11.05.2008 - 11.09.2008
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to have a five day weekend due to my classes having mid-term exams (None of the other teachers' schedules lined up like mine, so they didn't have the days off as I did. Since I had five days off on a non-Chinese holiday, I decided it was a good time to make my way south to Xiamen, which is on the coast of China across from Taiwan. According to Lonely Planet, Xiamen used to be known to Westerners as Amoy, but neither name sounded familiar to me. Xiamen was recently ranked most livable city in China; it's famous in China for being clean, having nice weather, and nice beaches.
Beach in Xiamen
I managed to get a sweet deal on a flight out of Shanghai to Xiamen, which cut my travel time from 24 hours on the train to 1 1/2 by plane. I had decided that my first couple of days would be spent on Gulang Yu, which is a fairly small island right of off the coast of Xiamen that used to be an old foreign settlement back in the mid 1800's, meaning that most of the buildings are colonial and Victorian style, and not Chinese-looking. The hostel I stayed in actually used to be the German consulate. What makes Gulang Yu special is that cars and bicycles are not allowed on the island.
Now, this may not sound that amazing, but in China, where every second is spent with horns, cars, and jackhammers in the background, it was really nice to be somewhere totally peaceful and quiet. I spent time wandering around the island, eating seafood, and practicing my very limited, but improving Chinese. Since there were no bikes or cars and the fact that fewer people stared at me here, it almost seemed like I wasn't in China. Except for the fact that I couldn't speak the language. And that everyone around me was Asian. Gulang Yu is also famous for the number of classical musicians that are from the island. Supposedly there are more pianos on the island per capita than anywhere else in China. And truth be told, I actually did hear a few pianos, a violin, and trumpet being practiced as I wondered the streets of the island. I felt more cultured just being there!
Me along a "beach" in Xiamen - notice the freeway built over the water (ocean). It's like this for a couple of miles.
After a couple of days on the island and also exploring Xiamen (a 5 minute ferry takes you from the mainland to Xiamen), I hopped on a bus to head inland 3ish hours to an area that contains tulous, which are huge, 3-4 story (mostly) circular compounds made of dirt with wooden reinforcements that entire families live in. They were built this way to keep out invading groups and tribes as well as predatory animals. They only have one big door to get in and out of the tulou, and the usually a huge courtyard with open corridors leading to all of the rooms.
When I got to Hukeng, which was my destination and the jumping-off point to see the many tulou, I ran into a group of three Chinese siblings who asked if I wanted to go with them and the driver they had hired to tour a number of the tulou. We spent the rest of the day being driven to various different tulou ((probably) the oldest one, built in 1308; the biggest one, with over 400 rooms, used to house more than 1000 people; and a famous group of tulous with a square tulous surrounded by four round ones). We then headed back to Hukeng, ate, and then I went to look more closely at the room that I had procured earlier in the day to sleep in that night. I had told our driver that I wanted to stay in a tulou that night (where in Rome...).
A lady showed me a room which consisted of not much more than three beds, a fan, and a light bulb, but it looked fine for a one night stay. Mind you, this would not have been an acceptable room for many people (when I asked the lady where the bathroom was, she walked me about 10 meters down the exterior corridor and pointed to a giant, clay pot. No kidding.), but I survived. The three Chinese that I spent the day with stayed in a normal hotel room and were told by the hotel people that only foreigners stay the night in the tulou... Luckily, after dinner, I found out that the restaurant also is owned by the owner of that tulou and they had a bathroom in the restaurant that I could use, although it wasn't much better at all...). The next day, I toured Hukeng, the town I stayed in that has a number of tulou near each other, and then caught an afternoon bus back to Xiamen for my fligt back to Shanghai the next morning.
It turns out that there are lots of an orange-colored fruit grown in this area, and everyone dries them and then sells them. They taste really good, but I didn't know what I was eating until I got back home and found out that they were persimmons.
All in all, it was a great trip going somewhere that I hadn't known much at all about before I read the guidebooks, but managed to have a great time and see some really interesting things.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!