Our first day in Haikou
The capital of Hainan (Sea-South) Island is Haikou (Sea-Mouth) was quiet the first day of our vacation, which was the first day of the Chinese New Year. Everyone except for the employees at KFC and the firework vendor on the corner had gone back to their hometowns to celebrate the most important Chinese holiday with their families. Shops had pulled their corrugated doors over their stalls. Even the traffic was lighter, though the motorcycle tricycles were still cruising down the road in the opposite directions in the bikers’ lane.
One place I wanted to see before leaving Haikou for the beach was an extinct volcano 15 km away from the city with lava caves nearby. Since taxi drivers didn’t seem to understand where we wanted to go and wanted to charge us 100 RMB – more than double the quoted rate – we took the bus as directed by the hostel and got off where the bus driver told us. Next, we were supposed to take a minibus to the volcano. We waited a bit. A motorcyclist stopped and asked us where we were trying to go. Between his English, our Chinese, and a thoroughly inadequate map only written in English in our Lonely Planet (does anyone else ever suspect that the Hitcherhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is based on Lonely Planets?), we conveyed where we wanted to go. He said that there were no minibuses because of the holiday. We decided to hang out and see if any showed up, maybe take a stroll down the street to see if there was a bus station nearby, so he took off. He came back later and offered us a ride (three people on a little motorbike! Over bumpy, semi-paved roads!) for 40 RMB, what we would have paid the taxi.
We drove through a nothing Chinese town – which is different from cute Chinese villages – and our driver got a bit turned around, asking for directions along the way. The park around the volcano was pretty, with flowers and trails and trees and a small Chinese orchestra playing music. We hiked up the volcano along the pathway and had an over-priced, bland lunch of tofu, green leaf vegetable, and rice at the restaurant (where we were treated to singing and dancing performances, complete with costumes) before setting out for the lava caves.
Normally, the park has a car that takes guests to the lava caves, but as today was a holiday, there was no transportation, so we set out by foot, 3 km according to the tourist center. We walked through a tiny Chinese town, sleepy except for a couple of homes that were noisy with the sounds of a New Year’s Day party. We had to ask for directions at a few intersections. (One older man we asked had a complete gold grill – I mean an entire set of false gold teeth.) Outside one home, when I started to speak Chinese, one of the men said, “You can speak English,” and everyone pointed to a woman who spoke some English. We pointed to the caves on our brochure. She recruited a gang of boys to show us where to go. We thought they left us after a while, but whenever we took a wrong turn, one of the boys would appear out of the woodwork to send us in the right direction.
At the last turn, which looked like a long driveway, a man who seemed to have mental disabilities (he could not speak clearly, and his arms didn’t behave normally), came up to us and started talking, but we kept on walking. Finally, at what we assumed was the cave entrance, we were mobbed by old people, mostly ancient, hunched over women with protruding teeth and one short old man. I had read online that they would insist on a 5 RMB entry fee, even though the caves didn’t really belong to anyone, so we turned over our informal admissions fee. Then, they wanted 1 RMB for candle-sized torches (and I mean torches in the American sense, not the British sense). Suddenly, hands were everywhere, reaching for money. Matt meant to give the little boy a RMB, but it got turned over to the man with mental disabilities – finally we had to break away from the chaos and plunge in. One old woman and the old man followed us, our self-appointed tour guides.
The caves were really something amazing. They curve, the different paths that connect or end in chambers; it seems intentionally designed as a labyrinth. They were formed by lava; the top of the lava had cooled, creating the roof, but hot lava had continued to flow, a kind of river, burning out the hollow insides. The volcanic rock is black, just like the obsidian you play with in Earth Science class, but rough. It’s pitch dark – so dark that the woman gave Matt two more torches (on credit, we later learned) while the old man carried a flashlight. The black walls just seemed to suck in light. In some spots, there were holes in the roof overhead, letting in streams of sunlight on a tiny part of the cave, like a painting out of a Hudson River Valley School or a children’s illustrated Bible. The darkness was so thick that no plants could grow, despite the lush tropical vegetation in the woods outside each cave.
As we walk through the caves, the two old people chatter. I think they are talking to us, but it is difficult to tell. Either because of their teeth, or their age, or perhaps because of their dialect, it is difficult to understand their Chinese. We can understand “hao kan” (nice to look at) and “gay-woh-chian” (give me money, which is what the old man says when we ask him to take our picture). The effect is something like Alice in Wonderland, or being on the Ewok planet in Star Wars, or some other fantasy movie, where we are followed by dwarfs that utter a non-stop nonsense language that we imagine there is some meaning to. They encourage us to go into one little enclave with a small opening, which they don’t enter because of their unsteady old legs, but as I hear them uttering in the background, I get a nervous feeling that they’re going to close up the cave with stones, wait until we pass out from suffocation, then steal our kidneys. It’s that kind of eerie.
As we climb into a clearing, but before we are at the road, the old woman and the old man block our path. The only thing we can understand is “qian,” or money. The woman seems to be explaining about the two bonus “torches” she gave to Matt, which she has taken from his hands and blown out right away, to save fuel. Matt pays her, and then they are asking for 6 kuai, I imagine for a touring fee. We don’t have any small bills, so Matt gives her a 10. Then she points to the old man, as if to say we have to pay him, too. That’s enough for us to get irritated so Matt says “Mei yo. Zo ba.” (No more, let’s go) and they take the hint and lead us back to the street. As we leave, there’s a middle aged woman, able bodied, normal sized, who also has her hand out for money, too. We power walk out of that little town, through the humid air, to put distance between us and the creepy, surreal experience.