Taiwan's Doorstep

Trip Start Sep 30, 2005
Trip End Jun 04, 2006

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Apparently, Xiamen used to be known in the West as Amoy, so now I know where the famous brand of Soy Sauce on our supermarket shelves comes from. I'd heard good things about Xiamen before I came here and the evening before I came I'd been shown a book full of some wonderful photographs of traditional Fujianese architecture which it would have been great to explore in the surrounding countryside. I'd also seen the weather forecast which for the south-eastern seaboard of China was not good. Unfortunately the weather forecast was right and having left Dongguan on a warm evening, I woke to rain streaming down the windows of the sleeper bus. When I stepped outside in Xiamen at 6.30 in the morning it felt as if I'd taken in a lungful of water. The rain had stopped but everything was steaming and the heavy humidity was like walking into a wall at every step.

The night bus had been too short a journey to get a good rest. My old theory of needing at least a 12 hour journey to compensate for the disturbed sleep was proven again. It was a relief that the hostel had a single room that I could crash out in there and then before going to explore. When I woke mid-morning, the temperature had dropped and it was raining again. This wasn't a light shower, it was absolutely hosing down and jumping off the paving stones like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. This would be a recurring theme of my stay in Xiamen. What are you doing today? Staying dry!

On the TV, Hu Jin Tao was addressing a conference on Cross-Straits Relations. I've heard many of these speeches on state-controlled TV. There's something in them, or at least their translation, that's almost comical and the messages seem so transparently one-sided that I've learned to listen with no more than half an ear. I thought I'd misheard when I heard the Chinese President using "we" to describe the people of Taiwan and China. I suppose I can understand this view of a Chinese and Taiwanese being a single people with strong cultural ties. When he went on to apparently state that, "...we, have had a series of 4 year development plans for the island which have been successfully implemented since 1953 and are the cause of the success we see today." After this I listened very carefully and even so, I'm still not sure I understood correctly, but it would appear that not only are Taiwan and China one people and one nation, but that the Chinese Communist Party is claiming responsibility for the success of the capitalist successes of a nation created in 1953 by their Guomindang enemies led by Chiang Kai-Shek. You might say that it's a different perspective on events.

Once I'm beyond the shock at this, I realise that many of the messages couched in their political rhetoric around Taiwanese Secessionism are very much more positive than I've heard previously. For Xiamen, from where I am watching this has massive implications for the future as it is sure to be one of the main gateways to Taiwan should Cross-Straits relations ever be freed up. The rain has stopped and I step outside wondering if there might be any signs of celebration at the momentous discussions taking place. Of course there weren't but I'm sure that come the time it will be a good party to be at and there's already plenty of evidence that the city's planners are preparing for the day when all links with Taiwan are open and Xiamen's economic influence grows.

For now, beyond the Special Economic Zone to the north, Xiamen's city at the end of the peninsula is a nice place. There are nice beaches, a nice university campus, the nice traffic-free island of Gulangyu, a nice variety of architecture with an abundance of the small details missing from many other Chinese cities. Perhaps it's the fact that the rain stopped, or more likely that for much of the year the daytimes are sweltering hot, but the city appears to wake up at night. It doesn't go crazy, but it's just, well, nice!

Perhaps I'm being greedy, but it isn't massively satisfying to be here. It's - guess what - nice enough though! Perhaps it's not really a place for the solo traveller. It's somewhere to go with friends. I'm curious as to why and I know I'm missing the company of friends that I've been able to enjoy recently. There's also the feeling that this isn't particularly adventurous travel. It's not unknown or scary or exciting, and I can't get lost. It's a reminder that the more unknown the travel, the more I enjoy it and I'd like to return to Fujian with time to explore its interior. This feeling is partly born from the reaction of the people you meet and knowing that when you tread less travelled paths, the interaction is as much a novelty for the local people as well as yourself. Nobody in Xiamen was unkind to me, nor bent on chasing out the Europeans like the local pirate-prince, Kongxia in the 19th century. It's a nice place, but there weren't so many smiling faces, or maybe that's just down to the infernal rain!
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