Exploring Haikou, Hainan´s capital equals coming face to face with a pretty authentic Chinese city-experience. This true Chinese feel seems to be able to emerge thanks to the relatively low number of foreign tourists, thanks to intriguing temples and old town streets contrasting with massive modern shopping malls as well as the allure of exotic cuisine that can be experienced in the myriad of restaurants all around.
Wandering through the port city´s streets, you´ll discover majestic trees to lean on, red lampions to marvel at, and street vendors loudly praising their products. A very popular snack indeed is the humble potato: its sweet variant is served steaming hot on many a street corners and warms and delights at once with its delicious simplicity.
Haikou would only be the first stop of a two-week-long Southern Chinese adventure which would lead me, amongst other outstanding experiences, to (very reluctantly) trying snails in Guangzhou, (delightedly) witnessing a professor from Beijing reciting a handwritten calligraphy- poem, (excitedly) trying Bamboo-Rafting on the Li- River, and (enthusiastically) partying the night through with some Brazilian expats and party-experts in Shenzen.
Haikou was, however, my first point of encounter with quintessential China, which was quite different from the watered-down, stereotyped version of China we can see portrayed in the mainstream media. Some of the highlights of my Haikou- experience included the following:
Exploring the Temple of the Five Lords
The Temple of the Five Lords, also known as the “Temple of the Five Officials” (Haifu Rd, Qiongshan Qu, Haikou Shi, Hainan Sheng, China, 571100) is a memorial shrine to five exiled officials from the Tang and Song dynasties that you´ll find in the southeast of the city. Think gorgeous subtropical vegetation and soft green bamboo plants surrounding bright red Confucian temple structures, intriguing animal figures guarding the roof of picturesque shrines, and marvelous altars cloaked in the smell of incense.
Strolling through the Old town´s quarter
Head to Haikou´s historic neighborhood, one of Hainan´s many “qilou” districts – well-preserved areas that date back through the dynasties to the 13th century. Haikou´s old town quarter features an enticing mix of Chinese and colonial European architecture – wander down the street and you´ll be transported to a completely different world that´s rarely visited by westerners.
Breathe in the strong scent of Chinese medicine being brewed in one of the many arcade shops while marveling at the interesting architecture or watching a painter intently creating a portrait of Mao Tse-Dong. You do know Mao, right – yep, the namesake of the outstanding movie “Mao´s last dancer”. Here, in Hainan´s Zhongshan Road (Zhongshan Road, Qiongshan District, Haikou 570101) you´ll really get a taste for the unique charm of olden-day China!
Living on the wild side: Exploring Haikou´s cuisine
No post about a trip to China could be complete without mentioning its sometimes fabulous, sometimes scary cuisine! Scary why you ask? Well, that once upon a time (or what it nowadays?) monkey´s brains were/ are consumed as a delicacy in the land of the red dragon might just be a rumor.
Truth is, though, that there is a certain traditional dish that I was determined to try when in Hainan, which turned out to be… a chicken´s brain. Like, they literally served me a whole skull including the brain. Which I did not see coming. Like, at all! All the while, I witnessed a rat doing a joyful run and jump through the restaurant. Did I eat that brain? Did I make friends with the rat? No to both. And I am proud to say, I have been a non-meat-eater ever since.
On the plus side, there are some exquisite dishes to be tasted while in Haikou- try Wenchang chicken (free of brain, I think), Jiaji duck or Hele crab at Fule Chicken Restaurant Hainan or – go vegetarian (climate change is real! Just saying) and try some delicious vegetarian dishes of the Szechuan cuisine.
That´s it for now regarding my Chinese travel-tales!
Back to you, dear reader: Have you ever been to China? What was your favorite experience and/or favorite dish?