Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 06 2011

To Xiamen

We caught the high-speed rail to Taichung on the night of the 30th. There the four of us, myself, Chenbl and two female co-workers of his, caught a taxi out to Taichung Port, speeding along the highway skirting Mount Dadu and through the neon-betelnut-signed valleys and empty parking lots. Taichung Port is a lonely, out of the way place. I’m not sure why anyone decided to put a tourist port there, so far away from anything interesting. Surely Keelung and Kaohsiung ports are much more suitable. But the timing of the Taichung run fit with our tomb-sweeping holiday schedule, so Taichung it was. I was toting the Invincible Rabbit with my usual two lenses and a Canon S95 for video, but decided to leave my ancient Thinkpad at home, as it’s just too heavy to be hauling around Fujian Province for a week. Instead I wrote down notes by hand so I could compose these journal entries later (I have to admit an iPad 2 or 11″ Macbook Air would have come in handy, though).

Inside the port building, the shouts of Chinese tourists rang through the smoke of their cigarettes. “This one’s taken!” one of them shouted as we moved towards an empty seat. There were plenty of empty seats further away from the gate, however, so we sat there while the mainlanders crowded around the exit, afraid the ship might leave without them, I guess. But they were all in tour groups, so we, as individual tourists, got to go in first in any case. The shops selling local paraphernalia shut down, the employees taking down the signs for cheap liquor and snacks and rushing off home as we were called to go through customs and immigration.

The ship, the Cosco Star, built in 1993, is refreshingly old and grungy for those used to glittery cruise ships, with most of the lower parts for cargo and vehicles and a few decks on top for passenger cabins. Though the registry lists it as a Hong Kong vessel, I suspect it used to be Japanese, as all the original signage is in Japanese, Korean and English, with Chinese additions pasted over. It used to run from Taizhou, but nobody apparently wanted to go there, so now it goes to Xiamen from Taichung and Keelung, and occasionally Kaohsiung. We were welcomed by uniformed crew, all mainlanders. A tugboat on the other side of the ship pressed it to the dock as the lines were cast off. We put our luggage in our foreward-facing cabin, the porthole providing a fine view of a winch, and then went out on deck to watch the cargo ships and docks slip by as we headed out to sea.

As soon as we hit open ocean it was obvious that this was a much smaller ship than the likes of the Star Cruise variety I took to Okinawa; the waves pummeled the hull and sent small shakes through the cabin, and there was quite a bit of motion, even more than the Taima Ferry to Matsu. As our cabin had no facilities, we had to use the common bathroom and showers, whose hot pools looked out through windows on the dark ocean, the water sloshing about with the ship’s motion. The shouts of the mainlanders came from the cheaper inside bunks, which only cost about NT$1500 or so I think. We got more motion in the front of the ship than the other parts, I think, but I didn’t mind. Though the air conditioning was giving me a headache, I always enjoy the rocking motion, the creaking and swaying sensation of sleeping on ships. One of Chenbl’s co-workers was distinctly uncomfortable with the situation, however.

I got up at 7 a.m. the next morning, as we passed a series of small islands on our approach to Amoy, known in Mandarin as Xiamen. The breakfast servers yelled at Chenbl to only take his own breakfast when he tried to get both of ours. Breakfast consisted of some steamed buns, porridge and a curious piece of meat product involving corn and wrapped in plastic. Huge freighters passed us on our way into the harbor, and the sun was doing a poor job of warming up the chill sea air. The view was shrouded in haze, but I could make out the tall buildings of downtown and traces of an impressively long bridge in the distance. The mainlanders seemed excited at the sight of the new port facilities, a huge, half-built complex, as we sidled up and docked.

