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Xiamen deserves an open verdict

By Kelvin Hayes | China Daily | Updated: 2013-01-28 10:37
Xiamen deserves an open verdict

Ancient trees and century-old buildings attract visitors to Gulangyu. Bao Xinguo / China Daily

It's lauded as one of China's most beautiful cities and a magnet for tourists. What's brought me here is an insatiable burst of curiosity.

Being Welsh and having been raised in New Zealand, Xiamen has been nagging me to see it for some time. It is, you see, twinned with both Cardiff in Wales and Wellington in New Zealand - both cities in which I have lived. According to the traveler's grapevine I should love it.

All three cities are ports. From the train window view of its wide harbor, it feels uncannily like Cardiff Bay and though the train station looks like a '70s version of Cardiff Central, that alone does not inflict too much damage to the overall feel of the town.

There is an elevated transport system called the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), more like Istanbul's metro-bus, in other words it uses dedicated lanes for buses.

There are a few islands dotted about, though mercifully, no Wellington winds.

The immediate island city is flat with a few hilly enclaves. Many of its streets are leafy and there's a reasonable amount of glitzy shopping malls.

Well, for starters there's no airport-to-city-center bus, meaning that one is reliant on taxis, by most standards pretty bizarre but especially so for a tourist town.

They do get things right by putting a visitors' information center in the train station. Except, none of them can speak English as I inquire.

Fortunately my research has told me what bus to look out for and moments later I'm on my way. What is difficult to find is the stop I'm supposed to get off. Someone points it out and makes the driver wait for me to alight.

Later, I decide on utilizing the BRT to catch the boat to the nearby and highly recommended Gulangyu.

My friend had told me a visit to Xiamen isn't complete without calling on the island. He was mistaken. It is also said that no cars are permitted, thus preserving its natural state of tranquil beauty. As a seasoned traveler my mind is already casting that skeptical voice - I'll believe it when I see it.

Sure enough on disembarking the ferry, I am near mowed down by the road train carrying tourists around the island. I survive and walk around the corner for road train number 2 to do similar.

I can already feel that horrible feeling of "tourist trap" sinking in. Yes, a can of Sprite will be 5 yuan (80 cents) compared with 3 or 3.50 anywhere else.

The aviary will cost a steep climb and as steep a hike through my wallet for 60 yuan. Even the coconuts washed up on the shores seem fake and it's only on closer inspection that I notice the puncture holes and straws.

Cardiff has Pontcanna Street, a row of cafes in a leafy suburb. Xiamen's version is Yuandang Lake.

With a colonial past of Portuguese occupancy, these buildings are exotic, particularly when illuminated, yet another device for extracting money from visitors. A coffee at most of the establishments lining the road opposite the leafy boardwalk costs way above average.

At the sleepier end of the street lies an even sleepier but more affordable Starbucks.

All in Xiamen offers no clear indication of playing a part in my future. Perhaps a three-day journey and an open verdict is all that needs be.

sundayed@chinadaily.com.cn

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