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China Deep Dive: Quanzhou

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Quanzhou was an obvious choice to pair with Xiamen for our six days in Fujian province. Although its population of two million is small in comparison to Xiamen's five million, Quanzhou was a crucial port for international trade in medieval times when it was known as Zaiton, the origin of the English word satin. Like most Westerners I knew nothing of Quanzhou before I began my research for this trip but the city is popular with domestic tourists for its seaside location and a variety of historic temples. One useful thing for English speakers to know about Quanzhou is not to pronounce it "Kwon-joe" despite the obvious temptation. Regardless of the following vowel sound, the Pinyin consonant Q is pronounced like "CH" with the tip of the tongue at the base of the lower teeth and the middle of the tongue rising to the roof of the mouth. It's one of the hardest things for Westerners to master when learning Chinese along with the J/ZH and X/SH sounds.

Mei Ling had wisely chosen a hotel on a well-known food street in the central city called Mei Shi Jie so we had no shortage of late night options to eat at once we arrived. Of course it was far too late to do anything else so we quickly retired for the night. I had to wear a mask and stay as far out of sight of the desk as I could when we entered as our hotel was not allowed to accept foreigners. It was a clean if colorless establishment and we had two adjacent rooms. Mei Ling, Cleo and I stayed in one and Qiu and the boys took the other. In the morning we were up bright and early and quickly found an appetizing place to have breakfast on the same street.

We began our day with a walk to a Taoist temple that Lonely Planet calls Guandi and TripAdvisor calls Tonghuai Temple of Guan Yu and Yue Fei. This issue of multiple names arises frequently in China, for entire towns as well as specific sites, and was often a source of frustration for me. It's clearly an issue for the Western mapping apps as well, especially Google Maps which I found to be practically useless in China. Apple Maps was somewhat better. Fortunately I was with Mei Ling and Qiu so we didn't endure anywhere near the number of problems that non-Chinese speaking foreigners must encounter when traveling on their own. The streets were very busy on a Saturday morning, especially with motorcycles and scooters which utilized both the roads and the sidewalks indiscriminately. In Xiamen I had allowed myself to consider the idea of doing my own driving on our next visit to China but in Quanzhou I realized it would be impossible. I have no idea how we saw no accidents happening considering the aggression of the drivers and the recklessness of the motorcyclists. Soon after we left the hotel we crossed a major thoroughfare called Wen Ling Nan Lu, or Wen Ling South Road, via a wide overpass. Even though I've been lazy about Chinese despite my family, I've learned the four directions nan (south), bei (north), dong (east), and xi (west). In contrast to our homey restaurant street this road was lined with gigantic department stores and office towers.

Following our principle of choosing the narrowest available street we detoured from the main street into the neighborhood and were rewarded with a small but interesting food market.

Getting ourselves lost in an old residential neighborhood was an experience we hadn't yet had on this visit to China. I'd almost forgotten how much fun it was to watch all the normal daily activities of urban life in China, such as the little storefront breakfast restaurant with the day's dishes simmering in cauldrons right in front of prospective customers.

After some more wandering we returned to the main road right next to the temple. I believe that Guandi (or Guanyue) refers to the fact that the temple is dedicated to the Chinese general Guan Yu who lived almost two thousand years ago and is revered in the Taoist religion almost as a god. Tonghuai is the name of this specific temple which is also dedicated to twelfth century general Yue Fei. Taoism is a complicated collection of beliefs that has elements of a religion, a philosophy, and tradition. I've made some attempts to understand it but didn't get very far. The temple was extremely crowded and many people were buying incense to burn and gift baskets to place on a huge pile of offerings. A prominent sign at the entrance to the temple declared that photography was not allowed so I decided to utilize my video sunglasses to evade the prohibition. Sacrilegious or culturally insensitive? Probably.

We walked around the area south of the temple for a few blocks and bought a woven sampan hat for Cleo to protect her from the sun a little. It was kind of hot to walk another forty-five minutes to our next destination but Mei Ling spotted an empty shuttle bus and negotiated with the driver to turn it into our private transportation for the next hour. These buses were pretty common around the center of Quanzhou and typically worked as rideshares with the driver and prospective passenger quickly deciding whether or not they were a good match. The bus took us to a couple of other temples which didn't seem significant enough for me to record their names. We had just enough time to jump out, snap a couple of quick pictures, and pile back into our seats. It wasn't a bad way to see the center of the city.

