There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 21 November 2016

Xiamen and Gulangyu Island: Part 10 of South East China

Our return to Wuyishan station was another white-knuckle ride as our driver overtook on a blind bend, conversed on his phone and read a text. We sat in the back and filled out the evaluation form, commenting at length on his cavalier attitude to life and limb and more succinctly on M’s lack of English, while praising both for their punctuality. As usual there was no envelope, but I doubt M’s English was good enough for her to spot the need to lose the form between the station and her office. This is, I should add, untypical of the service we have received in this and previous Chinese visits.

Wuyishan station may be a cavernous concrete barn in the middle of nowhere, but it was the terminus for our high-speed train to Xiamen. The 3½ hour, 500km journey took us cross-country to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province and then down the heavily populated coastal strip to Xiamen North Railway Station.
The final stage of our two week journey from Nanjing was from Wuyishan to Xiamen
While Wuyishan, indeed most of inland Fujian, is relatively lightly populated, the coastal strip is another matter. Overall Fujian’s 35m inhabitants live at a density of 300 per km², comparable to the UK’s 270, and positively rural compared with Zhejiang (55m at 550 per km²) and Jiangsu (80m at 780 per km²).  South East China certainly packs in the crowds.
We experienced a little difficulty locating our guide, but once we realised the station had two exits, the problem was solved. S was young, enthusiastic and spoke good English, I could see at once that Lynne would quickly adopt him as a temporary son.

Xiamen (formerly known in English, and still on soy sauce bottles, as Amoy) was once a city on an island, the original settlement being on the south side in what is now the District of Siming. The island is 12km across and home to 1.8m people. Almost as many again live on the surrounding arc of the mainland giving the ‘Sub-Provincial City’ of Xiamen a population of 3½m.
Xiamen Island and the surrounding districts that make up the 'Sub-Provincial City' of Xiamen
Happier now we were with a safer, more professional, driver we headed south from Xiamen North, crossed the causeway (or perhaps one of the many bridges) onto the Island and proceeded towards its south-west corner.

Xiamen Island
Xiamen was a late developer, by Chinese standards, only emerging as a port during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). First European contact was made by the Portuguese in 1541 and the Dutch soon followed. After the Qing dynasty supplanted the Ming in 1644, Ming loyalists hung on here at the empire’s southern extremity for 20 years before the city finally succumbed to a combined Qing/Dutch force. The British East India Company built their first factory in 1684 but draconian restrictions eventually forced foreigners to give up all trading posts except Canton (now called Guangzhou). Although morally indefensible, the First Opium War (1839-42) was a British military and commercial triumph. Taking Xiamen in 1841, they decided the island was too big to garrison so held on only to Gulangyu Island, just off the south west coast. The war ended with the Treaty of Nanjing, which ceded Hong Kong to the British and gave them access to five ports, including Xiamen. From their base on Gulangyu the British and later other foreign traders would help Xiamen become China’s richest port.

Xiamen’s sizeable ferry terminal was crowded with well marshalled queues of people bound for a dozen different destinations. Gulangyu is a Chinese Tourist Board 5A rated attraction and receives 10 million visitors a year [as of July 2017 it is also a UNECO World Heritage Site so international tourists are now expected to increase]. Although only a couple of hundred metres offshore numbers are such that we boarded a ship rather than a boat to cross the narrow channel.
Leaving the ferry port, Xiamen Island
Gulangyu looked tranquil and low-rise….
Approaching Gulangyu Island
… and felt pleasantly warm; we were now far enough south to have not even brought our sweaters from the car. The problem with a sub-tropical humid climate, though, is that it may be warm, but rain is never far away.
On Gulangyu Island

Not only is Gulangyu low-rise, it is traffic free, there are no cars, motorcycles or even bicycles. A few electric buggies are used by government workers, but otherwise if anything needs moving, then muscle power will move it.
How stuff gets moved, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

History has endowed Gulangyu with a wealth of colonial architecture. It was now nearly three and lunch was beginning to feel seriously overdue, but first S wanted to show us the former British Consulate. ‘British architecture,’ he said, ‘make you feel at home.’ ‘There,’ he said as we rounded the corner. ‘Where?’ we asked, ‘There, the British building.’ He seemed disappointed with our reaction.
The former British Consulate, Gulangyu Island
Are Moorish windows typically British. No, I thought not.

