I was glad to leave Beijing. The smog is infamous and with good reason. In the four days I was there I did not witness a clear day. On the train I even learnt from a friendly Chinese man the word and character for “Beijing Bad Fog”.
Apparently it was particularly bad when I was there – the equivalent of smoking something like 40 cigarettes a day. Even more worryingly, kids growing up in Beijing believe the sky is white, not blue, and draw pictures accordingly.
Xiamen was, in comparison to Ulaanbaatar and Beijing, a breath of fresh air. Whats more, it was beautifully warm. An unbelievable +20 deg C when I stepped off the train on Monday evening. I did not even need a jacket.
I love staying with locals, and this time it was extra special as I was meeting Mel, my old housemate and good friend from Uni days. She moved to China three years ago. In the last few days she has had me in stitches more than once with stories of language mishaps and mayhem. She has far greater insight into the local culture, and what it is like to live there than I do. If you want to read some of her stories she writes a blog here http://www.apieceofchina.com/ I especially recommend her “Favourite Mistakes” if you want a giggle.
Xiamen is a beautiful city, and Mel has been a brilliant tour guide. It is a popular place for tourists, Chinese and foreigners alike and I can understand why. Built on a single island it is surrounded by the beautiful (though dirty) sea.
In fact, it used to be many islands, but they drained the land in between them. Now, it is brimming with flowers, saltwater lakes and forested “mountains” (hills).
Of course, Xiamen does not escape from skyscrapers and a little smog. But in the old town, the streets are windy, chaotic and stunning. Everywhere you look there are green plants climbing up the walls and budding flowers bursting with colour. There are old bicycles propped up against walls and motorbikes winding their way through the narrow alleys.
Looking up the balconies are always packed full, with clothes drying, blooming flowers and the traditional red globes of Chinese lanterns. Electric cables line the rooftops and criss cross above our heads as we walk. Excess wire is rolled up and hung on whatever they can find.
Mel loves tea, and nowhere (not even England) does tea better than China. Everybody has a tea set and sharing tea with one another is an important part of daily life.
We went to a particularly beautiful teashop that allowed you to try any tea you liked before you bought it, and there was no obligation to buy. Mel explained (in Chinese) that it was my first time in China and she wanted me to try the best local tea. So we did.
Xiamen is famed for its delicate tea that stays a pale golden colour while you drink it. In the tea shop we took a seat while the water was boiled, and then the tea brewed. In China, tea is bought as whole leaves dried that unfold as the water warms them. Anything less is a poor man’s tea.
The first brewing is considered too bitter and the water is thrown away, used instead to clean the leaves. By this point the leaves had filled the small teapot and there was barely enough space to fit the water, so instead it was brewed in small amounts, repeatedly. Our tiny cups were constantly refilled and each time we tapped two fingers on the table, a way of saying thanks.
The two ladies chatted away and Mel translated for me. in total we were there 45 minutes, and could have easily stayed longer.
Staying with Mel meant I got to see what it was like to live here. We ate out in some amazing restaurants for very little. The cheapest we ate for was 18 Yen, about £1.80 at a Buddhist Cafe Buffet. It was all vegetarian, delicious and without doubt a local’s place. it was tucked away inside a shopping mall and I would have had no chance of finding it alone.
There is a lot going on here and we also managed to fit in some archery, some Kundalini Yoga, some Acroyoga and some Belly dancing. Not bad for two days!