The bus discharged us for the last time at a busy intersection which was the beginning of West Street, the top draw for travelers to Quanzhou. The city's famed Bell Tower stood on stilts in the center of the intersection but was unoccupied. West Street was closed to traffic and was lined with snack restaurants and curiosity shops with pedestrians flowing in both directions.

Mei Ling spotted something she liked rather quickly, a studio that was dressing women up in flowered headgear to enhance the experience of the street. It seemed like it was going to be an involved process so I took the kids to explore a narrow alley that led away from the studio. They were rewarded for accompanying me with a chance to try archery for the first time in a busy shooting range. They did well enough to impress me, especially Cleo.

Once we returned Mei Ling's glowification had been completed and we embarked down West Street in a westerly direction. As is fairly typical in China this "historic" street has been overtaken by businesses of a decidedly modern and commercial nature. Nevertheless the food was good especially my favorite, frog-on-a-stick.

Lots of other young women had gone for the headdresses and many had gone even further with traditional Chinese dresses like qipao. It was a nice custom that really enhanced the atmosphere of the street. The environment was great for people-watching overall and I'm sure as the solitary Caucasian on the street I was the subject of much curiosity, although I wasn't really paying attention. I was more interested in spotting Chinglish T shirts, one of my cherished pastimes on the mainland. The Chinese enjoy wearing clothes with English words on them but don't concern themselves much with what the words actually say. Almost all these shirts are now made in local factories and their designers don't seem to know or care much about the meaning of English words either. One sees all kinds of head-scratching messages but my favorites are the misspelled designer names and the obscenities. There was plenty of good material on West Street. I spotted one cute little girl with a pink shirt sporting the message "DON'T DICK" in huge block letters and desperately tried for a discrete picture but she was moving too fast for me.

By this point it was time for a bathroom break and we ducked into the most modern looking establishment to see what was available. It turned out to be a multilevel cafe with a rooftop terrace. Here we got our first good look at the main draw of West Street, the twin pagodas of Kaiyuan Temple. The temple was built in the seventh century AD during the Tang Dynasty and contains both Buddhist and Hindu elements. The eastern pagoda was the first to be built but the western pagoda is actually older because the original wooden eastern pagoda was torn down after four hundred years and replaced with a stone one.

We proceeded into the grounds of the temple which occupied a fairly large area and contained several buildings besides the pagodas. The octagonal pagodas were quite impressive up close with imposing height and intricate stone carvings. The kids found a staircase with sloping sidewalls and were using them as slides, much to my annoyance as the grit on the stone was being efficiently transferred to their clothing. As I was brushing them off an adult decided to slide down while standing up and his legs shot out from under him depositing him on his tailbone. He tried to play it off as much as he could but he was clearly in a lot of pain and it took him a long time to get up. The kids were open-mouthed and I didn't miss the opportunity to lecture them about the hidden dangers of horseplay.

By the time we got back to West Street dusk was starting to settle and the street had become substantially more crowded. It seemed like the afternoon was just the warm up to the real show which would take place in the evening but we had had enough of the scene. Back at the first intersection there were swarms of people trying to catch the shuttle buses and it was quite difficult to find one that would take us all the way back to the hotel. Eventually Mei Ling's perseverance paid off and we were able to leave the frenetic scene.

We still had a little bit of daylight left and we had already gone through most of the Quanzhou sights my research had uncovered. All that was left was the Lao Zi statue within the Qingyuan Mountain park on the northern outskirts of the city, also known as Laojun Rock. I was ambivalent about going since it was just one statue a long drive away, and I doubted we would even make it there before nightfall. There was really nothing else we could think of to do so we decided to make the drive anyway. By the time we reached the park it was dark and there were huge traffic jams on the winding, single lane roads inside the park. We quickly gave up on the idea of getting to the statue and started to focus on finding dinner instead. We followed a line of cars turning off into a parking lot and we could see a large restaurant with outdoor seating. The only free tables were next to the parking lot but as people got up and left we migrated until finally we were up against the railing that gave us a view over the illuminated city far below us. The food was no better than average but the location couldn't be beat.

Quanzhou had certainly proven its worth as a destination over a very busy day of exploration. It wasn't clear that the city had much left to offer for our second day but it didn't really matter as we had a road trip to the ancient town of Chongwu already planned.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:06 Archived in China Tagged road_trip china family fujian quanzhou family_travel travel_blog west_street tony_friedman family_travel_blog kaiyuan_temple Comments (2)

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