Gulangyu

Gulangyu (鼓浪屿) is an island in Xiamen, a few minutes by ferry from downtown. It has a population around 20,000 and an area of about two square km (500 acres). It was a foreign enclave from the 1840s until the 1930s, and is now both a residential suburb and a major tourist area.

Local transport

Cars, motorcycles and bicycles are banned, making the island both quieter and safer than almost anywhere else in China. The whole island is basically pedestrians-only, though golfcart-type electric vehicles serve as a sort of bus on a circular route around the island near the coast. The only vehicles powered by internal combustion are a few firetrucks. Everything from fruit to furniture gets moved about by handcart; you fairly often see wiry little Chinese hauling loads that much brawnier fellows might have trouble with.

The island is extremely popular with Chinese tourists, who arrive in droves, often in large tour groups. You can spot the guides because they hold up brightly coloured flags for their flock to follow. Although the island is quite scenic, the noisy crowds can be quite annoying at times. Gulangyu is probably best avoided during major Chinese holidays and may be more pleasant during the week than on a weekend.

Some readers may know the place from Neal Stephenson's novel ReamDe; much of the story takes place in Xiamen and one character, the female British spy, has an apartment on Gulangyu. Those who do not know the novel might consider picking up a copy for on-the-road reading when heading for Xiamen.

Understand

After the British victory in the First Opium War, Xiamen (then known as Amoy) became one of five "treaty ports" established by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, and Gulangyu became the main residential area for foreigners.

Scenic enough for a wedding photo

As in other International Settlements in China, the population was always predominantly Chinese but the police, the legal system, quite a few residents, and much of the architecture were foreign. All thirteen of the foreign consulates were on Gulangyu, along with houses, churches, schools, parks and a hospital. Both foreign traders and wealthy Chinese built mansions, often with large gardens, and many commercial buildings were built as well.

Today the island is a major tourist area; many of the old colonial-era buildings have become restaurants or guesthouses, and there are many shops geared towards tourists.

Gulangyu is sometimes called "Piano Island" and one of its attractions is music; there have been pianos on the island since the first foreign residents arrived in the 1840s. It is quite common to hear piano music (usually recorded and usually classical) in the streets as you walk about. There has been a Piano Museum for about a century, and more recently an Organ Museum has been built as well. Both have many instruments, some dating back to the 19th century, and both have recitals for the tourists.

Get in

Ferry between Gulangyu and Xiamen Island

Take the five-minute ferry ride across the harbor from Xiamen; the terminal is right downtown on Lujiang Road and ferries are frequent during the day. It is free on the outward journey and you pay ¥8 on the way back. The main ferry stops at midnight but there is a second ferry (from the same terminal in Xiamen) which runs on the hour throughout the night and stops at a smaller terminal on Gulangyu.

If you want to sit on the upper deck recommended since the ferry tends to get extremely crowded that is an extra ¥1 each way, payable on the ferry. Go upstairs quickly as you board; otherwise you are likely to find all seats taken. If you need a seat and are toward the back of the queue, it may be worth letting the first ferry go without boarding so you can be at the front of the queue for the next ferry.

Another option for the more adventurous traveler would be to walk down to the dock and search for a blue fishing boat with tires around it. These boats are cheaper than the ferry and may offer the option of going around the island on personal tour. They usually want to wait until they have a full load before departing. There are also speedboats, faster and more exciting but more expensive.

As you board the return ferry there are many people who offer a return trip in a speedboat, for ¥10 a person (ferry is ¥8). If you have fewer than four people, you may have to wait for them to get four people together.

Get around

Cars, motorcycles and bicycles are banned, but the island is small enough to walk around as long as one is physically able. It is, however, quite hilly. Walking about, there is quite a bit of nice colonial architecture to see, much of it tucked away on back streets.

Local transport

There are golfcart-type battery-powered vehicles that run on a fixed route circumnavigating the island. Riding one of those around to the back (west side) of the island can be a good escape when the main tourist areas are crowded. Fare starting from the ferry terminal is a flat ¥10 for any distance. If you board elsewhere, then ¥10 gets you anywhere before the ferry terminal; to go beyond it you would need to pay again.

One can also hire a boat on the Xiamen side, on Gulangyu at the docks near where the ferry comes in, or at another dock a bit north of that for a ride around the island. This takes about an hour.

Starting from the ferry stop, most travellers either jump on a golfcart-bus for a tour or turn left onto Dragon Head Road (Longtou Lu), which is one of the main shopping streets and leads to the sights around Dragon Head Hill. An alternative is to walk straight ahead, heading inland; this gets you to a large map of the island, then to the local tourist information office (which has a left luggage service), to one of the few banks on the island, and to another shopping area. Off to the left as you walk inland are a set of steps which lead up into a pleasant area with several guesthouses and a number of restaurants.

