Exploring Xiamen for free

Yundang Lake.
Yundang Lake.

In the height of summer — many, many months ago, I can barely recall — boyfriend and I were on the way to Sanlitun when a woman stopped us and asked if we had five minutes to fill out a survey for foreigners. Boyfriend was about to decline and walk on, but I made him do it. Then I was asked to fill one out too! It was about tourism in Xiamen, and it took longer than five minutes to fill out. But we were told we’d get a chance to win a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Xiamen. Xiamen is a coastal city on China’s southeastern coast, within cannon distance of Taiwan, and branded China’s most livable city. It has been on my list of places to go ever since I came to China, so the survey seemed like a great opportunity! I was determined to win the prize.

And I did! Winning turned out to be a lot easier than being picked from hundreds of people at random. The all-expenses-paid trip was actually a guided tour (what else in China?) that included 10 other foreigners. I can’t complain, though, because everyone was really friendly and laid back and Xiamen really was a nice place. And tours are certainly convenient; it was nice not having to plan everything, from lodging to transport to where to go, when you only have three short days.

About Xiamen

Formerly known as Amoy, Xiamen (厦门) is located in Fujian Province about halfway between Hong Kong and Shanghai. Its name in Chinese means “Gate of the Grand Mansion,” and indeed Xiamen has historically been a very important gate. It was once the main port for China’s tea exports, not to mention one of only a few ports open to foreigners. Xiamen was also one of the original special economic zones opened when China first began to reform its economy in the 1980s. Thus, distinct foreign remnants dot the city, and foreign influences can still be felt. As the closest mainland Chinese city to Taiwan, Xiamen also has a lot of Taiwanese influences. Mix in the fact that it’s a breezy coastal city, and you’ve got a very open and laid-back place.

But influence works both ways. Xiamen is not just a place where people and goods enter China, but it is also a place where people and goods leave. People from the region, while ethnically from the same Han majority, speak a very distinct dialect called Minnan (or Hokkien). They have also been rather mobile, spreading their dialect and customs to Taiwan, further along the southern Chinese coast down to Hainan, and all the way to Southeast Asia. In fact, many overseas Chinese speak a variant of Hokkien, and other languages have adopted Hokkien pronunciations of words. In English, Hokkien may have given us the word for “tea” and “ketchup.”

And because Xiamen is on the southeastern coast, the air is everything Beijing air is not — that is, clean and moist.

Things we did

The best thing to do in Xiamen is relax and enjoy the niceness that surrounds you. Despite being a port city, it’s a tranquil place with nice scenery, whether it be the shoreline, Taiwan in the distance, or colonial European houses painted in pastel colors.

Our first sight was the Nanputuo Temple (南普陀寺), a beautifully restored Buddhist temple that appears to offer an excellent view of the sea and city from the mountain peaks behind it. Unfortunately, we were running behind schedule, so we couldn’t actually hike up the mountain to get a view from the top.

We also took a boat ride around Yundang Lake, which was built just a couple of years ago out of a natural inlet. The boats are solar powered party boats, on which you can drink, snack, sing KTV, or just enjoy the lake and egrets, Xiamen’s bird, flying about.

A visit to Xiamen must include a trip to Gulangyu, a former island enclave for the foreign colonialists in the 19th and early 20th century, as well as the tulou, round houses made of rammed earth built by the Hakka ethnic group. Gulangyu is a pedestrian-only island, which can seem like a haven for those fed up with Chinese drivers. And while the island is overrun by tourists, the winding lanes, cute shops and Victorian-style buildings are worth a trip.

The tulou might be a little harder to get to, as most clusters are at least two to three hours outside Xiamen. Entire villages are deemed tourist attractions by the government, and many of them have received recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Hakka families still live in those houses, while some double as guesthouses, so you can see how people live and even interact with them as they do their housework. It’s kind of like going to Colonial Williamsburg or one of those weird model ethnic villages in China, but it’s actually real life, even though it feels like another period in time. Some families whose houses are official tourist attractions receive government subsidies to keep up their homes. The ones that don’t receive any money are poorer still. It must be rather strange to live there.

The tulou village and Gulangyu.
The tulou village and Gulangyu.

Things we didn’t do

Xiamen has a few other places of interest, including Tiger Head Hill, Hulishan Fortress, and Xiamen University. The university apparently boasts a beautiful campus, and when we went during Golden Week, there was a line snaking all the way around the block just to get in. Our tour guide said it would be at least two hours’ wait.

We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to check out any beaches or bike along the Island Ring Road, but they looked like promising activities from our bus.

The Mid-Autumn Festival Carnival for Foreign Friends

On our first night in Xiamen, we were invited to this extravaganza, aired live on the local TV station, for the closing of Xiamen’s annual Mid-Autumn Festival Carnival. What happened was that the Xiamen city government bussed in all these foreigners and forced us to watch skits showcasing local cultures and tourism propaganda for each of Fujian’s cities and towns. Because we were seated at a table with the other people from our tour group, I have no idea where all the other foreigners came from or how they managed to get invited. The second half of the evening was spent playing this dice game, which our tour guide kept referring to as a gambling game. But all you do is roll six dice into a bowl in turns. Depending on the combination you roll, you are given a rank from the imperial exam system and a prize.

And that’s all there is to it, really. The person who achieves the highest rank “wins.” The game was allegedly invented by a local general who didn’t want his troops to feel homesick during the holiday, and to this day it is still famous in Xiamen. The concept sounds pretty dumb, and there’s absolutely zero strategy involved, but it is oddly entertaining. Boyfriend was even interviewed live on TV because he rolled a high-ranking combination. He did not, however, win the grand prize, which was a cruise. Instead, we took home prizes such as bread rolls, postcards and a framed golden dragon carving — plenty of things to remember this city by.

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