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Getting to Like Xiamen

After nearly a month together, it was time for my dad to return home after his successful (we think) introduction to Asia. We were getting a little bit too comfortable in Beijing and the next day Yann and I took off on a 31-hour train ride to Xiamen, a city in the southern coastal province of Fujian. Admittedly, we didn't really know very much about our destination, not having had that much time to plan this next leg of our trip. We had seen a single photo of a tulou, the name given to the round communal houses of the province's Hakka minority and was determined to get a glimpse of them. Xiamen, right on the coast, seemed to be a good place to relax for a few days. It wasn't until we were on the train and we started studying the map and the rail network that we realised that we were traveling ourselves into a corner, and that there would be hours of travel involved to get out of Fujian and on to our next destination. I remained optimistic but Yann wasn't quite as keen. We met an English-speaking political science student from Xiamen on the train, and he assured us that we would love the city, that the air was fresh, the weather warm and the seafood delicious. When our train pulled into Xiamen after dark, he accompanied us by taxi to the harbour (refusing to let us pay), where he showed us where to board the ferry to Gulang Yu, a small nearby island where we wanted to spend the night. He was exceedingly nervous that we didn't have a reservation for the hostel, and tried to get us to consider sleeping in the Xiamen University dorms, or in his appartment.

Xiamen is rich in colonial heritage and forcibly opened as a trading port by the British in the mid 19th-Century. The island of Gulang Yu was a diplomatic enclave, and most of the crumbling colonial mansions are still standing. We arrived on a Saturday night and every single bed in the youth hostel was taken. We were offered a tent on the cement patio outside which we accepted. Yann was now very grumpy, and I was getting nervous about my claims of the city being a worthwhile destination. Upon exit from the train station we had been greeted by a gigantic Wal-Mart, a McDonald's and rows of skyscrapers. Even the tiny island had a McDonald's outlet right at the ferry terminal. We retreated to our tent hoping that we might discover Xiamen's colonial charm the next day. In the morning, we took the ferry back to the mainland to visit Xiamen University's campus. It wasn't until we located the beach that we cheered up a bit watching the Chinese hilariously dip their feet into the water. We came across three hilarious monks, from the nearby Nanputuo Temple burrying each other in the sand in their full monks' robes. When they caught us taking pictures of them they called us over to pose with them. The one who was buried up to his neck was talking away in his broken English despite the sand filling up his mouth, making us promise to e-mail the photos to him and exclaiming that it was a wonderful day when we agreed. We spent a full day exploring Gulang Yu Island with the Chinese tour groups. By night fall the island was pretty much deserted but by day the groups of elderly Chinese sporting matching baseball caps followed their loud-speaker wielding tour guides around, past the old consulates and ornate residences. The funnest activity was watching them hit the seafood shops, where you can buy all sorts of dried sea creatures. Sitting around tables, drinking the famous local tea, they haggled with salespeople selecting the best pieces of shark fin. Buying ridiculous amounts of "local items" at "great prices" seems to be an integral part of any Chinese tour. We had to pass on the delicious dried scallops (asking price: 300yuan/0.5kg), but bought ourselves a giant bag of dried squid so that we wouldn't feel left out (yet to be opened). In the evenings we discovered the hectic streets of the harbour district. Behind layers of clothes lines, electric wires and alot of grime are enchanting century old colonial buildings. Streets are filled with vendors selling everything from fresh seafood to Chinese pornography, we even spotted a Burmese restaurant. We spent hours wandering back and forth down the busy streets, loving the simultaneously chaotic and laid back atmosphere. Against our better judgment we entered a clean, trendy restaurant and had a terrible meal accompanied by a pitiful karaoke singer. The next night we repented, hitting the backstreets and picking fresh seafood from styrofoam containers at an outdoor restaurant. We had an outstanding meal for less money than we had spent the previous night, enjoying the lively streets and the perfect weather. After three days in Xiamen, we were no longer unhappy about our southeastern detour and we were now mad at ourselves for having booked our train tickets out for the next day.

2 comments:

mom said...

When is all this going to be turned into a book?

Jean said...

always fun to read waht you're up to. Hmmm you seem to be having alittle more relaxed time without me. Cool.

Papa