There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 21 November 2016

Xiamen and Gulangyu Island: Part 10 of South East China

Our return to Wuyishan station was another white-knuckle ride as our driver overtook on a blind bend, conversed on his phone and read a text. We sat in the back and filled out the evaluation form, commenting at length on his cavalier attitude to life and limb and more succinctly on M’s lack of English, while praising both for their punctuality. As usual there was no envelope, but I doubt M’s English was good enough for her to spot the need to lose the form between the station and her office. This is, I should add, untypical of the service we have received on this and previous Chinese visits.

Wuyishan station may be a cavernous concrete barn in the middle of nowhere, but it was the terminus for our high-speed train to Xiamen. The 3½ hour, 500km journey took us cross-country to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province and then down the heavily populated coastal strip to Xiamen North Railway Station.
The final stage of our two week journey from Nanjing was from Wuyishan to Xiamen
While Wuyishan, indeed most of inland Fujian, is relatively lightly populated, the coastal strip is another matter. Overall Fujian’s 35m inhabitants live at a density of 300 per km², comparable to the UK’s 270, and positively rural compared with Zhejiang (55m at 550 per km²) and Jiangsu (80m at 780 per km²).  South East China certainly packs in the crowds.
We experienced a little difficulty locating our new guide, but once we realised the station had two exits, the problem was solved. S was young, enthusiastic and spoke good English, I could see at once that Lynne would quickly adopt him as a temporary son.

Xiamen (formerly known in English, and still on soy sauce bottles, as Amoy) was once a city on an island, the original settlement being on the south side in what is now the District of Siming. The island is 12km across and home to 1.8m people. Almost as many again live on the surrounding arc of the mainland giving the ‘Sub-Provincial City’ of Xiamen a population of 3½m.
Xiamen Island and the surrounding districts that make up the 'Sub-Provincial City' of Xiamen
Happier now we were with a safer, more professional, driver we headed south from Xiamen North, crossed the causeway (or perhaps one of the many bridges) onto the Island and proceeded towards its south-west corner.

Xiamen Island
Xiamen was a late developer, by Chinese standards, only emerging as a port during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). First European contact was made by the Portuguese in 1541 and the Dutch soon followed. After the Qing dynasty supplanted the Ming in 1644, Ming loyalists hung on here at the empire’s southern extremity for 20 years before the city finally succumbed to a combined Qing/Dutch force. The British East India Company built their first factory in 1684 but draconian restrictions eventually forced foreigners to give up all trading posts except Canton (now called Guangzhou). Although morally indefensible, the First Opium War (1839-42) was a British military and commercial triumph. Taking Xiamen in 1841, they decided the island was too big to garrison so held on only to Gulangyu Island, just off the south west coast. The war ended with the Treaty of Nanjing, which ceded Hong Kong to the British and gave them access to five ports, including Xiamen. From their base on Gulangyu the British and later other foreign traders would help Xiamen become China’s richest port.

Xiamen’s sizeable ferry terminal was crowded with well marshalled queues of people bound for a dozen different destinations. Gulangyu is a Chinese Tourist Board 5A rated attraction and receives 10 million visitors a year [as of July 2017 it is also a UNECO World Heritage Site so international tourists are now expected to increase]. Although only a couple of hundred metres offshore numbers are such that we boarded a ship rather than a boat to cross the narrow channel.
Leaving the ferry port, Xiamen Island
Gulangyu looked tranquil and low-rise….
Approaching Gulangyu Island
… and felt pleasantly warm; we were now far enough south to have not even brought our sweaters from the car. The problem with a sub-tropical humid climate, though, is that it may be warm, but rain is never far away.
On Gulangyu Island

Not only is Gulangyu low-rise, it is traffic free, there are no cars, motorcycles or even bicycles. A few electric buggies are used by government workers, but otherwise if anything needs moving, then muscle power will move it.
How stuff gets moved, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

History has endowed Gulangyu with a wealth of colonial architecture. It was now nearly three and lunch was beginning to feel seriously overdue, but first S wanted to show us the former British Consulate. ‘British architecture,’ he said, ‘make you feel at home.’ ‘There,’ he said as we rounded the corner. ‘Where?’ we asked, ‘There, the British building.’ He seemed disappointed with our reaction.
The former British Consulate, Gulangyu Island
Are Moorish windows typically British? No, I thought not.

Finally, S agreed that it was time to eat. ‘Local food,’ we said and he took us to a small apparently basic restaurant which was, at 3pm, quite empty. Unable to read the menu we asked S to choose something appropriate and he selected fish balls and seaweed followed by a noodle soup which contained more prawns and pieces of squid than noodles. To our surprise a big gloop of satay sauce sat in the spicy soup, not quite mingling with it. Most Chinese citizens of Malaysia and Indonesia have family origins in Fujian; as people have moved back and forth so has their food and Fujian has adopted satay as its own.
The meal was excellent and filling if rather expensive. Humans are traditionally reluctant to share their food with rodents and we considered requesting a discount after a fat, self-satisfied looking mouse waddled across the counter. We had finished eating, so why worry - and we came to no harm.

