Is Xiamen’s Gulangyu Island 鼓浪屿 overrated?

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Is the crown-jewel of Xiamen tourism just an over-priced tourist trap?

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Among some quarters in the travel writing community, there seems to be a backlash stirring against words like “overrated.”  Literary travel writers – more concerned with humanizing local personalities, capturing the essence of a place on paper and with subjective navel gazing – frown upon the judgmental language used by commercial travel writers.  Meanwhile, people who write for travel guide books like the Lonely Planet are required to let their readers know whether a spot is “worth their time” as succinctly as possible.

Aside from “overrated” what other term could there be for a destination that claims to be and is frequently touted as “unique” or “awe-inspiring” or “steeped in history” and which is, in fact, none of those things – just an over-priced tourist trap.

The view of Gulangyu from across the harbor.

Now this is where Gulangyu comes in and where things get tricky.  Is Gulangyu an over-priced tourist trap?  Over-priced?  Yes.  It only costs 35 RMB to buy a ferry ticket to the island but then it’s another 100 RMB for a ticket that will admit you to the major sites on the island.  You can buy separate tickets, between 30 and 60 RMB, for individual sites if you don’t want to see all of them.  Food and drink on the island is also on the expensive side, Anna and I bought a meal for about 100 RMB that would have been about half that price off the island.  We were also charged for tea, which is often free in Chinese restaurants.

However, I personally don’t mind spending a bit more in such areas where the LOCALS HAVE NO OTHER SOURCE OF INCOME.  Yes, people actually live on Gulangyu and their livelihood depends on the money you spend in their neighborhood.  Sadly, commercial travel guides are forced to prattle on endlessly about the relative price of every tourist option, since so many people who travel are willing to spend thousands on a plane ticket, but then wring their hands over shilling out what amounts to a few more dollars for a fried snack or wooden toy.

Is Gulangyu a tourist trap?  On the face of it, it would seem so.  As soon as you step off the ferry you’ll be accosted by guides desperate to know whether you need their services.  Vendors, most of whom appear to be selling their wares illegally, advertise their trinkets around every corner.  Again, these people are just trying to make a buck in China’s hyper-competitive society and this is often tolerable when the site has some legitimate claim to being a “must-see” or “unique” in some way.

And is Gulangyu unique?  Yes and no.  The island is famous for hosting well-preserved examples of art-deco, Romanesque-revival and neo-Gothic architecture in the form of villas, mansions, churches and former embassies – all built by European colonial administrators and merchant houses who used the island as a base of operations in Xiamen during the city’s days as a treaty port in the 19th century.

The truth is, you can find this sort of architecture in other cities, like the French Concession in Shanghai or Shamian Island in Guangzhou.  You can even go to less-visited cities like Fuzhou and see these concession-era structures in various stages of disrepair, some even slated for demolition, and not curated for tourists or requiring a paid ticket to see.  One could argue that it is more imperative to visit Fuzhou’s Taijiang District, where you’ll find this crumbling 19th and early 20th century European architecture, since added tourist attention to such buildings might aid in their preservation.

But while Gulangyu may not be unique, it is certainly at least special, which may make it worth visiting nonetheless if you are in Xiamen.  And if you are not traveling to any other city that has this European architectural atmosphere then Gulangyu is a convenient place to see great examples of it transplanted so oddly off the coast of China.

When I traveled to Gulangyu for the first time, during my first trip alone in China, I found the island delightful mainly because I had not yet seen anything like it in China.  The narrow lanes overhung with lush green foliage and dappled with pink and white flowers.  Brides in their white gowns posing for wedding photographs in front of century-old churches.  Some knowledge of the peculiar cultural and political habitats established in Chinese concession areas will also add to the fun of a trip there.  For more detail on visiting the island, you can stay tuned for a video we’ll be uploading about our recent trip there.

If you are one of those finicky travelers, perpetually comparing prices and one destination to the next, then you’ll probably find Gulangyu overrated and disappointing.  Gulangyu is no Santorini or Malta.  But if you can appreciate places for what they are and enjoy yourself in the moment, then there is a lot to enjoy on Gulangyu, even the local touts can be charming if you give them the chance.

How to Get There: There are two ferry terminals.  One for locals – the Lundu Pier (轮渡码头) – and one for non-locals (foreigners and Chinese people who are not from Xiamen) – the International Cruise Terminal (厦门国际游轮中心).  Forget about the Lundu Pier if you are not a local, you have to go to the International Terminal.  The ferry is 35 RMB for a round-trip between the International Terminal and the Neicuo’ao (内厝澳码头) ferry terminal on the island.  You can also pay 50 RMB to go to the Sanqiutian (三丘田码头) ferry terminal, which is closer to the main sites.  The 内厝澳码头 ferry terminal stops running between 5:30 and 6:30 pm depending on the season, so if you lose track of time you can buy a ticket and go back from the 三丘田码头 terminal, which runs until midnight.

Hours: The 35 RMB round-trip ferry between the International Ferry Terminal and 内厝澳码头 stops running between 5:30 and 6:30 pm depending on the season.  If you miss it you’ll have to go back using the 50 RMB all-night ferry from 三丘田码头. Most of the sites on the island close at 4:00 or 5:00 pm.  There are numerous hotels on the island if you want to stay the night, but you can see most of the cool stuff in one day, especially if you go early.

Prices:  35 RMB for the ferry to 内厝澳码头 – 50 RMB for the ferry to 三丘田码头.  At the ferry terminal, you can buy a 100 RMB ticket for access to some of the main sites on the island – like Sunlight Rock, Shuzhuang Garden and the Piano Museum.  This is recommended since the sites are worth checking out and if you don’t buy the 100 RMB ticket you may change your mind and end up paying more for individual tickets into individual sites – 60 RMB for Sunlight Rock and 30 for the Shuzhuang Garden, for example.

Cool Stuff Nearby:

Zhongshan Road

The ferry ride from Xiamen Island to Gulangyu.

Arts University on Gulangyu.
View from Shuzhuang Garden.
View from Shuzhuang Garden.
View from Shuzhuang Garden
Shuzhuang Garden.

 

Statues on the way up to Sunlight Rock.
Statues commemorating the “Mid-Autumn Mooncake Gambling” tradition which has ancient origins and was said to be played by Koxinga’s troops. Xiamen and southern Fujian are the only region in China still practicing the tradition in earnest.

The Sunlight Rock Temple.
The Sunlight Rock Temple.
The Sunlight Rock Temple.
The view from Sunlight Rock in 2013.
The view from Sunlight Rock 2013.
The view from Sunlight Rock in 2013.

Zheng Chenggong, or Koxinga, a Ming general who resisted the Qing and invaded Taiwan – “retaking” the island from the Dutch.

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