Road Trippin’ Through Northern Yunnan

China is an extremely easy place to travel. Between high speed trains and cheap flights, the entire country is conveniently accessible at relatively low cost. And while we’ve traveled thousands of miles on the road as well, most of that has come by bus and hired car. So when a local friend with a car offered to road trip with us from Chongqing into northern Yunnan, we were psyched. 6 years in China and it was our first real independent road trip.

Fast Facts:

Name: Stops included the town of Yibin (宜宾), the Western Grand Canyon Hot Springs (西部大峡谷温泉)and the Da Shan Bao Reserve in Zhaotong (大山包,昭通)

What to Do: See beautiful terraced farmland, soak in a hot spring, enjoy scenic mountain landscapes, and catch the elusive black neck cranes.

Getting There: We drove from Chongqing, which takes ~8 hours. You could also access the area from Kunming via train / buses. Zhaotong also has an airport.

We did the whole route in three days. That was too short. For our two friends who were driving, they spent way too much time behind the wheel and not enough time enjoying the scenery. While the highways made for pretty easy driving, the distances involved made the whole trip pretty 辛苦 on everyone. In retrospect, spreading things out over four days would probably have been a better idea.

We started in Chongqing and headed west and then south on the G85, which after about 4.5 hours placed us in Yibin, Sichuan. We stopped in Yibin to have lunch with another friend from Chongqing who grew up in Yibin. The city is primarily known for where the Minjiang River(岷江)runs into the mighty Yangtze River (长江)(in the picture below you can see the different colored rivers mixing together). At the intersection is a huge stone map of all the major cities along the Yangtze from Yibin to Shanghai. The city itself is pretty typical for a small, relaxed hub city, and is a good rest stop for noodles and a stroll along the river.

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With our mouths on fire and our bellies full, we got into the car and kept heading south on the G85. Our next destination was a hot spring called the Western Grand Canyon hot spring (西部大峡谷温泉). Only about an hour south of Yibin, this hot spring was actually quite nice. I say “actually”, because while driving up to the hot spring you go through an absolutely massive coal mine, which shouts pretty much the opposite of tranquil natural retreat. Distanced sufficiently from the mine and located next to a canyon (hence the name), the hot spring area has 30 pools many of which with unique flavoring (lemon, milk, ginseng, etc. …) Many of the pools are super hot, which should be welcome news to experienced hot springers (we couldn’t handle a lot of them). We spent the night at a local hotel near the hot spring (rooms are also available at the hot spring, but they aren’t cheap).

The next morning we geared up for Yunnan. Our first goal was to find some rice terraces, which at this time of year would be bright red. Before long, we were deep into rural China and all we could see were fields and fields of local agriculture. When people say, “Yunnan is really beautiful,” this is what they mean.

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Eventually, after about another 4 hours, we arrived in Da Shan Bao (大山包). This mountain area is primarily a domestic tourist spot. You’ll most likely see other road trippers from the surrounding Sichuan and Yunnan cities.

This area is not crowded. Local kids may come up to you to say hi or offer a horse ride, but this place definitely doesn’t feel like a tourist trap. It’s pretty much a lake, a nice path into the mountains, and wide open spaces and sky.

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Along the path there are some local women who will offer you fruit, nuts, and other snacks. The women wear really thick and stiff coats made out of sheep wool. The coats are so dense and stiff that they are pretty much completely windproof. We really liked them and even considered buying one.

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Try to time your ascent so that you’re on the top at sunset. Along the middle of the path there is a pretty cool road to nowhere, which ends up with the view pictured below. At this point I also realized that I could use my sunglasses in front of the camera lens for a pretty good sepia look.

Watching the sunset at the top is pretty spectacular, as the pictures below only futilely begin to express.

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That night we found another local hotel back up the highway. The next next morning we got up early and visited a local reserve, the Da Hai Zi wetland reserve (大海子湿地), famed for being the home to black neck cranes, which are an elusive and protected species.

There’s a large viewing deck, pictured below, where photographers come to capture the birds without disturbing them. Sadly, we came too late in the season and missed the majority of the birds (we did see a couple small flocks). During the migration season, hundreds of thousands of birds of dozens of species comes through the reserve.

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Since there wasn’t much to look at, I continued to play with my sepia sunglasses.

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By the early afternoon we decided to head back to Chongqing. The drive back to Chongqing would be a solid 7+ hours, so we wanted to get started early. Along the way we passed an interesting looking pagoda near a mountain-side. The sun was already going down, making for a spectacular view. Of course, this being China, when you go inside the seemingly pretty pagoda you are greeted by dozens of human cow paddies. It’s not so much a reflection on people, as people have to go when they have to go, but rather a result of the lack of rest stops along hundreds of miles of highway.

