At the end of our second day in Xiamen we went to Gulangyu Island 5 minutes by ferry from the city of Xiamen. Only about 20,000 people live on this picturesque Island that’s only about 2 square kilometers in size. The best part of the Island experience is off course, the predominately European architecture, followed closely by the fact that it is free from cars.
Shanghai, like all cities in China today, is overrun with noisy polluting dangerous cars. I have often remarked to my friends here that I like Shanghai better a decade ago before common people could afford to own cars. Cars, especially in China, are an attack on the senses. Needlessly noisy with their constant honking, extremely dangerous as they are driven by Chinese who have less road sense than a Western 16 year old drunk behind the wheel, and harmfully polluting. So going to Gulangyu with its car free roads is definitely an escape from Shanghai and Chinese cities in general. This was one of the main aspects of the island that attracted me, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The best part, of course, are the old buildings and narrow cobbled streets. Amazing but true, in a country boasting thousands of years of history there isn’t much left that is very old in most Chinese cities. An alien arriving on planet earth would assume that Europe is far older than China just because its historical buildings far outnumber anything in mainland China today. So it was nice to go some place that felt like it had some history for a few days reprieve from the bland Communist architecture that populates most Chinese cities. Walking around for a few hours you start to feel as if you are in Europe instead of China except for all the Chinese people of course. Originally the island was part of the treaty that ended the first Sino/British war and was settled as an international concession area much like Shanghai was at the same time serving as a trading port and an area where European countries could establish consulates for dealing with China, along with churches, hospitals, and banks. If it hadn’t been for Japanese invasion in WW2, it could still be a part of British Empire or at least an autonomous like HongKong and Macau.
To get to the island we took a passenger ferry costing a couple yuan with about a thousand Chinese on a boat clearly designed for at most half that. Good thing it wasn’t a long trip or we likely would have sank as Chinese ferries are prone to do. Gulangyu is a huge tourist destination with streets packed with locals on the weekend making it a less than relaxing experience for many foreigners, so we were lucky we had gone on a weekday. Still, the streets were quite crowded with tourists far out numbering the local inhabitants. We exited the ferry with the herd happy to be on the other side of the narrow straight and decided to simple walk until we found a suitable hotel. Most hotels on the island are in old Victorian houses which adds to the charm of spending a few nights there. We hadn’t walked far when we noticed that even on a weekday, most of the hotels were full. Turning a corner we came upon one that had vacancy so we took the only room they had left. Five star accommodations it was not, the bed took up about 85% of the floor space, and the toilet, basin, and shower were crammed into the only other room, but it was in a nice relaxing area, on the top floor of the house with a little balcony so we took it.
Having found a place to stay we ventured out to explore the Gulangyu. Twisty streets and narrow alleyways greeted us. The front desk sold us a map that appeared to be hand drawn, which turned out to be of little use. Wandering around aimlessly turned out to be a pretty good way to get a feel for the place and only getting a little lost we saw about half the island on our first evening. One major thing to do on the island is shop. There is a main shopping area right at the ferry terminal with side streets branching off in every direction. Most of the shops and restaurants are quite unique and even if you don’t buy anything, just looking in the shop windows can be an interesting experience. So we spent our first day there looking at beautiful buildings, eating delicious food, and window shopping. After dark we continued to walk and eventually crossed the entire island and arrived at the much less busy waterfront areas full of parks and here and there a seaside resort or two. It was a nice relaxing way to end our day with Xiamen’s skyline brightly lit up across the water.
Our second day was slated for heading to the tourist attractions of which there are many. I can’t remember all the names of the places we visited now, but we went to a few private gardens, one with the big statue of Koxinga looking towards the mainland, a garden with
Rockery Caves, a few museums, one full of pianos and one full of organs, and we climbed the hill at the islands centre. Needlessly to say, everything was packed full of tourists, but we rarely had to wait for anything with the only noticeable effect being that we had to walk kind of slow. I’d hate to see it on a holiday though. Other than seeing a few of the attractions we did a lot of walking, which I rather enjoyed as there are no cars there trying to run me down at every crossing and behind every bend. That night we ventured out to find food, beer, and of course, more walking. The island may be quite small, but I figured I logged about 20 kilometers a day while I was there.
The next morning we awoke early and checked out. It was our last morning and we used it wisely by walking around aimlessly. I really felt I had missed a lot of the island on the previous two days and I was right. We came upon an overly expensive tourist attraction, a mansion and compound belonging to a wealthy Chinese merchant and government figure I believe. Known as the “Hi Heaven Villa or Sea & Sky Villa “ it cost 160rmb a person to enter but I felt it was worth it. We poked around there for a bit and then it was time to go back to the mainland. We picked up our bags, went to the ferry and were herded on, and grabbed a taxi to the airport on the other side.
The taxi asked if we wanted to go on the Scenic Route and we said “sure” as we had quite a bit of time to spare before our flight. He took us along the coast on a newly constructed circumferential highway devoid of speed detectors for the most part it seemed as we were travelling at over 160km/hr at some points. Still it was a relaxing journey and I got to see more of the “New Xiamen” Kilometer after kilometer of shinny new international conference centers, seaside resorts, and luxury housing. It was truly an amazing site to see and even more amazing that 99% of it was completely vacant. Picture a city the size of Vancouver with no one in it and you get the idea. Xiamen wants to become a business and vacation centre, which it well might accomplish, but not before they get a new airport. Xiamen airport is the worst clusterfuck of an airport I’ve ever had the misfortune to step into. Our terminal area was at least 4X maximum capacity and our flight was delayed for an hour because there weren’t enough doors for us to exit through. They have to get that sorted before they can do anything with vacant city they’ve built nearby. Anyway, it was better than the airport vacation we experienced at the start of the flight and it did bring us back to Chinese reality before we set down in Shanghai. The perfect end to the perfect trip 😛 Xiamen rocks, Chinese airlines and airports do not!
The best part of my Gulangyu experience was the peace and relative quiet combined with the slow place so common to island life surrounded by Victorian buildings. Combined it felt like paradise on earth compared to the fast paced, dirty skied, ugly urban jungle that is Shanghai. It is as good an escape one can get from Shanghai and I highly recommend anyone living here to go for a visit.
Xiamen photos here.
Websites about Gulangyu: