March 13-14, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)
Our 8pm overnight train from Guangzhou finally rolled into Xiamen (actually an island) midmorning. We were fortunate that our first hostel on mainland China (Xiamen Old Town Hostel) had very detailed directions on how to get there from the train station using public transportation. We quickly found out that it was the little, but very important, details that would save us many worries and anxieties down the road. Following the directions to a “t” we embarked on the last few steps of our most connection-filled travel excursion yet.
We exited the train and, before heading to the hostel, went right into a crowded train ticket line to buy train tickets for the next leg of our journey. We thought that was the wise thing to do since we were already at the train station, and it would be less stressful for us to have tickets in hand. Starting to get our mojo for crushing crowds (sort of a push to get where you want to get, or get pushed out of the way), we got into line and found that the ticket lady actually had a fairly good command of the English language, which made our ticket buying easy. Next up was buying tickets for the local bus to get to our hostel. Our luck ran out here. In another crowded, and this time a non-existent, line (just push your way up to the front), we finally got up to the ticket window to find an overworked/stressed out ticket lady. In vain we tried to communicate that we needed two bus tickets on a specific bus line, and she was about to just wave us off, when another angel stepped in to help us. This young Chinese business type man stepped out of nowhere (must have pushed himself right up to us) and asked us, in perfect English, where we wanted to go. We told him, and he quickly took over and got us the tickets. We paid the ticket lady, thanked the nice man, and he in turn smiled and told us to have a good time. Wow, is all we could say to each other as we pushed our way out of the chaos.
We made our way up to the bus stop to catch our bus and were amazed to see that the whole bus line roadway was elevated. Wow, again! Well at least it made getting to our destination a rather quick trip.
Counting the five bus stops, we hopped off the bus at what we were hoping was the right bus stop. We took the escalator down, walked past a morning fish and vegetable market, up a narrow and crowded alley staircase, taking a quick right into what I can only describe as your classic Chinese overcrowded super narrow old alley.
Trusting in the only directions we had to go by, we took a left into an even more narrow passageway. I mean, with our double backpacks, we were just able to walk down the alley way.
An old Chinese lady took one look at us and gave us a gesture to keep walking, we were on the right path. Xiamen is not a tourist town popular with foreigners, and the Old Town area even less so, so she probably knew there was only one place we could be going. Seeing what looked like a hostel sign, we knocked on the door. Hearing a voice overhead we saw Phil, the hostel owner. He was standing on a small balcony on the second floor, and said he would be right down, in perfect English. We walked into a clean and more of a house like feel than hostel, hostel. He escorted us up to the 3rd floor and into our private bedroom right off the kitchen.
Phil is an American now living and working in Xiamen, and married to a Chinese woman. I would describe Phil as a unique eclectic man who would have fit perfectly in the 60’s era of San Francisco.
He was raised in the Long Beach area of California but had been living in China for some time — and what a wealth of information and insight Phil would be for us. We lucked out again. After we unloaded our bags Phil asked us what we wanted to do in Xiamen. He then started to unload a ton of local information. After about an hour or so talking with him (I think he liked talking to some Americans and especially someone familiar with his home town), we set off for the island of Gulang Yu, one of the reasons Kristin had planned this stop.
Walking back out the narrow alleyways, we made our way to the street and to a restaurant Phil recommended for lunch — he called it “point and shoot” where you just point at the items you want so the language barrier is not an issue.
We then made our way down to the wharf area to purchase our ferry tickets to Gulang Yu, just a short putter across the waterway. About ten minutes after boarding the ferry we arrived on the island of Gulang Yu.
Exiting on to the island, we were immersed in an amusement park atmosphere with the hustle and bustle of people young and old.
We were just getting our bearings when a couple of young Chinese guys came up to us and asked if we were from the USA, we said yes. And with that they quickly asked if they could take picture with us. Kristin and I looked at each other and said “sure!” They were extremely happy and grateful for the pictures and we thought it was funny, but I guess we sort of stood out in the crowd.
Being the off season for tourism, there still were certainly a lot of people visiting the island. Gulang Yu has become a major vacation and tourist attraction for the Chinese. The island also has a well-established music academy and a history of producing acclaimed classical musical artists. The island is traffic-free and made up of lanes meandering through large mansions, colonial villas, large ancient banyan trees and many foreign consulates from back in the late 1800’s.
The island seems to be caught in a time capsule of a time gone by, as many of the large colonial buildings and villas have been restored to their original grandeur. Many other buildings are in the process of restoration, likely to further cash in on the tourist trade. Think of it as the richness of Newport, Rhode Island meets the quaintness and concentration of Carmel, California.
Because it is so easy on the eyes, we came across at least five couples with an entourage of wedding photographers, capturing them in rustic doorways and on scenic overlooks.
getting lost down endless traffic free lanes,
stopping in a coffee shop or two,
strolling along a beautiful and pleasant shoreline walkway,
and peeking into a few fantastic seafood restaurants displaying their wide assortment of fresh seafood.
The hotels and inns here are first class catering to the upper middle class looking for a romantic weekend getaway. With the amount of restoration and the quality of inns and restaurants here, we could easily see this unique and beautiful island becoming a high-end vacation getaway, even more than it is now. Oh, and we did see a few hostels too. But as we walked around, we did get those inquisitive looks of “what are you doing here”? I think we were the only non-Asian people we saw all day. There were times we thought there were other young Chinese contemplating asking to take their pictures with us.
Once returning to Xiamen it was getting late and we decided to walk around and check out a few other places Phil had recommended before calling it a night. First, was one of the largest Starbucks we’ve ever seen, a multi-story complex in a beautiful colonial type building.
Then we decided to go get a pizza at Pizza Hut, which is actually a nice restaurant in China with a very extensive menu book. This one took up the entire top floor of a skyscraper overlooking Gulang Yu island. Wow, what a view!
Back at our hostel, we spent some more time talking to Phil before heading off to bed. One of the things we asked him about was, why were we getting stared at so much, and I found people looking over Kristin a lot. Here’s how he explained it to us. “First, when they look at you Xavier, they really don’t know where you come from. Plus, with that closely cropped neat beard, that really throws them off. Now with Kristin, since she has her big Canon camera around her neck, they size her up by the high quality camera she has. You have to remember, high-end cameras in China are a sign of status. Then, since she is a woman, they look at her shoes to see what kind of style they are.” At that point both Kristin and I giggled because we were always wearing some kind of unattractive hiking shoes. Well I guess no points there. He went further on to tell us, that the Chinese always seem to be yelling when they are talking, but if you should ever be in a situation where you think you might be losing a reasonable argument, you just need to get your “Snoop Dog” on (i.e. firmly yell back at them), and they will quickly back down. Oh! Okay. Well, we hoped we never have to do that. After taking in a view of old town Xiamen from the rooftop of Phil’s hostel we said goodnight and so ended our first full day in a city on mainland China.
Tomorrow would be another first for us, as Phil had hooked us up with a Chinese tour to see the Tulous, and we would be the only non-Chinese people on the bus.