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In all, this was a great road trip. Yunnan is such a beautiful province, one could spend months driving across it. We spent a short three days, which was too short indeed. One day it would be great to get an RV and head out into the remote western areas of Yunnan, an adventure for another day.

Here’s our complete route:

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In the Fields of Dali

Dali is one of those special places in China that everyone seems to love, westerners and locals alike. To those that have been there, Dali is synonymous with tranquility, nature, yummy food, and of course, beauty. And unlike its somewhat chaotic neighbor, Lijiang, Dali has a chillness about it. Yes, there are a fair share of tourist shops in the Old City (大理古城), but the surrounding area feels authentic and connected to the stunning landscape.

For us, Dali was a two night visit, but one could easily spend a week. For many, Dali is one of those places that makes you wish you could just quit everything and go live there permanently.

Fast Facts:

Name: Dali | 大理

Where: Yunnan Province | 云南

What to Do: Enjoy views of Erhai lake (洱海湖)and its surrounding villages, visit a local market, ride your bike through the farms, perambulate the old city, and do some hiking in the nearby Cangshan mountains(苍山).

Getting There: From Kunming: fly  (<1 hour) or take a bus (<5 hours) or a train (around 7 hours).

The nice part about taking a bus from Kunming is you get to see the countryside, which is picturesque to say the least – one farm after another and a red flag here and there zooming by through the window. We left Kunming in the late afternoon, so by the time we approached Dali we were treated to an orange baked sky.

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The common thing to do in Dali is to take a walk on the wonderful Jade Cloud Path. Starting at Zhonghe temple, you head south and follow an impeccably maintained stone path for about 11 kilometers to the end. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you can hike up and down to the path, though there is a cable-car as well. The path itself sits about 2,500 meters up, and provides great panoramic views of Dali and Erhai lake.

The path should only take about 4 hours to walk at a slow pace, so this is a perfect excursion if you’re getting a late start after a healthy brunch at The Bakery No. 88.

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Our favorite part of Dali was riding bikes through the farms. Much like in Yangshuo, this area has infinite paths to ride along. You can ride around the entire lake if you’re up for a more involved trip (planning a route ahead of time is highly advised), or like us, you can just go get lost in the farms for a while.

Dali is quite small and flat, so there’s no easy way to really get lost as you can almost always see a major landmark. Riding through the farms is great because you get amazing views of both Cangshan and Erhai. You also get to pass lots of locals who are very friendly and super used to tourists rumbling by on bikes. And definitely get a mountain bike if you plan on riding through the fields.

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After eating about a billion little bugs because we’d been riding around all day through farmlands with stupid grins on our faces, the sun began to set. This is really the best time to be out in the fields, especially on a day with white puffy clouds. The sun sets behind Cangshan and litters the fields with beams of light piercing through the clouds.

Eventually we circled around to the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple (崇圣寺三塔). The tallest and oldest of the three pagodas dates back to around 820 A.D. (though it looks totally new now). We didn’t actually go inside, as it was the end of the day and the 121 RMB per person ticket price seemed a little steep. People will give you conflicting reviews of the pagodas and exhibits inside the compound. If you like looking at artifacts and relaxing in a park, then it might be worth it. If you’re looking for something to blow you away, then you won’t really find it and you can probably do with just enjoying a view of the pagodas from the outside. That said, we didn’t go in, so it’s difficult for us to judge.

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On our last day before taking the bus back to Kunming, we decided to go visit some local villages and markets. There are over a dozen villages around Dali and they offer a great way to experience rural living at its best. Biking to and through the villages is probably the best way to do it, starting by heading to Caicun (才村) village and then continuing on from there.

We also visited a weekly market called Shaping (沙坪)market. Double-check with your hotel/hostel to make sure it’s open on the day you want to go (you’ll probably also want to get a driver, as it’s 30km north of Dali). This is a real local’s market, so you won’t find tourist trinkets. Instead, you’ll get a flavor for the produce and livestock that people in Dali sell. You’ll also get to see all the colorful baskets and clothing that the locals (especially the older generation) still wear today. The colors in the attire come from the Bai tradition, though there are certainly other minorities in the area as well. If you’re not already in the habit of visiting local markets, you definitely should start. As markets across China are a great way to pickup the sounds, smells, and color of a place, especially if time is tight.

