Beijing Getaways: Xiamen 厦门
Emerald Isle: Xiamen offers clean, green, car-free scenery
Recently voted China's cleanest city, Xiamen (meaning "Gate of China") is located on the southeastern coast of Fujian Province. Dating back to the Song Dynasty, most of Xiamen (aka Amoy) is actually on an island, linked to the mainland by several suspension bridges.
Xiamen has always been an important trade hub, but since its establishment as one of China's first Special Economic Zones in 1981, Xiamen has been considered by the Chinese as an "international window city". Its location directly opposite Taiwan is also significant.
Xiamen enjoys a subtropical monsoon climate, with an annual average temperature of 21 degrees. Winters are mild, making Xiamen a pleasant place to visit most of the year, and a great retreat from the temperature extremes of the north and interior. The wettest months are May, June and July. Xiamen hosts several interesting local festivals, such as the Phoenix Flower Tourist Festival in June, and the Gulangyu Piano Festival in August.
While Xiamen is China's "Garden Island", the city's piece de resistance is Gulangyu ("Drum Wave Islet"), a picturesque 1.78 square kilometer haven just 700 meters from Xiamen Island. Settled during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1267), Gulangyu was named Yuan Shazhou ("round sandy island") during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but a geological mystery gave rise to its present name.
Ancient settlers were unsettled by eerie drum beats emanating from the clearly uninhabited island, but eventually discovered the ghostly drumming was caused by tides surging through a hollow rock on the island's southwest corner. Relieved that "Round Sandy Island" wasn't actually haunted, or home to cannibal tribes from across the Strait, they renamed their new home "Drum Wave Islet."
While the rock that caused Gulangyu's name change has now fallen silent, the islet's lush tropical gardens, rich musical and cultural heritage, and unparalleled range of international colonial-era architecture drum up plenty of tourists, transported via a frenzied relay of ferries and speedboats. There are plenty of hotels on Gulangyu, so many people chose to escape the daytime crowds by overnighting for a day or two. Gulangyu locals speak the Fujian dialect called Min Nan, which is very similar to Taiwanese.
Gulangyu became a foreign enclave following the Treaty of Nanking between the British and the Chinese in 1842. This explains the predominantly Victorian-era style architecture throughout the island - many buildings were offices and residences of diplomatic bigwigs, as well as housing the thriving expatriate business community. The island's colonial era faded with the end of the Qing Dynasty, and was abruptly terminated by Japanese occupation in the Second World War.
Today, Gulangyu's winding alleyways transport tourists past high-walled gardens and elegantly aged mansions that still pay testament to the island's colonial heyday. Cars and bicycles remain forbidden, so the only wheeled devices are the island's miniature fire engines and hundreds of barrows used by islanders to move heavy loads.
It is no surprise that an inordinately large number of famous pianists have come from Gulangyu. The island has more pianos per capita than any other city in China (and is also known as "Piano Island") - over 350 pianos, or one in every five homes. The piano museum located inside Shuzhuang Garden is well worth checking out for its collection of priceless keyboards.
Other Gulangyu highlights are Sunlight Rock - at 93m the highest point on the island - the Koxinga Memorial Hall, and the Great Compassion Hall containing four statues of Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy). There are also plenty of shops for souvenir hunting, as well as a range of teahouses, cafes and restaurants, and even (rather unfortunately) a McDonald's for those desperately craving a burger fix.
In Xiamen itself, the waterfront opposite Gulangyu boasts a fascinating network of alleyways, as well as some more quaint architecture, fish markets, and verdant parks. The main shopping streets are Zhongshan Lu and Datong Lu, with all the familiar Chinese stores and some "international malls" too.
Also worth checking out is Nanputuo Temple in the south-east of Xiamen , deemed to be the most renowned Buddhist temple in Xiamen . Nearby is the beautiful campus of Xiamen University , and the Hulishan Battery, renowned for housing the largest and the smallest cannons in the world.
Seafood lovers will certainly find Xiamen's cuisine to their liking. Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, local seafood dishes are traditionally made from fresh local fish, prawns, crabs and more. There are also a growing number of international restaurants - the newly established Coyote Café serves up some excellent fajitas and margaritas.
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