Chinese travels continue… Xiamen in Fujian province, street markets, tea drinking, Gulangyu Island…
After two nights in Ghangzhou and walking what felt like hundreds of miles after two intense days traipsing around the fair I was ready to leave. Next stop Xiamen in Fujian province. At this point I’d like to say thank you to my hosts Edward and Makiyo who showed me around, translated, put me up, entertained and basically made the best trip possible happen. I am so grateful for their help – and sometimes in China you really need it.
China was one of those places where I had no idea what to expect – on any level – before visiting. It’s such a vast place, the most populated country on the planet, a place which, as it exerts such a large impression on the imagination, means there’s quite a big gap between the fiction of what you think it will be like and the reality of how it actually is. My impressions are also of course highly superficial after a relatively fleeting – 9 day trip – to a small part of this massive country.
Driving across Ghangzhou to the train station (more on this later) and then from the train station in Xiamen to where I stayed I had that feeling of being daunted again. Everything’s so big – just endless miles and miles of large tower block housing, much of it looking quite grim and unappealing. Basically workers digs. Small rooms for factory workers who work long hours for little pay. In the cities there isn’t much much greenery. Just lots of concrete and lots of people. An Orwellian dystopia, humans as drones. Life looked hard. Its the scale of it – 1.3 billion people who all need to work, eat and live. On an already dangerously overcrowded planet, I just find the numbers a bit overwhelming. However, from my brief travels there I never saw a desperation to the people, quite the opposite – very proud and friendly people, taxi drivers and waiters would often refuse or hand back tips, perhaps due to the Chinese honor code they find it demeaning to accept money thrown around by Westerners. Again I am sure there are other parts of this huge, diverse country where this isn’t the case and hunger and poverty will be the norm.
The train stations are simply immense. As with the Canton trade fair, the scale is mind bending – the terminus at Ghangzhou was bigger than Heathrow Terminal 5. The trains literally miles long. The timetables hyper efficient – the trains leave on the dot and you have to book your tickets days in advance and if you missed the train you were screwed. A massive mass transit system to cope with volume. In fact when it’s Chinese New Year and all the workers can leave their factories to visit their families, I believe it’s the largest human migration on the planet, all carried by the train system. As a world leader, China has invested massively in it’s infrastructure (America take note) and the roads, trains and subways are amazing. The trains were clean and fast – very impressive. This is where the help of our translator helped – once you get out into the cities no one speaks English. Not a word. I felt that if I got lost it would be a real test to find your way home again.
I’d never heard of Xiamen (3.5 million people, small for China) before but it’s well known in China and as it’s on the Strait of Taiwan, one of strategic and historical importance. I was staying right on the lake in the nicest part of town. This was my time to explore. We visited the fish market one morning which was a real eye opener and a great place for local colour, smells and people watching. In China if it moves it gets eaten – so there were snakes, toads, turtles, sharks, alligators, endless species of fish – all on sale ready to be cooked. As I a vegetarian I perhaps surprisingly didn’t find it that gross or shocking – in my world view, it’s shocking that a human would want to eat anything that lived, whether pig, snake, cow or shark.
It seems common for areas of the city to specialize in a certain area of trade. Hence there was an area – a few blocks – of painters and artists knocking up copies of classics like the Mona Lisa or Canaletto-esque Venetian city scapes. I think this congregation of similar skills is fairly common in China and there are even towns or cities that specialize in one thing, for instance one town will make all the Christmas decorations that will be exported and sold to the rest of the world. Another town (or city) will specialize in washing machines or TVs and so on and so. It’s really quite bizarre.
In Xiamen one of my favorite discoveries was the tea area. Again, a couple of blocks of everything related to tea – tea pickers, sorters, dealers, shops selling kettles, cups, machines. Outside older women sat on stools picking and sorting the leaves from the twigs and stems of the bushels recently transplanted from the plantations that surround Xiamen . In China everyone drinks tea – taxi drivers have their own flasks with their favorite brew. In fact it’s believed the quantities of tea drunk goes some way in explaining low obesity in China despite the fat rich diet. The hot tea flushes out all the fat and toxins. It’s served before meals and business meetings. In some situations there’s quite a strict ritual of how it’s brewed – the tea ceremony which I experienced a number of times. How much tea is used, temperature of the water, washing of the tea cups with the first strain of tea, smelling the leaves, smelling the brew – it’s an art form, a tea culture that goes back millennia.
This was another highlight in Xiamen for me. After a tasty lunch in a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant we walked up the hill to the Nanputuo Temple which is near the beautiful university. As it’s set on a hill you walk up and there are various Buddhist shrines and lots of monks. As with the Buddhist temples I’ve visited I love how the atmosphere is different to a traditional church – minus the sacred hush and holy reverence. The Buddhists seem more welcoming, open and accepting in their beliefs. This part of China is mainly Buddhist and for me it was another plus – the people seem kind and passive. I felt very safe at all times. I think most crime is low in China as the laws are very strict and well enforced. No deviation from the norm, a mass conformism to ensure the safe functioning of a society with so many people. Plus a hangover from the Communist days when strict conformism was much more the norm. As China has opened up to capitalism and westernized society is going through a massive change. An ever expanding middle class, consumerism and a vastly and disproportionally wealthy one percent much like Western cultures.
This was another fascinating day trip. Just a 20 minute ferry ride off the coast of Xiamen, Gulangyu Island is car free and is stuffed full of colonial history and architecture. After China’s loss after the First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, many foreign governments – British, French, Japanese etc – set up their administrative head quarters there. The architecture was stunning – large Victorian houses, French villas, art nouveau styles and palatial homes abound in the winding lanes where cars are banned. It really gave me a sense of history – a lot of older buildings frequently get knocked down in China to make way for new developments and it was reassuring to see this part had been protected.
Gulangyu Island is a famous tourist destination for the Chinese – particularly young about to be married couples who flock there to get their portraits taken with the classy architectural backdrop. Every street you turn down there are couples every where only adding to the romance of the place.