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I Spent My 2016 China Spring Festival in Xiamen. It Was Overcrowded, Overbooked & Overcast, But Still One Hell of an Adventure!
Chinese New Year’s Chunyun, or Spring Festival, is renown as the world’s biggest annual human migration. It’s a time when hundreds of millions of people will not only travel far and wide across China to bring in the new year with loved ones, but will also set a record number trips on flights, trains, buses, taxis, you name it, to explore popular tourist spots in and around the country.
To celebrate this year’s Spring Festival I decided to take advantage of my 10 day CNY holiday break by traveling to Xiamen with my girlfriend, a local Chinese woman. Here’s how it went down!
DAY 1 - Shanghai to Xiamen
We departed from Shanghai Hongqiao Airport at 12:15pm and arrived at Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport around 2:30pm. My girlfriend had previously warned me about the forthcoming cold temperatures we’d face during our stay, and though I remained optimistic about catching some sun on the beach, as soon as we stepped foot outside of the airport we were hit by a flurry of cool breezes and a misty overcast. F@#!
After a while we boarded an airport shuttle bus and arrived at Zhongshan Road in less than an hour’s time.
As one of the most popular attractions across Xiamen, the Zhongshan Road area was jam-packed with tourists, buses, taxis, and street vendors in every direction.
There was bumper-to-bumper road and pedestrian traffic, and though we weren’t carrying any luggage—we only brought our backpacks—just weaving in and around the crowds was definitely a challenging experience.
Before long we made our way east down Datong Road and after a long while of searching finally ended up at the doorsteps our hotel. The entrance was locked and I discovered that no one was around to let us in. My girlfriend gave the management a ring and then…BOOM: the first obstacle of our Chinese New Year Vacation.
To make a long story short, the management claimed that we did not have a room booked because they didn’t have a relationship with our online agent, a popular hotel booking website that shall remain nameless. Furthermore, upon contacting the website I was told that there was a miscommunication between the two parties of which I was not notified and that I’d be fully reimbursed for my troubles. Womp. I mean c’mon, this was Spring Festival, the busiest time of the year in China!
After my refund was finalized I immediately hung up the phone on the agent as they were in mid-sentence; after all, not only was I angry at not having a place to stay, but we also had to face the fact that we’d now be paying at least triple the price of our original booking to stay in a nearby hotel. Again, it was Chinese New Year for Christ sake!
After about an hour and a half of searching for accommodation we wound up with a moderately cheap deal that allowed us to stay at a 7 Days Inn on the Eastside of the island for the 1st night, and at another 7 Days Inn back on the Westside of town along Datong Road for the remaining 2 nights.
Thankfully this was my 4th year in China so I adapted pretty well to the sudden but all-too-familiar complications; however, should it have been my first year, I would have surely been fuming beyond imagination.
It was around 7pm by the time we settled in and now being so far from the majority of popular attractions we decided to pay a visit to a nearby S & M mall. Before the trip I made a promise to never eat McDonald’s again after reading up on a very informative article about the unwholesomeness of their food products, so not wanting to succumb to a quick bite of western fast food, we grabbed some freshly made local grub at the mall’s food court. Afterwards we made our way back to the hotel and prepared for the next day’s events.
DAY 2 – Nanputou Temple | Xiamen University | Baicheng Beach | Taiwan Snack Street
Day 2 started with a late morning venture to Gulangyu Island. A friend of mine was also in town so we decided to meet up at the Ferry Terminal to purchase tickets. And then BOOM: obstacle #2.
Per Chinese New Year, the terminal was overflowing with tourists, and through the cluster my girlfriend managed to spot a sign stating that ferry passenger tickets were sold out for the entire day due to limited entry to the island. Womp.
Furthermore, after suggesting that we check the terminal’s Wechat service for available tickets, we found out that every single trip to the island was sold out over the next few days. *Smacks head*
Visiting Gulangyu Island may have been a lost cause but we soon grabbed a quick bite to eat and I, wanting to explore any water-related activity, had convinced my girlfriend and friend to start the day off with a cheap 30rmb, 40-minute cruise around the island on a small boat.
