Trying to get to Gulang Yu in Xiamen.....

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November 7th 2014
Published: December 10th 2014
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We left Liuilian at lunchtime by bus for the next, and last stage, of our Chinese trip. This time we were headed to the coastal city of Xiamen about four hours away. Xiamen was the main port used for the export of tea during the nineteenth century and after it's capture by the British during the first Opium War was opened as one of five treaty ports in China. European settlement left the legacy of colonial architecture, most of which is on the tiny island of Gulang Yu, a ten minute ferry trip from Xiamen. Enroute we passed many more tulous (genuine rammed earth ones) and a few hideous recreation cement ones which were built to house the Chinese tourists. Thankfully they were all situated at least an hours drive from the lovely unspoilt area we had stayed in. The low hills we drove through were terraced and planted with tea bushes. We were unsure what to expect in Xiamen so had only booked one nights accommodation in the main city. We were hoping to go and spend our last few days in a guesthouse on Gulang Yu. The main part of Xiamen is also a large island which is joined to the mainland via a five kilometre causeway and bridges.

The bus didn't stop at a bus station but on a very busy road in the city (thankfully on the island) which left us with absolutely no idea of where we actually were. We had a lot of trouble getting a taxi to stop - it was the end of the working day and threatening rain - but thankfully one driver did eventually take pity on us. It was a forty minute drive through very heavy traffic before we arrived at our hotel - another one from the Jin Jiang hotel group - which was situated in the of a block of shops all selling lights. There were some pretty amazing (and very expensive) crystal chandeliers for sale in them...

We explored the surrounding area which seemed to comprise of nothing but malls and shops. A quick meal at a local restaurant after which we went back to our room, deciding to leave any more exploring for the next day. A taxi next morning took us to the busy waterfront esplanade. We were unimpressed I admit. It was crowded with domestic tourists and the wide walking esplanade was full of touts and souvenir booths. We spent some time walking along the pedestrian mall leading from the esplanade - shop after shop selling tea - and after watching the crowds just get bigger, we decided to spend at least another night at our hotel from the previous night. Dinner that night at the Pizza Hut (Aussie wine and salad..) and another early night.

Next morning we caught a taxi to the Nanputuo Temple, a Buddhist temple built over a millennium ago, but subject to many rebuilds since. We nearly didn't enter the grounds when we saw the queues of tourist buses outside but did eventually join the crowds inside. It was incredibly busy and we didn't stay long. It was busy with people worshipping though most of them were doing it with cameras around their bodies so they were all tourists like us. The temple had been recently repainted and was glowing with vivid colours. Many people had left large arrangements of flowers and these were scattered in vases positioned around walls within the central courtyard area.

From there another taxi took us to Huli Shan Fortress, a large German gun artillery built in 1893. The guns held within were all large though the king of them was the massive barrel of the 180mm artillery piece. This particular piece was responsible for sinking a Japanese warship in 1937. From the top of the fortress you could see the Taiwanese occupied island of Kinmen, claimed by both mainland China and Taiwan. The site was as busy as the temple and the swimming beach beside it was absolutely packed with holiday makers. Many had hired various forms of bicycles to bike the beachside footpath. We had decided to spend the afternoon and evening on Gulang Yu so we asked a taxi to take us to the ferry terminal. We drove along the beach side highway, some of which was built out over the ocean.

We presumed the taxi would drop us in the tourist area near the main pedestrian esplanade where we had seen people queuing for the ferry however the taxi drove straight past and despite our initial protests kept driving. He just kept saying 'no ferry'. We were totally confused by then and even more so when he did eventually drop us off at a large building a long way from the centre of the city. Thankfully taxis were cheap. The building was massive, obviously brand new and surrounded by highrises. It didn't take us long to realise it was a ferry terminal, just not the one mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide. Inside there were many ticket counters all with long queues so we decided it was all just too hard and still thinking we could catch the ferry from the city area we caught another taxi back there.

After queueing there for a ticket they refused to sell us one. Feeling quite frustrated by then, we were rescued by a Chinese man in the city on business who told us that tourists (foreign or Chinese) were no longer allowed to use the ferries leaving from there during the day, but we could purchase a ticket there after 3pm. He suggested we joined him on a boat trip which went around the island to fill up the time and purchase a ticket on our return. Seemed a good idea so we spent an enjoyable 45 minutes checking out the island from the water - it was much bigger than we expected - before arriving back and rejoining the ferry queue. Another refusal followed - this time we were told to come back at 5.50pm! We decided that the whole process of visiting the island wasn't worth the hassle so left to explore more of the narrow alleys close to the shore. It was fun - we ended up in the local shopping area away from the tourist shops. We actually wandered (by mistake) through one very narrow alley which was lined with young women! A lovely meal on the rooftop of one of the historic hotels on the waterfront and then back to the Pizza Hut near our hotel for a glass of wine before bed. We had long ago given up on the idea of actually overnighting on the island and had decided to keep our room amidst the light shops.

Next morning we were determined that we would get to the island so went back to the mayhem of the sparkling new terminal. After getting to the head of the queue again we were told that all ferry trips had sold out for the next few hours and the first ticket we could buy was at 2pm and that we would have to leave the island by 5pm! We left again without tickets... This time by bus though which gave us a taste of the express bus service in the city. These buses travel on roads above all the other traffic so are very fast. We had commented on their roads as they are all planted with bougainvillea which hangs over the side and also the pillars are covered with a creeping leave plant which is growing upwards. They are Xiamen's version of hanging gardens.

After a quite afternoon repacking luggage and reading at the hotel we again headed back to the city centre ferry terminal - by this stage getting to Gulang Yu was a challenge that wasn't going to get the better of us. At 5.50 pm we did get tickets, and ten minutes later were on the island. It was dark of course so we were not really going to be able to see much. We left the terminal on the island and ended up in a long cave tunnel (used by the locals to get across the island) which was very dimly lit and a little eyrie. For the next couple of hours we wandered around in the dark - it was actually really enjoyable peering through the fences into the overgrown gardens of the old colonial houses. The whole area was a maze of narrow alleys, the old houses (for the most part) seemed to be empty and with very little street lighting the whole experience was ghostly. There are twenty thousand people living on the island but we saw very few in back streets that we explored.

I'm actually really pleased that we didn't stay there as it was a bit of an odd place after dark. However when we decided to leave the island and walked back towards the ferry terminal (this time not going through the tunnel) we suddenly found ourselves in a brightly lit street crammed with people. The street was lined with food stalls and small souvenir shops and we had to push our way through the crowd to reach the ferry terminal. Obviously most of the domestic tourists who go to the island spend the majority of their time within those couple of streets. There was a long queue at the ferry terminal and the boat was very crowded for the short journey back to the high rises of Xiamen. We have since found out that the new ferry terminal had only opened three weeks before we arrived in the city so I guess the locals were as confused as we were by the changes.

We finished our time in Xiamen enjoying the view and a glass of wine from the top of one of the high rises overlooking Gulang Yu. Next morning our few weeks in China ended when we caught our flight to Singapore. We enjoyed chatting to a young Australian man who has set up a business importing granite around the world. He told us that Xiamen is the centre of the world granite trade and what we thought was coal mines near Datong were probably black granite mines instead.


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