By: Daniel Otero
A wave of lights come across–like so many cities in China flooding this particular skyline. It’s a flicker, on and off in neon colors! Constant in motion and graceless, when it’s overdone! Which in contrast to other places, in has been colored like a resort paradise and nothing [hopefully] like Las Vegas; however, the airplane is coming for a landing. It’s Xiamen City, located in Fujian Province. One has to think twice, while looking at the sparkling-nightly sky. Signs already told me this was China, when this area begins to emerge in this getaway/controversial town, with all the multicolor of characters across the monstrous billboards nearly decorating all and even reaching for the sky.
The history of Fujian Province has a deep connection with the United States. Since 80% of mainland Chinese that immigrated to America came from here. Furthermore, it has been said, that they are the most beautiful province in the whole of China for their women. Xiamen in itself is a city of 2.8 million in population and crazily growing, almost out of control. ‘It’s all organized confusion!’ For this story covers another portion of Xiamen. It’s on Gulangyu Island. Land established by the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years before and it is said, these lands were part of Marco Polo’s journey in the 13th Century.
One thing affecting this Resort City as the rest of China is the following… This country has had the increased desire to reach world class status and in the process rapidly destroying its own environment. Even those places were visitors want to go are becoming excessively polluted. Xiamen still holds clear skies and it’s something rapidly disappearing with the wonton Chinese progress to be number one in everything! This present dilemma may spill into the island paradise of Gulangyu; when looking at China, 16 out of 20 cities are eerily and grossly contaminated! Affecting breathing and noise pollution, one can still find in Xiamen the escapes into Gulangyu. The Island is quieter and the question is, for how long?
Xiamen on most days can bask on clear-blue skies and sub-tropical weather for those wanting to runway from colder temperatures. Formerly a military base after the 1949 Civil War. Dividing what is today the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) in an uneasy peace. Although, both Chinese societies, divisions stand when the people of Taiwan proudly call themselves Taiwanese and China believes that Taiwan is a rightful Province of the mainland. Only 260 kilometers (161.2 miles) away from each other, it’s a controversy that’ll not go away anytime soon!
Once getting settled in Xiamen, it’s easy to take the ferry to Gulangyu. Just for 1 RMB (around $0.15 USD) or 2 RMB (to sit down). The boat ride to Gulangyu is only six minutes. The ferry system runs back and forth every 10 minutes to help all discover the Island.
Gulangyu is an Island of 20,000 inhabitants. Motorbikes were banned after 1989 to keep noise and air pollution as low as possible. The government trying to rescue this beauty before it became the last place in China to be destroyed by the ever present overdevelopment. Now, notice that Gulangyu Island is only 2 square kilometers (or 0.77 miles). This Island more than doubles in population compared to most places in China which are around 9,000 inhabitants per 2 square kilometers, a rescue to this beauty, a must indeed!
Speaking with Rita Wei on what makes Gulangyu attractive and unattractive. Rita in the past has been a frequent traveler to the Island. She mentions as follows, “Not bad for the visitor. It has its share of architectural value and traditional foods. Foods like moon cakes which are quite sweet! The Southeastern portion of China has more of a sweet tooth for the palate!
Xiamen University has a small campus here in Gulangyu, only for research in Science and Engineering.”
I asked her about Gulangyu’s commercialization. The answer was simple–in a Chinese complex sort of way, “Commercialized, but which place in the world isn’t! I’ve always thought that spring was my best time to visit. I enjoyed more of the Ocean climate. Beautiful in every way and the Island can be inconvenient for emergencies. There is really no place to run!” Also, she mentioned a lack of privacy felt by the locals, “Too many visitors make the Islanders uncomfortable. They are always surrounded by strangers. It’s like living in a house that intruders come in to look and watch you all the time! After visiting Gulangyu three times, it’s no big deal. And can I recollect the architecture as my favorite part of the Island.”
I asked Rita if she could return, which season she preferred, “I’d like to visit in the fall. I have experienced Gulangyu in all other seasons, but not the coolness and winds of fall!”
The mode of transportation here is walking or a peddling bike, this includes the postman. The Island is clearly for tourism and if not careful can easily become a messy ‘tourist trap’. The walk takes most on clear and winding paths. Up and down hilly but slender roadways. These are gorgeous tree lanes with many paths that lead to nature and history. Left and right are buildings left behind from the early 20th Century. Some of the structures layered in old colonial brick homes. The architecture of these homes is in an elegant but classical colonial French, German and art-deco styled. These were converted today into small hotels, restaurants, homes for the new vogue rich and on a grander scale, museums. The beauty of China is noted here in front of certain mansions. It’s easy to come across symbols of power, like small pagodas or two stone lions on each side of the entrances, with rooftops fashioned in ancient-Chinese arches. Yearly, thousands of couples celebrate their honeymoon here. Especially the bride wants pictures taken in a traditional red-wedding dress to symbolize her good fortune in years to come.
Paths again begin to snake up hill into lovely gardens of colors. Flowers are ripe and seen throughout spring and summer of the best months in bloom. The Island has two piano museums. Pianos purchased by the rich or brought here by missionaries or foreign business men from Europe and America over a period of 100 years. The pianos in general are an emotional orgasm in exquisite taste and played daily to showoff musical pieces to the visitor! These 100 years called by the Chinese, ‘The Century of Humiliation’ (1840s to 1940s). These terrible invasions and foreign interventions in China were perpetrated by the Americans, Russians, Europeans and Japanese, alike.
From the top of one of the museums, there’s a romantic view of the beach. The Island has two general paths, one back the colonial homes and the other will circle along the coast. There’s a walkway made of stone which snakes downhill into a ’14 Part Bridge’; also known as the Zigzag Bridge. Taking the traveler further away from the ferry and beach, but worth the walk across the ‘Bridge’ that’s suspended—since it’s over the sand and rocky coast. Impressive to say the least, while a constant wave action showers, beats and smashes against the rocks! It’s easy to stand at ease, breath and relax for a moment. While the walk takes those curious enough into gardens for the cool sea breeze and a quick place to rest.
By tradition, every city or town in China has a high point. Gulangyu is no different–there is a path after the gardens into a mount or climb uphill. This is a tradition to find in the majority of monasteries or paths to nature in China. The main reason is to get good-quality exercise or for those seeking spirituality, higher enlightenment. From the Gulangyu Peak the view is magical, enjoyed by many the Chinese coastline.
Either for natural exploration, ‘touristic exploitation’ or history, Gulangyu is special. One of the few places left in China not destroyed by over contamination or development. The scenes constantly attract Chinese and Foreigners alike. For those doing serious research or earth lovers, please avoid Gulangyu during the weekends and national holidays. Thousands do come here and it can get overcrowded! The best months to enjoy Gulangyu without the messiness are after the second week of October (in China the first week of October is National Holiday) and a week before Christmas (although Christmas is not technically celebrated in China – it’s still a travel holiday for many Foreigners and Christian-Chinese alike). Best way to beat the crowds! Further, while trying to be environmentally friendly with the Island, since Gulangyu desperately needs it!