call on Monday changed my plans for the week. I put down the phone with a smile. Instead
of freezing in Beijing, I instead flew to Shenzhen in Guangdong province the following morning for a business meeting in the
afternoon. The temperature in Shenzhen
was in the high twenties and the contrast with Beijing could not have been more marked.
Beijing really is an inhospitable place in the winter.
So, faced with the prospect of flying back to the frigid north or staying in the pleasantly-warm south, there’s
no prize for guessing which option I took. The only question that remained was, where in the south should I go? I toyed with the idea of flying to Xishuangbanna in southern
Yunnan – a place I have been to twice before – which is a great place to spend a few days (there’s even
an outside chance of seeing wild elephants there). But the flight was via Kunming, the provincial capital, and so would take about three hours.
The best option, I decided on my way to Shenzhen airport, was to take the short hop over to Sanya, in southern
Hainan (China’s most southerly province and a popular island tourist destination) – a flight time of not much
more than an hour.
I had visited
Hainan twice before, but had never had time to do any birding there.
I arrived at Shenzhen airport three hours
early, with the intention of dropping my bag there and venturing out to find some birds nearby. The golf course to the north had some good habitat, and so I spent a couple of hours walking
around its fringes and the wasteland next to the airport’s perimeter fence – a little noisy perhaps, but I saw
some quite nice birds.
The flight was delayed by an hour and a half and so it was gone 11pm by the time I stepped out into Sanya airport’s
modern terminal building. In front of me was a large map of the island;
which was just as well because I hadn’t had time to do any desk research on exactly where to go. I remembered that there is a famous nature reserve called Baihualing, but wasn’t sure
where it was. One look at the map made me realise that it was
far too far from Sanya to make a trip there feasible (To go there, it would have been far better to have flown to Haikou,
in the north of the island).
I had a fuzzy recollection that there was a reserve much closer to Sanya – the name of which, “Jianfengling”,
had kindly been confirmed by SMS by a birding friend back in Beijing. And
there it was on the map, no more than two hours drive to the north-west. I
checked in to the hotel opposite the airport for a few hours sleep, before rendezvousing at 6am with the car that I had arranged
through the hotel’s concierge as I was checking-in. Two hours
later I arrived at the forest lodge at Jianfengling, where I stayed two nights.
My time there was nothing short of wonderful. I managed to see 21 species and sub-species of birds that occur only on Hainan
island, including some very special “firsts” for me (the “Wild Side” section of this website has some
of the photos of the them).
I also managed to walk more than
50km, and lose quite a few pounds in weight (as well as a layer of skin on various parts of my body that would eventually
peel off – the ultra-violet rays here are a bit of a shock to skin that’s spent most the past six months much
And so, with a broad smile, I said goodbye to the reserve staff at 10am this
morning (promising to return in the not too distant future) and headed back to Sanya. I had booked a later flight back to Beijing so I could take a detour to one of China’s top tourist
attractions. As well as a good place for people-watching it transpired that Tianya
Haijiao is also a good place to watch birds – I managed to complete the full set of 10 Chinese-occurring sunbirds by
adding Olive-backed Sunbird to my list.
Tianya Haijiao, which means something like “The end of
the sky and the corner of the earth” is a must-visit site for visitors to Hainan. As well as being the most southerly point of the Chinese mainland (despite
Hainan being an island), the place
is immortalised by a number of ancient poems that recount the poignant tale of two lovers who, under pressure from their
respective families to end their relationship, flee to the furthest point in the world in an attempt to stay together. Alas, they are tracked down and, rather than surrender to the approaching
agents of their families, throw themselves into the sea in a sort of Romeo and Juliet finale. But, this being Chinese folklore, the story ends with a dramatic twist when the Thunder God,
impressed by the two lovers’ devotion to each other, sends down a thunder bolt that hits the entwined lovers at the
moment they jump into the sea.
The magical power of the bolt turns
them to stone and thus they are able to remain together for eternity. These
symbolic rocks have become the focal point of Tianya Haijiao and attract countless numbers of couples from all over China
and beyond who come here to reaffirm their undying love for each other.
year hundreds of couples arrive here to enjoy the “International Wedding Festival”. They gather on the beach in their wedding clothes and participate in a number of activities
including the piggy back race to the sea. (The bride jumps on her groom's back, who races towards the lovers’
I asked one couple here what they thought about the place. Ms Zhang and Mr Yang are from Haerbin in Heilongjiang
– one of the coldest places in winter in China (famous for its ice festival). Ms Zhang recounted the story
of the lovers and said how much she had been looking forward to visiting here. Mr Yang nodded respectfully as his wife
spoke. “And also,” he said, “The weather here is great this time of year!”.