they are all much of a muchness, you pay 30RMB for a 330ml bottle of Heinekken (which is brewed in Haikou) and breathe in as much second hand smoke as you want. A bottle of beer in a shop next door would be about 3RMB.

What a lot of people do is pre-drink at dinner, especially at the South Gate Food Street. Almost every city will have its own beer (with Haikou’s being Anchor) but few have a drink as unique as Hainan’s 海马贡献酒 ‘haima’ which translates to ‘seahorse’ and that’s because that is what it is made out of. No where near as disgusting as it sounds, drunk neat it tastes similar to Jagermeister and it goes well with coke (to make ‘seacoke’) and ice tea (to make ‘ice horse/冰马). There are two types, one is 32% and the other is 50%, both are only 5 RMB! Amazingly good value and they go down pretty quick. If you can find the local coconut liquor, it is also 5RMB, 50+% and tastes just like malibu.

Despite being a small city, Haikou’s clubbing scene is actually really really good! Head to Guo Mao 国贸 where there are 10 or so night clubs. They are pretty standard for China, meaning a small dancefloor, lots of tables and girls working for the club to not make it look like a sausagefest. For a table the Chinese guys are paying upwards of 500 RMB and then a lot more for a box of warm beer and fake whiskey. Because most foreigners are not going to pay this, the staff will often move you on (especially if you are in a big group) but because there are so many clubs to chose from and there is no entrance fee, don’t get aggy, and worked up, just try the next club.

Transport

I covered Haikou travel here, but would add that, if you are flying into Haikou, even with really good Chinese, you should expect to pay about 70RMB for a taxi to Hainan University rather than 50 which it will cost to go there, it is only an extra £2 so its not a big deal really. Also, Haikou’s only Burger King is at the airport.

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