It’s nearly time for Chinese New Year, and in keeping with habit over recent years, we plan to briefly swap the ubiquitous cold and overcast skies for warmer climes in the far south of China.
Last year, we drove to Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan Province, close to the Lao border, taking in the sights of Luzhou, Bijie, Kunming, Zhaotong, and Yibin en route, cities that have peaked my curiosity for various reasons, but rarely present the occasion to actually visit in person.
As it turned out, Xishuangbanna was a fantastic winter destination. Not only did I love the Southeast Asian style architecture, the rich ethnic minority culture and flavours, the lush, tropical vegetation, the large, sweet coconuts, there is so much to explore that my only regret was again having to leave after only three days.
This time round, our destination is Lingao County, in the northwest portion of Hainan Province, a huge tropical island off the south coast, and insanely popular with tourists from within China, but also Russian tourists who jet in from all major cities across the Federation.
I first visited Hainan in the summer of 2004, and have subsequently returned on many occasions. I love the tropical climes, the beaches, the atmosphere, and the endless source of adventure that awaits you both along the coastline and the mountainous inland reaches.
Our journey by road will exceed a total of 3000 kilometres, but unlike many family members and friends who prefer to drive non-stop, taking turns at the wheel both day and night, I have resisted the persistent calls to follow suit and have broken the trip into three manageable bite-size legs.
Outward, we will drive six hours on the first day to Kaili凯里, a small city in Guizhou Province renowned for its Miao and Tong ethnic minority heritage, and that once upon a time, foreign tourists needed special permission to enter, and would only learn they had fallen foul when they attempted to stay at one of the hotels. This is what I heard at least.
The second day will involve another six hours down to Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Province, where I intend to soothe any aches and pains stemming from my driving exploits at a hot spring resort.
Finally, it’s a five and a half hour drive to Hai’an Ferry Port at the southern tip of the peninsula in Canton. There, we park onto a ferry we have booked in advance, sail ninety minutes to Haikou, then cruise the final hour and a bit to our hotel in Lingao, where we can reunite with some little family members we’ve been desperate to see.
Over the next fortnight, I invite you to follow our road trip from Chongqing to Hainan, and back again, and I will update as often as possible.
Ferry Port Tribulations
Last year, the ferry ports in Haikou hit the national headlines towards the end of New Year, where thousands of drivers showed up in their vehicles, eager to cross the straits and return to everyday life.
In the past, the ferry ports have operated on a first come first serve basis, but the sheer volume of traffic in early 2019 meant the operators found themselves completely overwhelmed, and many drivers had to wait in excess of thirty hours, just to catch a sailing!
There is a new advance ‘reservation only’ policy this year, meaning you can only purchase tickets through the port’s official Wechat portal, or in person from the on site ticket office, useful only if you happen to live nearby.
Also, I read the ticket office will not sell tickets to driving passengers for travel the same day, in and around the new year holiday.
So, fingers crossed, the sailing across the Qionghai Strait should go smoothly in both directions!
The Ferry Port Experience
We completed the journey to Hainan and back in one piece, but the pressures of driving six hours a day, and keeping a group of youngsters entertained, meant there was barely a spare moment to update my blog post regularly.
Now writing in hindsight, I’d like to cover the main points of interest in sections, rather than cover the trip in chronological order.
First, the good news about our ferry crossing in both directions.
We queued at the New Hai’an Port about two hours before boarding the ferry, so far less than the horror stories reported last year.
On the way back, we arrived bright and early at the New Haikou Port, and were it not for some frustrating delays I will describe, we could have almost driven straight onto the ferry with barely a queue at all.
The crossing takes two hours in all, and the authorities have a large fleet that are able to continuously load and offload cars, coaches, trucks, and even trains, all hours day and night.
On board, there’s plenty of seating, and many like to stand outside by the railings and take in the view.
The ferries with ‘Shuangtai双泰’ in the name have premium seating areas on the fourth deck, and for 50 yuan a passenger, you can have a comfy sofa, communal TV, and choose from a list of beverages included in the price.
For me, it was definitely worth the minor expensive.
The pricing is quite reasonable. A private car with seven seats or less costs 415 yuan, and includes a ticket for the driver. Additional adults costs 42 yuan, and children under 1.5 metres are half price.
The bad news
Unfortunately, there are some factors that can make the journey a headache, especially for overseas travellers.
The dusty, provincial town of Xu’wen stands between the G75 motorway and all the ferry ports, meaning all the passenger traffic has to navigate the narrow streets at snail’s pace, whilst also trying to dodge the thousands of oblivious moped riders who zip around in all directions.
After a smooth journey from Nanning that day, and in great time, it took the best part of an hour to cross Xu’wen and join the ferry queue, not a great experience!
It was a great annoyance to find passengers can only reserve tickets with a native Chinese ID number. When we eventually reached the security check, my wife had to dart out with our passports into the ticket office, and rejoin us before the workers could inspect our papers.
While this was an unwelcome inconvenience, it is far more troublesome on the return journey from Haikou!
Hainan Province offers a visa waiver scheme for nationals of 59 countries, who needn’t apply for a Chinese visa, but whose movement are strictly limited to the island.
So when a foreigner wishes to buy a ticket back to the mainland at the ferry port, they must visit the police office inside the terminal, where they confirm you have permission to enter the mainland before issuing a printed certificate allowing you to buy a ticket at the window!
Everything was very friendly, but the considerable delay became even more unwelcome when a rainstorm suddenly blew in, and we all felt cold and wet by the time we had darted across the carpark!
