Xiamen is a city that doesn’t get a lot of foreign tourists. And the ones they do get are typically from other places in Asia and not from western nations. But that could be changing, as the city was highlighted by Conde Nast Traveler as China’s next “It” city. With Xiamen Airlines connecting to the United States, Canada, Australia, and a couple hubs in Europe, the city could be poised to receive more international attention.
Xiamen bills itself as an affordable second city alternative for those looking beyond the energy of Shanghai and the history of Beijing. It has a rich history of its own, including Gulangyu, arguably the city’s most famous site. This island is free from cars and contains numerous buildings from the era of Europe’s colonial foray into China.
With a warm, pleasant climate in the winter, beaches on the South China Sea, and enough historical and culinary opportunities to satisfy the majority of travelers, I decided that my son and I would spend a day in Xiamen as a long layover before returning home after our visit to Taiwan. While we received a 24-hour transit visa, you can also use China’s 144-hour visa policy to visit Xiamen. You are restricted to the city, however, and cannot travel the rest of the province.
Morning at the Hyatt Regency
Our choice of hotel in Xiamen was easy. There aren’t a lot of intentional hotel options, and the gleaming new Hyatt Regency Xiamen Wuyuanwan was an easy pick as a Category 1 property. I even splurged and used some extra points (7,000 total) to give us club access and breakfast in the morning. Other alternatives included the newly-opened Conrad, and a smattering of other Hilton-brand hotels.
We’d planned to spend all day out and about. I wanted to visit the Nanputuo Temple, Hulishan Fort, followed by Gulangyu in the afternoon. However, my son woke up sick, which changed things considerably. Maybe it was the food, maybe it was the long day we’d had before arriving in Xiamen. I don’t know what it was, but he ended up throwing up and then crawling back in bed.
After sleeping for a few hours and taking some ibuprofen (found at a nearby drugstore), he was a bit better. At that point I was considering calling it a rest day. It was a Netflix movie together in bed while I had him drink as much fluids as he could stomach. Eventually he perked up and by noon was more his normal self.
Checking out at half after noon, we’d have about 4-5 hours to explore before we’d need to get back to the hotel and over to the airport. It wasn’t how I wanted the day to go, but hey, can’t do much about sickness.
A Gulangyu Tour Gone Sideways
I’d looked up how to get to Gulangyu online, and had a rough plan of what we’d do. With only about 4 hours at our disposal, we’d take the ferry over the island, explore for a few hours, and then head back to the mainland. Easy peasy. To get there, I asked the hotel to hail a taxi. The lady at the front desk seemed very surprised that we wanted to go to Gulangyu.
During our ride, the driver suddenly started rattling off in Chinese, clearly asking me something. I speak no Chinese. Near zero. I can manage “hello”, “yuan”, and some basic numbers. Even after a month of Duolingo, that’s the extent of the Mandarin I can trust.
From what I could tell, the taxi driver wanted to take me some place that was not the main ferry terminal across from the island. However, we were just passing a location where I knew there was a second ferry terminal, north a couple miles. I’d not looked up the timetable for this one, so I was a little uneasy about taking it. He seemed adamant, though, so I decided to just let him take us there.
Except he didn’t. I was completely wrong. We pulled up in the middle of a neighborhood at a little hole in the wall place. We stepped out, headed inside, and I realized it was a tiny tour agency.
Recall, I don’t speak or read Chinese. It was impossible to communicate, and the driver had driven off literally as soon as we’d stepped out. I regretted going with this choice. Eventually, through the help of a translation app, I did manage to get us signed up for a tour of Gulangyu. However, we would be spending significantly more than if we’d just bought tickets ourselves.
I had no idea what I’d booked, but it was obviously more than just transportation to Gulangyu. I think we paid $30 per person. This is six times more expensive than just the ferry cost. I’d thought about trying to get them to hail me another taxi, but I decided to just roll with it. Besides, it might be nice to have a “guide meet us”.
From Bad to Worse
Hopping in an old van, we headed off, picking up a handful of others at a second location about 20 minutes later. It was fun to see their faces as they stepped into the van. Seems like nobody expected to foreigners to be tagging along!
The first inkling that this wasn’t going to be quite how I hoped came when the guide clearly didn’t speak any English. We’d been sold a tour where we wouldn’t understand anything. I really had no issue spending more money for a better experience, but this wasn’t going to be that. Now we would be captive to a group.
Then came one of the most awkward moments I’ve ever experienced: the tour guide asked for our passports. I initially refused. No way I’m handing my passport over to anyone in a foreign country unless they are the police or a government official.
