What a whirlwind of a year 2020 has been. Coronavirus. The sudden shutdown of school. Self-quarantine. The closing of the borders to foreign nationals. Online teaching. The sudden reopening of school. Trying to teach while wearing a mask in a sweltering hot classroom without air conditioning. Homesickness. The constant fear and uncertainty for friends and relatives back home. Even by the standards of a regular year, 2020 has been a long year. And, for many foreign teachers living and working abroad, National Week of October 2020 represented the first chance to get away since it all started in January. But where to go, with the rest of the world also struggling to contain the ravages of COVID-19? 

Thankfully, there is more than enough to do within China. After all, travel is the reason most of us came here. Whether it’s the Avatar Mountains of Huangshizhai, or a big city like Shanghai or Beijing, there’s no shortage of options, catering to every kind of traveller imaginable. For maximum rest and relaxation, however, it has to be the beach. And when it comes to beach destinations, the obvious choice is Sanya, known as ‘the Hawaii of China’. 

For the uninitiated, Sanya is a small island off the coast of China, located in the Hainan province. Offering silky soft sand beaches and idyllic blue seas, it is the ideal beach destination for any traveller looking to unwind. More than that, visiting in late 2020, it’s like stepping back in time – all the way back to the halcyon days of 2019.


We’re all Going on a Summer Holiday

As is to be expected, travelling during this time of COVID is not without its challenges.  First of all, when researching the vacation, one has to make sure that the hotel you’re travelling to actually allows foreigners. Several friends and colleagues found, while on their travels, that their hotel of choice was not able to accept international visitors. Thankfully, this one is fairly easy to navigate, checking the small print of the booking service (Ctrip, in this case) and reading reviews on TripAdvisor and other review aggregates. 

Next up; the flight. As anticipated, checking in to fly is full of stringent airport checks. Not only did we have to display a green QR code to get into the airport, we were then required to sign up for and display a second code specific to our airline. Then, upon landing, we had to sign up for and download a third QR code for the Hainan region. None of which is too difficult, but be sure to leave plenty of time for check-in and queuing at the airport.

Naturally, the wearing of a mask is mandatory at all times – in taxis, in the airport and on the flight. Thankfully, it was only a 2-hour flight from Chengdu to Sanya. Nothing compared to the 12 hour journey I undertook in February, returning from my Spring Festival break to the UK – masked the whole time, on a hot, crowded plane. After that, a mere 2 hour flight felt like easy street. Or easy airways.


We’re Going Where the Sun Shines Brightly

Upon landing in Sanya, we took a taxi to our hotel in Haitang Bay (approximately 45 minutes from the airport) where we had booked a room at the Shangri-La Hotel, on one of the island’s quieter beaches. This 4-star hotel was much cheaper than its Western equivalents, giving great value for money. And, having checked into the hotel, it served as our own private bubble where one might forget that COVID-19 even exists.


Indeed, it felt like stepping into yesterday’s world as we lounged by the swimming pool unmasked, watching similarly unmasked families pass by without care. Unmasked! Unmasked children peeing in the bushes; unmasked old folk hawking and spitting on the concourse; it was as though COVID-19 had never happened. It was only when we went for a meal at the hotel restaurant that some semblance of our new reality snuck back in; being required to mask up upon entering, and when perusing the buffet’s delights. Or on the occasional trip in and out of the hotel, when required to prove one’s health with a quick scan of the QR Code.

At a time when foreigners are no longer able to travel the world as easily as they once were, resorts like the Shangri-La see a rise in Western tourists, looking to get their beachside fix in lieu of Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. Swimming up to the pool bar to order a Pina Colada while surrounded by fellow tourists from America, the UK and Germany, I found myself forgetting that I was still in China, where I have been living for the past two years now. Even forgetting about COVID, a holiday in Sanya is closer to a vacation in Europe, or a beach destination in Egypt than any Chinese-style holiday I had previously undertaken. Not a temple in sight.

Which isn’t to say that Sanya doesn’t have its peculiarities that are local to China. Shallow, heated swimming pools; a large proportion of noodle, Durian and rice dishes at the buffet; being forbidden from swimming in the actual sea (for fear of drowning); strict height and weight limits on water slides and rollercoasters. Sanya is the traditional Western-style beach destination… only not. 

No More Worries?

Near our hotel was the Hotel Atlantis water park. At 500 RMB for a full day in the park, a steal. This too was open, and offering the full water park experience. Again, nothing was required to enter but a quick temperature check and a QR code. Inside, masks were non-existent amongst the patrons, and, drifting down the easy river in the baking midday sun, the pressures and worries of COVID were once again forgotten.

This did not come without its own peculiar sense of guilt. After all, who was I to enjoy a luxurious beach holiday like this, while my friends and loved ones face fear and uncertainty back home? As China – and other parts of the world – begin to reopen and move on from COVID, it’s hard not to feel guilty for returning to a state of normality, and allowing oneself these luxuries. Floating down the easy river on a glorious summer’s day, in the middle of a beautiful beach destination, I found myself longing for gloomy, grey, miserable Birmingham, England.

But these feelings inevitably pass, as will the worst of COVID, in time. And what better to take one’s mind off the pressures of the world than a water park? I padded from the lazy river exit down to the park’s biggest thrill attraction – a high-speed raft ride through and around a gigantic funnel. As I climbed the metal stairs to the entrance, the island of Sanya rose up around me, off into the horizon. At the top, the lifeguard looked me up and down. He shook his head. “No ride,” he said. “Too fat.”

Dejected, I slunk away. Yes, I thought, I am definitely still in China. 

Then, a smile. How I’ve missed this.

About the Author:

Joel Harley
Joel Harley is an ESL teacher and professional writer currently living and working in Chengdu, China. He enjoys good food, good drink and bad movies. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter, and find his movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
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