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There’s no shortage of online information out there on Dali, so definitely do some comparison shopping when choosing restaurants, hostels, and excursion companies. We stayed at the Laughing Lotus Inn, which was terrific. The owners are super nice and helpful and the place is really cute. They even offered us their kayaks to take out on Erhai lake (we didn’t do it, but if you have time that might be really fun). Just know that the rooms are small and don’t have much in the way of amenities. But if you’re in a backpacker mode you’ll be quite pleased. As for Dali, like so many places in China, it will only get more and more developed, so go as soon as you can!

Finding Dali on a Map

 

Chongqing’s Wansheng Stone Forest

China’s most famous stone forest (石林)is located in Yunnan Province about 3 hours outside of Kunming. It’s massive and from what I hear well worth a visit. Chongqing’s stone forest, on the other hand, is virtually unknown. And some locals might tell you it’s not really worth the 3.5 hour drive from the city (没什么好玩儿 is not an uncommon response). However, we were pleasantly surprised.

Dating back to 600 million years ago (claimed by the park; hyperbole, perhaps, though perhaps not), Chongqing’s Wansheng Stone Forest (万盛石林)is a whopping 200 million years older than Yunnan’s Lunan Stone Forest (路南石林). So take that Yunnan!

Fast Facts:

Name: 万盛石林  |  Wansheng Stone Forest

Where: 重庆  |  Chongqing

What to Do: Walk around an ancient stone forest, duh! You can also sip tea and ski down a grass slope (sadly, the course was closed when we were there, but it should be open in the summer).

Getting There: Allegedly you can take a bus, but it’s not easy because you’ve got to take another bus (a mini-private bus, … so a bit 麻烦) from where you get dropped off in Wansheng. So the easiest thing to do is rent/hire a car. It should take about 3.5 hours one-way.

You can easily spend about 3-4 hours walking around the maze of stone pillars. Heading in with little to no expectations, the Wansheng stone forest really was quite inspiring in terms of scale and coolness factor of the rock formations. Moreover, the park was basically empty on a Sunday afternoon (bear in mind we went in the winter), which made for a truly peaceful wandering experience.

We went on a typical smoggy/foggy Chongqing day, and it still felt good to be outside. 3.5 hours outside of the city you won’t find sunshine necessarily, but the air will smell/taste a little less sour.

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Walking through the rocks, you can see the layers of age etched into the stone like the rings of a tree trunk. When you look around the surrounding area, it really is quite amazing because this stone forest seemingly just appears out of nowhere amidst an otherwise normal Sichuan countryside.

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重庆 Chongqing

Around lunch time we stopped at one of the many benches lining the pathways. A very affectionate and chill dog joined us. There really isn’t much in the way of eateries in the stone forest (aside from your standard assorted meat hot dog and 快速面), so it’s a good idea to pack a lunch.

The textures on the rocks are quite exquisite. A lot of the rocks look like dinosaurs or some other scale encased creature.

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重庆 Chongqing

In the middle of the park is a lake, which has stepping stones that you can hop along to walk over the lake. Leaping from stone to stone is shockingly entertaining, especially if you’re a child at heart (we also had a middle-schooler with us who loved it).

The tea house by the lake is also a nice spot to relax and enjoy the geological wonderland you’re in. It was closed for the winter while we were there, but looked pretty nice nonetheless.

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重庆 Chongqing

Below is the grass ski course. We really wanted to try it out, but again this was closed for the winter. Apparently you ski down on what are basically giant rollerblades. The grass was surprisingly slippery and soft, as you could somewhat coast down even on flat shoes. I can only imagine how fun it would be when filled with kids (and adults) falling on their faces.

If grass skiing isn’t your thing, then definitely take the slide down the hill back to the parking lot. It’s one of those where you sit on a blanket going down a plastic slide. The course is short, but absolutely fun and beats walking down for sure.

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If you happen to have an open weekend in Chongqing, I’d definitely put this on a potential to-do list. The stone forest, Wulong’s karst bridges, and Jindao gorge would make a pretty awesome 3-day Chongqing itinerary.

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It’s always a bit surreal doing day trips out of Chongqing. When you’re out in the countryside you easily forget about the concrete and steel mega-tropolis that’s waiting for you in the evening. Driving back home, as one 40-story building after another appears, you get that combined feeling of dread and wonder. And when coming back during sunset, the smoggy/foggy city has a sort of haunting beauty to it.

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Finding Wansheng Stone Forest on a Map

Xiamen, the City by the Sea

Not all of China’s cities are crowded, dirty, and polluted concreted jungles. Like Kunming in Yunnan and Xining in Qinghai, Xiamen in Fujian Province is a smaller (on China’s scale), quieter, chiller, cleaner, and generally more relaxed city than the more well known mega-cities.

