Once a remote land for banishment in ancient times, the topical island that is Hainan Province海南省 has long been a destination of choice for mainlanders keen to escape the depths of winter, with Chongqing no exception.
While spared of the harsh wintry conditions up in the far north, the months of cold, drizzle, fog, and drab overcast skies that can obscure the sun for weeks, eventually make locals and foreigners alike yearn for sunnier, warmer climes, if only for a short time.
In fact, there is an ancient Chinese idiom that goes ‘蜀犬吠日Shu-quan-fei-ri (Sichuanese dogs bark at the sun), a literal allusion to the fact sunshine comes in short supply over the winter.
There are still many great winter activities in Chongqing, such as the hot springs, spas, mountain getaways, ski resorts, and all city attractions you can explore at leisure outside the peak season. Life can still be pleasant when you know how to make the best of its seasonal variety.
Sanya三亚, the main city in the southern half of Hainan, is only a two hour flight away from Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, but this change of scene virtually guarantees you warmth and sunshine whenever you go.
The problem is that countless others nationwide have the same idea once Chinese New Year lurks over the horizon, so hotels and airlines hike prices into multiple thousands of yuan in eager anticipation.
And not only do Chinese flock to Hainan in winter. Russians jet in en masse from all over the federation, such as Moscow, Kazan, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok. In fact, you will find signage is dominated by Cyrillic more than English, even if the latter is more widely spoken.
Nevertheless, retirees who spend the winter months in Hainan can easily avoid such expenditure, one by flying out well in advance, and the other by living away from Sanya or Haikou海口, the provincial capital on the northern tip.
In the summer of 2004, I travelled to Sanya for the first time, overland from Chongqing, stopping in Guiyang, Guilin, Yangshuo, Nanning, and Beihai, before taking the night ferry ride to Haikou port.
Despite the relative state of under-development at the time, I loved the tropical climate of Sanya, the beaches, the coconuts, the atmosphere, the watersports, and its prime location for exploring the region.
Over the years, I have gone back many times, even in the summer, when most people in head for the cooler, higher elevations of mountain resorts like Huangshui黄水 or Fairy Mountain仙女山.
While Sanya is indeed hot in the summer months, it’s still a good few degrees cooler than Chongqing, one of the three traditional ‘furnaces of China,’ along with wuhan and Nanjing, and the sea breezes only enhance this difference further.
Along with great weather, crowds grow sparser, and there are usually great flight and accommodation deals on offer between the months of June and August.
For decades, mainlanders from all over China have invested heavily in residential property, eventually driving up prices in Sanya and Haikou, and spurring the development of regional cities like Wanning万宁, Wenchang文昌, Danzhou儋州 and Lingao临高.
Then, a few years ago, the central government designated Hainan as an international free trade zone and major travel destination. Great infra-structure projects like the network of modern highways and high speed rail has revolutionised travel on the island, and the lure of visa free access has enticed more visits from overseas.
A stumbling block to long term development plans is now the large migratory population, who leave giant swathes of property unoccupied most of the year, when the province now requires a more stable population to achieve its ambitious plans.
The solution came in 2018, when a new law passed that demanded residential property be sold only to natives of Hainan province, at least curtailing the numbers of ‘migratory birds候鸟‘ from any further increase.
Since 2016, the mother in law and Uncle Chen have been migratory birds of Lingao County, with a small apartment in the northwestern part of the island, and where she now stays from around November to March.
While the north of Hainan doesn’t enjoy quite the same tropical climate of Sanya in winter, mainly thanks to the central mountain ranges that divide the two, it’s still a great domestic location to escape the coldest months of each year.
Grand Winter Plans
This time, Chinese New Year falls on January 25th, and our plan is to drive the 1500 kilometres to Lingao two weeks in advance, then return via an alternative route during the seven day holiday, when motorways temporarily cease to collect tolls.
We will keep driving times to within six hours per day, allowing us to explore many new cities and locations during our journey.
Another highlight will include the sea crossing, where trains from all over China also roll onto ferries on their way to Haikou and Sanya!
Come the time, I hope you follow our own winter migration with interest!