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Gulangyu Island

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Early in my Gumbo career, I wrote about the big mud apartment blocks, called tulou, in the hill tribe region of southern China, photos of which compelled me to travel to Fujian Province.  The route to the tulou went from San Francisco to Shanghai, a change of airports, overnight, then another flight to Xiamen, where I stayed a while before locating a means of transport into the hills to my primary objectives. 

 

Xiamen is not a city one finds on most western tourists’ itineraries, although it is popular with Chinese visitors.  Most head for an island called Gulanyu, a short ferry ride from the waterfront in Xiamen. 

 

There isn’t a great deal of information in the guidebooks about accommodation on the island so online resources were the most helpful.  I was fascinated by descriptions of the hundred year old mansion called Zhongdeji Villa Hotel, which seemed more upscale than others and less expensive than one would pay for similar lodgings in the west.  I was able to book a room for 5 nights on the Chinese travel site, eLong, one of 2 I’d found reliable in the past, the other being Ctrip, through which I book domestic flights.

 

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I arrived at the waterfront in Xiamen by bus from the airport and easily found my way to the ferry.  Debarking from the ferry on Gulangyu and knowing my accommodation would not be easy to find, I consulted various people waiting for business near the dock until I found one who both understood what I was looking for and knew where it was.  There is no motorized transport on the island, except for a few small electric government vehicles and an electric multi-car open train-like conveyance that gives tours through the lanes.  So off we went on foot.  It was some distance and convoluted, as I’d suspected it would be, so I was pleased to have my guide.  She delivered me to my destination and having received the requested 20 yuan, about $3 US, for her help, went on her way.

 

Next hurdle, check-in.  It was fortunate I’d booked through eLong, as the English-speaking agents became essential at this point.  The check-in staff was unable to make my credit card work in their machine and I understood enough to know they were telling me they’d need cash.  Sticking to my plan, they called eLong, who assured me that they could use the record of my credit card on their computer and all was well. 

 

I was shown to my room, small compared to others I'd seen through open doorways along the hall, but very comfortable, with period reproduction furniture and a beautiful large and newly-installed western style bathroom.  I was pleased.  A good breakfast buffet of Chinese dishes was served in the mornings in a small room off the lobby, furnished with sofas and upholstered chairs, and also tables scattered elsewhere around the ground floor.

 

My second floor room with bathroom to the right.

 

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My interest in colonial settlements is what drew me, in part, to Gulangyu.  Xiamen, then called Amoy, became a treaty port after China’s loss of the First Opium War in 1842, a number of European countries built settlements on the island, less than a square mile in size, and it was designated an official International Foreign Settlement about the turn of the 19th-20th century.  The old European architecture, along with modern Chinese use makes the island a fascinating place to wander, especially outside the area closest to the ferry that’s been developed to encourage tourism.  Walking through the residential neighborhoods, one sees large buildings, possibly grand mansions built for European officials and traders, now converted to multi-family residences.  Others house congenial new restaurants off the tourist track that retain a European feel, and some are derelict and waiting for restoration which I’m sure will come.

 

I spent my days on the island wandering, as I love to do, without a plan.  After several days I’d recovered from the long trip and was ready to press on.  I took the 5 minute ferry ride back to Xiamen and went into the only older luxury hotel along the waterfront, the Lujiang Harbourview Hotel, built in 1958 and recently restored and updated.  I figured it was a good place to start my search for a way to the tulou and as it transpired, I needed to go no further. 

 

From the front desk, I was directed to a desk in the lobby occupied by the gracious assistant manager who spoke English perfectly.  She guided me to a higher floor and the in-house travel agency where I learned there were bus tours to the tulou, 1 day or 2, but none in English.  I’d be fine, I told them, on any tour they offered and booked the 2 day version.  I also booked a night before and a night after the tour at the Harbourview Hotel, any excuse for an indulgence.

 

 Kitchen staff preparing vegetables.
 

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As it unfolded, the visit to the tulou was not quite as problem-free as I’d imagined it would be and two days spent without language proved fine when things went well, less fine when they did not.  The other participants on the tour could not have been kinder and I felt like a child being cared for by dozens of doting relatives.  The relatives went home at the end of the first day and, as the sole participant on the 2 day tour,  what followed was less easy, but I survived.  If it interests you, please click on these links for the rest of the story, ‘The Tulou of Fujian Province’ and ‘The Tulou of Fujian Province Redux’ for more pictures.

 

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 Gulangyu Island waterfront and Xiamen across the harbor.

 

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 Adjacent villas undergoing restoration.

 

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For more of PortMoresby’s contributions, click here.

 

 

 

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