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China Deep Dive: Xiamen part I - Gulangyu

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Night had already fallen when we disembarked from the train in Xiamen. Mei Ling has close friends in Xiamen who are quite well off so we were staying in their three bedroom apartment. They had also helped us to arrange a driver for the six days we were staying in Fujian province. The driver, a gangly kid named Qiu who couldn't have been more than twenty, picked us up dutifully in an SUV at the arrival area. Qiu took us straight to dinner at a seafood restaurant where Mei Ling's friends were waiting. For the next couple of hours we restored our strength with a variety of seafood dishes. The only thing I hadn't tried in the past was the sea worms suspended in gelatin which is a Xiamen specialty. I had had the sea worms before in Guangzhou but never prepared in this fashion. They don't have much taste of their own but they have a pleasant crunchy texture that works well with the gelatin preparation.

After dinner we dropped the kids off at the apartment and Qiu drove me and Mei Ling to an area called Zeng Cuo An at the southern edge of the city. Once a quiet fishing village, Zeng Cuo An has been transformed into an all-day market packed with small restaurants and shops. It wasn't very busy on a Tuesday night but most of the stalls were open and there was an interesting array of street food. If I had known about the market I would have eaten a little more judiciously at dinner but as it was I had very little appetite. The air was filled with the buzzing of cicadas and at one point Mei Ling gently caught hold of one and played with it for a couple of minutes. She asked me what it was called and I made the common mistake of confusing it with a locust, which is a completely different insect closely related to a grasshopper.

We had almost gone to Fujian on our last visit to China four years previously but I had been scared off by the high summer temperatures. Now that we had survived even more extreme heat in the American Southwest I was a little more sanguine about our ability to deal with the weather. Fujian province is historically somewhat distinct from the north in that they once had their own kingdom called Minyue which was overrun by the Han Chinese almost two thousand years ago. The population of Fujian is considered almost exclusively Han but the original culture persists in the form of numerous local dialects collectively referred to as Min. Like Hong Kong, Fujian has a substantial minority of Hakka who are not ethnically distinct from the Han but have developed their own culture and language over centuries of dissociation from their northern Chinese origins. Although Fujian is not a particularly large or populous province it occupies a substantial stretch of the Pacific coastline and is the origin of about a quarter of the Chinese diaspora worldwide.

Aside from the convenience of having friends in Xiamen, I found the city particularly enticing due to its unique geography. The two central districts of the city make up a large rounded island called Xiamen Island that sits in the middle of a large inlet in the South China Sea. The island is surrounded on the inland sides by short peninsulas that create numerous small bays and natural harbors. On the ocean side Xiamen Island is close to the Kinmen Islands which are strangely under the control of Taiwan despite their proximity to the Chinese mainland. These islands have their own interesting history as they were the subject of great debate during the 1960 United States presidential election as to whether they would fall within the US line of defense of Taiwan. John F. Kennedy, the eventual winner of the campaign, was publicly against defending Kinmen but modified his position after becoming president so as not to embolden the People's Republic of China to initiate an attack. Now that China's aggression against Taiwan and the question of the USA's commitment to defense are once again in the headlines, I wondered if China was planning to use Kinmen to test the resolve of the American government after numerous unpopular wars. Our friends' apartment was on the eastern side of Xiamen Island, rather far from most of the areas of interest to visitors which were in the southwestern part of the island.

The plan for our first full day in Xiamen was to visit Gulangyu, a small pedestrian-only island just a few hundred meters from the southwestern edge of Xiamen Island. Although there was a ferry line that made the direct trip between the two coastline it was reserved for locals. Tourists such as ourselves had to embark from a terminal several miles further north on the western coast of the island. When we arrived the only tickets available included an extra half hour ride around the southern coast of Xiamen island. I was annoyed by this loss of valuable time but it did give us a close-up view of the twin towers of the Shimao Cross-Strait Plaza, a landmark of the city. We also passed around the hilly southern side of the island which boasted a wide beach that was for some reason devoid of sunbathers that morning.

