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Discovering Hainan's tropical interior [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2017-11-10 17:49:21 |Display all floors

Village on edge of Tongzha 1993. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Hainan, known for its coastal resort cities such as Sanya in 1993 had a less visited interior of tropical forests and ethnic nationalities which Bruce wanted to discover.

Tianya Haijiao, west of Sanya, where the land literally gives way to the sea, in 1993 felt tranquil, peaceful. With few visitors to these rock pinnacles embedded in the sand of a long sweeping bay, people on the beach were mostly fishing families gathered around their small wooden boats. I sat there on that warm January afternoon, looking across the South China Sea, with a feeling of both contentment and restlessness. Sanya for travellers was a 'comfort-zone' - there were a couple of cafes with English menus; there was the beach; much to photograph and easy to return to Haikou. However my map showed a very different Hainan, the mountainous interior, but there was very little travel or hotel information except that Tongzha was the capital and main centre for the Li and Miao Autonomous Prefecture.

Next day I was on a local bus heading inland for several hours, climbing up from the coast by a winding, occasionally dramatic road towards the crest of a forested ridge. Much of the land had been terraced for rice cultivation but also plantations of rubber and coffee. Reaching the bus station of what felt initially a small rural town Tongzha was also known as Tongshi and more recently as Wuzhishan or 'Five Finger Mountain' - the dominant landscape feature.

Booking into a hotel near the bus station, from my top floor room I looked out over Yaxucun, a former village of compact, single floor tiled roof cottages set with a backdrop of red, tropical earth. The pattern felt artistic and well worthy of photography.

Early evening was approaching as I explored the town, virtually traffic free except for noisy three wheeled 'tuk-tuks' transporting people and goods to and from surrounding agricultural communities. Tongzha sits astride a meander, or bend, of the broad Nansheng River. January was dry season and bamboo enclosures of geese and ducks stretched across the bed where turbulent waters would flow during the summer rains.

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Bruce making friends in Tongzha 1993. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

On tree-covered slopes above the river rose the prominent buildings of Hainan Ethnic Museum, opened in 1986 and Qiongzhou College where later I would meet local ethnic students dancing with long bamboo poles. The Li and Miao communities live in and around Tongzha - on Sundays many would come in from surrounding villages often wearing traditional costume.

Restaurants were not set up for western visitors so it was dining like the locals, usually pointing to what someone had on their table or showing food names in guidebooks - books which often became curiosities as I waited for dinner! Sometimes easier to say 'dangchaofan' (egg fried rice) - always a winner! Tongzha is also famed for its green 'Wuzhishan Lucha' - tea with a healthy reputation.

It was the countryside which most appealed to me - my first real opportunity to experience a combination of rice fields and tropical forest. Each day would be a learning experience of the local ecology, natural environment and rural lifestyles. Much exploration was simply a combination of curiosity and common sense!

Near my hotel I spotted a road heading along a forested valley. It led initially to a hotel but beyond the ground rose steeply towards a waterfall. A narrow earthen track led through the foliage where sometimes I had to bend down to get through but it took me to a landscape which having studied biogeography I really appreciated - an area of tropical forest ecosystem. Trees of various height reached skywards for sunlight, creating a canopy so filling lower sections of the forest with only gloomy twilight. Stopping, staying very still I listened to the sounds - the almost chain-saw screech of insects; bird calls high in the verdure; the occasional crash of a decayed tree; of flowing water; of animal sounds from the branches. Monkeys? Care was needed because this was also a habitat for snakes. A man, dressed in blue heavy cotton descended the track, obviously surprised at meeting me. We shared greetings. A large machete was held by his belt - in case of snakes? Higher, the track emerged from the forest to several clearings producing bananas, mangos, melons, vegetables. Trees had been removed by centuries old 'slash and burn' techniques with new tree growth emerging when farming was abandoned. Across a stream, wooden stockades protected an earthen walled thatched house - from its roof protruded a television aerial! A women quietly tended her vegetable plots. Beyond lay Taiping Lake which fed the river I had initially followed.

Gongye Road led southwest from Tongzha through mostly low-lying rural countryside. Tall coconut palms rose above compact settlements again of adobe-walled thatched dwellings. Larger buildings acted as communal meeting halls. The layout of these villages and their surrounds fascinating. Fences enclosed the compounds beyond which were small banana groves, vegetable plots and fishponds. Chickens ran about while small black and white pigs wallowed in mud holes. Young people either looked after buffaloes or played in the waters of the irrigation channels.

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Post time 2017-11-10 17:50:30 |Display all floors

Working in a rice field near Tongzha 1993. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

The landscape was a timeless scene of human labour where a lack of mechanisation resulted in many sounds being more easily heard. I stopped by a rice field where a farmer was gently calling “whoosh” to encourage his buffalo pulling a wooden plough onwards through the mud. 'Klonk-klonk' from its wooden neck bell and a suction noise as each leg was extracted from the mud. Carrying an audio recorder I sat there recording those moments which were all so new to me. Continuing along the gravel road, girls protecting their heads with bamboo hats sang gently in the sunshine as they transplanted green rice shoots or scythed mature yellow stalks which were fed into wooden foot-powered threshing machines.

A narrow bridge of bamboo poles led across a river to a small stockaded settlement - I crawled carefully over before turning round to head back to Tongzha. Early evening was casting a different glow, the sun setting behind forested hills was bathing the waters of the rice padis with a gentle golden light. I sat there until darkness started to descend before walking behind farmers carrying wooden ploughs and children herding buffaloes home.

From a village, music emerged which I first thought was in a local dialect but was a 1985 popular song, 'Xing, Xing Suo'. A truly ethereal memory of a really beautiful day.

Next morning, bags packed, I was preparing to return to Haikou. After looking from my window across to mountains under a clear blue sky, within me I knew I could not leave. Quickly unpacking, putting my boots back on it was time for more exploration!

At first I headed out of town following a country road running alongside a river. Traversing partly forested countryside, it was very quiet, no vehicles passed. Occasionally farmers, looking puzzled, would stop and say something I later understood as "Qu nali?" ("Where are you going?"). I apparently was heading in the direction of Nanshenzhen?

A dirt road led down to an extensive plain with a backdrop of forested hills. A large village was centred around an elementary school and a shop. Hoping for a cold drink I entered - people obviously not used to seeing a foreigner just froze. Trying in Chinese and English to ask for a beer I was greeted with silent stares. More villagers arrived. Somebody left returning moments later with a school girl who knew a few words in English. She smiled, explaining most older people only communicate in local dialects. A chair was brought for me to have my beer while watched almost in a curious disbelief!

Outside a hill track rose above a scene of intensive farming. A herd of buffalos descended as I looked over this stunning landscape before starting back to Tongzha. Thinking it would be a long walk I heard a vehicle approaching from behind - an army truck! Oh,Oh! It pulled up, a group of cheerful young soldiers beckoned me onboard. As we headed to town I thought what a fantastic end not only to another glorious day but also of the many valuable experiences of this mountain city and of course Hainan Island.

Next day, with my memories and photo records, I was on the bus to Haikou for the boat back to Guangzhou - incredibly a fellow passenger on that sea voyage was a Li student from Tongzha.

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Post time 2017-11-10 17:51:04 |Display all floors

Bridge Bruce tried to cross near Tongzha 1993. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

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Post time 2017-11-10 17:53:23 |Display all floors

Children with buffalo near Tongzha 1993. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

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Post time 2017-11-10 17:53:36 |Display all floors

Evening ploughing Tongzha 1993. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

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Post time 2017-11-10 17:53:50 |Display all floors

Evening time to go home. Tongzha 1993. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

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