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China Deep Dive: Xiamen part III - Xiamen Island

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In our two days in Xiamen we had seen Gulangyu, the Hakka villages to the west of the city, and a couple of night markets but we had seen very little of the island itself. Although we had to be in Quanzhou that night we could spend as much of the day as we wanted in Xiamen before the one and a half hour drive to Quanzhou. Qiu drove us to Zhongshan Lu, a pedestrianized street in the busy southwestern section of the island that has become a major shopping area. We couldn't resist a street vendor selling fresh, plump yang mei that were even better than the ones we had in Hong Kong. The pedestrian area was elegant and spotless, surrounded by buildings of classical design that seemed to have been renovated fairly recently. The street was built a century ago but I can't imagine it has had its current appearance anywhere near that long. In some ways it reminded me of the city centers of Zürich or Vienna.

On Zhongshan Lu the typical Xiamen street foods were available in a very regulated, sanitized setting. Each vendor occupied a neat storefront and I'm sure was thoroughly licensed and inspected. Somehow it didn't have the same appeal as the street markets. We followed some people entering a mysterious staircase crafted to look like the entrance of a cave and found it led to a store selling all kinds of inexpensive toys and cheap knick knacks. Pretty much every party favor I'd ever bought on Amazon for my kids' birthdays was on display.

Close to the intersection of Zhongshan Lu with Siming Lu, another major road, we found the entrance to Miaoxiang Wisdom food street. The emphasis here was on seafood but it didn't seem to be a very popular spot during the weekdays. We didn't let the lack of customers dissuade us and found a basement level place that had the usual array of raw materials to choose from. It wasn't anything different or memorable but it got the job done.

After lunch we spent a little more time wandering in the area and eventually found a street market in a more typical Chinese middle class area. Spending some time walking around Xiamen reminded me of why I prefer the mainland to Hong Kong. Even though we believe that Hong Kong is the Chinese city with the most "freedom", the atmosphere on the streets would seem to suggest the exact opposite. I was also relieved to find that the push to modernization which has largely sterilized Beijing and Shanghai hasn't yet extended to the less international major Chinese cities as of yet.

Xiamen doesn't have a lot of what Westerners would consider sights, but one place I had marked down in my notes was Hulishan Fortress. I thought that Ian especially might enjoy a visit to this late Qing Dynasty citadel since he's interested in military history. When we entered the fortress I was immediately surprised to discover that far from being a sterile edifice of stone or concrete, the complex has been landscaped so extensively that it resembled a botanical garden. The rules of the fortress were considerately displayed in pictorial form and of course the kids' favorite was the boy squatting over an impressive pile of dung. Did they really need to tell us that wasn't allowed?

Of course for the boys the highlights of the fortress were the enormous cannon. The fortress played an important role in the defense of Xiamen from the Japanese in the early twentieth century. The largest gun was bought from the Krupp company of Germany and has a range of sixteen kilometers.

There was a restaurant area called Xiada Street within walking distance next to Xiamen University and we decided to make the trek on foot. This took us past a wide beach that was still crowded with visitors even though the sun was invisible behind the clouds in the late afternoon. As was typical of the Chinese beaches we've visited everyone we saw was in street clothes and no one was in the water. We walked in the direction of the Shimao Straits Towers which were quite impressive with their unique sail shapes and the absence of other tall buildings around them. A third somewhat shorter building close by appeared to be in the final stages of construction with a disk-shaped protrusion from the upper floors, likely a rotating restaurant. Once we turned inland a wall appeared on the side of the road which quickly grew to a height of fifteen feet. We saw a line of plastic crates at our level attached by sturdy ropes to the railing at the top of the wall. The mystery of their purpose was solved when a motorcycle pulled over and the driver placed bags of takeout food in a crate which was soon pulled up to the top of the wall. Clearly this was a more efficient way of delivering food to the residents of the apartment complex above than driving all the way to the front entrance.

We passed the university but we never did find the food street. We did get closer to the skyscrapers and had a better opportunity to appreciate the newest building. It was truly a remarkable piece of architecture with the aforementioned cantilevered discoid protrusion and adjacent to it a spiraling series of platforms that resembled a gigantic staircase. China appears to have continued to embrace the innovative modern aesthetic in their architecture that originally began in Shanghai about twenty years ago. The approach seemed much more adventurous than what I have become accustomed to in the United States. Instead of an old-style food street we ended up in an underground Western style food court adjacent to the university. There was a predominance of bubble tea places and the setting wasn't very charming but at least there were a few restaurants that had the typical Chinese displays of raw meat and viscera that would have horrified most Westerners.

On the way back to the parking lot at the fort we decided to walk along the beach. Night had fallen but the area seemed even more crowded than it had when we passed by earlier. Each of the Straits Towers was now shining brightly with one entire side of each tower having been transformed into a giant screen. A illuminated balloon was suspended over the fort making it appear as though the earth had acquired a new giant moon. The original full moon occupied its usual place in the sky not far away as if to reassure us. There were glowing circular patches at intervals along the sand and as we drew closer we realized the light came from multicolored toys and figurines arranged in concentric circles. It turned out to be a ring toss game and the shining toys were the prizes. Chinese vendors are endlessly inventive when it comes to ways of making money.

On the walk back to the car Mei Ling went ahead with Spenser and we lost track of her. Qiu had forgotten the location of the parking lot and I had let myself get into passive mode and followed blindly as he took us for blocks in the wrong direction. Eventually I realized we had walked too far but Qiu didn't want to admit he was lost. Eventually Cleo and I ganged up on him and insisted that we turn back in the other direction. Now that I was being more observant we found a couple of landmarks we remembered and located the car with Mei Ling and Spenser standing outside rather annoyed. It was quite late and we still had an hour and a half drive to Quanzhou.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:56 Archived in China Tagged road_trip family xiamen family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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