I spent the latter part of my Xiamen trip on the small island of Gulangyu, just 5 minutes away from the mainland by ferry. As a place of residence for Westerners during Xiamen’s colonial past, Gulangyu is famous for its European architecture and today is a popular holiday destination, although not strictly on the main tourist map. The focal point of the island is Sunlight Rock (above) which can be ascended by way of a rather more modern concrete staircase providing a wonderful panorama of the whole island (below).
The island itself covers an area of 1.78 sq km and is home to around only 15,000 permanent residents. The streets are pedestrianised making it a nice place to get away from some of the hustle and bustle of everyday China and luckily it’s not been totally overdeveloped (yet). Once you’ve left the main ferry terminus its easy to find yourself alone and free to explore. If you’re lucky you might even hear the sound of piano playing as the island has more pianos per-capita than anywhere else in the world (there is even a piano and organ museum)!
Below Sunlight Rock can be found a small temple with picturesque views out over the adjacent rooftops leading to the sea which on a nice day is perfect for a quick paddle. Further down can be found Shuzhuang Garden which was originally conceived by a Taiwanese business man as a private villa but opened to the public in 1955. It contains many elements of traditional Chinese design which exhibit the art of hiding, combining, and borrowing from one’s surroundings.
Alas many of the Victorian style mansions are now in a state of considerable disrepair and are badly in need of restoration. Some have been turned into nice hotels and restaurants but you can’t help but feel that time is running out for many of the remnants of the colonial occupation. If buildings could talk I bet the one above would have some interesting tales to tell and you can understand why there are more than a few ghost stories floating around!
One area where the island disappoints is in its food. Unless you like seafood then there really is little on offer in the way of cuisine and what there is is mediocre at best. During my time there I mostly snacked on street BBQ and ice cream which was fine, if a little insubstantial. Accommodation wise there are plenty of cheap hotels to stay in, most of which are clean and comfortable, if a bit basic. I stayed here a little over one day but would recommend at least two to explore everything fully.
On the second enjoyably hot and sunny morning in Xiamen I visited Nanputuo Temple (“nan” meaning south) situated at the foot of Wulaofeng (Mountain of Five Old Men) facing the sea. It’s one of the most famous Buddhist temples in China, founded in the Tang Dynasty, with over 1000 years history containing three main halls and one pavilion (some being more recent additions).
Outside the temple is an equally beautiful lotus pond which at this time year was covered in water lilies and teeming with various fish and more than a few turtles. The temple and its grounds were also unfortunately swarming with people who evidently had had the same idea of how to enjoy the nice day but nevertheless there was still room to enjoy it all. With an entrance fee of only 3 RMB it’s very cheap.
The temple is home to over 100 monks who live and study here. They only eat vegetarian food and apparently get up at 4.30am each morning to chant which is supposed to purify their minds. You’ll notice that whenever I visit temples I never take any photos inside of the halls which usually contain statues of Buddha which you are forbidden to photograph. Buddhists believe that Buddha is one who has attained enlightenment (Nirvana) thereby escaping the cycle of suffering and rebirth.
Above is a wooden carving of a fish with a dragons head, hence being called a “dragon fish”. I’m not sure if it has any other meaning but looks cool!
As you walk through the temple you are also ascending the mountainside and can see many characters carved into the rocks painted a deep red. In the garden area we brought some very delicious cakes which are a local delicacy made with a green bean filling to give a sweet taste.
It only takes about half an hour to view the whole temple, more if you want to climb to the top of the mountain, and is right next to Xiamen University which is also worth a look.
Xiamen covers a relatively small administrative region yet has three highly regarded universities and other educational institutions, many of which are historically linked to overseas Chinese philanthropists who sent money back for their construction. The photo above shows Jimei School Village which was founded by Mr. Tan Kah Kee who made his fortune through rubber plantations and manufacturing businesses.
He also donated millions of dollars to establish Xiamen University (above) and what would later become Jimei University (below) which both have particularly beautiful campuses well worth a visit just to stroll around and enjoy the old traditional buildings and a tranquil lakes. Interestingly the buildings use a unique blend of Western and Chinese architecture with red brick walls and glazed tiles on more traditionally shaped roofs.
Such was his contribution to education in Xiamen that a museum was recently opened (below) to chronicle his life’ work and there are many statues of him dotted around the city. There’s quite a lot of content translated in English but possibly a bit much for a short visit. The beautiful garden is the main attraction.
One thing which struck me was how impeccably clean Xiamen is in comparison to most Chinese cities that are often more than a bit grimy around the edges. Apparently the city was recently voted China’s cleanest and one can imagine that student life here is pretty nice, something which I always appreciated and miss from my time studying in Durham (UK).
Last week China celebrated the annual Dragon Boat Festival with most people getting a few days off work for the national holiday. I took the opportunity to travel to the coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian province, a 1 hour flight from Shenzhen (vs 8 hours by bus). Leaving last Thursday moring and coming back Saturday afternoon I had a little more than two days to explore the area.
Xiamen has a rich history as a seaport which has seen revolution, Japanese invasion, European collonialism, high-profile corruption and was one of the first Special Economic Zones setup in 1980. It’s comprised of Xiamen Island, Gulangyu Island (the main attraction), and a larger region on the mainland. Being opposite to Taiwan also makes it an area of strategic military importance in evidence by the rather large guns pointing in the same direction.
After a very stormy preceding week we were lucky enough to be greated by blue skys and warm weather. Initial impressions were of a clean city with a large variety of architectural styles (due mainly to British colonial influence) giving a distinctly un-Chinese feel to the surroundings. During the festival many restaurants were serving traditional glutinous rice dumplings called Zongzi wrapped in bamboo leaves which made for some tasty little treats.
Our first stop stop was the Turtle Garden in Jimei district. Given the name I was expecting some massive spawn of turtles lurking in murky pools but in reality there were none. Conceived in 1950 by famous business man and philanthropist Mr. Tan Kah Kee the garden contains a memorial to the anti-Japanese war and liberation of Jimei with an inscription by Mao Zedong and various sculptures depicting key events.
Getting around the city is easily afforded by good bus network and cheap taxis. For those on an even tighter budget you might want to try one of these hybrid half-rickshaw, half-motorbike contraptions although be warned that going round a corner at speed in one may well be the last thing you ever do! More from Xiamen soon.