With some back and forth through a translate app, I finally understood that they would give it back before we arrived at Gulangyu. That’s the gist I got at least. Everyone else handed over their ID cards without hesitation. I finally decided that we’d comply. After all, we were sitting in the van together driving to the ferry terminal. Maybe he needed to book the tickets with it. I had no idea. But what I did know is that I’d be sticking very close to the guide.
Ten minutes later, it all became clear: the passports and ID cards were going to be held captive until we sat through a sales pitch.
I’m so glad I didn’t understand a word. It made things so much easier. The Chinese guests were uninterested and mostly just looked at their phones to distract themselves from the pushy pair. At least we got to enjoy four tiny cups of tea.
With passports in hand and the tea hostage situation over, we walked to the ferry terminal. The temperature had dropped sharply after the rain from the heat I had experienced in the morning. Given that we’d spent over an hour driving, waiting, and being held captive, we’d have no more than 2.5 hours to see the island. But at least we’d made it! A return ferry at ~5:30 PM would let us get back to the hotel in time to collect our bags and head to Xiamen Gaoqi Airport.
We’d actually driven to a different ferry terminal, on the mainland side opposite Gulangyu. Conditions had gotten much better, and we enjoyed some nice views of the city around us.
Our guide and one of the passengers turned out to be more helpful than initially expected. The passenger spoke a bit of English, so we were finally able to communicate more. During our time in line and aboard the ferry, I started to catch people eyeing us. It became more and more clear how few international visitors come to Xiamen.
Gulangyu: A UNESCO World Hertiage Site
The whole idea of Gulangyu fascinates me (the island is also spelled Kulangsu). The city of Xiamen occupies an island, and you have this far smaller island off its coast where numerous European countries had a presence starting in the 1800s. Gulangyu has an interesting mix of architecture styles and culture features coexisting side-by-side. You can find traditional Chinese styles next to classical and colonial buildings clearly constructed by Europeans.
Another interesting feature of the island is that there aren’t any cars. None. Zero. All of Gulangyu is car-free. Rickshaws are used for transporting materials. It was very cool to see.
We wandered for a while, doing our best to keep up with the group. I was surprised how touristy the island is, far more than I expected. The buildings are historical and walking the streets enjoyable, but I really wasn’t anticipating the multitude of shops.
There are a couple hills on the island, and a tunnel that passes underneath a section. If we weren’t sticking with the tour group, I would have preferred to walk the stairs and hill and enjoy the view.
Our tour guide brought us to two museums, both included as part of the tour. The first was a museum of curiosities that was downright lame. There were a few preserved reptiles, some other trinkets, and a motion simulator. At least the second featured multiple exhibits of Chinese dress and other historical items, which would have been more interesting if anything was presented in English.
What I enjoyed most was seeing the foreign buildings, including the British Consulate, pictured here.
Even though the island is without cars, it is not without McDonald’s. The rain hit hard about 30 minutes before we were going to catch the ferry back, so we stopped in to stay dry.
Throughout our time on Gulangyu, we never saw anyone else who appeared to be a foreign tourist. My son and I will forever live on in the photo album of a young lady who I caught slyly taking a photo of us. Foreign tourists in other places in China are normal, but we were definitely an oddity in Xiamen.
So Long, China!
The ferry ride back to Xiamen island is quick. You can see one of sail-shaped buildings in the center of the panorama. There are actually a pair of these skyscrapers, one of which contains a brand-new Conrad hotel.
A taxi ride later we were back at the Hyatt Regency grabbing our luggage. The driver tried to engage us in conversation and was actually surprised that we don’t speak Chinese.
It was the taxi ride to Xiamen Gaoqi Airport that was far more interesting. He seemed overlay anxious, and struggled with the clutch. Did we get a taxi driver that can’t really drive? He also didn’t pull right up in front of the airport, instead heading to the taxi queue. There is no way out once you enter, so we had to take out luggage and walk a hundred meters to the terminal entrance. I had to guess that there must be a better system and that he had no idea what to do.
From there we were welcomed by Xiamen Airlines, flying long-haul on one of their 787-9s back to Los Angeles. It was a long flight, but someone was still excited!!
Overall, our day in Xiamen was a mixed experienced. Between the lost time in the morning and the mistakes made experiencing Gulangyu, I wish we could have a do-over. But…we were able to salvage enough of the day and still enjoy the primary site I wanted to visit. It just wasn’t quite the visit I’d hoped for.
Not sure we’ll ever see you again, Xiamen, but I sure hope to be back. Another $186 one-way flight across the Pacific might do the trick!