Into the interior
China’s island of Hainan, located 410km southwest of Macau in the sparkling South China Sea, has one of the fastest-growing tourism economies in the world. And with 1,500km of coastline, it makes sense that most of the 25 million tourists who flock to the island each year – the majority Chinese – go in search of sea and sun. But few visitors venture into the country’s interior, where even just a few kilometres inland from the beaches and bars, another world unfolds. Hainan has the largest, most preserved tropical rainforest in China, not to mention picturesque rice paddies, striking mountains and pristine lakes – all without a tourist in sight.
Verdant fields
Hainan is so green it was once known as Qiónzhōu (Fine Jade Land), and its primary industry is agriculture. Even with the recent surge in tourism, in fact, farming makes up twice the contribution to Hainan’s GDP that tourism does. And so, while sections of the coastline are thick with hotels and shops, farming still governs the rhythm of daily life in the highlands. From sunrise until about 10:30am, before the sweltering heat sets in, locals work the fields by hand, farming for crops such as rice, coffee, tea and pepper.
Lake of the heavens
High in the mountains in Hainan’s south, about 100km northwest of Sanya (a seaside city that locals compare to Miami) is Tian Chi. The name literally means “Heaven’s Lake”, and as expected, its extraordinarily still, serene surface creates a perfect reflection of the sky – as well as the rainforest-covered mountains – above.
Morning mist
Thanks to its rainforest surroundings and its altitude some 960m above sea level, Tian Chi often is shrouded in mist. One of the most beautiful times to see this is at dawn, I learned, when I arose early to wander down the wooden walkways of my accommodation, the Tian Chi Tao Yuan Hotel. As the fog rose over the lotus-spotted lake, the only sounds were birds chirping and a determined rooster crowing in the distance, his call carrying clearly across the water.
A park’s peak
Hainan has no fewer than five national forests. The 400sqkm Jianfeng Ridge National Forest Park, where Tian Chi is located, was the first (opened in 1992), and it’s crowned by Jianfeng, the 1,412m-high mountain peak pictured in the distance. A full 98% of the surrounding Le Dong province is covered in trees.
Rainforest climb
The 452m hike between Jianfeng’s mountain pass and its peak is mostly straight up and takes around two and a half hours. While it’s often humid, the park’s altitude and unique ecosystem result in an average temperature of 19.7C – even when temperatures are hitting 30C or 35C along the coast. On a clear day, climbers who make it to the top of Jianfeng are rewarded with a 360-degree view, from the mountains to the sea 16km away.
Hainan cooking
At a restaurant called Min Xin Jin Le (0898-8580-6666) in the village of Jianfeng, located at the edge of the national park, specialties include a local green with preserved eggs and minced pork, julienned potato and Wenchang chicken that’s been fed with banyan seed, coconut and peanut bran. Traditionally, the chicken head (or, like here, the rooster’s, seen on the left) is served facing the guest of honour or the most important person at the table.
Decadent views
Food in Hainan’s interior can be simple and rustic – but the scenery is nothing short of luxurious. Just behind the restaurant was this view of the mountains.
Impressing the ladies
Hainan’s interior was first settled by what locals call the “minority people”, of which the biggest ethnic group is the Li, Hainan’s first inhabitants. Living here as early as 7,000BC, the Li speak five dialects – Ha, Qi, Run, Sai and Meifu – although these days, fewer young people are learning the languages, speaking Mandarin instead.
Almost all of Hainan’s Li villages, with their grass-roofed huts, are gone. The only way to see one today is to visit a fairly commercial example that caters to tourists: Binglanggu, the Li and Mao minority village 30km northeast of Sanya. Here, a young man demonstrates the Li tradition for impressing women: climbing a tree to procure betel nut, which locals in southern China and southeast Asia chew for its stimulant properties. (Amanda Ruggeri)
Traditional tattoos
Few women younger than this 79 year old have tattoos; female body art is a fast-vanishing tradition. But years ago, this woman said, a Li girl was expected to start getting tattooed at about eight years old, with most of the body covered by 16 or 18, when she would generally marry. Each family has its own, distinctive designs; not being tattooed implied that you weren’t part of a kinship group.
Highlands traffic
With or without traditional Li villages, many elements of today’s highland life are decades, if not centuries, old. For example, farmers still let their livestock – including goats, cows and chickens – roam wild.
Editorial Message  

This site contains materials from other clearly stated media sources for the purpose of discussion stimulation and content enrichment among our members only. does not necessarily endorse their views or the accuracy of their content. For copyright infringement issues please contact