Xiamen is a coastal city of 3.5 million people but I had not heard of it until we were told of the quicker route to cross the Pacific. This made it our last destination in China. After briefly researching the place, it turns out it’s fairly historical in terms of europeans engaging with China. At the end of the First Opium War, in which Hong Kong island was ceded to the British, the Treaty of Nanking made Xiamen, previously named Amoy, one of the five initial treaty ports open to foreigners. The list includes Shanghai, Ningbo, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Having changed trains in Guangzhou to reach Hong Kong, Ningbo is the only one we missed out on visiting in the end, although it was our originally planned last stop in China before the new cargo ship route became avaliable.
Today it is a trendy city, filled with Chinese domestic tourists. This made our accommodation choice fairly limited. Gone were the days of north eastern China where double rooms in hostels with a private bathroom cost 90 yuan a night (£10). Here we had to spend £7.50 each a night for a bed in a four person dorm. This was the only space available in this YHA hostel. After previous experiences of dodgy hostels we had started to be more than willing to pay more for a guaranteed good hostel. We shared our dorm with a man from Liaoning Province in which we had visited Dalian back in May. He had been in Xiamen for 7 months already, installing solar panels for the nearby university. We taught him some new english words: windmill, turbine and environmental. He taught us the word for green, pronounced lǜsè and written 绿色, which we had previously learnt when playing uno with new Chinese friends but had quickly forgotten.
The best thing about the hostel, other than the super helpful staff when people from the shipping port called, was that it was just up the road from Cat Street or Ding’aozai. It would not look out of place in Japan, in fact it was full of Japanese and Korean restaurants which was a nice treat to have a last taste of the food before leaving Asia. And we actually saw one real cat walking down it, that’s more than our visit to cat street in Tokyo…
Around the corner was the modern Buddhist temple of Nanputuo (or South Putuo) and magically for an attraction in China, it was free to enter. We went there for the walk behind the main building, up around 1000 steps to the pavillion at the top of the rocky hill. We wanted the view. It was tough, well, it was nowhere near as tough as Taishan of course being just over a tenth of the height. The combination of the excessive heat and our recent laziness in Hanoi, where we didn’t walk as much as we had been, meant we took plenty of rests on our way up. The temperature in Xiamen that day reached 25 degrees. That’s hotter than the 20 we had in Hong Kong and Hanoi when we left it late November. The views were of course divine. The Pacific ocean with Taiwan lay in front of us in the distance with the temple, university and two skyscrapers always in our view below us.
A five minute walk away from the hostel is Xiamen University where you have to show your ID, or in our case passport, to enter the campus. It’s a big draw for tourists with queues to get in every day. One morning we popped in, mainly for what lay waiting on the east side. The grounds were leafy with interesting modern buildings, one in particular had a curved traditional roof. Like Stanford, there is one main tall tower rising above the rest.
Before we reached our goal, we found one of the canteen buildings and stuck our heads in, all the tourists must eat somewhere, maybe here? The ground floor was mostly empty and it was clear the only way to pay was by flashing your university card at a machine, we were pointed upstairs. You could hear the crowds from the stairwell, the second floor (their third) was full of people. We’d found the right place. It wasn’t as simple as paying by cash though. We bought a prepaid meal card for 100 yuan which after pointing to the food we wanted the serving staff typed the cost into a machine which we flashed the card in front of. Rice was 3 yuan a bowl and the veggy dishes we chose were 10 yuan each, our very filling lunch was 26 yuan for the both of us (£2.96). When finished we handed over the card at the till and were given our change due. Successful meal.
Leaving the canteen and turning left, what lay ahead of us was one of the best things we saw in Xiamen. The Furong Tunnel is a 1 km long piece of art, covered in graffiti by the students. Promoting societies, group of friends and asking someone to marry them, the designs were beautiful and striking. We took a lot of photos in here, here’s a couple of the best.
The main tourist destination is the colonial island of Gulangyu. It once housed 22 embassies from many countries wanting to trade with China. It is a bit of a novelty, being a car-free island with interesting architecture. Unfortunately, you’ll have to ask another visitor what it’s like to visit the island because we gave up. We’d read reviews online about how bad the ferry can be, or rather, how bad the queueing at the terminal can be. One dutch traveller at the hostel warned us it took him two buses and then the ferry to get to the island, it took him 3 hours. The ferry is only supposed to last 25 minutes. Having checked Baidu maps and discovered there was one bus to get us to the International/Gulangyu Ferry Terminal, we decided to go anyway the next day assuming the long queues were because he went on the weekend.
The 87 bus took us from outside the university all the way to the ferry terminal in about 25 minutes. Not bad we thought. The bus was quiet as we reached the terminal, as in there were only about five people standing. Several Chinese women were donning large colourful hats, as is tradition, for the obligatory perfect photograph that awaited them on the island. We jumped off the bus, up the escalator and into the large high ceiling terminal building. And then we saw it, the queue-not-queue.
It was just as the negative reviews had said, a mass of Chinese tourists very slowly pushing themselves through the security gates at the other end. Are we actually going to do this, I thought, join them and squish our way through for possibly 30 minutes? The ticket queue was short and it cost either 35 or 50 yuan depending on which ferry you caught. She said the next one wasn’t until over an hour away. We looked again at the queue-not-queue. We couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring ourselves to go through one last truly Chinese experience and forced learning of patience to continuously have someone pushing in your back for however long it might last. We made use of the toilets (and the luxury of soap!) and headed out. We ended up walking ourselves along the front to the city centre, through gardens and promenades viewing the island from afar instead, and felt very relieved we did not attempt the “queue”.
No, not us, but a glimpse into the lives of young engaged Chinese couples! There are special paths and walkways which have been built all along the coast. We took a bus from the university for 20 minutes and walked ourselves back along the beaches and past the high rise road built into the sea. What greeted us on the first beach was a mass of couples dressed as if it was their wedding day joint with photographers. It was not their wedding day, a tradition in China is to take pre-wedding photographs of the couple to go on the invitations. It is a huge market, and all the way along the walk were beautifully made up couples trying to get that perfect shot. As it wasn’t just at the first beach, but for several miles along…