Xiamen is in south-east Fujian Province. Once called Amoy, and known as one of the best cities in which to live due to the low pollution levels, he city has a population of just over 3 million, as stated in the last census, though that has since risen, and is therefore fairly small by China’s standards. There are several parts to Xiamen – Xiamen North is on the mainland, the bulk of the city is on Xiamen Island, and Gulangyu Island, just off the coast of Xiamen Island. After getting a 20 minute train from Jinijang, the city in which we lived at the time, into Xiamen North (total accident, I wouldn’t repeat this mistake if I were you!) for a mere ¥12.5, we then taxied it down into the centre of Xiamen on the island. What a long journey that was!
Having just emerged from a sleepy corner of Jinjiang, where the tallest building was our apartment block of just five floors, Xiamen seemed positively new-age and mind-boggingly modern! Just the other side of Xiamen Railway Station is one of the main shopping parts of the city. Huge, modern, glass skyscrapers towered above us as we made our way to our Ibis Hotel around the corner. Everywhere I looked I saw blaring signs for McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, clothes shops, and even a Tesco! The pavements were so clean, trees lined the six-lane roads, and there were people everywhere, crowding together and rushing around, weaving around each other and chattering loudly.
The most noticeable thing though? The duck-egg blue pillars holding up a road that ran around the city. A subway in the sky! At night it lit up fantastically and looked like something from Futurama. This is the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and is a bus-only road, with low fares and an easy-to-grasp ticket machine much like in a subway station. So easy and convenient!
Xiamen was a trip of many first for us in China. We had our first Pizza Hut-in-China experience, we went to our first Chinese bar and drank toothpaste flavoured, traffic light coloured cocktails, and we road on our first Chinese bus. These buses would certainly not be allowed in Britain, because they rattle their way down the road, jumping into the air at the slightest bump along the way. They also cram on as many people as is physically possible, with some wedged against the doors, squished up the aisles, breathing in each others body odours and getting way too close for my personal comfort. Still, it was an experience that would be repeated hundreds more times in China!
The bus took us to Xiamen University, apparently one of the prettiest universities in China. The city landscape changed as we drove south of the island. The skyscrapers and the glass towers thinned out and became instead quaint, little, one-storey shops and landscaped roundabouts with giant stacked books posing as fountains. It felt like a small town, very different to the bustling city we had just driven through.
The bus dropped us off in front of the white-washed stone archway standing in front of the university. Right next to us was another elaborately decorated archway crowded with Chinese tourists and students. A lake shimmered under the grey sky, and in the middle say a little pagoda on a tiny island. Best of all, sitting very symmetrically between two pyramidal white towers was Nanputuo Temple.
It was stunning. Flanked by two stone elephants, the temple was a one-storey building with the typical pointed eaves on all four corners of the roof. It was multi-coloured and on each of the corners was a dragon rising from the coloured patterns, flames erupting from their mouths. The roofs are my favourite part of a Chinese temple. Each one has its own art work, all elaborately decorated with the most vivid colours. In north China they are more traditional looking, with elegant designs of animals or people, with delicate patterning. In south China they are bursting with bright colours, invariably have dragons on them, and more 3D patterns coming off of them, just like the dragons on Nanputuo Temple. When you think of the designing and labour that went into constructing and decorating these temples, they are even more brilliant.
The lakeside and the path in front of the temple were crowded with people, and there were several huge copper cauldron-type troughs full of sticks of burning incense. The sickly-sweet smell from the curling smoke filled my nose, and I was already moved to some feeling beyond simply enjoying the view. In the sweaty heat, the scent was almost too much, but we moved on soon after.
Walking through the doors next to the temple brings you to a little courtyard surrounded by buildings and temples similarly adorned with multicoloured dragons and flowers. Trees that had tangled their way between the temples must have been ancient, standing pretty, offering shade from the midday Fujian sun. Golden giant buddhas sat behind glass cabinets, and people were offering them flowers and food then kneeling with their hands together in prayer. Apparently the Buddha takes all the good things – nutrients and vitamins- from the offerings and then we presume the monks eat the ‘leftovers’.
We followed the trodden route up some stone steps and through huge, rather square boulders surrounded by trees. Between some of the boulders, wedged into the hillside, were tiny caves decorated with calendars and scrolls and offerings for the Buddha. Further up the hillside the steps carried on through what was now becoming a forest. Along the way were rest stops, some with amazing views of the surrounding hills, the sprawling city below, the rather grey sea under the polluted sky, and the island of Gulangyu. It was stunning.
Even better was that the hill was peppered with little temples and small pagodas, each with their own décor and quaint characteristics. My favourite was a really small temple with a white-washed, gleaming statue in front of it. It was built into the rock on the hill and the view from the platform was wonderful. Flowers had been placed before the statue, presumably a version of the Buddha, and the fresh sweet scent was refreshing after the sicklier incense. It felt so peaceful. Almost spiritual. Inside the temple was a large glass cabinet full of golden Buddhas, each different to the one beside it. I didn’t realise there were so many versions, including female ones.
We carried on up the hill, trailing along after the crowds with our backpacks, sweating like crazy. The next level had a restaurant selling water so we sat on the wall outside rehydrating.
We actually made it to the top of the hill (which felt more like a mountain, but as we did it in an hour and a half with breaks, I’m going to guess it’s a hill), and the great disappointment that greeted us was completely unexpected. No beautiful temple nor pagoda awaited us. Just a recently built restaurant in the shape of a temple, selling sausages on sticks and surrounded by dozens of prayer flags.
But never mind.
The best thing?
On the way up, linking the trees together were Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, in their reds, oranges, greens, blues and yellows, and the Tibetan script lining each one…
I love prayer flags.
Not only do they look nice, but they instantly return that feeling of pure peace, and a spiritual feeling that I cannot explain. The feeling fills me with happiness and I enjoy it, almost crave it. The contentment, even when knackered and sweaty, is amazing. I hadn’t felt it at any other attractions that we had been to by that point. The Forbidden City, for example, is beautiful, and you can spend a full day there exploring, but it doesn’t make me feel anything. Nanputuo Temple and the hillside temples felt more real to me, less commercialised and made for tourists. Despite the hoards of tourists, I felt far more amazement and joy at these temples than anywhere else in China as of yet, even despite the disappointing summit.
How to get there:
We took bus number 1 from the city centre, and I’m sure many other buses also run there, as it’s a popular place to visit. The bus is just ¥2 so definitely worth it!
Completely free, no tickets to buy (as of March 2015 anyway. Maybe things have changed..).
You can spend a good few hours here, especially if climbing the hill too. Give yourself at least two hours to make sure you see it all, maybe three if you like to take it slow.
Later on, we went for a stroll by the sea, hoping but failing to find a beach, instead ending up on a long promenade high above the beach. Even higher than us, right above the sea, were cars and lorries on a highway suspended on huge pillars in the waves. It was so futuristic and cool! The calmness you usually get from the sea lapping against the sand wasn’t there, but looking at the bridge-highways intersecting and little boats chugging along beneath it was an awesome sight.
Xiamen will forever remain in my mind as the nicest city in China that I have so far visited. The history and culture mixed with the unbelievable modernity and its aim to be a greener city with the BRT are just amazing to see. Chinese cities have a reputation of sorts for being polluted and crowded, and though Xiamen isn’t free of these things, the city is doing its best to be more environmentally friendly. For this, I admire it, and wish I had had more time to explore this gem of Fujian province.