Thursday, August 21, 2014

Xiamen, China


For the month of July 2014 I spent time in both Hong Kong and mainland China. There is in fact a difference between the two, not so much as politically as socially, but I'll get to that in a bit. Between 1840-1898, the British purchased a lease for the various portions of Hong Kong (sort of like how New York City has 5 boroughs, Hong Kong consists of 3 main areas known as Hong Kong Island, Kolwoon, and the New Territories, along with another 260 islands and peninsulas). It wasn't until 1997 that Hong Kong was handed over to the People's Republic of China. However, during the hand off, the British stipulated that China must not impose socialism on Hong Kong, but rather preserve its capitalist system for 50 years, making it a Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong is specially situated as a point where east meets west-- literally where communism can meet capitalism.

However, this isn't only politically or economically a special zone, it's also very different in the minds of the Chinese and expats that live there. Thanks to the British rule, many Western cultural nuances have been brought to Hong Kong that are not necessarily common on mainland China. For example, on mainland China it is considered best for the health to regularly spit and it is common to see parents potty training their children on the street. These are definitely not acceptable in Hong Kong and people in Hong Kong are regularly horrified by these social norms in China.

However, I will say that I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion. Hong Kongers have often told me that they are actually afraid to go to mainland China because of the filth and danger. I found mainland China to be extremely safe and while there were some aspects to the Chinese culture that were a little shocking-- well, isn't that part of the adventure? China is beautiful and full of really awesome people. I met many Westerners who live both in Hong Kong and on mainland China and didn't know any Chinese people, and not surprisingly they didn't feel totally at home in China and over time grew to really dislike the culture there.

Anyway, in order to also maintain their independence, Hong Kongers of Asian descent speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, which is the official language of the Chinese state (many Westerners, not surprisingly, don't speak anything beyond basic Cantonese-- but you can definitely get on without it pretty ok). In almost every way, the people of Hong Kong have fought to keep themselves a little separated-- and in doing so have truly created a social anxiety about mainland China.

My travels started in Hong Kong, then took me to mainland China for 3 weeks, and then back to Hong Kong for a week (total of 5 weeks). For the purposes of this blog, however, I will start with mainland China and come to Hong Kong at the end. You'll find that I did not visit what Americans would call the main attractions... but little did I know that these were really touristy areas for Chinese people. You can definitely beat the crowds, but if you're not prepared for it, the Chinese tourists masses can be overwhelming. Even in China, many Chinese prefer to travel in large groups. And these groups tend to seem to be packed together, so that you are swarmed by hundreds of people.


From Hong Kong you can fly to Xiamen (pronounced "Shee-yah-men") for 1 hour or take a train from Shenzhen, just over the boarder from Hong Kong on the China mainland. When I went to get my Chinese tourist visa in New York, they required that I show my transportation confirmations from Hong Kong to mainland China-- train tickets are hard/impossible to buy online in advance, so I was forced to go the airplane route. I took Hong Kong Airlines and found it to be amazingly comfortable. The flight was on time (which apparently for China is quite shocking), really comfortable, pretty empty, and there were snacks and coffee/tea! It was actually a really nice flight-- better than JetBlue even!

I stayed at the hostel Koala's, which was really comfortable and in downtown Xiamen but pretty hard to find. The weather in Xiamen was scorching hot and super humid-- probably over 95 degrees and 95% humidity-- not ideal weather for wandering around a town with all of your bags. The hostel is located right downtown on a side street. It's a great location and has a cool hangout/lounge/bar area, though on a Friday night it really wasn't even being used other than by a few people watching TV. In general, not many Westerners come through Koala's, especially in the summer, though they do get a lot of study abroad students during the school year, so most of the guests are young Chinese travelers.

Once I dropped off my bags, I immediately headed out to the town. At a small shop I bought a Chinese SIM card for my travel phone for about $10. The credit didn't last me very long, but for the rest of my trip people were able to call me which was extremely helpful. Walking to the main shopping street is a bit of a shock-- in the back alleys behind this street the shops are very simple and grungy, the shopkeepers often live right in the back, and the facades of the buildings are dirty and decrepit; however, on this main boulevard, which is closed to cars during the day, there are big, beautiful, and expensive shops-- particularly Western chains, like Nike and Esprit. But as soon as you deviate, you're back in these poor, small alleys.

(Please note that despite the appearance of the alleys, they are completely safe. China is really surprisingly safe-- during the entire time I was there, I didn't feel unsafe and nervous. Especially for women travelers, sometimes you can find yourself in a city where the men are very aggressive. Contrastingly, in China I never felt that there were any local people hitting on me or making cat calls.)

The view from Starbucks
From the main thoroughfare in downtown Xiamen, you can walk down to the water. All along the water is a huge highway alongside a boardwalk facing Gulangyu Island. This waterfront area is really nice and has many fancy hotels and with the main attraction being a 5 story Starbucks-- I kid you not! The Starbucks has five floors facing the ocean, complete with comfy couches and a nice bookish ambiance, as well as an outdoor rooftop!

