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In Harmony with Island Life

Car-free Gulangyu offers a fragrant and musical break from big-city life, if not from the crowds

By NewsChina Updated Apr.8

The morning of our departure was a battle against the elements. After getting up at 4am and taking the airline bus – which had to carve its way through a solid, thick mixture of pollution and fog – we finally arrived at the airport. We had already been to the majority of the larger cities on China’s eastern coast, which mostly have very similar sights to offer: temples, lakes, gardens and a collection of small hills. We now endeavored to find a place that truly stood out from rest; this time our quest took us to the southern province of Fujian, where, right across from Taiwan, you find the city of Xiamen and its famous island neighbour.
Marine decorations and bright smiles welcomed us at our hostel. The walls were painted ocean blue, which made us feel like we had boarded a large vessel rather than a land-based hostel. After a refreshing rest, we ventured out to Zhongshan Road, a long shopping street crawling with tourists. There were shops selling clothes, beverages, knock-off Korean cosmetics and over-priced souvenirs – but what caught our eye were the seafood restaurants. We set our taste buds out on a mission to find the most delectable local speciality. After some meticulous investigation, we soon concluded that Xiamen’s famous shachamian (noodles with seafood) actually proved to be a rather average dish. Haozijian (oyster omelette) dipped in soy sauce, on the other hand, cast a spell on us that made us order it for every meal during our stay. After a few buttery hetaobao (steamed bun with walnut filling) for dessert, we finally managed to tear ourselves away from the temptations of the food street.
We decided to let our stomachs rest for a bit and rolled southward down the bicycle path to Xiamen’s botanical garden. It stretched across a vast area of almost five square kilometres centred on a small mountain overlooking the whole south side of Xiamen. We wandered through tropical rainforests, rose gardens, palm tree forests that reminded us of Jurassic Park, deserts and cactus gardens, and a lawn dotted with couples braving the gloomy rain-heavy afternoon clouds to take their wedding photos. From the highest point of the mountain, we could see almost the whole botanical garden, a bit further down were the towering skyscrapers of the Conrad Hotel and past them the waters of the Taiwan Strait. And there it was, right off the coast of Xiamen, Gulangyu – the island of music. 

On the second day, we rose early to take the crowded ferry for Gulangyu. We stood squeezed together like sardines in a box as the ferry sailed for the island. An army of selfie sticks pierced the air to try to add the tiny island to their photo collection – or at least it looked that small from afar. 

Our ferry reached land and the tourists swarmed out like insects escaping from a glass jar. In an instant the selfie stick army had disbanded, each stick-bearer scattering into a separate direction under the palm trees. We soon realised the island was a lot larger than it had looked from the ferry. There were no cars, nor a single bicycle. The only wheels that rolled past us were those of melon and mango carts – the latter being the island’s speciality. A day on this island is enough to make your daily step count reach astronomical figures.  

As we ventured further into the heart of Gulangyu, it revealed the curves, domes and arches of its Victorian architecture. These Western-style buildings – consulates, schools, churches, museums and residential housing – had all been constructed by the foreign settlers who first came here more than 100 years ago. After the First Opium War (1839-42), Xiamen became a Treaty Port (known as Amoy) for foreign trade as a result of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. In 1902, Gulangyu was given the special status of a settlement for residents of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and more than 10 other countries. This led to the blooming of 19th and 20th century Western architecture on the island. 
With the foreign settlers, Gulangyu also developed a tradition for music and is the birthplace of a number of Chinese classical musicians such as Yin Chengzong, Jing Yang and Xu Feiping. Gulangyu’s musical history even resonates in its name, as it translates to “drum-wave-islet,” from the drumming sound that the waves make as they crash against the reefs. 

The island of music was a timeless place. We soon realised we could easily have stayed there for several days, even a week, enjoying the car-free roads, exploring the windy alleys and the long beaches. We watched the sunset from the highest peak, Riguangyan (Sunlight Rock), overlooking the vermillion roofs floating like islands above the ocean of green leaves. As darkness fell, we explored the food streets that meandered between the buildings of the former colonists. Vendors on every corner competed over the noise from the street to get people to try their fried octopus tentacles, dried mango and other local snacks. One bowled up to us, speaking at lightning speed in an explosion of enthusiasm. He pushed some dried mango snacks up under our noses to ensnare us with their sweet scent. Irresistible as they were, we could not say no. We barely got to thank him before we again were taken by the current of tourists flowing down the alley. 

As we headed back to our land-based boat hostel that night, with the sweet aftertaste of mango still on our tongues, we came across a street singer performing with his guitar. His melancholy tunes had already enthralled a young couple sitting on the ground next to him. We found a good spot and were soon joined by more than a dozen other passersby. As the melodies danced under dimly lit the street lights, I smiled and thought to myself that we truly had found the most enchanting place in East China – here under the palm trees, with the ocean waves and sweet mangoes.