See

A discount card can be bought on the island which gives entry to The Statue of Koxinga, the Piano Museum, Sunlight Rock (including cable car ride), the Aviary, the Organ Museum and the International Calligraphic Carving Art Gallery for ¥80.

Sunlight Rock, south end of the island
Piano Museum
Statue of Koxinga
Having defeated the foreign devils, Koxinga is one of the few people regarded as a hero by the current governments of both China and Taiwan. Things the official Chinese accounts do not mention are that his father, a seafaring merchant from the Quanzhou area, dabbled in piracy and that his mother was Japanese. As the Manchu conquerors of the Qing dynasty moved south, the father surrendered and became a Qing official, but the son remained loyal to the Ming and fought on; at one point, his armies got as far as menacing Nanjing. Eventually, he found himself defeated on the mainland so he went off, bringing most of his army, and took over Taiwan.
Koxinga's arrival was the first major Chinese incursion into Taiwan; many of his troops stayed and settled. This was followed by a surge of other immigration, mainly from the Xiamen and Quanzhou areas. Modern Taiwanese is essentially the Minnan dialect of those cities
An organ in the Organ Museum

The south end of the island also has some lovely gardens with a lot of various types of eucalyptus.

Do

There is a beach just south of the ferry stop and others around on the other side of the island.

Try walking all the way around the island. The distance is about 4 km (2.5 miles) and there are good paths. If you decide to give up, just jump on a golfcart taxi; they circle the island near the coast, and come along quite often. Alternately, just ride a golfcart taxi or a boat around the island.

Twisty little streets, all alike

Get lost. Get away from the tour groups by getting lost in the back streets of Gulangyu which have some fascinating architecture. It is fairly easy to get lost, usually by wandering into a residential district. This can be confusing, especially if one does not speak the local language, Minnan Hua. There are an awful lot of narrow winding streets. However the island is fairly small, walking downhill will always get you to the coast, and there are paths and golfcart-type transport all along the coast, so getting lost is annoying at worst.

Buy

Items aimed at the tourist trade abound on Gulangyu some amazingly tacky, some amazingly lovely, and more-or-less everything between.

As in any tourist area in Asia, many things are much cheaper than in western countries but asking prices tend to be high and bargaining is usually necessary. Gulangyu merchants have some excuse for high prices; they have to cover costs of transporting goods to the island. In general, things are more expensive on Gulangyu than in downtown Xiamen; on the other hand Gulangyu has a much broader range of tourist merchandise and a better selection on some items.

The two main shopping streets are Dragon Head Road (Longtou Lu) which runs south near the shore from the ferry stop, off to your left as you arrive, to Dragon Head Hill or Sunlight Rock and Quanzhou Road which is roughly parallel to that but further inland and on higher ground. There are many smaller streets with shops, mostly running off those two.

Shops along these streets sell mainly art and handicrafts. Items on offer include: beads, lacquer work, sculptures, pictures carved on stone, Chinese antiques, reproductions of Chinese antiques, jade, fake jade, other jewelry, silk and other clothing, and ceramics. There are also T-shirts, hats and other tourist merchandise, plus artists offering portraits or cartoons.

Eat

The island caters to tourists so there are lots of places to eat but many are not particularly good because the proprietors are not worried about attracting repeat business. Some are excellent, though.

Seafood on sale

If you enjoy seafood, you may be pleasantly surprised, as Gulang Yu's local cuisine tends to emphasize seafood. The streets are lined with restaurants and food stalls that sell a variety of such dishes (look for red plastic tubs of fresh seafood). If you're more interested in a sweeter snack, there's a great ice cream place located right near the ferry's drop off point. Prices are higher than in Xiamen.

Not far inland of the ferry stop is a large building with some interesting upmarket tourist shops and several restaurants including a large KFC on ground level and a place on the second floor that has reasonable food, good beer, and a patio with a fine view. There is a central courtyard that sometimes has acrobats, jugglers or musicians.

Near that is the main market for Gulangyu residents, mainly selling fruits, vegetables and seafood. Nothing is cooked, nobody speaks English, and some prices are higher than downtown Xiamen, but the place can be an adventure and a pile of fruit here will be cheaper than lunch in a restaurant.

Drink

Accommodation

There are numerous places to stay on Gulangyu, mostly at moderate prices. Near the ferry wharf there are several places within a stone's throw of each other. When you get off the ferry, walk straight. Immediately on your left, you will see a stone stairway leading to the top of a small hill. Around the corner you will find an international youth hostel, Naya Home Hotel, and Bayview Inn.

Go next

For most travellers, the only place you can go from Gulangyu is back to Xiamen.

If you own or charter a boat, there are other choices but some caution is required. The Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen is nearby and while there has not been artillery fire across that strait since the 1970s and China-Taiwan relations are currently excellent both governments still consider the area sensitive and keep substantial military forces there.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, March 02, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.