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Outside In

Seaweed, Seafood, Seeing is Believing?

Is Xiapu, a northeastern coastal region of Fujian Province which is being heavily promoted for tourism a fake tourist trap, or China’s hippest new destination for Insta-influencers?

By Kathleen Naday Updated Sept.1

The rooftops of Banyueli She ethnic village

Viewpoint overlooking Xiawei Island

As the pandemic continues to curtail trips abroad, people in China are looking to domestic tourism, with many seeking new destinations and far-flung places. I decided on a mini-tour of southern China, and picked the southeastern province of Fujian as a destination. Doing some research on destinations, I chanced upon a place on the northeast coast of the province, not too far from the border of Zhejiang Province. It was called Xiapu, marketed as an up-andcoming destination for photographers due to the indented coastline with promontories, beaches and islands, the local aquaculture industry, ancient villages and tropical forests.  

It was heavily promoted with dreamy photos of misty mornings and spectacular sunsets. Influencers were pictured striking yoga poses in coastal caves, legs flung upward with the morning sun beaming through, and farmers and fishermen looking as traditional as they must have done decades ago. None of my Chinese friends had ever heard of it. Yet the train, when I arrived at the apparently still underconstruction high-speed rail station, was full of tour groups, disgorging into a rainy afternoon.  

I’d heard Fujian was very strict with foreigners and health codes, and so it proved. Yanked back from the edge of the parking lot to do a special registration, it was obvious few foreigners passed through. All was proceeding until the temperature taking, when the largest nurse I’ve ever seen in China appeared, insisting that I download more apps. She apparently did not want to let me out. In the end, she had to be overruled by the station police.  

But why were so many people coming to a place that apparently no one had heard of? It all made sense after I returned from my trip, when an article went around from news site Insider, claiming that the Instagram hotspot was completely fake, and the farmers and fishermen were actors paid to create influencer-style photos, with others creating the visual effects with fake smoke to replicate misty mornings with actor animals. Including geese. The buffalo was apparently a long-term professional. The report included disgruntled comments from visitors who had seen the curtain pulled back on the faked photos, complaining they had to pay to pose with a buffalo or for fishermen flinging their olde-time nets. Their seafood dinners were overpriced.  

But I didn’t know this when I arrived. I had picked a guesthouse that was halfway up a mountain, called Tea Lodge for Life, which was partly a restored old house. There is a cluster of similar homestays there, plus a small shack-type restaurant with a small eating area with fabulous views across the bay and toward the new downtown area of Xiapu. I can’t speak for the rest of the city, but the food I had from the three ladies, cooked fresh with them asking what I wanted from the ingredients they had that day, was excellent. The first night, I had a large bowl of fresh seafood noodles, with a very light broth for 30 yuan (US$4.5), possibly the best noodles I’ve ever had in China. I had similar noodles for breakfast the next day at the homestay, with plumper prawns, but the ladies’ version just pipped it.  

Beach of Dangerous Shoes 
To get around, you absolutely need transportation. The guesthouse had arranged a free pick-up from the station, which was only 15 minutes’ drive away. I hired the same driver for a day trip, with destinations suggested from the ubiquitous book of influencer photos that the Insider report had highlighted.  

There is obviously a lot of development underway in this area, which falls under the jurisdiction of Ningde. Tall apartment blocks on waterfront land are going up apace, a whole new urban area between the train station and the old city. It’s unfortunate that highways follow the coast closely, preventing you from walking along them. Then again, the aquaculture industry is still important here – fish and shrimp farms and seaweed, so the beaches and coves, which look impressive with golden sand, are not that clean, and you should assume the water is affected by run-off from the aquaculture.  

First stop was the She ethnic village of Banyueli – a group that has lived in southern China for a long time, and the largest ethnic minority in Fujian. Banyueli is a small settlement of stone houses clinging onto a hillside and surrounded by a stone path that goes to the tea fields above. Many of the houses date from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and some have been turned into small museums to show the life they used to lead – a local cooperative endeavor to make money and preserve the houses. Some homes lie empty, as most of the villagers have moved to the adjacent new settlement. The village boasts a buffalo actor, reluctantly posing with tourists, plus background actor chickens, who didn’t seem to mind.  

On the way to visit the next stop, a famous cave, we drove past villages festooned with seaweed hanging out to dry – on fences, on the road, on trucks, heaped on front of houses. What I had taken for fish farms from far above was seaweed cultivation. My hometown was once known as the seaweed capital of the UK, due to the kelp beds offshore that was dumped all over the beach in summer storms and then left to fester. The smell reminded me of home, so I asked to stop and see what the workers were doing, although the driver said it was not so Insta-friendly. I liked it.  

The famous cave turned out to be at the bottom of a cliff top boardwalk which took you onto Xiawei Island, surrounded by underused golden-sand looking beaches. Apparently all the people from the train had arrived at the same time as me, most of them wearing the wrong shoes for clambering over smooth rocks with no hand and footholds to access the cave. The rocks were quite spectacular, but I was constantly worried that an elderly person was going to slip and fall, and also bothered by their tour guides who stood at a safe distance above shouting into megaphones when it was time to leave. It was my first actual trip to the Chinese seaside, and I was still happy to see the water. And then concerned about getting back up the polished rocks without either embarrassment or a serious injury.  

There are more attractions in the region I did not have time for – strange groves of trees and beaches for sunset viewing. To me it seems like Xiapu is trying to develop and transform itself into a destination to replace income it used to make from fishing and agriculture. The article spoke of fishermen being paid for posing for photos, but I did not see that. I was hanging out with the seaweed guys anyway. And not for nothing, but every place I’ve ever been in China has some poor unfortunate animal being forced to pose for pictures – yaks, camels, pandas... If you want to see a still fairly unknown corner of China, with some nice scenery and good seafood, and still some traditional coastal ways of life, even if they are not attractive, I’d recommend it. Go before even more influencers get there.