Tag Archives: Xiamen

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.

Xiamen 厦门

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.

Xiamen 厦门

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.

Xiamen 厦门

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.

Xiamen 厦门

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.

Xiamen 厦门 Xiamen 厦门 Xiamen 厦门 Xiamen 厦门Xiamen 厦门

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.

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

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.

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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.

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Finding Gulangyu on a Map