Saturday, February 23, 2013

[XIAMEN] Temple + University + Beach

To set the record straight, I only decided to go to Xiamen because that particular Cebu Pacific route is always on sale, and if you board one of their flights you are bound to know why. I wouldn't even be surprised if they end up cancelling it altogether, what with the plane almost empty on the way and coming back. To my surprise, though, I had fun in Xiamen. Loads of fun. Perhaps it's because of the new friends I met along the way or maybe the soothing weather that was just the right kind of cool depending on the material of the sweater you are wearing. The trip is also relatively shorter than Manila – Beijing or Manila – Shanghai, thanks to Fujian’s strategic location just across Taiwan. Arriving at Xiamen Gaoqi in the middle of the night, it was awesome to see that the airport was still busy and full of people. All of them were lining up for taxis. I couldn't find the bus indicated on the “Directions” part of the page of the hostel I booked on Hostelworld, not only because I am rather talented in getting lost, but also because those buses, as I discovered later, only run until 11 PM or so.

Before we move on, let's get to know the city first. Fast facts! Xiamen was previously known as Amoy, a busy port that was quite important back in the day. Xiamen is just one of the cities. The province is called Fujian, which lies northeast of Guangdong (Guangzhou and Shenzen facing Hong Kong) and southeast of Zhejiang (Hangzhou, south of Shanghai). Most of the Filipino Chinese tycoons who are ultra rich by now hail from this province. Henry Sy is one of them, which is why it no longer comes as a surprise that there is an SM in Xiamen. They call it SM City Laiya, if I'm not mistaken. I didn't get to visit it, though, only got a glimpse from the bus window on my way back to the airport. What I did see up-close was Robinson’s Galleria which is in the vicinity of Xiamen Railway Station where I got to wander late one night. They have their own language called Minnan. I'm not sure if this is also what we refer to as Fookien. What I know is that it's closely related to modern Taiwanese. In any case, Mandarin is heard everywhere. English? Good luck.

The idea was to visit a popular mountain at the northwestern border of the province, except that my body is never ever prepared for such uphill climbs, not to mention how many hours it would eat from the already limited time I had. I thought that Monday would be declared as a non-working holiday. And then they didn't! The back-up plan was to go to Fuzhou. I ended up staying in Xiamen. If you're only staying for around three days like I did, I suggest you do that too, along with a day-trip to a neighboring city or district. You really don't want to overexert yourself. And so we go back to where almost every new adventure begins. The airport.

Recap: No more bus! The taxi driver was asking for 100 renminbi. Those morons always have the same drama no matter where they are in the world. Tip: to the right. As you exit the airport, head right and you will end up seeing mini buses called Xiamen Airport Express. They take you as far as the port going to Gulangyu. They also pass by Xiamen Railway Station. If you get your taxis from there, chances are you will already be closer to whichever hotel or guesthouse you are staying at, and the taxis from there will be using their meters. Taxis in Xiamen are quite cheap. Take advantage of that. Just make sure that you have the address written in Chinese, if you are not conversant in Mandarin, that is. I got off at Lundu port and hailed a cab. Five minutes later, I was walking up a hill to XiaMen International Youth Hostel.

I woke up at around lunch time the next day, as is the norm, at least in my case. The plan was to go to Gulangyu but I was thinking of booking the 188 yuan tour to Longyan’s tulou the next day, which meant lingering around the reception area longer than expected. Just in time, a Chinese guy came in for check-in. He was speaking to the receptionist in Mandarin but code switching to English once in a while. Filipino, based on the accent, although his face disagrees. I asked the receptionist something about the tour, also in English. After the conversation, that was when he broke the ice and asked if I was Filipino. The rest was history. As both of us haven't eaten lunch yet, we decided to roam around Xiamen together with an Uzbek couch surfer he was yet to meet. We met Zarvar after half an hour at that bus stop between Xiamen University and Nanputuo Temple. We found an eatery after that and had an affordable lunch.