The tourist ferry docks at the Neicuo'ao Wharf on the far side of the island. Gulangyu is famous for its Victorian architecture that originates with the numerous European consulates built there to facilitate trade after the Treaty of Nanking. The street that led from the wharf to the center of the island passed several large mansions that exhibited a strange blend of Victorian and traditional Chinese design.

Gulangyu has its own food street, Longtou Road, that was crowded with tourists all of whom seemed to be Chinese. I notice this because I don't particularly enjoy being surrounded by Western tourists when I travel in Asia but I don't really mind the domestic travelers. Westerners tend to require the local environment to bend to their needs which generally means a profusion of English signage, Western brands, Western foods that dilutes the Asian experience. I'd much rather see a typical tea shop or local fast food than a Starbucks or McDonald's any day, even if the offerings are cheesy and aimed at tourists. The absence of Westerners in Xiamen was a quite noticeable feature that would persist throughout our travels in China, much to my enjoyment.

As we tried to follow the confusing signs to the attractions on the southern part of the island we came across a small park with some interesting sculptures. There was no signage to explain the sculptures but according to ChatGPT the baby being cradled in giant hands symbolizes the nurturing of musical talent. Part of the heritage of Gulangyu is that it was one of the points through which piano music was introduced to China through the large number of pianos imported by its European residents.

Our main destination in Gulangyu was Sunlight Rock, a natural rock formation that is the highest point on the island and has been fitted with an observation deck. At the base of the rock is a Buddhist temple that is more than four hundred years old and has views of the Xiamen skyline.

We climbed an enormous number of stairs that ascended the hillside around Sunlight Rock, passing a number of interesting formations and rewarded with continuously improving views of the landscape around the island.

There were two viewing platforms at the top of the rock. The highest one required a climb up a very crowded staircase and was quite vertiginous but definitely worthwhile for the amazing panoramic views around the entire Xiamen area. This may have been the most beautiful cityscape we had ever encountered in China with Dalian being its only rival. Blue sea was visible in every direction and melded harmoniously with the majestic glass skyscrapers of Xiamen Island.

The southern part of Gulangyu is divided into a number of gardens and parks and the one that seemed most appealing was Shuzhuang Garden. Here we found the typical ponds and paths of a Chinese garden as well as a very odd vertical maze within a wall of coral rock or limestone that was surprisingly difficult to navigate. From the ground level it appeared to be a solid wall of rock but within the formation were several grottoes and tunnels that were invisible from outside.

Shuzhuang Garden is also the home of Gulangyu's Piano Museum which contains a collection donated by renowned Chinese pianist Hu Youyi, who was born on Gulangyu.

Our day on the island had passed quickly and we had to keep a careful eye on the clock as we passed back through the center to catch the final ferry of the day. Fortunately there was still time to pause on Longtou road to buy the kids a couple of snacks. We approached the ferry from the opposite side this time and encountered an enormous bronze sculpture of an octopus that appeared ready to engulf anyone who stepped between its tentacles.

We arrived back at Xiamen Island in perfect time for dinner. Being a large city, Xiamen had no shortage of night markets. Mei Ling's friends had recommended the Bashi seafood market which I had also marked down from my own research. As soon as we arrived I knew we were in for the kind of experience that makes China my favorite country to visit. We were in a huge night market that packed several streets with seafood restaurants and markets that looked as much like aquariums as they did dining establishments. Among the restaurants there were plenty of food stalls selling a variety of cooked seafood dishes, each one looking more appetizing than the next.

After we had traversed the main two streets a couple of times we got around to the serious business of choosing our food. One of the characteristic features of Chinese food streets is that you once you choose a restaurant you are not limited to the items on their menu. In general they are fine with you bringing in food from the stalls or cooking raw ingredients you purchased from the market as long as you order from their menu as well. We chose the best-looking shellfish dishes we could find and bought a huge spider crab as a gift for the kids. It was as expensive as all the other items put together but still less than half what it would have cost in the United States. We washed down our spicy Fujianese seafood dinner with cold Tsingtao beer, the perfect ending to an enthralling day of travel.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:14 Archived in China Tagged road_trip china family fujian xiamen gulangyu family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog baoxi zengcuoan

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