There's Something About Xiamen

(as published in Philippine Airlines' Mabuhay magazine)

Hustlin' and shoppin' at Zhongshan Road

What I was mostly looking forward to in this trip was getting intimately in touch with my heritage. Instead, my attention was veered by the fact that Xiamen defied my expectations of what a modern Chinese city with a progressive economy can look like. Unlike other urban jungles of China, in Xiamen visitors can definitely feel a relaxed vibe and see the municipality’s evident commitment to the preservation of the environment, culture and art.

Tourists at Nanputuo Temple attempt to toss coins into the pillar's holes in hopes of having their wishes granted.

As a small city, Xiamen’s popular tourist spots are conveniently located in proximity of each other. Enjoy a nostalgic walk back to your college days and admire the beautiful architecture within the campus of Xiamen University (XiaDa as locals like to call it). Immediately outside its south gate, you will find Nanputuo Temple where Buddhist devotees come to offer prayers. From here, you will begin to notice that natural landscapes of mountains and beaches are within reach from just about anywhere in this city.

Gulangyu shops

Standing room ferry bound for Gulangyu

For shoppers, Zhongshan Road is Xiamen's infamous pedestrian shopping district, much similar to Shanghai's seemingly endless Nanjing Road but perhaps with a noticeable difference: the former has snack food (xiao chi, literally "little eats") stalls at every corner for you to sample while deciding on making that purchase. Across the street is the jetty for the 10-minute ferry ride going to Gulangyu (Drum Wave) Island. With China’s defeat to Britain in the First Opium War, Xiamen became one of five treaty ports that were opened where the affluent Western and Japanese settlers eventually constructed their consulates, mansions and churches on the island. Today, be prepared to join thousands of domestic Chinese tourists who recognize Gulangyu as an immensely popular vacation landmark. Here, you can buy a "passport" notebook which allows you to visit the various retail shops and cafes and have it stamped just like a real passport – all the more reason to spend an entire day on the island. Alternatively, spend the night at one of Gulangyu’s many hotels or simply head back to the main shore for some dinner.

Starbucks at a fancy location - reminds you of The Bund in Shanghai

A brief walk from the wharf takes you to Lujiang Harborview Hotel’s aptly named Ocean View Restaurant, the locals’ acclaimed Chinese restaurant of choice. Relish views of the ocean naturally overlooking Gulangyu Island while partaking in sumptuous dimsum such as shrimp dumplings and chicken feet, as well as an assortment of fresh seafood dishes Xiamen is known for. After a fulfilling meal, finish off the day with a relaxing cup of coffee at not just any old coffee shop. Starbucks fans will be delighted to learn that at four storeys high, Xiamen’s first and China's biggest branch of the international café chain is surprisingly located here along Lujiang Road, most likely to cater to the shiploads of tourists who embark and disembark from the ferry at any given time. When it’s time to retire for the night, consider staying at Zengcuoan, Xiamen’s B&B/tourist inns district, where you can find affordable yet cozy accommodations for as low as 100 RMB per room per night.

Classy street art in Zengcuoan district

Needless to say, the cost of living and commodities are also budget-friendly. Local diners offer huge servings at 8-12 RMB for set meals, which can be good for sharing. The city likewise has a very inexpensive yet efficient transportation system with most bus routes at just 1 RMB, although bus stop signs are written primarily in Chinese. Cabs are cheaper than in major Chinese cities and instead of a metro system, Xiamen has the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) which basically involves select buses making use of exclusive highways, thereby avoiding traffic.

Robinson's Mall, SM Mall and Bench Body underwear: feels just like home (Manila)!

*Not* SM Megamall Building B 

Underrated and affordable as Xiamen currently is, she isn’t quite as international on certain standards yet – which is why we can only expect more to come from this ever-growing quick getaway. To others like myself who identify as Filipino-Chinese, it is quite difficult to find another city in the world we could readily be familiar with, prior to discovering Xiamen. I don’t suppose we could easily get homesick with many Philippine brands like SM Malls, Robinsons Galleria Mall and Bench Body reminding us of home, thanks to the taipans who probably wanted to have a connection to their ancestral land in a more grandiose fashion. It also helps that the same dialect (Hokkien) is spoken extensively. Lastly, direct flights from Manila are available daily with one international and two national flag carriers to choose from.

And just like that, Xiamen turns from being an underrated travel destination to a new home away from home.

A Buddhist temple.

Xiamen is a mere 2 hours and 15 minutes away from Manila. The author’s main motivation in taking this trip was to visit his late paternal grandparents’ birthplace, Gulangyu Island.

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