Finally, S agreed that it was time to eat. ‘Local food,’ we said and he took us to a small apparently basic restaurant which was, at 3pm, quite empty. Unable to read the menu we asked S to choose something appropriate and he selected fish balls and seaweed followed by a noodle soup which contained more prawns and pieces of squid than noodles. To our surprise a big gloop of satay sauce sat in the spicy soup, not quite mingling with it. Most Chinese citizens of Malaysia and Indonesia have family origins in Fujian; as people have moved back and forth so has their food and Fujian has adopted satay as its own.
The meal was excellent and filling if rather expensive. Humans are traditionally reluctant to share their food with rodents and we considered requesting a discount after a fat, self-satisfied looking mouse waddled across the counter. We had finished eating, so why worry - and we came to no harm.

Returning to the traffic free, though still fairly crowded, streets of Gulangyu we saw more examples of colonial architecture. A neo-classical church….

Neo-classical Church, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen
…and another church, a pastiche of every other European church,…
Another Church, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

...and some apartments in a style best described as Hanoi Palladian.

Unusual looking apartments, Gulangyu, Xiamen

Typhoon Meranti, the strongest typhoon ever to have struck Fujian, passed over Xiamen in September. Five weeks later most of the damage had been cleared up, but not all.
Legacy of Typhoon Meranti, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

The light drizzle had ceased before we reached Shuzhuang Garden, often called the Lin Family Mansion and Garden as it is the creation of Taiwanese businessman Lin Erjia who, according to China Highlights ‘donated it to the state government in the 1950s’. That might be an idiosyncratic use of the word ‘donated’.
Entrance to the Shuzhuang Garden Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

China Highlights also quotes some technical stuff about the combination of three gardening techniques, ‘hiding elements, borrowing from the environment and combing movements.’ I do not pretend to understand that, nor how this creates 'a feeling of infinite space’, but it is a delightful place and much less crowded than we had expected.
Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu, Xiamen
It is delightful place, which may be the thought of the gardener as he sits admiring his handiwork

The ‘Garden of Adding Hills’ (the back, right of the above photo) allows you to look down in the main section (‘the Garden of Hiding the Sea’)…
Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island,Xiamen

 ...the Lin Family Mansion....

The Lin Family Mansion, Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen

…and the seaside part of the garden.
Seaside section of the Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen
….where we decided to walk next.
The sun comes out, the rain dries up and all is warm and beautiful
Shuxhuang Garden, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen
The long exposure of Gulangyu to foreign influences, in particular western classical music, has had a profound effect. It is known as the Island of Pianos and claims to have more pianos per head than anywhere else in China (but how can they know?) It remains unclear if this calculation includes the inmates of the piano museum next to the garden.
The collection of the Gulangyu born Australian-Chinese pianist Hu Youyi is open to the public. I know little about pianos and had never visited a piano museum before, but when in Gulangyu….
It was surprisingly interesting. We saw pianos with famous names, Steinway, Bechstein and others, the world’s largest upright piano, a piano that once belonged to the German royal family and the world’s oldest rectangular piano. There were oddities, too, a piano with one half of the key board and strings at right angles to the other so that it fitted into the corner of a room and a piano with eight pedals (soft, loud, wah wah, fuzz box, accelerator, brake, clutch and gin-and-tonic). Sadly, photographs were not allowed.
As we, and many other visitors, made the walk back to the ferry port rain started to fall. We raised our umbrella as it became harder and very soon the streets were awash with running water. By the time we reached the terminal it was hammering down, but an officious security man, standing sheltered beneath an awning, made everybody wait in a long queue as he carefully checked all documents. The queue bunched up, attempting to crowd under the awning, umbrellas keeping heads dry while sluicing torrents of water down neighbours’ legs.
We were distinctly damp by the time we found our way into the holding pen. It was only a short wait for the bumpy ferry ride, but by the time we arrived the rain had gone and darkness had fallen.
Waiting for the ferry, Gulangyu Island, Xiamen
According to our original itinerary we should also have visited the19th century Hulishan Fortress. It was no great loss, but from the heights we might have seen the Kinmen Islands. Although the shortest distance from Lesser Kinmen to Xiamen is only 4km, it is part of the Republic of China not the People’s Republic of China, and the Kinmens are administered from Taiwan, 200km away. Kinmen was repeatedly shelled in the 1950s, and the islands were under military rule until the mid-90s, but tensions have eased and there is now substantial tourist and commercial travel between the mainland and Kinmen where the economy and population, now 130,000 strong, are booming.
I thought you might want to refer to the map again, I'm thoughtful like that
Our hotel was a tower block in a residential estate of such blocks, indeed its original purpose seemed to have been residential too, as we had a kitchen (equipped only with a kettle) as well as a bathroom. We sat on the enclosed balcony drinking tea and eating the mooncakes S had given us as a welcome present. Very few windows in the other blocks were lit up. These structures have been thrown up by the thousand in cities all over China; I struggle to see how they function as investments when most appear largely empty, but after more than a decade the building boom shows no sign of abating.
We were still too full of lunch to think about dinner, so we ate some peanuts and enjoyed a dram or two of the firewater we had bought in Hangzhou.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Wuyishan (2) Bamboo Rafts and Tianyou Peak: Part 9 of South East China

