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Impressions of a Western traveler to the Chinese city of Xiamen

This blog was written by Denis McKenna in late September 2008 after a side-visit to this city whilst staying in Shanghai with son John & wife, Yan.
 
Four of us, John, Yan, Yan’s mother and myself, all headed off from Shanghai on an early morning flight to Xiamen. Despite typhoon forecasts for the week we were to be away and a severe storm striking Hong Kong and Taiwan, the weather during our trip was almost perfect – blue skies, a hot and humid 28 - 30 during the day (and sticky at night), gentle breezes, and only one heavy patch of rain for an hour on our first afternoon. We were lucky, the weather was perfect.
 
We all arrived in the city of Xiamen before ten after the 80 minute flight and I was surprised to find a big, fully international airport terminal which proved to be very modern and very efficient. This subtropical coastal city has a population of around 3 million, a long and interesting history to do with the sea, and with building and infrastructure development seeming to be as fast and as advanced as in Shanghai.
 
Xiamen has a busy port, impressive innovative architecture, unbelievably long and handsome bridges with the most creative high speed roading systems, and a thriving (internal Chinese) tourist trade.
If you wish to search for a good priced hotel try here Xiamen Hotels 
 
We planned and organized our itinerary from the internet, so we caught a taxi from the airport (driven by a really attractive but totally crazy lady who regularly managed to find road space where there was none) to a ferry terminal where we pushed our way with suitcases onto a ferry for a half kilometer/5 minute trip across the sea to an island called Gulangyu.
 
Here, no cars or cycles are allowed (but some electric “golf carts” and hand-hauled “wheelbarrows” are permitted). This compact 2 square km semi-tropical island is crisscrossed with a wonderful and confusing maze of little streets and alleys, was years ago a haven for many foreign consulates and wealthy business families and looks & feels like a version of some picturesque Mediterranean hillside town - but full of Chinese people and Chinese shops and varying levels of Chinese hotels. Today it is a major (Chinese) tourist destination.
 
This island is a wonder of a tourist destination, from up-market shops & hotels down to the most basic of Chinese facilities. We went exploring, eating, shopping, eating, resting, eating, getting lost. The food was good at all levels, the shopping keen, some of the “coffee bar” hang-outs very modern and Western; all the locals were very friendly.  There are white sand beaches over on the far (seaward) side of the island; we didn’t have time to laze on the beaches but many folks holidaying here did just that. There is a good walking road that goes completely around the island. This is about 8km of mostly flat walking and there are parks, beaches etc all along the way. For the less active, large electric “golf carts” can transport folks to most island spots. The cart stops half way around the island where you can get off and enjoy the beach and get back on when you want to return to the main landing area.
 
There are plenty of activities to do on Gulangyu, especially for families. We only scratched the surface and could have spent a much longer time here. For more about this lovely semi-tropical island have a look at http://www.newcolonist.com/gulangyu.html .
 
Before lunch on our second day we caught the ferry back over to the Xiamen city side, had a delicious lunch on the 4th floor of the 4 star hotel opposite the ferry building, where there was a buffet style Dim Sum restaurant and a terrace with a super view that overlooked the harbour.
 
We then met up with our driver and headed out for the 200 km, three & half hour drive northwest toward the mountains for our two-night Hakka House experience.
 
We spent the first couple of hours driving on the flat passing through what seemed to be a never-ending series of small towns and commercial businesses. The roads were concrete & bumpy, yet an interesting drive. After we stopped for petrol our van took a side road which quickly turned into a narrow, pot-holed dirt track.  Oh no – not this for the next 90 minutes.
 
But just as quickly our road became the most magnificent concrete highway winding all the way up the mountain, complete with mighty viaducts and a 3 km tunnel carved through one of the mountain ridges. This road to a remote and significant outpost of Chinese culture must have cost billions.  We passed through small towns & villages as the van climbed ever upward until we reached our stop, which was a small ticket office for the officially designated traditional Hakka Tulou Folk Custom Village of Yong Ding; we are staying within this tourist village in an actual Hakka House.
 
The owner of the small local hotel is young guy whose family have lived in the house for three generations and the house is said to be over 120 years old. He came to meet us at the entrance to show us the way.
It was almost dark by this time and we seemed to be a long way from western civilization. We walked down cobbled paths to the river, then through a Chinese gate into a courtyard, then though an entrance door to another small courtyard of our Hakka hotel. Yan & John went to check out the rooms – but we had nowhere else to go anyway so the check was really not needed. They came back with looks on their faces which were somewhere between a fright and a laugh.
 
To cut a long story short we found we were booked, at RMB 60 per room per night, into what may be described as a minus 5 star hotel. This is regarded as the best in the area, the rooms were on the third level, up two flights of 20 steep Chinese-feet-sized stairs, had no glass in the windows, big fans, hard beds, big thick heavy local duvets, a working TV, and door padlocks for security…real basic stuff.
 
BUT wait for it; there was an ADSL internet cable in each room that worked perfectly… amazing. Free internet in each room, no 5 star hotel have this.
 
There were 5 separate concrete-floor showers, 24hr hot water, the outside toilet building was clean and basic. There was only one sit-down toilet/shower in the complex and the plastic seat kept falling off, but at least we had a seat and really, all this added to the local favor of the place. The owners tried hard to keep everything clean and tidy but maintenance was not high on his list so broken and repairable items were just overlooked.
 
Our host really tried to look after us and understood that climbing down and up these stairs in the middle of the night for a pee or other could be difficult and dangerous, so provided a pee pot (plastic bucket with lid) for each of our rooms. A nice thoughtful touch. This really is Traveling the Real China! We started to settle in and make the most of our little adventure.
 
