Dispatch, Azamara Quest: Gulangyu

Arnie and the Azamara QuestTravel Weekly's editor in chief, Arnie Weissmann, is sailing on the Azamara Quest from Hong Kong to Osaka, Japan, this week, and reporting back on the experience, with a focus on the Quest's ports of call. His second dispatch follows. Read Weissmann's first dispatch here. 

I have been wanting to visit Gulangyu, a harbor island off Xiamen, China, since I read about it eight years ago in a New York Times article. The article called it "Piano Island," and spoke of its role in saving classical music during the Cultural Revolution of the last century, when violins and pianos came under attack as unwanted Western influences.

In 1967, a musician from the island journeyed to Tiananmen Square and, for three days, played odes on a piano to Chairman Mao and the revolution. His aim was to demonstrate that the classical form, and the instrument, could serve the party as well as the bourgeoisie. His mission succeeded.

It was no coincidence that the musician had come from Gulangyu. Following the Opium Wars with Great Britain in the mid-19th century, the island had become a diplomatic enclave.

That special status ended at the beginning of the 20th century, but the Chinese residents of the island continued to embrace the musical forms imported by foreign diplomats.

The Times article included other intriguing details about the island: Neither cars nor bicycles were permitted (though golf carts are now allowed to bring tourists up the winding, hilly streets), and much of Gulangyu's architecture showed the clear design influences of the diplomatic corps. The island has special protected status, and the colonial-style buildings have, for the most part, been preserved.

Although Xiamen and Gulangyu have been on my wish list since 2003, their location in southeast Fujian Province, along the Taiwan Strait, isn't particularly close to, or en route between, other commonly visited areas. Fortunately, Xiamen does have a recently built cruise terminal, and this year Azamara Club Cruises, with its pronounced focus on destinations, decided to include it in an itinerary for the first time. (Crystal and Regent Seven Seas also call on Xiamen.) Happily, I was aboard the Azamara Quest earlier this week for its inaugural visit there.

My plan had been to split my eight hours on shore between Gulangyu and Xiamen, but I never got off the island.

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.) Gulangyu has been reborn as a resort destination, with hotels, museums, gardens and, facing you as you walk from the ferry, KFC and McDonalds.

 (Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.)  

Our visit was off season; it was busy with Chinese tourists but not crowded. (Western visitors were few and far between -- the impact of a small ship like the 675-passenger Quest had no perceptible impact on this 1-square-mile island.)

My initial goal was to walk to the Shuzhuang Gardens, and the winding brick road that led to it was lined primarily with souvenir and jewelry stores, tea and cake shops and seafood restaurants whose inventory was in red washtubs along the street. Everything from eels to rays to octopi to shellfish to crabs to small sharks were on display, with diners choosing what they wanted prepared from the tubs. Stores selling dried seafood were also very popular (one's sign proclaimed, in English, that it had "the famous nosh for Gulangyu.") 

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.) I purchased a map of the island. The map itself had only Chinese characters on it, but the vendor pointed out that there were English descriptions of the attractions. I found a bench, took out the map, and began to read. "For love a one stigma, big mouth," read a sentence under a photo of a villa. "Capacious, wide profile, don't ya scene."

I read another: "Mr. Inside complex. Window all branches of plastic entangled fascia."

It read like I must sound when I use my Chinese phrase book.

Tucking the map in my pocket, I continued on. I found one interesting shop whose souvenir stock went beyond small animals fashioned from cowry shells and strings of cultured pearls. I found a deck of cards that featured Chairman Mao greeting a different foreign leader on every card ("Mao Ze Dong and International Friends") and a ceramic cup featuring the image of President Obama with the caption, "You don't bird me, I don't bird you" in both English and Chinese (translated into English, no doubt, by the same firm that produced the map.)

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.) The flora of the garden was a bit disappointing -- marigolds in pots and ornamental cabbages predominated -- but it was on a beautiful seaside setting and featured two wonderful museums. The first, mentioned in the Times article, displays hundreds of pianos, many of them quite old. One fascinating instrument was designed to be put in a corner, and split at a right angle in the middle. 

The second interesting museum was a branch of Guanfu, the first private museum allowed in China. It had a small but very well-curated and -presented collection of ancient chairs, boxes and vases, with detailed descriptions in English.

