Hainan trip cover

The Rough Side of China’s Tropical Paradise

Racing through Hainan’s back roads on a secondhand motorbike shows a different facet of the island

“A thousand kuai,” the seller says, while nervously scanning the roads left and right of the square in front of Haikou’s Wanda Plaza shopping mall. The secondhand Suzuki motorbike I’m hoping to buy from him is in battered condition, with a rusty tailpipe and defective ignition fuse, so I counter: “500.”

After he lets me take it for a spin, I realize the bike’s state is worse than I thought. I can hardly see the engine revolutions or the speedometer through plastic stained by what must have been years out in the Hainan sun, and after second gear, the digital gear number indicator burns out. I have to count in my head as I shift: “1, 2—accelerate!”

The bike is what’s known as a heiche (黑车, “black” vehicle), unregistered and likely to be taken off the road by traffic police if they cotton on to it (hence the owner’s nervous glances up and down the street). But I need to get moving, and reckon the two-wheeler will probably get me the almost-300 kilometers from Hainan’s capital, Haikou, to the southern holiday resort of Sanya. To be safe, I decide to pick an auspicious number for my final offer, and announce it dramatically: 888 yuan. The seller nods in agreement and scarpers, blocking me on WeChat as soon as he receives my transfer of the money.

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The Rough Side of China’s Tropical Paradise is a story from our issue, “Lessons For Life.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Mads Vesterager Nielsen

Mads Vesterager Nielsen is a burgeoning explorer who rides his trusty motorbike, nicknamed “The Little Black Yak,” to far-flung corners of the People’s Republic. He is a staunch believer in the spirit of adventure, even in a modern and demystified world. Rather than clinging to old notions of glorious exploration, his background in the social sciences has led him to believe that “authenticity” is a messy mixture of ingredients such as culture, society, history, technology, and mythology as it exists today.

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