Wonder Wang, the imaginatively named young man in Chengdu who had planned this trip for us had warned that ‘there would only be Chinese breakfasts’. No problem, we thought, a good Chinese breakfast is infinitely preferable to a bad ‘western breakfast'. Today, though, we were not offered a ‘good’ Chinese breakfast. With several busloads of tourists to deal with the staff had put the food out early, the noodles had congealed into a single inseparable lump and the rice… well, best not.

M (our guide) turned up for her free breakfast – well no one can ruin a boiled egg – and afterwards we set out for the Wuyi Mountains UNESCO World Heritage site.

Location of Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountains) in south east China

The day was dull and grey, though warmish, and the entrance huge and forbidding. The Chinese authorities like to open up these sites, invite tourists by the hundred thousand and then strictly regiment everything they do; their desire to control transforming a wilderness into a facsimile of a Disney Adventureland. My resulting grumpiness prompted Lynne to remind me that I travel to experience other cultures, and this was the Chinese way. She was right, which made me even grumpier, but the Chinese revel in it, marching in battalions behind the leader’s flag as he or she barks out instructions through a hand-held loudspeaker.
Standing in front of the entrance to the Wuyishan scenic area

Once inside, we strolled through the trees to an area where shuttle buses and road-trains waited to whisk the masses to their approved recreation zones. M found the right bus (we would have had no chance without her) and we travelled several miles down an ordinary road to what seemed an ordinary village.

We were there to board a bamboo raft for a trip down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River). The Chinese need to enumerate everything (the Five Sacred Mountains, the Four  Great Gardens...) springs from the same source as their desire to regiment and be regimented but I love the futility of trying to define the number of bends on a river.

The Chinese, of course, turn up mob-handed for their river trips. The rafts hold six and we had to wait while M found a spare foursome we could tag along with. Her ability to speak Chinese was invaluable but she struggled to communicate with us. Although local tourists flock to the Wuyi mountains, foreigners are a rarity and if we insist on coming we should not be overly surprised when our ‘English speaking’ guide doesn’t.

Eventually we settled into a boat and pushed off.
Setting off down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River)

The six passengers had a crew of two, a man at the back with a pole…
Action man helps us down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

…and a woman at the front with a pole and the gift of the gab. She kept the four other punters entertained and informed, but it rather washed over us. Her hat was covered with tin foil, perhaps for a protection against Wuyi’s semi-permanent drizzle, but if she worried about aliens stealing her brainwaves it would help with that too.
While the talking came from the front, Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

The river enjoyed occasional outbreaks of ebullience, calling them ‘rapids’ would be over-dramatizing,….
Approaching an outbreak of 'ebullience', Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

…and bamboo floats very low in the water, so when encountering an ‘ebullience’ it was wise to raise one’s feet.
Lift your feet, Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

Wet feet or not, the Wuyishan Scenic Area is appropriately named and we floated past sheer cliffs,…..

