Arriving in Xiamen by ferry on a Friday morning we were immediately faced with a problem: we had no idea where we were. The ferry terminal was more modern and full of services than the ones in Tianjin or Fuzhou had been (we picked up a new SIM card easily and without fuss) but a map or helpful information centre was not amongst these.
We set out walking. It took a detour around a massive (but pleasant) lagoon, but by heading in the direction where the tall buildings were slightly thicker we eventually found ourselves in a place that was on our rather limited guidebook map of the city.
Exercise number two of the day was to find a place to stay. We’d received a positive response from a couchsurfing host, but hadn’t been able to reply to him yet, so we searched about for a place to poach a wifi signal (just outside hotels is always a reasonable bet) and dug up his phone number. We gave Bill a call and happily he arranged to meet us nearby while he did his grocery shopping.
A bus ride through town took us to Bill’s place out near the east end of the university where he worked. He showed us around, gave us some ideas for a short afternoon tour of the university and off we went.
European Style Architecture on Xiamen’s Gulang Yu
As it turned out, the first sight we came across was all at once probably the best, most memorable and most unexpected of everything we saw in Xiamen. A tunnel between two halves of a university campuses doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would inspire this kind of reaction. But it did. The walls of the ~1km long tunnel were covered in drawings and paintings of all sorts. I’m still unclear on whether they were graffiti or some sort of project by the school’s art department, but they were gorgeous. They ranged from cute little cartoons on up to stuff that genuinely belonged in a gallery or museum.
A work in progress
Yarr! Here be pirates! Pirates with long blonde hair. Yarr!
This was my favourite out of the dozens of works on the walls of the tunnel. Even leaving aside the fact that their names are there I got Picasso and Dali pretty easily. Matisse (on the left) was a bit trickier
On the far side of the tunnel we headed up to the reservoir above the campus, which was beautiful even on a cool and misty day with rain threatening. It came complete with swimmers paddling their way across and, after climbing up past a small waterfall, a driving range near the top, of all things!
Back down at the base of the hill we took a wall through the rest of the campus to check out the lovely architecture. In fact an awful lot of our trip in Xiamen was architecturally focussed:
The university campus (verdant, with a huge pond in the middle, featuring charming brick student residences with laundry hung all over the balconies, a well executed modern looking auditorium, and a dreadful administrative office tower at the far end.)
The centre of town (especially the pedestrianized XXX St.) Surprisingly this reminded me a lot of Harbin. In that it also reminded us of some central European city somehow transplanted to China, albeit 2000km south.
The reservoir at Xiamen university
Pleasant looking student residences. Was it laundry day, or do things just take a long time to dry in damp, cool weather like we had in Xiamen?
The connection between Fujian and its Malaysian emigres is clear in the shophouse style architecture that Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Xiamen all share
Gulang Yu. Xiamen itself is an island. Gulang Yu is ANOTHER island a short ferry trip away. It’s probably the most European looking of all of the foreign concession areas in China. It is full of buildings that look as though they belong in London, New York, or Kolkata, and is a HUGE attraction for Chinese tour groups. We spent most of a day wandering around the less busy parts before finally stumbling on the epicentre of the tourist trade (which did, admittedly, have the prettiest buildings.) Once there I had a huge mango/strawberry swirl soft ice cream. This isn’t quite what I’d imagined China being like.
Old concession era buildings on Gulang Yu
Many of the buildings on Gulang Yu had been left to decay by owners who couldn’t afford their upkeep. Others, like this one, had been turned into upmarket cafes or boutique hotels
Gulang Yu’s architecture spanned the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century
Mmm! Ice cream!
Other interesting memories from Xiamen include:
Lots of beggars. At any tourist area in Xiamen, ESPECIALLY around the ferry docks to Gulang Yu there were many beggars, as well as quite a few people nagging us to buy tours or trinkets that we weren’t interested in. This was very unusual, as we’d seen very few of either of these at other cities in China.
Dining. Bill took us to his favourite restaurant for dinner one night and we had a salad. A salad! Fresh, non-fried vegetables! For our two other dinners we ate at a friendly stand/restaurant. We ordered by pointing at either the menu or other people’s plates. This got us delicious, huge and cheap dinners. Which confirms the theory that students and large quantities of cheap food always go together.
A baotze (steamed bun) filled with minced pork and a quail egg from the shop near Bill’s place
Early dinner at the student cafe type place. We learned the Chinese character and word for mushroom while there (Mogu!)
The overseas Chinese museum. This was a very well done museum (lots of modern, attractive 3D exhibits… dioramas, models, etc.) documenting the history of the Chinese diaspora. Particularly appropriate in Fujian province, as many of the largest populations of overseas Chinese (e.g. in Malaysia and Singapore) originated in Fujian. We were offered a lovely tour of the place by a student volunteer who confessed partway through the visit that she was very nervous because it was the first time she’d done it in English. A bit incongruously, the top two floors were full of (once again well presented) taxidermied animals and antiques (our guide explained that these all belonged to the collection of the industrialist who had paid for the construction of the museum.)
Though it primarily focussed on Chinese who had left for other nations, there was still space in the Overseas Chinese Museum for discussion of the thousands of Chinese who built Canada’s and America’s railroads
The military museum/knife shop. We wandered down a random side street while exploring the town/walking home on our second day there. Several tour buses had pulled up outside an apartment building. We followed a group in (with the approval/encouragement of one of the guides) and discovered an exhibit documenting the history of the (days long) artillery exchange in the 1950s between Communist Chinese forces the Xiamen area and the Republican Taiwanese on the island of Kinmen just off the coast (which is still part of Taiwan.) After this we followed the tour group past a series of glass cases containing photos from the battle and a wide variety of kitchen knife sets. Downstairs were a series of sales counters selling these same knives. It took our host Bill to explain it to us: the residents of Kinmen took the high quality steel from the remains of Chinese artillery shells that had landed on the island and started making knives out of it, developing a reputation for high quality product in the process.
We had no idea what to make of this display when we first saw it
The Beach! Xiamen has one of the nicest urban beaches I’ve ever seen anywhere. Seriously. Right up there with places like Miami and Sydney, except considerably bigger than the beaches in either of those places. Xiamen has several km of lovely golden sand beaches backed with a lovely walking trail/boardwalk. I can imagine it being a major beach resort town when the weather was more pleasant (apparently a lot of residents with beachfront apartments have begun to be squeezed out of their homes by landlords who are coming to the conclusion that it’s more profitable to run their buildings as hotels.)
The Xiamen beach. For all its loveliness, one end was covered by an elevated motorway, complete with columns sticking up out of the golden sand
The beach was occasionally broken by rock outcrops, but these all had well built (and well maintained, which is a bit of a novelty in China) elevated boardwalks around them.
Despite the drizzle (and later pouring rain) there were still at least half a dozen couples having wedding photos taken on the day we went for a walk along the beach
All in all, Xiamen turned out to be probably the most green, least chaotic, and all around pleasantest city we’d yet visited in China.
We left Xiamen very early (we caught the morning’s first bus! Which is saying something in China, where public transit is schedules around the looonnng office/factory hours of the typical worker) on a Thursday morning for the bus trip across the border to Meizhou in Guangdong province.
Thanks very much to Bill for being such an accommodating host (and for the salad!)
We found this little marina tucked in behind a residential neighbourhood as we wandered around the streets of Xiamen
Tags: China, Fujian, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Xiamen