The icing on the cake was the dippy ticket inspector, who asked us out into the office for some more grilling that felt unnecessary, and then as we rushed back into the car to escape the rainstorm and make the ferry, we soon found he had neglected to return my wife’s ID card, which in turn caused more inconvenience when checking into our hotels in Nanning and Guiyang.
Overall, while I admit the port authorities do the best they can, it is a very foreigner unfriendly experience, especially when travelling to the mainland.
My advice would be just to fly.
Which port works for me?
At the southern tip of the Xu’wen peninsula in Canton Province, there are three ports you can choose from, the New Hai’an Port, Xu’wen Port, and the railway crossing port, which also takes cars, as well as passenger trains from all over the country.
On the 21st of January, I waited two hours from the moment I arrived in the queue of traffic to when I drove onto the ferry.
It happens I met a lady in Lin’gao County who travelled from the older Xu’wen Port the same day, and she waited seven hours! She also told me she heard that traffic at the railway port was very light, so I might try it myself in the future, should I ever make the trip by car again.
The three ports are all in close proximity, so there aren’t really any geographical considerations to add into the mix here, unlike in Haikou.
Haikou is the capital of Hai’nan Province, and there are two choices of port, the inner city Xiu’ying Port, or the westside New Haikou Port.
Xiu’ying is good if you are staying in Haikou, or perhaps driving to Wenchang in the northeast, but otherwise, the out of town option works better when you are travelling to more distant corners of the island.
Since my destination was Lingao in the west, the new port offered good access onto the motorway, albeit over a few kilometres worth of bumpy, unlit country roads.
Night one – Kaili
Our first six hour drive took us past the Ba’nan toll booth to the south of Chongqing, east towards Nanchuan, then south past Jinfo Mountain and into Guizhou Province.
There was some decent scenery along this stretch, but the only sight that caught my attention was the giant guitar that stands upon a hill just outside Zheng’an, with a sign proclaiming the city as the ‘Guitar Capital’ of China.
For the most part, Kaili seemed like any other provincial city, with the exception of a few tall buildings with a ethnic minority flavour in the outward design, particularly the shape of the roofs, and the colours and panelling on the facade.
Our accommodation for the night was the Landscape City Hotel邑景假日酒店, just opposite the Miao-Tong Minority Village that occupies the hill from foot to crest.
The friendly staff kindly offered an upgrade to a room overlooking the village, and offered extra breakfast vouches free of charge when they saw the two youngsters in the entourage.
We gratefully accepted, and agreed to rate them highly on the Qunar app, and give a mention on my travel blog.
The whole area was practically deserted for the new year. Nevertheless, we tried the local specialty of ???sour and spicy meat broth in the hotel restaurant, then took a relaxing three kilometre stroll up the hill to the brightly lit pagoda that features in many photographs of Kaili.
Once at the top, there were great views over the city, and we later enjoyed our view from the hotel room until the blaze of colour and light turned off around 10pm.
Day two – Nanning – Jiuqu Bay Hot Springs
Six more hours on the road the following day, and we arrived in the northeast corner of Nanning, Guangxi Province.
The main reason for choosing this area was the hot spring resort of Jiuquwan, and the close access to the Nanning ringroad.
Our hotel that night was okay, but they offered a discounted rate for the hot springs of 138 yuan per adult, about thirty less than on the door.
The resort itself was very pleasant, clean and attractive, though fairly small in scale. I took a dip in the pools, tried out the variety of saunas, and ordered a very palatable dish of stir fried river noodles.
After a few hours, I walked back to the hotel through the dirty, rather seedy looking street that leads to the main road.
I’d definitely recommend a visit to Jiuquwan hot springs, especially for drivers wanting to relax after a long day at the wheel.
Days 3 – Lin’gao County
After the best part of six hours from Nanning to Hai’an Port, a two hour crawl through the ferry queue, two hours on the ferry, and over an hour westward out of Haikou, we finally made to my mother-in-law’s winter apartment in Lingao.
First impressions were good. At night, the palm lined boulevards were lit up in an attractive blend of colour, and the late evening warmth banished recent memories of persistent cold and drizzle far to the background.
As the Hawaii of China, I just love driving around Hainan to the backdrop of palms and lush, tropical vegetation.
Had I more time available on this visit, I would have driven down to Sanya at the southern tip. However, considering I have visited on so many past occasions, there wouldn’t be anything new to experience, with my only other motivations being the hotter weather, and the self-satisfaction of driving as far south as possible in China.
Tips – fuel prices
On the mainland, about 300 yuan’s worth of 95 grade fuel is enough to fill the car about three quarters, but I was quite dismayed to discover the same money only buys just over half that quantity!
I searched on Baidu for other commentry, and indeed learnt that fuel prices are far more expensive in Hainan, with little chance of this ever changing.
On the other hand, the whole motorway system in Hainan doesn’t collect tolls, so when you factor this advantage into the equation, perhaps the fuel prices aren’t that unreasonable after all!
In any case, my advice for any would be drivers going to Hainan is to fill the tank in Xuwen, or one of the last service stations on the G75 motorway. This way, there is possible a few hundred yuan’s worth of savings to be made.
Despite the virus having reportedly made its appearance in mid-January, the long hours on the road, plus the leisurely nature of our evenings, meant that first word didn’t reach our ears until we pulled up outside the winter appartment in Lingao County.
Even then, nobody seemed to grasp the potential seriousness, and our first couple of days were packed with fun activities, hot springs, toy shopping, KFC parties with the kids, a mass Chongqing community get-together over hotpot, and hours sipping coconut milk by the seaside!
It wasn’t until New Year’s day (January 25th) that reality finally hit. Suddenly,