What followed was sightseeing at Nanputuo, a stroll by the beach, and the campus of XiaDa. First, the temple. Well, you know I am quite addicted to them. Just like palaces, once you see one, you have seen all. But Nanputuo seems different, maybe because of its predominantly wooden features. Sure, the common template of red hues is still present but the brown of the wood added some spice that simply breaks the monotony. Despite the mixed crowd of tourists and devotees, there is this air of tranquility that you just could not dismiss. And as I always say, that is why I love loitering in temples. Somehow, it gives me some peace of mind. Aside from that, Nanputuo also has a huge pond in front and some majestic hills dotted with several scattered mini temples as a backdrop. Among the temples I have been to, this has got to be the one blessed with a good mix of the religious, the natural, and the modern. It is as though you could come back there anytime and not get bored with the setup.

Heading to XiaDa afterwards is a must because it's just across the street. I'd recommend that you don't enter the campus through that entrance though, as the security personnel are quite strict, asking for passports and stuff. The good way to do it is to head to the beach first and admire the scenery before going through the campus entrance on the side. Well, this I guess is what makes me think of Xiamen as China’s answer to SoKor's Busan. The beach reminds me a lot of Gwangalli, maybe because of the overpass over the water. Its color matches those of the water quite well, and then you factor in the sand and wow. Movie-perfect! The breeze is quite strong and cool but that just adds to the whole enchanted feeling. What I find most interesting, though, is how the students of XiaDa are so lucky to have a beach walking distance from their campus. Imagine ending a hectic day of exams by  running towards the sea and going all emo there. The mood is already set anyway, all you have to do is play the part.

Unless you want to re-enact your favorite rom-com movie moment by the shore with your significant other, regardless if he or she is imaginary or not, there would be nothing much to do there. I mean, if you are a resident, perhaps taking time off to relax and reflect on your life would be perfect by the beach, but as a tourist, I think it would be of greater benefit if you just head to the XiaDa campus and continue your tour there. It is not regarded as one of the most beautiful campuses in China for nothing. True enough, the Wikitravel tip of entering the university through the gate by the beach is effective. We were not even stopped by the security guard. Or maybe we just looked like students. Seeing all the collegiate action unfolding before my eyes, for a while back there I missed UPD, the campus as much as university life itself, although I would not really admit it. The campus never seems to run out of sports activities to choose from, with basketball appearing to be rather popular.

A few more steps and you will see the tower that has become a popular symbol of the university itself, that in front of I do not know what building it should be, but it's the one which looks impressive, if based on its architectural design. Adjacent to both buildings is a mini lake with swans and ducks and a massive garden that becomes a huge playground for student and lurker alike. We wanted to stay a little longer and imbibe more of the nostalgia fueled by the university setting we found ourselves in but we also arranged to have dinner with some people back at the guesthouse. One roommate suggested Gulangyu in the evening after dinner as the charm supposed to be present disappears in the morning and afternoon because of the tourist infestation. We agreed, but before that, dinner!

More and more people joined until we were a group of around a dozen individuals, most members of which were Chinese from different parts of the country. And then there were two of us Filipinos, a German guy, a Danish guy whose Mandarin proficiency I really envy, and Zarvar the Uzbek.

The Chinese guys took us to Zhongshan road, and to answer your question, yes, you will find a Zhongshan road in every city in China, more or less. I think it is one of Sun Yat Sen’s many Chinese names. Most often than not, that road will be a pedestrian shopping street. This one stretches all the way to Lundu port, and because I am not a pro when it comes to shopping and food-tripping, you just have to find out what is there to see here. The area reminded me of Macau because of the bright lights and the rather western appeal of the architecture. The after-dinner stroll brought us all the way to the Gulangyu Ferry area, but we opted to no longer go despite the existence of midnight ferries because we were all tired. And yet a few hours later we still ended up at Helen’s, a bar which seems to be the nest of the expat community in Xiamen. What an awesome first day!

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