China: Gulangyu Island

In case you missed my previous China adventures:

Neon and Night Lights

Stewing and Shopping in Shanghai

Shanghai at Last

Adventures in Suzhou

First Impressions

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Day 7- At 7am, I abruptly wake to the sound of a jackhammer threatening to break through the wall above my head. Seriously disoriented in the pitch black, windowless room, I gather my bearings and groan in exhaustion. The family next door is yelling, opening and closing doors, and stampeding down the hallways like they are the only people in China. Good morning!

Peter and I discern that the other floors of the hotel must be under construction and that work starts at 7am sharp. This insight is reinforced during our other two nights at the hotel. This must be why we got the room at such a good discount. We start laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of our situation and roll around, crying with laughter. Exasperated and spent we miraculously fall into a fitful sleep until 9am.

After grabbing a quick breakfast at the hotel where they so kindly put out more bread and jam for the latecomers, we hop on a bus and head downtown. With no real destination in mind, we wait until the road begins to run parallel to the ocean and exit once everybody on our bus seems to exit. Hopefully they know where they’re going.

Strangely enough, as soon as we exit the bus, the American guy we saw yesterday at the airport passes directly in front of us. We give each other knowing glances and continue on our way. We must be in the right place!

The sidewalk is teeming with tourists, all headed to various ferries docked along the waterway. We buy tickets for the closest ferry and soon are boarding, headed to Gulangyu Island. Luckily we find seats in the middle of the upper deck and settle in for a scenic tour … in Chinese. I am sure the tourists did not expect their ferry ride to include a close-up view of some Americans.

Soon we are grateful to sit in the middle seats because it starts pouring. The air is steamy yet the sea produces a chilly breeze that draws me close to Peter for warmth. After wondering if this ferry ride will actually DOCK at Gulangyu, the boat docks at the opposite end of the island. It is still pouring and unlike the other tourists, we do not have an umbrella. We sprint down the dock and are absolutely soaked by the time we reach the little gift shop. Of course after we buy two umbrellas (in an effort to keep my shorts and camera dry) it stops raining. Hah.

Gulangyu Island is right off the coast of Xiamen is on China’s list of National Scenic Spots. Xiamen became a treaty port in 1842 which is why Gulangyu Island has predominantly Victorian-era style architecture. The Island was officially designated as an International Settlement in 1903 after years of 13 different countries, including Great Britain, France and Japan, establishing consulates, churches, and hospitals. Cars and bicycles are not allowed on the Island and men pull wheeled buggies to transport goods.

It’s funny because neither Peter nor I know anything about Gulangyu Island at this point. All we know is that it is a popular tourist destination in Xiamen and is extremely quaint. We figure that tourism must drive the local economy. However we can’t seem to find the other tourists. What happened to the hundreds of people on the ferry? Weird.

The Island is surprisingly hilly with steep streets that glisten in the hot sun. The Island is like a little mountain emerging from the sea with lush tropical greenery and old colonial buildings weathered with age. It is extremely humid and Peter and I are dripping with sweat. We are starving (ok I am starving) since it is about lunchtime and we are determined to find some shops with food.

After looking at a couple of maps, we notice several museums on the island including a Piano Museum, Organ Museum, Marine World (maybe not a museum), and Xiamen Museum. Being an avid museum-goer I suggest we visit a couple. On our way to locate food, we come across the Fish Bone Museum. Intrigued and lured by adorable children beckoning us inside, we pay the small fee to enter. A young girl acts as our guide, showing us into different rooms featuring intricate artwork made entirely of fish bones. I wish I had taken photos because they were extraordinary. The artist created flowers, birds, and entire landscapes out of fishbones. We meet the artist and are shown into a room full of mostly Victorian antiques. Exquisite but expensive, so no thank you.

Finally we leave and immediately come upon a busy street crowded with people visiting various eateries and food vendors. THANK YOU LORD.

Our first stop is some fresh fruit juice made on the spot. We get apple juice and something else… maybe papaya? After some dedicated explanations in Chinese by Peter, I also snag an apple to snack on later. Next, we buy some weird fruit? vegetable? animal? skewer that tastes like styrofoam. Not a fan. We also buy some sort of fried shrimp cake that is incredible. A shoe could be fried and it would taste good.

With whetted appetites, we sit down at an open restaurant and order some seafood noodles and dumplings. Before, we passed other restaurants with red tubs filled with live seafood, ripe for your meal picking. Snails, starfish, eels, shrimp, crabs, and other assortments of fish are examined and selected by hungry visitors. I feel much better choosing my seafood from a menu than from a tank. But that’s just hypocritical isn’t it..

