Friday, July 22, 2016

Xiamen, Fujian - China

Xiamen, like Zhuhai where I reside, is rated as one of China's 'Most livable cities'.  Just across the water from Taiwan, it is a port town with a colourful history of trade and wars. Perhaps, as a result of its proximity to Taiwan, Xiamen seems to be a tricky place for a large group to travel.  The first hostel we organised was initially quite open to a group of 12 foreigners rocking up, however they soon U-turned and we were left with a cheap but pleasant enough AirBnB option.

It was quite a drive from Zhuhai, around 18 hours on the way out and 10 hours on the way back in a fairly cramped minimum owing to the combination of having the most cautious driver in China and traffic.  The company was good and it didn't seem as long as it was.

On the bus to Xiamen

The first bizarre occurrence was finding out that we couldn't just traipse into the hostel together.  Instead we had to be lead in groups of 4 and go different routes. Apparently there are rules about larger groups of foreigners staying in the same place.

Nan Putuo Temple
The first day we rather sleepily visited one of the famous temples close to the campus of Xiamen University.  Now anyone who's visited Asia has probably seen a lot of temples, even so, this one was rather impressive.  There was plenty to see and some great views and open spaces.  This Buddhist sanctuary from the Tang dynasty was a nice soft visit having been up most of the night on a cramped minibus.

Nan Putuo Temple - Xiamen

Nan Putuo Temple - Xiamen

That evening we visited a brewpub wonderfully name 'Fat Fat Beer Horse'.  They had a great range of craft beers and there are some nice nighttime views from the terrace.

Fat Fat Beer Horse Brewpub - Xiamen

Tulou Time
The following day we went to visit some of the famous Fujian 'Tulou', fortified and enclosed circular buildings unique to the Hakka ethnicity.  Now we visited a fair few of them, and I'm guilty of not being able to remember all of the names but some were 'authentic' in that there were very few tourists or stalls, and were more or less Hakka families going about their business in their communities.  They are wonderful structures and supposedly very resilient to natural disasters and attacks.

Tulou - Xiamen

Tulou - Xiamen

Tulou - Xiamen

The most famous residences we visited was the Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster, about 4 hours drive out of Xiamen town.  The hiking and views were very impressive, there are amble opportunities to enjoy the countryside and take some scenic photos.  Inside the cluster itself it is a little touristy with lots of visitors, shops and inevitably... noise.  Even so, just to see the structure of these places is very impressive.  You are free to walk around and the locals seem happy to relax and watch TV or play computer games whilst tourists swarm around their homes!  There is a real sense of community here, there are no haves and have nots, the rooms are more or less the same and responsibilities in the community are allegedly shared.  Took the following information from Wikipedia:

"All rooms were built the same size with the same grade of material, same exterior decoration, same style of windows and doors, and there was no "penthouse' for "higher echelons": a small family owned a vertical set from ground floor to "penthouse" floor, while a larger family would own two or three vertical sets.

Tulous were usually occupied by one large family clan of several generations: some larger tulou had more than one family clan.  Besides the building itself, many facilities such as water wells, ceremonial hall, bathrooms, wash rooms, and weaponry were shared property.  Even the surrounding land and farmland, fruit trees etc. were shared." Sounds idyllic.

Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster - Xiamen 

Excellent views around Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster - Xiamen 

We visited the 5 story tulou called Yuchangluo which has unusual 'zigzag' structure owing to measurement errors during contruction but has still stood strong for over 700 years.  There is a beautiful ancestral hall in the middle of the tulou.  

Yuchangluo - Xiamen

There are plenty more tulou, but in terms of a place to stay if you want to relax and soak up the ambiance of the countryside whilst being close to these natural museums I recommend this place on the left in the picture below.

The Hotel of Qingde

It apparently has a few names but on the card I got it says 'The Hotel of Qingde'.  You're living in an historic building in the countryside that dates back to 1743.   Since visiting, I found this fella who blogged about it in detail he loved it so much.  Definitely my first port of call next time I visit Xiamen.  He includes detailed information about the rooms and contact information/address etc.

Gulangyu Islet
On our final day of the trip we made the much anticipated trip to Gulangyu Islet.  Firstly, could the information about the ferries be more unnecessarily complicated and unclear? I was trawling for recent information about from which port to depart as allegedly foreigners aren't allowed from some, and others only operate at certain times.  China at its worst.  Well let's cut the BS, foreigners need to take the ferry from Dongdu Port near Zhongshan road to Sanquitian Port on the islet itself. You will need your passport and it can be difficult to book in advance, but it's possible, one Chinese ID can book up to 5 tickets and tickets can sell out quite far in advance so it's advised wherever possible.

Gulangyu - Xiamen

Koxingga - Gulangyu - Xiamen

If you check out the reviews on TripAdvisor or other travel communities they are so mixed.  There is talk from people who were there 10 years ago and how much its changed for the worse.  There is talk about overpriced touristy tat and hassle wherever you go and pricewalls wherever you go.  But there is also talk about the beautiful architecture, the relaxed vibe and the great street food.  I guess all are true to some extent.  The island was quite busy when we visited, some parts were more crowded than others but all in all it wasn't unpleasant.  There are plenty of places to explore but as most will tell you, you do need to do a lot of walking if you want to make the most of the place.

Beautiful scenery near the Piano Museum - Gulangyu - Xiamen

Rocking the IC shirt Gulangyu - Xiamen

It's a popular destination for couples wanting to take wedding photos. We saw many small groups tucked down alleyways or up against colonial restaurants snapping away in snazzy clothing.  It's a great place to get a bit lost to be honest.  You can eat your way around, do a bit of a hike or relax on the beach.  There's a lot to see and you can take it at your own pace.  The heat was almost unbearable when we visited in June, so it seemed to make sense to see a few things before seeking some shade and repeating this process.  It's a little pricey, but no more than you would expect from a popular little island with all this history, and there is plenty of competition when it comes to shops and restaurants to stop it from being too ridiculous. There is always a McDonalds for the none too adventurous// penny pinchers.  All in all well worth a visit.

Impressive piano, Gulangyu - Xiamen

Street food - Gulangyu - Xiamen

Street food - Gulangyu - Xiamen

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