In my last post (here) I described the amazing birthday surprise my husband planned for me. It was a totally unexpected trip to the city of Xiamen and the nearby island of Gulangyu.Shortly after 8am we arrived at our (highly-anticipated) destination and pretty much straight away took the express bus to the ferry terminal. After a 20min ride, we found ourselves in a modern building with an exhibition display portraying the life on Gulangyu, an island which used to be inhabited by Westerners. It was fascinating to see the black-and-white photos from 1890s showing the magnificent villas and gardens of the islanders.
The ferry ride was about 15min long and offere great views of the island ad well as the city of Xiamen. As soon as you step off the boat, you know you walked into a different world…
The streets of Gulangyu are narrow, winding and most importantly pedestrianized and many follow a high wall, which in the past must have protected the privacy of the residents. Just the fact that cars are not allowed on the island (apart from delivery vehicles, maintenance vans,etc.) makes this place a desirable destination as anyone who has traveled in China will know that the fumes, noise and smell associated with semi-permanent traffic can be really off-putting, particularly in touristy places. Well, you don’t have to worry about that here. The atmosphere is peaceful, calm and relaxed.
Everything depends on when you go though. We went during a weekend and it was VERY crowded, with guided tour groups occupying many of the streets and causing traffic. There were a lot of maintenance/road works happening at that time too, which caused noise and created dusty air. Not much can be done about that though so we tried to enjoy our stay despite those minor negatives.
The weather was hot and sunny, it would seem perfect for the beach. Yes, there was plenty of people strolling along but surprising nobody in the water…For a Westerner this is a clear sign that there must be something wrong with the water, otherwise why would you not want to take advantage of cool, refreshing waves? For a Chinese, it is absolutely normal NOT to bathe in the sea/ocean, no matter how scorching the weather might be. It’s not that it isn’t done here, it’s just not done on the same scale. As it turned out, my assumption was right. Sadly, the water was very dirty, with layers of rubbish washed off on the sand…You won’t see that in any brochure!
Don’t let that put you off though as I have since confirmed that the beach is not always this messy, it might be due to the tide or the time of year.
Gulangyu feels like a place stuck in time. Most of the houses are old residences and villas, once gloriously luxurious and lush, now mostly run down or down right derelict. It’s a sad sight to be sure and walking around I wished the local government would invest more in the renovation of those properties. After all, they are the island’s biggest draw. For many Chinese tourist trip to the island is the closest they will ever get to being/feeling like they are abroad. However, my OH enlightened me that most of the properties are privately owned and so the authorities don’t get involved in their maintenance. Sadly, majority of those magnificent houses have been turned into flats, which may bring more profit to the owner, but look somewhat…depressing.
With a bit of imagination one can easily visualize the grandeur of this area at the beginning of last century. In addition to the architecture and the beaches, Gulangyu also offers some delicious snacks, from sea worm jelly to fish balls.
Another reason why tourists choose this island is to have their pre-wedding photo shoot taken there-a must for Chinese couples! You wouldn’t believe how many couples we saw posing in front of cameras in the alleys. We had to be careful turning a corner so as not to bomb someone’s wedding shoot! It was a bit sad and a bit funny watching all those couples in their hired wedding outfits trying to act all romantic while they were standing only a few metres away from another crew, in front of crowds of tourists and in sweltering heat. My Oh revealed that the thought did cross his mind to have OUR pre-wedding shoot done there and, to my relief, he admitted he was happy he’d decided against it.
The island has plenty of choice in terms of accommodation, from luxurious hotels to B&Bs, however I should mention that you pay premium for staying there and can probably stay for half that price on the mainland. Overall, we enjoyed our two day-stay on Gulangyu, its atmosphere, its food and its charm.
I would highly recommend going to the island during the week when it must be much quieter. We took the night train from Guangzhou to Xiamen but returned by fast train (gao tie) to Shenzhen and then took another fast train to Guangzhou. The total length of our journey back was 3.5h so not long at all. You can always choose to fly there and take one of the frequent connections provided by Xiamen airlines.
Once we finished sightseeing the island it was time to visit Xiamen itself…
If you want to see more photos from Gulangyu,check out my Gallery.