Travelling like the Chinese is a tough call to make theses days, as they are discovering the planet like no time before. But going to places only the Chinese go is a great choice to make these days. One of those places is the magical island of Gulang Yu, which is part of the city of Xiamen in the Southeast of China. This tranquil rock in the water is the pearl of domestic Chinese tourism with European traits, beautiful nature and no motorization.
Because I went to North Korea last summer I thought about staying a bit longer in Asia to make the long journey worthwhile. And China was the favourite destination and so I asked Angela, a good friend of mine, who was a long time correspondent in China for a weekly magazine until she was kicked out, for some secret travel insights. Funny enough I first met her in China, too at the Lomography World Congress in Beijing 2004.
Angela gave me and my friend Dascha, who joined me in North Korea and China (she was actually the one, who got the whole thing rolling) a few options and when she mentioned Xiamen and Gulang Yu I was totally into the idea. It was offside the obvious big cities and in a south Chinese area, I hadn’t explored thus far.
So first thing we did after returning from Pyongyang was a night train ticket to Xiamen, which turned out easier to buy, then nine years ago, when I last bought a train ticket. The 2008 Olympics really improved infrastructure and the handling with foreigners, at least in the capital city.
With some trouble we eventually found the ferry, which takes large amount of day visitors over to Gulang Yu, actually solely Chinese, which I always find comforting. It’s like Chinese restaurants abroad. If it’s crowded by the native folks, it’s always a positive sign. On the island there are approximately 20.000 inhabitants, mainly working in tourism.
Gulang Yu is an Island of roughly 2 square km with a huge rock in the middle, which is split in a very interesting tunnel system. After a few days you have figured out, where you get in and where you get out. The architecture to other Chinese places is very different. Because of the loss in the opium wars in 1842, England and 13 other countries enjoyed extraterritorial privileges here.
The English took charge and even installed Sikh policemen on the island. Their Victorian style for houses and their Christian traditions have left a mark on the island, which you can see all over. By the way Gulang is also known as the piano island in China. On average here are the mosts pianos in the country and the only piano museum. Knowledge for eternity.
It’s a stark contrast leaving the urbanized economic centre of Xiamen going to an island without traffic. But that was a beautiful element that made the beginning of our stay a bit stressful. Especially the cute private guesthouses are on top of the hill. Places the day visitors barely make a move to. But that meant going up without any cars, bicycles or cable cars.
When we reached the island we were handed maps of the island and from there we were on our own. The streets and alleys were beautifully old and preserved, but essentially steep and hard to walk on. Especially as we arrived on a rainy day, which left slippery, stones. It was a hard piece of work to get our suitcases and backpacks to our little hotel. And the map was kind of confusing.
So we made a little pit stop a cute police station and the officer called up our little hotel. After some time the young caretaker of the hotel came to pick us up, so it only took a few hours to reach our beds. But after that the relaxing part of our island journey was about to begin.
Honestly in the first days after North Korea I had kind of lost my photo mojo. I exposed some sixty/seventy something rolls within 8 days – I was out of the picture. Out photographed. But it took one place to ignite the shutter fire again and I was glad Dascha was patient and played along. We passed a Christian cemetery, which seemed to be wild and abandoned. It instantly caught my eye. I started to photograph it. And after half an hour I discovered, that on the the opposite side of the road, there was a even more beautiful part of the graveyard. Trees fell over the tombstones and moss conquered the structures. I was in love. As nobody cared about the cemetery and probably there were no relatives, everything was left to itself. Maybe I spent more then one hour just on the cemetery, discovering new angles, trying different cameras and films, waiting for the sun to come out. I was back on the track.
These moments make travel for me worth while and it’s the little discoveries that stand out. Wedding photographers seem to have the same idea, and therefore I understood, that there is a large wedding photography industry, that is taking place in Gulang Yu. One couple after another passes through the beach, the park and some alley, to just name a few of the hot spots. I was amazed by the amount of couples always alongside the photographer and a handful of assistants.
I sneaked my way into the whole scene and steal a few of the shots, much to the amusement of the brides and grooms. One Photographer even took me into the shots, as a storytelling element. The laowai, who takes pictures of the newly weds.
What I liked about Gulang Yu were the contrasts, that created iconic pictures. Maybe it’s just the sheer amount of free time, that made me see certain frames, but I think it’s due to the spirit of a place. Basically there is a round coastline and promenade around the island. If you are sporty you could walk around it in a circle for 3-4 hours.
Along the coastline are fishermen at various promising grounds. I was totally enchanted by one fisherman standing on a concrete bridge with the skyline of urban Xiamen facing him. The contrast of something archaic towards the urban Chinese expansion was hitting me on the spot. For me that is the synopsis of China as an entity.
Gulang Yu is particularly known for it’s cuisine. There are massive food stalls in the centre. Ranging from salty to sweet, from exotic to urban. We were around 5 nights on the island, but there is so much, that we couldn’t try all kinds of different dishes. It’s really a culinary haven for the exotic. At nights touts try to win you for their place, sometimes with masks of a pig, sometimes just screaming. But everything is positive and friendly.
My highlights were cold spicy noodles in a back alley, we had octopus on a stick and strangely fried cheeses. At one stall, they made a big show about how they filled a raw egg with meat and mushrooms, without breaking the yolk, just with the right stirring technique – impressive.
At the market you could see the most exotic creatures. Something I considered something like a long sea penis caught my attention. A lady approached me at the booth and talked me up. And even if she only spoke Chinese I totally got her. She offered her services as a cook. I would choose what I want and she would prepare it. We understood each other without words. Too bad I was full already and the sea penis turned out to be a delicacy with a high price, which I wasn’t in the mood for.
In one café we met new friends and got talking. Eventually we met again for a beer at night and it was very interesting. First of all it is common to order a few glasses at once, so you always have the next drink in sight. The life music was great and it’s always fantastic for me to get to know something about the locals. Our new friends told me, that it’s tough nowadays to get good jobs. Although the young are very well educated, corruption and the limit of good jobs stop their development. I had the feeling, that China has to keep up their growth and to offer more options for their thriving young elite. Otherwise there might be turmoil.
With our companions we went on the biggest elevation of Gulang Yu the next day. It’s a nice climb to Riguan Mountain and there are various viewing points on the way. A few Buddhist temples are sprinkled on the hill and after each turn you can discover a new part of the island. We passed a little scene with gambling gangsters statues, which I liked very much. Because my camera filmload was striking for some time I stayed quite long there.
I just loved, how cineastic this scene was playing out. I did some research and this gambling was a big thing. During the wars of the Qing Dynasty a lot of soldiers were suffering from homesickness. Therefore General Chenggong Zheng invented Moon-Cake Gambling, a range of six ranks of awards and 63 different sized moon cakes. I didn’t really understand all the complicated rules, but you throw dice. The tradition is still strong after 300 years, but now the awards are a bit more common day. But I would still fancy the moon-cakes.
I can only recommend Gulang Yu as a relaxing but inspiring travel destination. There is a great range of affordable and cute guesthouses with quite a few internationally experienced staff. The food is and adventure and delicious. The landscape is beautiful and the climate very interesting. It can be very humid, so you are happy, when the rain comes. The most important thing is the tranquility and slow down of your normal urban Chinese experience. It’s good for a weekend but even a week would not be enough to see it all.
I think it really depends on you, if this piece of history and nature is the right treat for you. The question remains, are you ready for the island. Are you ready for Gulang Yu?