The sky was a bit overcast but we caught some awesome views of the island and Xiamen harbor from afar. We also bumped into a small Chinese girl that wanted to practice her English with us. It was a great first activity.
After the cruise we went over to Nanputou Temple, Xiamen University and Baicheng Beach, which were located on the Southeast of Xiamen. With the city lacking a subway system, every bus was packed to capacity but somehow we managed to squeeze in.
Nanputou Temple, or South Putuo Temple, was originally built during the Tang Dynasty period.
Outside of serving as a cultural and historical tourist attraction, the site was host to several highly colorful and intricately designed halls for worship, Buddhists statues, stone carvings, libraries, and lotus ponds.
We came across several decorative temples…
… a number of Buddhist statues …
… a scenic courtyard area consisting of a small pond where guests can toss in money and pray for good fortunes.
… and a large boulder with Chinese scribe etched into its outer layer. Turns out we could also try our luck by chucking coins towards the top of the stone and hoping that they fall and roll into the carvings.
Nanputou Temple’s grounds were certainly a well-balanced fusion of historical elements with beautiful natural scenery.
Additionally, at the back of the temple lied a trail leading to a top portion of Wulao Mountain.
We all agreed to take on the challenge and hiked our way up. By the time we reached the top the sky was still a bit overcast but we managed to catch some pretty awesome views of Xiamen from 200-meters up.
Next on our list was a stop at Xiamen University. During my 4 years in China I had only managed to explore one Chinese university--Duke Kunshan University—and so I was somewhat intrigued at the opportunity.
Moreover, it was the first time I ever had to wait in line to enter a university campus in my entire life!
Xiamen University’s campus was massive and incredibly serene. We saw a dormitory area, recreational space, and plenty of buildings housing various majors.
We didn’t want to stick around too long, though, so we took a bunch of pictures and left.
And then we landed at Baicheng Beach. I tell ya, I had never EVER seen so many bodies on a beach in my life!
The funny part: no one was swimming—a sign declared that it was prohibited—but there were jet skis speeding out in the water as others built sand castles, flew kites, and cycled on a pathway.
In the meantime I managed to drink from and snack on one of my favorite fruits: the coconut. We didn’t stay long, and following another chaotic bus ride back towards Zhongshan road, decided to grab some dinner.
Being in Xiamen we all decided to dine on some fresh seafood. There were a litany of seafood restaurants to choose from but we finally chose a small stop near Datong Road where we ordered beef soup, Yangzhou rice, prawns, and a fresh fish.
It was quite an interesting experience actually. After choosing the fish we expected the host to take it to the backroom and throw it in a frying pan; instead, she took it out of the tank, laid it across the floor and beat its head with a spiked hammer right in front of us. Ah, life in China!
After dinner we planned on exploring one last attraction for the night: Zhongshan Road. It was late evening and by this time and the road was crammed with tourists for as far as our eyes could see.
It was as if the entire population of the city had come out to play.
Zhongshan Road was a bustling pedestrian-only shopping and dining street riddled with clothing stores, restaurants, snack and fruit shops, milk tea stalls, and more.
Furthermore, the street was lined with both Chinese traditional and European styled buildings that made for a remarkable scene.
We ended up walking all the way to the end of the road where my girlfriend and I departed from my friend and proceeded to our hotel. And yet, the night still wasn’t over.
About 2hrs later I found myself hungry again and wanting a late-night snack. Brushing off a trip to the convenience store, I had persuaded my girlfriend to join me in an escapade to the Taiwan Snack Street that was about 3 minutes from Zhongshan Road.
Within minutes we arrived and found ourselves surrounded by a plethora of booths serving some of the most peculiar seafood I had ever seen.
They had 2-foot long lobster, for instance, …
… dozens of squids decoratively spread out in salad …
… and apart from seafood there was also an oddly placed shop selling pancakes shaped like a penis. That was funny.