Along the waterfront, you can take a ferry over to Gulangyu Island, which is the main attraction at Xiamen. Here was my first interaction with Chinese tourism. The ferry runs every few minutes and it only takes about 5 or 10 minutes to cross the little channel to the island. People mobbed the ferry boat and once on the boat, it was selfie central. Everyone wanted a selfie with the water and city of Xiamen behind them.

As everyone pushed off the boat when we arrived, I immediately felt overwhelmed. I walked down the main road out of the ferry station and into the island and there were so many people every which way I looked. With the heat and humidity, my ability to tolerate such crowds was minimal and I was beginning to get really cranky. Then, I noticed an alley curving up and away behind the buildings. I ducked into it and was immediately happy with the solitude. Wandering around from alley to alley, I discovered a really beautiful and peaceful Gulangyu. The winding and narrow alleys are lined with stone walls that have a lot of ivy growing on them.

Throughout the island are “historic” buildings from the 1930's, which isn't particularly old but the buildings are not maintained so they are covered in ivy, adding to them a really interesting and beautiful look. With the ivy on the abandoned buildings, vines hanging from trees, and the humidity lingering in the air, it felt like a scene out of the Jungle Book.

One interesting sight was that as I wandered through these mostly empty alleys, occasionally I would stumble across a wedding photo shoot. I must have seen a dozen of these couples wearing fancy wedding suits and gown, sweating like crazy in the heat. A quick Google search tells me that Gulangyu is the wedding photo hotspot.

Because of the crowds, I avoided the major tourist attractions on the island and stuck to wandering around. There are lots of forests or preserve on the island, and in one of them I found a look out point at the top of this old metal ladder. From here I could see the whole island, and there was no one around but me!

I continued walking around and at one point stopped at a small stall to buy some water. The shopkeeper invited me to sit with him for tea, and since it was pretty hot and I was feeling tired, I agreed. He had a “point & speak” book that was supposed to have cartoon images to show the meaning of the Chinese words, but this was basically useless. When I saw the cartoon image for whiskey I made a joke since it was the only thing that made sense in the whole book. Next thing I know, they guy is offering me beer. I was feeling nervous about the tea (who knows how clean that cup is), but in retrospect I had nothing to worry about and should have just sat and enjoyed the company. I didn't speak any Chinese and this shopkeeper didn't necessarily have much, but here he was offering me all that he had as well as his company! This is such a great example of Chinese culture in this area-- very generous and welcoming!

The ladder up to the lookout point
I then followed the path back towards the ferry. Feeling hot, I bought a coconut for 15 yuan (about $1) and sat in a park under the shade of a tree looking out over the water towards Xiamen. “Life is good,” I thought.

After two very hot hours on the island, I'd had enough and headed to the hostel. A little while later, I met with Peter, a local who I was connected with through a colleague at Touro Law where I had been working the past year and a half. Touro used to have a summer abroad program in Xiamen and Peter was the liason. Now, peter works with the Chinese government in sending high school and middle school teachers and principals to the US and Canada to practice English.

Dinner with Peter
Once again I was astonished by the hospitality of the Chinese-- Peter was very kind and picked me up in his car. We then we to a great restaurant (definitely needed a car to get there-- not a tourist place at all!) that serves Hakka food. Hakka is a group of Chinese people who migrated to Southern China, including the Fujian province which is where Xiamen is, from Centrala and Northern China many centuries ago. Hakka food is not very common but it is definitely its own type of Chinese food and Chinese people around the country are familiar with it. We had a fabulous mean of bamboo shoots, chicken, beef and vegetables with rice. The food was all very delicious, and I was particularly impressed with the bamboo shoots! The Chinese style of eating is sort of like family style, where there are several large dishes in the center of the table and everyone has a small plate and rice bowl. You use chopsticks to grab food from the middle and then hover the food over the rice or put it on the rice and then eat and enjoy!

After dinner we went to a vista point that overlooked the whole city. The spot is hard to get to-- you definitely need a car-- so only locals were there. People were enjoying picnics and walking up and down the mountain and the sun set and the city illuminated. It was so beautiful and so special that I had the opportunity to go here thanks to Peter!

Some interesting sites in the food market
The next morning I woke up early to check out the market at Xiamen. Supposedly this old village area with a market is nice. I thought it was pretty disgusting and I really wouldn't recommend a visit—there are much nicer markets in other parts of China (it is totally possible I missed the nicer area, though I don't think I did). There were lots of interesting things you could buy there, all sorts of live fish and mammals and birds to buy for eating (though many of the fish were belly up and the animals looked sickly). I saw tomatoes and meat fall to the incredibly dirty ground and then get put back in the pile. Also, the smell was repulsive. You also don't really want to walk off the main path as it gets pretty sketchy pretty quickly.

After this little adventure, I collected my things and headed to the bus station to head north to see the tulou, or round Hakka fortresses. This was just DAY ONE on mainland China! Still have four more weeks to cover!!! Stay tuned!!!