May 05, 2008
May 09, 2009
Xiamen is our first introduction to China. In retrospect it was a handsome and pleasant enough city. It is smallish by Chinese standards, having "only" about 600 thousand inhabitants, and thus many of the problems which plague its larger cousins are not as acute here. The air is relatively clean and one can actually see the skyline on most days. Trust us: that's an achievement in China! Xiamen itself is relatively pleasant, though somewhat characterless like most Chinese cities. There's little of its historical past that has been preserved, except for the offshore island of Gulang Yu, which is a kind of European colonial retreat, whose somewhat derelicte langour has nowadays been inondated by tacky souvenir shops and hustlers. We had our first run-in here with Chinese scam artists, who took advantage of our microscopic knowledge of Chinese to get us to pay $30 for a pot of tea! We should have known better, but fortunately we were rescued in the nick of time by a mixed Chinese-American couple who translated for us and eventually got us off the hook. You live, you learn: even after hundreds of Arab, Indian and Thai hustlers, there's always new tricks to fall for... In the end, we didn't really mind Xiamen: the people here were more relaxed than in big cities, the food was in retrospect quite good by Chinese "weirdness" and nutritional-balance standards, and to top it off, the city sees enough just tourists that we didn't get stared at too much while still being helped out. The other interesting site here was a fairly large Taoist temple, modernly rebuilt with a traditional flair, which sprawled up the side of a lovely forested hill. The sight of people sending money from the Bank of Hell to their dead ancestors by burning them in special ovens shaded by flowering plum trees was unforgettable.