We took a taxi to our hotel, the “Best 8” or something like that, a cheap affair that did the job, more or less. Already I liked Xiamen much more than Shenzhen, which isn’t hard as I dislike Shenzhen intensely. Xiamen lacked the air of desperate new money and accompanying thievery present in Shenzhen, which isn’t even a real city in my book. Our taxi driver wasn’t happy about having too many people in his cab, however. “You’ll have to pay the fine if I get caught!” he shouted, and indeed, he made several attempts to get caught just to prove his point, driving the wrong way up one-way streets and passing police cars illegally. The police didn’t care, and we got another cabbie with the interesting name of Fang Zheng, who took us out to the giant “One Country Two Systems” facing Kinmen. We could just barely make out the outline of Little Kinmen in the haze. I remember being in Kinmen many many years ago and looking across that same body of water at Xiamen. People strolled on the beach; it was too cold to swim.

Traffic in Xiamen, as well as in most of the areas I’ve visited in China, involves a kind of slow meandering amongst the lanes, between groups of pedestrians and stones that have fallen from trucks. Everyone assumes everyone else is an idiot, and everyone is right.

We drove to the Nanputuo Temple, the gates an obstacle course of beggars, and entered on the opposite side as you’re supposed to. Chenbl said this was just China “trying to be different” after the cultural revolution. Inside, people threw money at small holes in little pagodas and monks strode into the main hall to do some quick prayers before lunch. We had our meal in an adjacent vegetarian restaurant. Chenbl kept calling the waitresses “Xiaojie” and getting the sharp reply, “There are no ‘xiaojies’ here, thank you very much!” The food wasn’t bad, though. The dishes smelled like an old motel (I mean that in a good way.) Outside the temple, a group of boys rehearsed Journey to the West with puppets, and a young woman enticed a small white dog to emerge from beneath a pipe-covered building.

That afternoon we crowded onto the ferry to Gulangyu, a voyage even shorter than crossing over to Ba-li from Danshui. The lower level of the ferry is free, but the upstairs deck costs money. This was where groups of Nikon-toting birders shot photos of various waterfowl for the entire 30-second ride.

Gulangyu (“Drum Wave Islet”), as an old international settlement with cooler weather in the summer, is home to many old colonial buildings, as well as some of the most hideous wedding attire I’ve encountered. Groups roamed the streets, even on a weekday, loudspeakers blaring away at each other. We escaped the cacophony through mazes of alleys, talking with some of the elderly residents. We had the advantage of being able to communicate in Minnan, giving us a step up over Chinese people from other provinces, though only one of Chenbl’s co-workers speaks it really well; the rest of us don’t speak it that well, but we can get by. The old derelict buildings, many home to multiple families, reminded me of Qingdao or even Penang’s Georgetown, if it were left to rot for a century. Some of the buildings are nicely restored, however, including some interesting-looking hostels and restaurants. Many others were being worked on, stones being hauled up and down the narrow streets by men in overloaded carts. Above us, empty cable cars’ open doors swung freely, and an expert whistler accompanied his own guitar. We passed a military base inside which female soldiers were learning taijiquan. A unit of soldiers marched nervously past.

There’s a lot of walking to be done on Gulangyu, lot of interesting architecture and various nooks and crannies. We followed the coastline along beaches and through tunnels as the sun set over the silhouettes of factories on the other side of the harbor, only to find we were on the wrong side of the island from the ferry back, and temperatures were dropping rapidly. The electric tour cars that had been so ubiquitous during the daylight hours had disappeared, and I didn’t look forward to the long walk back in the cold and dark. Fortunately we found another ferry in front of a resort that was bound for Xiamen, boarded via a precipitous dock high above the actual boat. Inside, the passengers watched a blurry TV image instead of the brilliantly lit skyline outside.

Back in the city, I was reminded of Shanghai’s Bund, on a smaller scale and with fewer annoying touts. Dinner was a mediocre affair of overcooked dry noodles followed by a search for fruit juice to wash away the salty taste. We then strolled up the ritzy Zhongshan Road, lined with well-lit old-style new buildings and swank shops. The road was closed to vehicle traffic, fortunately. “All this opulence stops one alley in,” Chenbl commented wryly. I didn’t doubt it, but I also didn’t tell him this was just as well as the really interesting bits are back there. I couldn’t help but wonder, if Japan hadn’t colonized Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, if Taipei might end up resembling modern-day Xiamen.

posted by Poagao at 10:41 pm  

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