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Friday, January 23, 2015

Places strangely familiar (Part Deux)

The girls enjoy a Sunday morning breakfast on the streets of Gŭlàng Yŭ 鼓浪屿

Off to see the tŭlóu 土楼, those multistory mud citadels home to the Hakka 客家 people of southwestern Fújiàn Province 福建省. Coming in shapes that are round, square or rectangular, they serve has homes to entire clans of people, and were intended to protect the members within from bandits, wild animals and their non-Hakka neighbors (the Hakka have been described as the Romany of China, and have been about as popular). Since some of them were given World Heritage Status by UNESCO in 2008, tulou have now become sightseeing attractions, a must-see on many tour groups' itineraries, and in a case of "When in China..." we left Gulang Yu early on Sunday morning to venture into Hakka country.

Getting to the tulou from Xiàmén 厦门 involved a 3½-hour bus ride through terrain that brought to mind rural Taiwan, and not necessarily in a pastoral, idyllic sort of way. Xiamen city itself, with its wide, palm tree-lined streets, evoked images of Kaohsiung  高雄, while the drive through the dusty towns and ugly concrete boxes that make up the countryside reminded me of the less attractive parts of, say, Miáolì County 苗栗縣.

We eventually arrived in the small village of Liùlián 六联, gateway to the Hóngkēng Tulou Cluster 洪坑土楼群. Just outside the entrance to the cluster (admission is 90 RMB/$14.50) sits the massive Huangxin Lou:

We were taken to the Fúyù Lóu Chángdì Inn 富裕楼常棣客栈. The inn takes up 20 rooms of a extensive 160-room, 134 year-old tulou; our room was one of the few that had heating and an en suite bathroom. The view looking down onto one of the many courtyards:

While we were having lunch, a steady stream of tourists led by megaphone-toting guides came through the compound. Villagers have clearly benefited from the tourist RMB generated by the UNESCO listings, but in return they have to allow visitors entrance to what is essentially their apartment complexes:

After lunch,  we did some exploring. Amber checks out the courtyard of a neighboring tulou, all the while watching her step so as to avoid the numerous chicken droppings on the ground:

Built between 1875 and 1908, the circular Rúshēng Lóu 如升楼, at one ring and 16 rooms, is the smallest tulou in the cluster:

Looking at the Fuyu Lou from across the river, showing just how large is the compound:

The tulou next door was smaller but still imposing:

The Ancestral Temple of the Lin Family had stele in front commemorating local boys who had done good, such as by passing imperial exams or fighting in wars:

A banyan tree spreads its limbs...:

The 1912 Zhènchéng Lóu 振成楼 is by far the biggest tulou in the Hongkeng cluster. There are a total of 222 rooms contained within two concentric circles:

After a quick peek into the tulou next to ours, it was time to return to the Fuyu Lou Changdi Inn to have dinner and then retire for the night. On the way back to the inn, Amber purchased a mini replica of the Zhencheng Lou:

We were up early the following day following a comfortable night's rest (thanks to the modern miracles of electric heating and indoor plumbing) to catch the return bus to Xiamen from Liulian:

The three hour-plus bus ride went quickly, with entertainment provided by videos and the sounds of an elderly passenger constantly throwing up into plastic bags. Except for the occasional tulou or passing train, there wasn't much to see from the bus windows:

With time to kill before our afternoon flight back to Shànghăi 上海, we visited one of the most famous temples in Fujian, Nánpŭtuó Temple 南普陀寺. Because getting priorities straight is of utmost importance, we began by having lunch at the temple's vegetarian restaurant:

With my wife staying outside to watch the suitcase,  my daughter and I went in to explore the Buddhist temple complex. There was the Big Treasure Hall, containing the Buddhist trinity representing the past, present and future (no photography allowed)...:

...and the eight-sided Hall of Great Compassion, with its 1000-armed statue of Guanyin, facing the four directions (photography permitted, but too much glare and reflection off the glass):

For me, though, the highlight was the walk up the steps behind the temple, leading to a lookout with good views over Xiamen:

The trail continued further on into the hills, but time was running short, so we descended, returned to Pamela and hailed a taxi to take us to the airport, where my wife was once again bemused at all the shops selling items from Taiwan. It seems people visit Xiamen to experience Taiwan:

Postscript: it's Friday as I write this, and I still haven't been back to work since we returned to Shanghai on Monday evening. After arriving at Hóngqiáo Airport 上海虹桥国际机场, Amber and I opted to have dinner at the McDonald's in Terminal 2. Pamela, never a fan of fast food, chose instead to eat noodles at a Chinese joint nearby. The next morning (Tuesday), my daughter was throwing up while I was periodically running to the bathroom with diarrhea. My wife, of course, was fine. Amber has since gotten better and has returned to school (while also celebrating her 9th birthday); I, on the other hand, have continued to feel worse and can't stray too far from the nearest toilet. I've missed four days of work so far, while waiting for the medicine to do its stuff (and avoiding the Imodium I was prescribed, as I was advised by the doctor it's better to let my body flush itself out). In times such as these, it's easy to become a foxhole atheist and start making promises to gods, but once I'm over this stomach bug, I resolve never to touch fast food again. This experience in no way should be taken as a poor reflection on Xiamen, Gulang Yu or the Hakka areas of Fujian. I didn't even try the jellied sea worms, but looking at the photo of them I posted on Facebook isn't doing my intestinal tract any good.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Places strangely familiar (Part 1)