Xiamen is home to 2 million coast-loving people. Today, the city is a mix of Hokkien, Taiwanese, Han, and western culture. To non-locals, Xiamen is as a getaway destination featuring Gulangyu Island.

For anyone trapped in one of China’s smoggy cities, Xiamen is indeed a perfect weekend escape. For any China travelers, Xiamen is a great launching point for heading out into the Fujian countryside.

Fast Facts:

Name: 厦门  |  Xiàmén

Where: 福建  |  Fujian Province

What to Do: Ride a bike through Xiamen University and then along the coast; tour a tea field; eat some really fresh seafood; visit the famous circular tulou (土楼,tǔlóu) houses.

Featuring beaches along the highway, bikes paths hugging the coast, and winding boardwalks – Xiamen doesn’t feel like your average Chinese city. While Xiamen is a tourist destination, it doesn’t feel chaotic like the big spots in Beijing and Xi’an. Side streets are relatively quiet and you could drive through downtown without even really realizing it. While the city itself isn’t particularly beautiful, the ocean and coastline more than make up for the blasé architecture.

Perhaps one of our fondest memories of Xiamen is sitting on the wood planked boardwalk drinking a deliciously sweet and fresh coconut.

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Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

If you ask a local cab driver what to do in Xiamen, you’ll probably get directed to Xiamen University. Oddly, the university is probably the biggest tourist attraction in the city. Just outside the university’s main gate you can rent bikes and start by exploring the campus. Now if you went to Stanford or one of the many gorgeous UC schools, you won’t be impressed by Xiamen University. But, if you’re coming from any big city school, Xiamen University really is beautiful. There’s nothing to see in particular on campus, but on a nice day riding through the grounds is a fun way to begin a one-day ride through Xiamen.

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From the university you can head east along the coast (as pictured in the first set of pics above). Just go as long as you can before heading back to beat the sunset. Along the coast you’ll find seafood restaurants, coconuts, beaches, relaxing sea breezes, and lots of happy people struggling up hills on tandem bikes.

At sunset, Xiamen’s cloud glittered blue skies provide many Instagram moments.

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To checkout the tea fields and the tulou houses, try and join a tour through your hotel. Or, if you have enough people in your group, hire a car for the day. Most of the tu lou houses are a couple hours away from the city, so plan on taking a full day to do the visit (you can also stay overnight in some of the houses, so we’ve heard).

The tu lou houses are the round iconic dwellings that are abundant in Fujian province. The houses are formed by circular rings, once inhabited by the local clans. The structure was a way for communal protection of livestock and interior living spaces. Today, the houses are totally tricked out tourist destinations – the interiors filled with shops selling all manner of junky stuff. However, some of the less visited tu lou can give one a more relaxed visiting experience. At the end of the day, these are just round houses, so your mind won’t be blown by any means. But, if you’re in the area, the tu lou houses really are the thing to see if you have some time.

Immediately below are memorials to locals in once village who have lived over 100 years.

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Nestled in between many of the tu lou houses are tea fields. Since you’re in Fujian, Oolong is going to be the main attraction. At basically any tea farm you can go in and look at the processing techniques, try some tea, and buy some reasonably priced bags.

Chilling with some Oolong tea as you gaze at a tu lou in the distance is perhaps the quintessential Xiamen / Fujian experience. Since there’s not really much to do in the tu lou homes when you’re up close, they are perhaps enjoyed best from afar anyway. Though do be sure to go inside at least one tu lou. It’s really cool seeing the way all the rooms circle around the structure. In some of the tu lou, there are buildings within buildings inside the outer circular structure.

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Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

This is the money shot that most everyone is looking for.

Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen is by the sea. And therefore seafood is synonymous with the city. There is a snack street with a particularly colorful display of seafood (as shown below). Bear in mind that these things all look more interesting than they taste. For the best seafood, go to a local restaurant. The snack street is just for tourists and the seafood all tends to be over-cooked and over-seasoned. But, the street is worth a visit just for all the colorful dishes.

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Finding Xiamen on a Map

Gulangyu Island, Home to Pianos and Seafood

Gulangyu is a tiny island off the coast of Xiamen in Fujian province. Just a stone’s throw away from Taiwan, Gulangyu is a quaint maze of alleyways, seafood restaurants, shops, and an eclectic mix of museums. The island’s main claims to fame are its unique history and foreign influence as well as the fact that cars and bikes are banned from the island.

If you’re coming from a crowded smoggy Chinese city, then Gulangyu will be a most pleasant surprise and makes for a perfect weekend getaway. For international travelers, Gulangyu probably shouldn’t be high on your list (unless you’ve already explored China extensively), or unless you’re already passing through Xiamen for some other reason.

Fast Facts:

Name: 鼓浪屿  |  Gǔlàngyǔ

Where: Xiamen, Fujian Province | 厦门,福建

Where to Stay:  The island is primarily a tourist attraction, which means it is packed with small inns and hotels. We stayed at Remy’s Garden Hotel, which is located in a nice quiet area of the island and is foreigner friendly (the owner speaks English, French, and German).

What to Do: Walk around, eat snacks, sit, check out a museum, smell some flowers, eat seafood, i.e. this is a place to chill out and relax.

The sound of waves crashing into the island gives Gulangyu its name, which literally means drum beat island. As you make your way from the Xiamen port to Gulangyu (a 5-15 minute ferry ride depending on which port you go to on the island), you’ll see the water is alive with activity. Being so close to Taiwan (you can see Taiwan from the island) , this part of the South China Sea is a major shipping and fishing hub.

Note that when on the ferry, you can go sit upstairs for 1RMB extra, a small price to pay to avoid standing with the plebs below.

While circling the island you also get probably your best view of the massive statute of Zheng Chenggong, who is famed in Taiwan and the mainland for getting the Dutch out of Taiwan in the 17th century. Although given that Chenggong invaded Taiwan, I’m sure the various Taiwanese aborigines don’t look at him so fondly.

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Once on Gulangyu, you’ll immediately feel like you’re in a place that is not-so-China-like. The island is somewhat reminiscent of Taiwan (shared Hokkien culture), Macau (small winding streets), and Qingdao (European influence).

Of course, like most even marginally beautiful places in China, Gulangyu is a tourist trap. If you take the ferry to the east side of the island where the largest port is, you’ll most likely be stuffed in with loads of other tourists (and tour groups). There’s even a McDonald’s and KFC over there. The west side of the island is much quieter, especially if you walk away from the gift shops and restaurants.

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Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

If you’re staying overnight on the island, don’t stress out about where to go. If you have Baidu / Google maps on your phone, just use that as a guide to generally walk around the island. Two days is plenty of time to get a feel of the entire island.

The charm of the island is in the side streets, especially in the morning and at night when the crowds thin out. You really do feel like you’re in an old European city (okay well not really, but you’ll get as close to that feeling as possible in China).

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

After the Opium War ended in 1942, Gulangyu became home to various consulates for Great Britian and France. With that foreign influence came schools, churches, and homes all with European architectural influences.

Additionally, and quite randomly, the island is home to over 200 pianos and organs. Also known as piano island, Gulangyu has China’s only piano museum. The piano and organ museums are, well, they are what they are. If you’re into music and piano and/or organs, you’ll love it. If not, you’ll check it out anyway for FOMO.

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu isn’t all roses and stone walkways. About 20,000 people actually live on the island, so there’s some element of a working class society present on the island. The people living on the island basically support the tourist industry. In many ways, it’s these people who really give the island a living and breathing charm. There are also a handful of homes that wealthy Chinese use as vacation villas.

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

It’s sort of nice going to a place knowing there’s no pressure to see everything. Basically, you go to Gulangyu to enjoy fresh air, fresh seafood, and a lazy stroll. It’s a place to indulge feelings of nostalgia. You can forget, at least for a while, that you live in a high-rise apartment under a grey sky. You can appreciate things built to last, with the interwoven roots of a nearby tree to prove it.

Chinese banyan trees offer shade and fresh coconuts are easily found. Don’t get discouraged if you see lots of tourists, just find the next street that appears to have no shops on it and go let lost. The island is so small it’s basically impossible to get lost for more than 30 minutes, because you’ll eventually find yourself in some place you recognize.

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Walking around at night is quite pleasant. While most of the island is dark, the walkways are still lit and add a bit of drama to the atmosphere. Across the water you can see the lights of Xiamen, and feel happy to just be away from it all. The old tunnels that cut through the island’s hills are especially creepy / romantic at night.

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门 Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

Last but not least is the food. Walk into basically any restaurant and you’ll get very decent seafood. We had clams (my favorite) on at least four separate occasions. Everything is fresh and not over-seasoned, a welcome escape for us from the heavy flavors of Sichuanese food. It’s no wonder the food in Taiwan is so good, as the Hokkienese definitely know how to cook.

Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门 Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门Gulangyu Xiamen 鼓浪屿 厦门

 

Finding Gulangyu on a Map