Cliffs beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan
….peered into the misty depths of the mountains…

The misty Wuyishan Mountains

….and marvelled at unusual rock formations.
Rock formations beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

Occasionally the rafts formed themselves into a queue….
A queue of rafts on the Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

….with some overtaking,….
Overtaking our rivals, Jiuqu Xi,Wuyishan

But for two hours we generally drifted quietly on, under the only bridge…
Bridge over the Jiuqu Xi, (Nine-Bend River) Wuyishan

….and, near the end, past Yunnu Hill, the symbol of the Wuyi mountains.

I am uncertain which word best describes Yunnu Hill, but I am sure it is not ‘hill’. I have been unable to discover the Chinese word used, but official translations can be misleadingly rigid. The Chinese for ‘river’ is (pronounced with a rising tone, roughly ‘huh?’), we were rafting on a , unfailingly translated in official guides as ‘brook’ while liú is ‘stream’, but the Chinese words hé, and liú only roughly correspond to river, brook and stream (and what about gyhll, burn and beck?). Being a requires a lot of water, whereas a 'river' can be more modest; I have referred to Jiuqu Xi as Nine-Bend River, because to me it looks like a river not a brook.

Yunnu Hill, Wuyishan

M met us at the disembarkation point. ‘How do the boats get back to the start?’ I asked, having seen none travelling upstream. I rephrased the question several times using simpler and simpler words and in the end received an answer, of sorts, ‘by car’ she said.

Several minutes walking brought us to a pedestrian street lined with smart wooden cabins selling snacks, drinks and tourist tat. M seemed to be telling us this was a 10th century Song dynasty village though every structure we could see was clearly 21st century; perhaps she was just saying that the retail outlet was called Song Street. Her next statement was less ambiguous: ‘you have lunch.’ It was barely 11 o’clock and despite our early start we were not ready for food, so we politely declined. This threw her into confusion; she arranged to meet us again in half an hour and wandered off.

We had a look round thinking we might buy something for our grandson, but having dismissed the crossbows with their lethal bolts as inappropriate there was nothing to do but drink coffee. We re-read Wonder Wang’s itinerary, after the rafting ‘you will climb up Tianyou Peak, the sheer rock peak that just rise skywards, to have a bird’s eye view of the magnificent mountain.
My rock climbing career started and (I hope) finished on one fear filled afternoon in July 1972, so if pitons and carabiners were out of the question the only way up a sheer peak was by cable car. These are difficult to hide so presumably it was not nearby.

We were killing time, and as it was limited that felt wrong. The drive would use time profitably and might even reveal a place for lunch, and if not, well, so be it.

Armed with this misapprehension we rendezvoused with M and announced we were ready for Tianyou (Heavenly Tour) Peak. She led us on a lengthy walk along concrete paths and across the bridge over the Jiuqu Xi. We kept expecting to encounter a car park, but in the end we encountered Tianyou Peak.
Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

Mt Huangguang (2,158m, 7,080ft) is the highest peak in the Wuyishan range, Tianyou, at 808m (2,650ft) is relatively insignificant and from where we stood the peak was little more than 100m above us - but it looked forbiddingly sheer.

M led us up a some steps.
Up the steps to the side of Tianyou Peak
We had been climbing for a while before it dawned on us that somebody sometime had part constructed, part hacked steps all the way up the side of the rock face. The route was obvious, so M informed us that we could walk to the observation point, she pointed to a pavilion high above, and return the same way, or continue to the top (828 steep steps) and descend the other side (2000 shallower steps). M, though roughly half our age, would wait at the bottom.

Starting up Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

We settled down to some upward plodding and reached the pavilion surprisingly quickly. We took a breather and enjoyed spectacular views down to the Jiuqu Xi….

Looking down to the Jiuqu Xi from the pavilion on Tianyou, Wuyishan
…further up the rock face….

Looking up the Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
….and across to the adjacent peaks. 
The nearby peaks, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
Eastern Wuyishan is an example of the ‘Danxia landform’ common throughout south eastern and southern China. Cretaceous red sandstone, lifted and cracked by shifting tectonic plates, has undergone millions of years of erosion to produce distinctive ‘hills’ with steep sides and flat wooded tops.

