It’s lauded as one of China’s most beautiful cities and a magnet for tourists. What’s brought me here (other than a speeding bullet train) is as always an insatiable burst of curiosity. Being Welsh and having been raised in New Zealand, Xiamen has been nagging me to see it for sometime. It is you see, twinned with both Wales and New Zealand’s capital cities; Cardiff and Wellington respectively – both cities in which I have lived. So, could Xiamen (a capital in all but name) be my hat-trick town? According to the travellers grapevine I should love it, but in my three day sojourn there it doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
While Cardiff stands at around 345,000 and Wellington at about 390,000 Xiamen currently boasts around 3.5 million inhabitants (more than Wales as a whole and until recently a similar proportion to New Zealand). They’re not the only similarities. All three cities are ports. From the train window, viewing its wide harbour feels uncannily like Cardiff Bay and though the train station looks like a 70s version of Cardiff central that alone does not inflict too much damage to the overall feel of the town. There is a Bangkok style elevated transport system called the BRT, only this one is more like Istanbul’s Metro-bus, in other words it uses dedicated lanes for buses. There are a few islands dotted about, though mercifully no Wellington winds (at least while I’m there). The immediate island city is flat with a few hilly enclaves. Many of its streets are leafy and there’s a reasonable amount of glitzy shopping malls.
So what is Xiamen’s problem? Well, for starters there’s no airport to city centre bus meaning that one is reliant on Taxi’s, by most standards pretty bizarre but especially so for a tourist town. They DO get things right by putting a visitors information centre in the train station. Except, none of them can speak English and two of the guys are more interested in playing their keyboard (as in the musical instrument) than much else. So I’m forced to find out what I need to know another way. My abode is not far but I have all my luggage and can’t possibly do it on foot in the summer heat. Fortunately my research has told me what bus to look out for and moments later I’m on my way. What is difficult to find is the stop I’m supposed to get off at. Someone points it out and makes the driver wait for me to alight. The people are reasonably friendly though I do sense there is more of a big city attitude here than its northerly neighbour, for starters there are no ‘Hello’s‘ followed by hysterics as there are in Fuzhou – the actual capital of Fujian province.
I decide on utilising the BRT to catch the boat to the nearby and highly spoken of Gulangyu Island. My friend has told me that a visit to Xiamen isn’t complete without calling on the island. He was mistaken. It is also said that no cars are permitted, thus preserving its natural state of tranquil beauty. As a seasoned traveller my mind is already casting that sceptical voice – I’ll believe it when I see it. Another of Xiamen’s big problems is the way-finding system and just finding the boat terminal is a chore. Eventually, I’m aboard and we set off on the extended voyage from city to island, in effect a showcase near circumnavigating the entirety of Gulangyu.
Sure enough on disembarking the ferry I am near mowed down by the road train carrying tourists around the island. I survive and walk around the corner for road train #2 to do similar. If it isn’t carriages of tourists trying to oust me from my upward mobility then it’s arrogant fish restaurateurs for whom a 5’ 8” man is merely an object to be walked through. I can already feel that horrible feeling of ‘tourist trap’ sinking in. Yes, a can of Sprite will be 5 Chinese RMB compared to 3 or 3.50 anywhere else. The aviary will cost a steep climb and as steep a hike through my wallet for 60RMB. Even the coconuts washed up on the shores seem fake and it’s only on closer inspection I notice the puncture holes and straws. In moments I can’t wait to leave.
Having made it back to land and some much needed recuperation via a hotel siesta. By the time I awake it’s night and I head out seeking a haven from which to sip a coffee. Cardiff has Pontcanna Street, a row of cafés in a leafy suburb. Xiamen’s version is Yuandang Hu (named after its lake). Recalling a colonial past of Portuguese occupancy these buildings are indeed beautiful, particularly while illuminated when I visit, which can only mean one thing; they are yet another device for extracting money from visitors. A coffee at most if not all of the establishments lining the road opposite the leafy board-walk and lakeside costs way above average. At the sleepier end of the street lies an even sleepier but more affordable Starbucks. It’s certainly a world away from the rush of inner city Willis St which handles the majority of the brown stuff in Wellington.
All in all Xiamen offers no clear indication of playing a part in my future. For one the constant visa conundrum is a problem rugged as the landscape of mainland China as well as that of Wales and New Zealand. And while teaching is always an option, journalism is almost certainly out of the question. So hat-trick town? The jury is still out on that one. Perhaps a three day sojourn and an open verdict is all that need be.