With the end coming into sight on our tour in China, we've been trying to make good use of those three-day American holiday weekends to see as much of this country as we can before it's time to move on. This past weekend being the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, we flew last Friday evening from Shànghăi 上海 to Xiàmén 厦门, a city located in the coastal region of Fújiàn Province 福建省, and just a stone’s throw from Kinmen 金門, the island once known as Quemoy that’s been held by the Republic of China since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Most of the people known today as Taiwanese are descended from settlers who sailed across the Taiwan Strait 台海 from Fujian, my bĕnshĕngrén 本省人 mother-in-law’s ancestors probably included (I say “probably”, because like many Taiwanese, she’s rather fuzzy on the details of her descendants). For my wife, having just returned from her wàishĕngrén 外省人 father’s funeral in Taiwan, it must’ve been an odd experience coming to a place where she could understand the local speech, as the Taiwanese dialect that she’s as equally fluent in as Mandarin is a variant of the Southern Min languages 闽南话 spoken in Fujian. From my perspective, this part of China, and in particular the island of Gŭlàng Yŭ 鼓浪屿, where we stayed the first two nights, was an interesting mixture of Shanghai and Taiwan.

The lights of Xiamen from the ferry to Gulang Yu

Only five minutes by ferry from Xiamen, Gulang Yu is a step back into another era. The island was once an International Foreign Settlement, complete with a Sikh police force, much like Shanghai. The foreigners are long gone, but many of the colonial villas remain, albeit in various states of repair. We stayed in one such building, appropriately called 1930, which evoked memories of that time in both appearance and atmosphere (though fortunately with updated heating and plumbing). The view from 1930’s rooftop on Saturday morning looking toward Xiamen:

Gulang Yu attracts Chinese tourists by the boatloads, but the streets were quiet on our first morning as we set off exploring following breakfast. The food stands and souvenir shops were just beginning to open up for business, including this establishment where the staff dressed as Red Guards in a strange nod to nostalgia somewhat out of place on an island so closely associated with Western traders:

Amber on the beach

First stop on our sightseeing tour was Shūzhuāng Garden 菽庒花园, laid out by a wealthy Taiwanese in 1916 (though at that time he would’ve been considered a Japanese national) along the waterfront at the southern end of the island. The grounds contain a piano museum – Western residents used to give lessons to the locals on how to play, and Gulang Yu has provided China with some of its best pianists. There are good views over the sea as well as of Sunlight Rock 日光公园, at 93 meters (305 feet) the island’s highest point:

It didn’t take long for Gulang Yu to get crowded, a fact we noticed as we made our way from the garden back to the central part of the island. The 1917 Ecclesia Catholica 天主堂 church was disappointingly closed, as was the former Japanese Consulate (one of four foreign diplomatic legations that used to be on Gulang Yu, the others representing Spain, the United States and some other country):

Many old buildings have been spruced up (and new buildings have been erected that are meant to look old ) for the purpose of selling snack foods to the tourists, while the early-20th century ambiance proves a magnet for couples having wedding photos taken – there were four pairs doing so just in one small plaza:

For my daughter, however, the highlight of our visit was no doubt Underwater World Xiamen 海底世界, an aquarium where the seals and dolphins were depressingly housed in tanks that were too small for them, but which did have an admittedly good collection of other undersea creatures, a walk-through tunnel and an impressive sperm whale skeleton:

There were good views across the Lujiang Channel of Xiamen city:

The main street close to our hotel was absolutely packed… 

…but the side streets and alleyways could be blissfully quiet:

While Amber and Pamela went to have their hair washed at a local salon, I ventured back toward the southern end of Gulang Yu to another garden, Hàoyuè Garden 皓月园, where there were also scenic vistas of Xiamen:

The garden is noted for its large statue of Koxinga 郑成功塑像. The half-Japanese semi-pirate Koxinga was a Ming dynasty 明朝 loyalist who, in a somewhat eerie parallel to what happened after 1949, invaded Taiwan in 1661-1662 and drove out the Dutch, establishing the island as a base which he intended to use to “retake the Mainland” from the Qing. It didn’t come about, of course, and the Qing eventually captured Taiwan in 1683. For the present day Chinese government, Koxinga is a propaganda symbol too good to pass up, hence the large statue of the general in Haoyue Garden looking toward Taiwan. The statue itself, however, was crudely sculpted and looks far more impressive from a distance than up close:

Walking back to meet the girls, I passed by a number of attractive early 20th-century buildings. Reunited, the three of us then went off in search of the former American consulate; on the way we passed a house that had a very American-looking eagle and shield above the entrance way. There was no information outside the building to explain its original purpose, however:

Like the other consulates, the former American one was closed to the public, and only the side of the building was visible from the outside. Even so, it looks a lot nicer than the shopping mall where I currently serve American citizens and interview Chinese visa applicants:

Dinner was a Taiwanese-style oyster omelet, along with oysters and sea snails, and washed down with a weak beer called Sedrin, brewed by Anheuser-Busch InBev and having some sort of connection to the NBA. Signs for it could be seen along the road during the bus ride that we took into Hakka country the following day:

One local delicacy we didn’t try, but which could be seen everywhere on the island, was tŭsŭndòng 土笋冻, jellied sandworms. After you, I insist, please:

Pamela was amused, and a little bewildered, by all the shops and food stands on Gulang Yu claiming to sell Taiwanese snacks. She was unfamiliar with many of the so-called items from “home”, and of the the ones she did recognize and try, she complained about the taste (or lack thereof). For the Chinese, however, the characters 台湾 indicated the presence of something they needed to stand in long lines for:

At the end of a long day, it was back to the 1930 and a final look toward Xiamen and Sunlight Rock before calling it a night: