We are back in Xiamen city today after our tour of ancient tulou buildings and rustic Hongkeng Village. From Hongkeng Village to Xiamen city by car was only 3 hours, but they seemed to be a world apart.
Our first impression of Xiamen, before our detour in search of Tulou buildings, is that it is affluent, clean, and orderly. As we spent additional time here, not only have we confirmed this first impression, but we have discovered Xiamen to be a very livable and lovable city. It has many Buddhist temples, including one of the oldest in southeast China, art galleries, beaches, one of the prettiest universities in China and many beautiful parks and hills throughout the city. It does not seemed to be as crowded as many of the other cities we had visited before, and people here are very friendly, helpful, and well mannered.
And if this is not enough, Xiamen has Gulangyu Island, a pedestrian-only island a short distance from Xiamen city center, recently designated UNESCO World Heritage in 2017.
We started our day by taking the taxi from our hotel to the International Cruise Terminal for the short ferry ride to Gulangyu Island. The taxi dropped us off at the Xiagu wharf at Dongdu. At the wharf, there was clear signage directing us to the ticket lines for Gulangyu (one can also go to Taiwan from this wharf). At the ticket window, depending on which wharf to land on Gulangyu Island, the sailing time and cost differ. It was 50 RMB ($7 USD) for the Neicuoao wharf, or 35 RMB ($5 USD) for Sanqiutian wharf. We chose the earliest sailing for the Neicuoao wharf. Passports or China IDs are required to purchase the tickets. They are return tickets and return trips can be by either wharf.
Due to the recent UNESCO status, Gulangyu is now extremely busy. It is best to avoid weekends and holidays. If visiting on weekends and holidays, purchasing the tickets in advance online is highly recommended, as demand exceed supply during peak times.
Twenty minutes later, we disembarked on Gulangyu Island. No vehicles are permitted on the island. The only option for getting around besides walking is by electric motorized trolleys that cost 10 RMB per trip. There are good signage for directions to all the major attractions, in both Chinese and English. Combo tickets are available for the island’s gardens, museums, galleries, peak rock, but we were only interested in some of the sites, so we did not bothered with the combo tickets.
After the British victory in the First Opium War (1839–42), Xiamen (then known as Amoy) became one of five “treaty ports” established by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Gulangyu island was designated an international foreign settlement in 1903 and became a secure haven for Europeans, Japanese and wealthy overseas Chinese who built lavish mansions, consulates and churches here.
We started our tour walk southeast along the island’s walking path. We walked by a pleasant sandy beach, then onto a scenic walking bridge to go around large granite rocks, then to more beaches before finding the path to go up to Sunlight Rock
Sunlight Rock, also known as Dragon Head Hill, is the highest point of Gulangyu Island. It is a symbol of Xiaman, and it was here that General Zheng Chenggong stationed his troops before freeing Taiwan from Dutch occupation.
Ancient inscriptions on the rocks in the park tell legends and stories from the island’s past. There is a saying that if you haven’t climbed up Sunlight Rock, you have not really been to Xiamen.
At the top, there is a great view of Gulangyu’s landscapes, the Xiamen skyline, and the water channel that divides Xiaman city and Gulangyu Island. It was quite crowded on the path to the summit, and there is enough room for only 30 people at the top platform.
After the Sunlight Rock hike, we had a short rest by a park, and then headed to Shuzhuang Garden and the Piano Museum. The Shuzhuang Garden is a tranquil oasis that is great for horticulture enthusiasts, and the Piano Musuem has an amazing collection of antique pianos, with one going back to 1801.
It was now getting quite busy on the Island in spite of this being a non-peak weekday. We decided to make our way back to the wharf for our return trip back to the city. On our way back to the wharf, we went by the numerous restaurants, food stalls, drink shops, cafes, gift shops, Fujian and Taiwanese snack shops. It almost seems that trying different food, drinks and snacks is more important for some visitors than seeing attractions in this island.
After we returned to the city, we took a taxi to check out the Bai Cheng Beach area (taxis are metered and quite inexpensive in this city). Some young people we met earlier mentioned that this area is the best place for cycling so we decided to check it out. It was indeed a nice beach area with bicycles readily available for rent by the hour. There is a dedicated bicycle path that extend for many kilometers. The beach was pretty, clean and wide. We had a pleasant time riding and relaxing around this beach area.
Refreshed after the beach visit, we took the bus to visit the Nanputao Temple, the oldest temple in south Fujian, built in the Tang Dynasty, 618 – 917 AD. There are three halls inside and each hall has a number of Buddhas. There is a famous Buddhist vegetarian restaurant for visitors to try.
Around the temple there are lots of stone carving. It is a famous temple and is popular among pilgrims.
We hiked up to the top of the hill behind the temple, and it was quite a steep hike. There are many pretty resting areas offering nice views of the city below. But the view at the top was spectacular. It was here that we truly appreciated why Xiamen is such a strategic port city since ancient times.
At the peak, we were actually out of the temple’s property. From the peak, one can enter the Xiamen Botanical Garden that is very large and full of great hiking/walking paths. We wished we had more time to explore this park but it was getting late. We also wanted to check out the Zhongshan Road Walking Street, famous for restaurants, cafes, seafood, snack stalls, snack shops, shopping and people watching.
So we took the bus to Zhongshan Road (bus fare is only 1 RMB). The food choices there completely overwhelmed us. We ended up trying some BBQ skewer seafood for appetizer while walking around looking at the other hundred or so food choices. Then we ended up going to a small restaurant where we had Hakka Duck in a clay pot, steamed squid with tofu, green vegetables, rice, and beers for our dinner.
We wandered around some more, checking out the lights, the interesting European architecture of the street, all the colorful snacks available, the young hip people on the street. The streets were just buzzing with energy. We dearly wished we had some room in our stomach to try some of the snacks.
Finally, we boarded the local bus for a short bus ride, and a short walk back to our hotel.
We had expected Xiamen to be a nice port city, but it has far exceeded our expectation. Having traveled to many large and medium cities over in China over the years, Xiamen is the only city we can say for certain that we will be back. It has a tremendous amount of green public space, an excellent and inexpensive transportation network, arts and culture institutions abound, one of the prettiest university in China, polite citizens, relatively inexpensive, moderate weather, and last but not least, we even stumbled upon a nice badminton facility.