We were hungry after the long trip; dinner was at 7pm and served within one of the court yards with candles on the table under a lovely red hibiscus tree (called a Lantern tree in Chinese). The food was cooked by our host’s mother and as I had no idea what we ate it did not matter, all the dishes were delicious.
 
Having a candlelight dinner, a nice cold beer and seeing / feeling this amazing 120 year old Hakka house all around us…the roughness and difficulties of the place seemed to make our trip all worthwhile…a magical moment.
 
Morning light brought clatter & chatter wafting up from another large courtyard within the same building as the local household got ready for the day. Adults shouted, kids cried, dishes clinked, water gushed, fireworks crackled, a dog barked, a chicken squawked then suddenly fell silent…hmmm, maybe this was breakfast.
 
We now saw large red Chinese lanterns hanging from the balconies and open windows all around our ‘hotel”. Wonderful – we really were deep inside a part of China.
 
Our breakfast of fried eggs, rice porridge (congee) with peanuts & soy sauce on top, a home made bread thingy and various other dishes I didn’t recognize, all beside the Lantern tree in the little courtyard, was delicious again.  (I wonder what happened to the chicken.)
 
This day we had a new driver supplied by the hotel and he drove us through the valleys of these mountains visiting various Hakka villages – which are all “working” villages where the residents go about their daily business as visitors wander through their courtyard kitchens and peek into rooms.
 
The Hakka House is famous for its distinctive architecture. The signature building is a round monster of mud and timber (no nails), can measure over 5000 square meters in area and can be up to 5 levels high. Some were built over 700 years ago, have over 400 rooms and could house up to 600 people. These buildings are protected and supported by local government for their cultural importance and heritage. Not all these Hakka houses are this big – many are only 2500 square meters in area and only 70 or 80 years old. Some Hakka buildings are square or rectangular but the majority are massive round structures. Many families live in these huge buildings, most from the same clan. There is generally a main open courtyard in the centre where much of the cooking & washing is done and all have at least one water well. Bedrooms are located in the upper balconies with the separated personal toilet & washing facilities outside – just like our hotel!
 
Our first visit was to a famous and highly photographed complex, and from the lookout point on the road above the village we could see why it is called “four dishes and a soup” because of the layout of the various buildings, 4 circles and a square. There were also four coaches here all packed with Chinese tourists, but the locals seemed not to mind, seeing such intrusion into their lives as a great opportunity to sell stuff. When we peeked into some of the utility rooms we could see regular household small appliances, washing machines, refrigerators and smart hot water systems, but the plumbing still left much to be desired.
 
On the slopes around and below this village were terraces of rice glowing with the lovely green/gold of the ripening grain, and people in conical hats busy at various stages of the harvest. During the day’s trip we saw many such villages and made it back to our touristy signature village by late afternoon. The people here were friendly and warm, the vegetation lush and there was a mighty banyan tree in the main square giving welcome shade to cart food sellers and old men chatting.
 
Please have a look at http://www.gakei.com/foe/foe.htm to see more about Hakka Houses.
 
After another night at our hotel, more food experiences under the Lantern tree and another morning awakening, the place was not so bad after all. Before the driver arrived to take us back to Xiamen we did some additional exploring within the Hakka Tulou Folk Custom Village we were staying in. Chinese tourists had already begun to arrive here, and if they were on a day tour from Xiamen to this or any of the Hakka villages, they would have endured about 7 hours of the day just traveling.  It’s a long way to come for a day trip.
 
We arrived back into Xiamen in the early afternoon, checked in to a very nice recently decorated hotel and set out to explore the town, seeking eating and shopping places.
In the evening we caught a bus to the neon powered “walking street” where all manner of activity was taking place – buskers, food carts, promotions – and all at the usual 1000 decibel level with zillions of people on the go. (It is almost guaranteed there is one of these dazzling, raucous, teeming, intensely interesting walking streets in every major city in China.)
 
We saw on the internet about a famous seafood restaurant in Xiamen, so we jumped into a taxi and off we went. I am accustomed to most noisy and busy restaurants, but this one…WOW the noise and apparent high-speed confusion on 3 floors was overwhelming. The place was full but we were welcomed in and were taken out to the back through one of the food preparation areas into an overflow room with seating for another 40 to 50 people where it was only slightly less noisy and hot. The food was ok; some weird seafood stuff and we even tried the local delicacy of the jellied sea slugs... well one anyway…one was enough.
 
Our last day in Xiamen was spent doing some of the many tourist trails – the Xiamen University was one of

them. It is billed as being one of the prettiest universities in the country so we went to check it out. There are big old Georgian style buildings which are surrounded by beautiful gardens and a lake within its grounds. We had our lunch in the student cafeteria which was tricky, as the public can go here for lunch but working out how to pay without having a student card took a bit of time, and discussion.
 
To our surprise we discovered on the ocean side of the university, a delightful, well-groomed white sandy beach where many wedding couples were having their professional pictures taken.
 
Just next door to the university is the impressive South Putuo Buddhist Pagoda complex; it’s a lovely and beautifully restored temple that is definitely worth a visit.
 
Our 8pm flight back to Shanghai saw us home and in bed by midnight. Reflecting back on the last few days, it’s been busy and a little rushed, but well worthwhile.
 

Gulangyu Island, the Hakka houses, Xiamen city, are all very different aspects of Chinese life, each having their own charms. I would highly recommend this region to visit and enjoy.

If you would like some more infomation on Xiaman or any other part of China

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