Full and hydrated, we make our way to the main shopping area where all the tourists have been hiding. This place is swamped. Of course Peter isn’t too interested in shopping but I love browsing stores without really buying anything. It is so fun to see the character of each shop and sometimes you find something amazing. Well, this time I didn’t find anything that blew my socks off but I bought a pretty white shell necklace on a black string. Love. Then I see the same necklace in every other store we pass. How unique.

Lured by a jewelry display, I drag Peter into a large store that sells jewelry on one side and dried seafood on the other. It also serves as a tea shop with young girls at attention, waiting for customers. Being an attractive young American male who speaks Chinese makes Peter the star of the show. The girls flock to him, laughing with him and making jokes. I think it’s hilarious and hope it snags me a good deal on this red beaded bracelet I’m eying. Thankfully it does and we end up leaving the store with a big bag of dried squid as well. Not sure how that happened. It sounds gross but is actually quite delicious.

While tearing away at the chewy treat with our teeth, we walk in the opposite direction of the crowds and head towards the ocean, passing beautiful buildings along the way.  We wander into a calligraphy museum which features contemporary calligraphy carved into wood. Each piece is signed by the artist with their name carved into a red square.

After leaving the museum, we arrive at the next big attraction… the beach. The beach is packed with people walking, swimming, and waiting for jetski rides. I am glad I didn’t wear my bathing suit because the both the beach and the water look really dirty. 

Instead, Peter and I sit down on the patio of a hotel restaurant and take in the sights while enjoying cold beverages. We admire the beautiful architecture of the buildings above and laugh at the electric trolley tours passing before us. Suddenly we realize that we are being watched. Every single person who walks by stares at us, usually with mouths agape. We even have some people blatantly take pictures of us. Others are more stealthy, pretending to take a picture of their friend while really taking a picture of us. We may be American but we are not that stupid. We also realize that we are the only white people on this entire island. This is a first for me.

Rejuvenated, we make a game plan. Already on the opposite side of the island, we decide to walk along the ocean and make it back to the ferry before it stops running at 4pm. Leaving the beach, it is suddenly very calm and peaceful. It is still incredibly humid and my feet are starting to hurt with blisters starting to form. The island reveals a wonderful mix of serene ocean, old architecture, and jungle-like vegetation. Looking for adventure, we find an old stone staircase that takes us to the top of a hill where the island unfolds before us. My legs are muddy and my feet are an angry red but I am smiling. 

Checking the clock, it is already 3:30pm and we find ourselves still far away from the dock. Alarmed with the thought of being left on this steamy island, we book it down the path, alternating between a speed walk and jog. My feet are angry. However, we manage to pause for some quick photos with a new friend.

Back at the dock by 3:55pm, we sprint on board after passing a group of white people! Ok good, I am not the only blondie people will stare at. We then see the ferries run till 7pm. Hmm, missed that little tidbit. But I am glad that we are done with the island for today. Walking in this humidity is not bad but a shower and being horizontal sound incredible.

We reach Xiamen quickly and start walking. Peter isn’t sure which bus to board and which stop is our hotel. I say that we should board the bus and we’ll just figure it out but we end up walking anyways.

An hour later, we finally reach our hotel and I am almost crying with exhaustion. Back in the hotel room I take a delicious shower and lie down, unable to move. We relax in our room for a while, looking through photos and eating dried squid. And eat some more squid. And then some more. After almost demolishing our entire bounty of dried squid I feel seriously ill. As in “I have never eaten so much dried squid in my life” ill. Kind of gross. Peter and I end up passing out for about two hours and wake up disoriented but slightly less nauseous. We promised to catch up with Kevin, the guy we met at the airport, so we make ourselves presentable, and head out at about 8pm.

Kevin is a really nice guy. He has lived in Xiamen his entire life and is currently a student in Beijing studying transportation. His girlfriend also goes to school in Beijing and he is trying to get approved to work there after college. There is an employment law in China that zones you to work in your hometown only and it is difficult to get zoned elsewhere. My heart goes out to Kevin and his girlfriend.

Kevin brings us to this incredible public park next to our hotel that has a little amusement park, Western bars, and some clubs. We find ourselves at a huge outdoor bar listening to popular American songs and eating burgers with fries while drinking from a massive tower of beer. I am not too sure what happens or what we talk about but we have a great time with Kevin whom we arrange to see again before leaving Xiamen.

Stay tuned for our next day in Xiamen at the …….Hot Springs!! Get ready to get toasty.