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Xiamen - Excursing the Seascape.

by Dave Lambert   - Aug 17, 2015

From Gulangyu

I have heard good things about Xiamen (厦门). Sunshine, a friend who used to live where I reside, in Yangzhou (扬州), Jiangsu, lives there now and has been asking when I will visit. Xiamen is on the east coast, in Fujian Province, directly opposite Taiwan. It doesn't look that far on the map from Yangzhou but the fast “D” train takes 11 hours from Zhenjiang (镇江), just on the other side of the Yangtze River. That's mainly because, even though it hits 250 kph (155 mph), it stops at about 30 stations on the way! Still, it's comfortable, air conditioned, and has plenty of leg room. I can read, study or just watch the countryside and the mountains in Zhejiang and Fujian, which is a welcome change from city views. Jiangsu, certainly in the south is pretty flat but as you travel through Zhejiang and approach Fujian Province, the topography changes, becomes more hilly and more varied.

En Route to Xiamen

Regarding the trains, in the last few years the fast train network, both D-trains (up to 250 kph), and G, or Gaotie, the fastest trains, up to 300 kph (186 mph), has been rolled out at a blistering pace. Already with more fast rail lines than the rest of the world combined (over 16,000 km or 10,000 miles as of December 2014), they are aiming to have, by some estimates, around 25,000 km (15,500 miles) by 2020!



03_8795_North_Station_Xiamen_Fujian.JPGXiamen North Railway Station

The train arrives at Xiamen North Railway Station, yet another huge, new infrastructure addition. For all the cities that are connected by the fast train lines it means a new or seriously upgraded railway station. From there you can take the BRT, a fast-transit bus system where a road has been constructed 10 m (11 yards) or more above the street on concrete pylons. Very impressive but there are still too many people on it to get a seat. It's also quite a long way from the North station to the city center.

BRT Line in Xiamen

It's a city of, by the latest estimates, over 4,000,000 in the total metropolitan area, not huge, by Chinese standards, but not a small town either. As far back as the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), it was a seaport and invited foreign trade, a rare thing in China. The first European traders, mainly Portuguese, visited from 1541 and Xiamen eventually became the main port in China for the export of tea in the 19th century, leading to the local Hokkien dialect having an influence on the way some Chinese words were transliterated into English, including, it is thought, kowtow ( khàu-thâu), Japan (Jıt-pún) and ketchup (kiô-chap). It further enhanced its fortunes when China started to open up in the 1980s and it was among the first “Special Economic Zones” attracting foreign investment and trade. These days it has the air of a prosperous, thriving city.


Xiamen is cool, apart from the hot, humid weather! But that's most of central and south eastern China in the summer. In the mid 30's (low to mid 90's F), and really humid. I get used to walking round in wet clothes all day and drinking liters of water. It's clean and modern, some interesting new and old buildings, outside cafes and restaurants, a real seaside option to Hainan in the winter. I catch up with another friend, a keyboard player who now works in a Filipino band in an area full of open-fronted bars facing the sea in Xiamen. Outdoor living at its best.

Paul and Band

The city also has some classy elevated roads that don't just run along the seashore but swoop out over the sea look like some of the posters we used to see when I was a kid, of what life would look like in the 21st century!

Elevated Road

Then there's Gulangyu Island (鼓浪屿), an island a few minutes by ferry off the main island of Xiamen City. It's a car free tourist zone full of strangely colonial European style buildings, a million restaurants, craft stalls and art studios. However when we go to get tickets on Sunday afternoon there's a huge queue. They helpfully display an electronic board which tells us that the comfortable tourist population on Gulangyu is 25,000 but currently stands at 50,000! I decide to go the next day while Sunshine is at work so instead she takes me to explore a warren of old lanes and shops. It's there I happen to spot THAT t-shirt and almost lose Sunshine in the maze to get the photo.

T-Shirt: Life is Short

Monday, time for another attempt to reach Gulangyu. It starts with a trip on a ferry which takes you on an hour's trip to the far side of the island, island to the Nei Cuo Ao (内厝澳)ferry terminal. I discover on the way back there is a 15 minute ferry from the side facing the city skyline, but the longer trip is well worth it if you haven't been to Xiamen before. Gulangyu is great. Plenty of shade and a lot of incongruously European colonial style buildings. Cafes, restaurants and small bars every few steps, art studios where they'll draw or paint your portrait while you wait or from a photo. There is the traditional gold-plated lacquer ware and there are quirky and imaginative street sculptures all over the place.



I also encounter some novel crafts I haven't seen before, including black tiles from which the surface is chipped and scraped to produce images taken from photos, paintings or, I guess, the artist's imagination. I discover it's Sunshine's birthday a couple of days after I'm due to leave, so I buy her one of the tiles as a gift. They offer to write her name on the back. I write out, “To Sunshine”, they copy it by sticking the paper on the back and chipping through to give a facsimile of my writing, as you can see from the photo. There is also a remarkable Piano Museum on Gulangyu with some of the most amazing variations on the design of pianos that I have seen. I reluctantly abide by the prohibition on taking photos, so you'll have to go and see for yourself.

Hand Engraving


There is every variety of seafood you could name, and many more that I certainly am not able to. I'm particularly fascinated by horseshoe crabs that looks like something I thought was extinct about 200 million years ago! Some of it looks better than it tastes, including my ¥50 seafood served in a huge shell, which was way too garlicky (sorry, is that a word? Well, it is now), like garlic with just a hint of seafood flavouring. Even on a Monday Gulangyu is still pretty crowded but, this is China after all.


Restaurant at Gulangyu

The Botanical gardens are amazingly extensive, more like a national park than a garden, and well labelled. There are sections devoted to different ecological zones, desert, grassland etc. and it takes hours to get around the whole place. I make a new friend as I'm there on my last day, a visitor from Hunan. Despite my poor Chinese we strike up a conversation and he is really happy to try out my telephoto lens on his camera.

In the Botanic Garden

As I board the BRT bus and make my way to Xiamen North Railway Station for the trip home it occurs to me that Xiamen is probably worth another trip sometime. I haven't even really taken advantage of the sandy beaches and I'm told there is some very picturesque coastline on either side of the city itself. I'll be back! By the way, the title of the article is from the prominent lettering on a small store on Gulangyu and once again Chinglish has provided the English language with a word it was lacking...

Caricature Studio at Gulangyu


Street Sculpture at Gulangyu



About Writer

Dave_Lambert.JPGDave Lambert is currently teaching English while living in the ancient and venerable city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu, where the Grand Canal meets the Yangtze River and where Marco Polo once reputedly held a government post. He is also a musician, writer, photographer and traveler. Born and raised in England's East Anglia, he has lived in Botswana, Australia and now China. In the last 5 years he has visited numerous places in this enormous and varied country, but still feels he has just scratched the surface. He now divides his time between the activities mentioned and studying for a languages degree, with a major in Chinese.



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