Returning to the traffic free, though still fairly crowded, streets of Gulangyu we saw more examples of colonial architecture. A neo-classical church….

Neo-classical Church, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen
…and another church, a pastiche of every other European church,…
Another Church, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

...and some apartments in a style best described as Hanoi Palladian.

Unusual looking apartments, Gulangyu, Xiamen

Typhoon Meranti, the strongest typhoon ever to have struck Fujian, passed over Xiamen in September. Five weeks later most of the damage had been cleared up, but not all.
Legacy of Typhoon Meranti, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

The light drizzle had ceased before we reached Shuzhuang Garden, often called the Lin Family Mansion and Garden as it is the creation of Taiwanese businessman Lin Erjia who, according to China Highlights ‘donated it to the state government in the 1950s’. That might be an idiosyncratic use of the word ‘donated’.
Entrance to the Shuzhuang Garden Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

China Highlights also quotes some technical stuff about the combination of three gardening techniques, ‘hiding elements, borrowing from the environment and combing movements.’ I do not pretend to understand that, nor how this creates 'a feeling of infinite space’, but it is a delightful place and much less crowded than we had expected.
Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu, Xiamen
It is delightful place, which may be the thought of the gardener as he sits admiring his handiwork

The ‘Garden of Adding Hills’ (the back, right of the above photo) allows you to look down in the main section (‘the Garden of Hiding the Sea’)…
Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island,Xiamen

 ...the Lin Family Mansion....

The Lin Family Mansion, Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

…and the seaside part of the garden.
Seaside section of the Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

….where we decided to walk next.
The sun comes out, the rain dries up and all is warm and beautiful
Shuxhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

The long exposure of Gulangyu to foreign influences, in particular western classical music, has had a profound effect. It is known as the Island of Pianos and claims to have more pianos per head than anywhere else in China (but how can they know?) It remains unclear if this calculation includes the inmates of the piano museum next to the garden.

The collection of the Gulangyu born Australian-Chinese pianist Hu Youyi is open to the public. I know little about pianos and had never visited a piano museum before, but when in Gulangyu….
It was surprisingly interesting. We saw pianos with famous names, Steinway, Bechstein and others, the world’s largest upright piano, a piano that once belonged to the German royal family and the world’s oldest rectangular piano. There were oddities, too, a piano with one half of the key board and strings at right angles to the other so that it fitted into the corner of a room and a piano with eight pedals (soft, loud, wah wah, fuzz box, accelerator, brake, clutch and gin-and-tonic). Sadly, photographs were not allowed.
As we, and many other visitors, made the walk back to the ferry port rain started to fall. We raised our umbrella as it became harder and very soon the streets were awash with running water. By the time we reached the terminal it was hammering down, but an officious security man, standing sheltered beneath an awning, made everybody wait in a long queue as he carefully checked all documents. The queue bunched up, attempting to crowd under the awning, umbrellas keeping heads dry while sluicing torrents of water down neighbours’ legs.
We were distinctly damp by the time we found our way into the holding pen. It was only a short wait for the bumpy ferry ride, but by the time we arrived the rain had gone and darkness had fallen.
Waiting for the ferry, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen
According to our original itinerary we should also have visited the19th century Hulishan Fortress. It was no great loss, but from the heights we might have seen the Kinmen Islands. Although the shortest distance from Lesser Kinmen to Xiamen is only 4km, it is part of the Republic of China not the People’s Republic of China, and the Kinmens are administered from Taiwan, 200km away. Kinmen was repeatedly shelled in the 1950s, and the islands were under military rule until the mid-90s, but tensions have eased and there is now substantial tourist and commercial travel between the mainland and Kinmen where the economy and population, now 130,000 strong, are booming.
I thought you might want to refer to the map again, I'm thoughtful like that
Our hotel was a tower block in a residential estate of such blocks, indeed its original purpose seemed to have been residential too, as we had a kitchen (equipped only with a kettle) as well as a bathroom. We sat on the enclosed balcony drinking tea and eating the mooncakes S had given us as a welcome present. Very few windows in the other blocks were lit up. These structures have been thrown up by the thousand in cities all over China; I struggle to see how they function as investments when most appear largely empty, but after more than a decade the building boom shows no sign of abating.
We were still too full of lunch to think about dinner, so we ate some peanuts and enjoyed a dram or two of the firewater we had bought in Hangzhou.

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