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.) Next to the garden and museums was a stretch of beach where dozens of Chinese tourists stood to take photos of the sea and each other. The Chinese are great posers, and I took some photos of people taking pictures of each other. Many were using their fingers to make what used to be the "V for Victory" sign, then the peace sign, and now the Asian gesture that apparently means, "I'm having my photo taken." 

I offered to take a photo of one group so that all of them could be in the picture at the same time, and then they insisted that I be in photos with them, too. Others who were watching then asked me to pose with them in their photos, as well.

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.) It's odd to think that, not too long ago, the camera was viewed as something that created a cultural barrier, separating a visitor from the "natives." Now that everyone has one, it has instead become a universal language that bridges cultures by providing a commonality. Prior to the advent of the cheap digital camera, it's unlikely I would have had as many pleasant interactions with Chinese people that day.

 I struck off in a direction away from the main tourist areas and began climbing a winding sidewalk. I saw a woman who had set up an electric wok just outside her gate and was making some sort of fritters. She invited me to try one, and it was delicious -- reminiscent of a conch fritter, but moister and sweeter. I watched as she carefully placed one piece of raw seafood -- perhaps a mussel, perhaps a clam -- in the center of each one with her chopsticks as she prepared them. They cost one yuan each -- about seven cents -- so I asked for five more, and sat on a small plastic chair next to her and had lunch.

Further up, the sidewalk widened to a road, so I again turned off into smaller paths, and came across some wonderful examples of the villas and small mansions that the diplomats had built. Some were in great shape, others in varying states of decay, but all were striking, particularly in a setting that was so tropical, with hanging vines, fichus trees and bougainvillea. 

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.) I stopped into an inviting small restaurant called Judy's Cafe and looked at the menu. I had not changed much money that morning and knew I'd need some for the ferry ride back. I looked at the menu, and pumpkin soup seemed like it might be in my price range; if the ferry didn't cost too much, I could get it.

I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew how much the ferry cost. I counted up what I had and was about 28 cents short of being able to get the soup. The counterwoman figured out what I was doing, and told me not to worry, I could have the soup for four yuan off.

(She must have thought I was a real charity case -- as I rose to leave, she motioned for me to sit, and brought me a cup of coffee. "Free," she said.)

Fortified by what turned out to be very strong coffee, I headed up to see if I could find a good vantage point for photos (there is a fee to get to the very highest point -- not expensive, but a multiple of what I had paid for the pumpkin soup). My Chinese map did come in handy on the way down.

As I headed back to the ferry, I saw a woman sitting by the side of the path who, in her turban and robe, appeared to be from an ethnic minority group. She was selling silver jewelry from a basket.

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge.) At that moment it occurred to me that my wife might not appreciate the deck of cards featuring Mao Ze Dong with foreign leaders as much as I did as a remembrance from Gulangyu. Time was running short, so I hastened down to one of the ATMs near the ferry, withdrew some cash and went back to find the woman selling jewelry. In her basket were a pair of earrings I hope my wife will like more than a deck of cards. 

On the way back to the ferry, I passed a bakery. I had some money left over and remembered that Fujian cakes and cookies are especially well-regarded. I'm not sure the map's translator really captured them well, but here's what he had to say about them: "Bread crust pastry foot massage oil, under appropriate. Bake, do not walk in the red cooked oil. So, lemon peel sweet fillings icy foot."

(That description tempted me almost as much as what was written about the local shredded dried meat, described thus: "Pork, clouds, no more to his mouth, and chew soft, sweet. Full bulk chemical but meat is still to meet the saliva, already became paste. Therefore, people often use them to give children. But it is different.")

I bought a box of the small cakes to bring back to members of the Quest's crew who had been especially helpful. Both the Chinese bus driver who took me back through Xiamen and the immigration officials who cleared me at the passenger terminal saw the bakery box and told me that I had made a very good choice (as ultimately did members of the Quest's crew; if the cakes really had foot massage oil in the pastry, no one complained).

I have probably spent a total of more than three months in China over the years, and I have to say that I have never been to a place where the people were friendlier, the architecture better preserved or the vibe as relaxed. I could have spent a lot more time there.

The Quest's hotel director, Philip Herbert, later told me he always stands at the gangway as guests return from a port, to hear what they have to say about the destination. Those who spent their time in Xiamen, he said, were also impressed. He considered the choice of this new port of call to be a complete success.

Or, to again quote the map, "Is more beautiful, the humane amorous feelings here. Here can enjoy plenty of material world."

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