We got our heads down and continued plodding so we could soon look down on the nearby peaks, the river and the pavilion – half way according to M – and…
Looking down on the adjacent peaks, the pavilion and Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan
…up to the next part of our climb
The next part of our climb
I have mentioned (more than once) the Chinese preference for making visits en masse. Our path up Tianyou was pleasantly uncrowded, but here is a photograph borrowed from travel agent Access China Travel taken in roughly the same place during a holiday.

Access China Travel's picture of the same part of Tianyou, Wuyishan
Near the top the more exposed route was cordoned off and the last part of ascent was on a pleasant path behind the peak.
Nearing the top of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
A boy came running down to us. ‘Hello, where do you come from?’ he started before going through the complete school book conversation with confidence and unusual accuracy. ‘Thank you,’ he said at the end before running off up the steps.

At what appeared to be the top was a small temple and a kiosk where my pointing and smiling was rewarded with two much needed soft drinks. Communicating the price is normally straightforward, the young lady could have used pencil and paper, a calculator or her fingers, but her strategy was to say a number and keep repeating it until I understood. It failed, and then failed again and again and.. After so many visits to China I am ashamed to admit I still do not know any numbers above ten and  after multiple fruitless repetitions, a waiting customer interrupted. ‘Fifty,’ she said. I had expected to pay a premium, the merchandise has to be carried up on foot, but not £6+ for two small drinks. I shook my head, put the cartons back on the counter and made to walk off. ‘Why?’ the customer asked. ‘Too much,’ I replied. ‘Not too much,’ she said ‘only fifty, one five, fifty.’ ‘One five, fifteen?’ I ventured. ‘Yes, one five, fiftee.’ I thanked her and handed 15 yuan to the bemused girl in the kiosk. Chinese English speakers almost invariable omit final consonants but this confusion has somehow never arisen before. The English words ought to be more distinct.

Thirst quenched, we found yet more steps to climb. Behind the temple we passed some (possibly ancient) calligraphy….
(Ancient?) Caligraphy, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

….and some Jinjunmei tea bushes (spelling varies). Wuyishan is the home of Lapsang Souchong, and Jinjunmei is its superior version. 100g of top Jinjunmei allegedly sells for US$1,600; these bushes growing in marginal conditions might produce ‘top’ jinjunmei – or may just be a curiosity.

Jinjunmei, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

We soon reached a sign pointing to the summit. The path hardly rose as we crossed the peak’s flat top but there was no feeling of exposure, it was so well wooded we could see only the surrounding trees. A little pavilion marked the high point. We were all alone so we put the camera on a wall and took a selfie.
The summit, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan 

This anti-climax was followed by many, many downward steps, and no sooner had we started than the rain, which had threatened all day, began to fall. South winds bring clouds rolling in from the South China Sea and the first high ground they hit is Wuyishan, so although the climate is warm it is notoriously wet.

We were passed, at a run, by the boy we had spoken to earlier and then, at a more measured pace by his older brother. He thanked us for our patience and hoped we had not been bothered. We said it had been a pleasure to meet such a polite and enthusiastic youngster but did not tell him his little brother’s English was almost as good as our guide’s - it would have been only a slight exaggeration.

The descent round the back of the mountain offered no views so it was a long plod through an unrelenting downpour.
A long downward plod through unrelenting rain, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
M was waiting in the dry, but she too was uncomfortably wet (pardon my schadenfreude) by the time we reached the car park, where a road-train took us out of the Scenic Area. M found our driver and we headed back to town, proving en route the truth of her earlier statement; the bamboo rafts do indeed return to the start 'by car'.

The bamboo rafts go home by, well not quite 'car', Wuyishan
In the evening, dried, rested, and by now hungry, we ventured to a nearby restaurant - continued rain discouraged walking further abroad. We may not know our spoken numbers but we were pleased that we were able to peruse the Chinese menu and select a beef dish and a vegetable dish, though how they would be cooked remained a mystery. We also ordered a cheap unknown side dish out of bravado.

The beef and Chinese cabbage were excellent. The mystery dish - strips of some pickled vegetable - was a bit dull and we had no more clue what it was when we finished than we had when we ordered it. Including rice and beer a good diner came to less than £10 - and we had duly entertained the little audience that gathered to watch the weird foreigners eat.