Monday, 16 March 2015

Day Two: Xiamen's Gulangyu

The Neicuoao Pier greeting us as we arrive at Gulangyu
After our Art Basel report, we're back to covering our three-day trip to Xiamen.

We were lucky it rained overnight because the next day was slightly overcast but looked like the sun's rays would poke through the clouds and they did intermittently. It was perfect to go to Gulangyu, the famous island that is home to about 20,000 residents.

It's mostly a tourist site best known for its colonial architecture dating back from the 1800s and oddly enough for pianos, as there are apparently some 200 of them on the island thanks to a piano museum and at one point there was a piano academy.

One of the beautiful European-style buildings on the island
The last time I was in Xiamen was in 2009 and at the time we took the ferry from the downtown area, which only cost 8 yuan. However things have become more organized -- or shall we say more bureaucratic -- with only local residents allowed to use that ferry pier and others must use the other two that are in different parts of the city.

The closest one to us was about a 15-minute walk -- a pleasant one at that along Yundang Lake, where we saw leisure fishermen setting up their rods in the hopes of catching some fish for lunch or dinner, while others used to path around the lake to get to work or school.

Where the pier is located is not on a busy street, but near a posh apartment complex that doesn't have many amenities nearby which seems strange, but that's how things are done in China -- build flats now, then grocery stores, banks and other shops will come later.

We got to the ticket booth and were surprised to discover we had to produce ID to buy a ticket -- to go to an island that is considered to be part of Xiamen! Luckily I had mine on hand so we had to buy a group ticket where the three of us had to go to and depart from Gulangyu together. It cost 35 yuan per person and thankfully was a return ticket.

This fixer-upper has potential to be a beautiful restaurant!
To get on the boat we had to go through a security check and produce the ID again... by the time we got on, all the seats were taken and had to stand. The ride took much longer -- about 15 minutes, but it was a pleasant ride anyway.

However we disembarked on another part of the island we were not familiar with and had to get our bearings by looking at the maps posted periodically on the streets.

Nevertheless, it was nice to wander around the pedestrian-only island -- bicycles aren't even allowed which is interesting, because that would be the only way to adequately cover the entire island in a day because it's impossible by foot.

There are many small streets, each lined with small homes or shops. Some feature colonial-style architecture, but many are run down and it's a pity seeing them slowly decaying. It would be nice to see them renovated and used, but heritage building codes can be strict if you don't have the right connections...

I saw one abandoned building that could make for a wonderful fine-dining restaurant, or a stylish cafe that could be found in places like Vienna... but I digress...

The bride is instructed to cover her groom's eyes in this shot
Gulangyu is also the place for couples to get their wedding pictures taken. At one spot we saw four prospective brides and grooms taking their vanity photos and while the poses seemed manufactured and lacking in spontaneity, the dresses the young women wore were... dirty! One supposedly white wedding dress had a muddy fringe, so it was obvious the dresses were not cleaned after each use!

But perhaps our most intriguing discovery was a 24-hour self service library by the waterfront. Much like a vending machine, it has a large display window showing all the books available and their code numbers.

The user swipes their ID card, inputs the number that correlates to the book and then presto! The book comes out. To return the book, the user again swipes their ID card, scans the book's code and then inserts it into a slot.

A library book vending machine -- how cool is that?
We couldn't think of any other place we had seen this before, and surmised that perhaps the idea came from Taiwan, as it and Fujian have a very close relationship, and in turn maybe Taiwan got the concept from Japan.

We thought this was a fantastic idea and wondered if this machine were available in Hong Kong, would that encourage more people to read?

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