On the other hand there were plenty of familiar items such as crab, oysters, fried shrimp, barbecue, and freshly made fruit drinks.
We finished the night by munching on a few lamb barbecue sticks and balls stuffed with fish. Day 2 in Xiamen was officially done.
DAY 3 – Zhongshan Park | Baicheng Beach | Zengcuoan Village | Lujiang River Cruise
Day 3 in Xiamen began with a morning trip to Zhongshan Park, which was about 10-minutes away by bus from our hotel.
Entrance to the park was free and as one of the city’s oldest parks we caught a nice blend of natural scenery and leisure activities that included a small amusement park and boat rides.
It was your typically Chinese park, though; nothing special. There were many elderly locals unwinding beneath the trees and playing social card games, …
… large grassy landscapes consisting of pavilions and a diverse range of flowers and trees and great views of the high-rise buildings in the surrounding area.
We didn’t stay in Zhongshan Park for too long; after all, there were far better attractions across Xiamen left to explore. With that we hopped on a bus and were on our way back to Baicheng Beach.
The streets were still just as jam-packed as ever but having seen a massive crowd pile into an inclined alleyway with several statues of large cats stationed at its entrance we hopped off to check it out.
It turns out that the street merely consisted of a few lackluster eateries and places for snacks.
There were a few statues and paintings of cats that I found interesting, though. It was quite artsy.
In a short time we landed at Baicheng Beach. The main hub of Baicheng Beach was still suffering from overpopulation so we journeyed further down to rent a bicycle.
As we walked the clouds finally opened up and made way for just enough sunshine to seep through and brighten up the area, and it became blistering hot in just a matter of seconds.
Nevertheless, we were just happy to finally get some sun and take some great photos.
After 45–minutes we realized that we had walked so far that there were no more bike rental stalls so we decided to take part in a cycling activity over the water instead.
I learned that despite looking pretty harmless from a distance, once you’re sitting on a “water bicycle” and riding the waves it’s actually a pretty thrilling experience.
Afterwards we continued down the beach, took more photos, and paid a visit to Zengcuoan Village.
Zengcuoan Village was a highly vibrant winding alley market riddled with street snacks, fresh fruit and fruit drinks, cafes, souvenir booths, arts and crafts, temples, and bars.
The village’s narrow pathways were jam-packed with shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic.
And even though I found it highly annoying that there were workers yelling out deals for their store at every other turn, we managed to stroll through the market for a long while, occasionally grubbing on delicious street snacks.
Zengcou’an provided everything from crab, fried shrimp, oysters, gigantic lobsters and squids to pork knuckles, sausage, and barbecue sticks packed with beef, lamb, chicken wings, and vegetables.
There was also a litany of booths selling coconuts, mangos, and some fruit I had never seen before.
And for drinks, Zengcou’an’s stalls served up fresh coconut milk, freshly squeezed fruit drinks, and milk tea.
Trust me, you’ll have to make a stop at Zengcou’an Village if you plan to visit Xiamen.
It was nearing 6pm and the road traffic had substantially piled up. Luckily, and I mean LUCKILY, we discovered a large shuttle bus that was taking passengers back to Zhongshan Road at 5rmb per head.
Once we arrived at Zhongshan Road we randomly decided to hop aboard a 6:30pm, 1.5-hour cruise along Lujiang River on a traditional-looking ship for 138rmb a head.
Night fell by the time to cruise ship left the docks and thankfully the mist over the water spread out into the distance. Thus, we not only had a clear nighttime view of Gulangyu Island, Xiamen’s harbor side, and the 648-meter long Haicang Bridge, but we were also serenaded by some pretty decent live music spewing from a solo clarinet player.
I also highly recommend taking a cruise down Lujiang River if you’re visiting Xiamen.
Following the cruise we capped the night off with some delicious chicken wings, pizza, and pasta from the Holy Crab restaurant along Lujiang Road near Swissotel. Day 3 was finished and it was time to go home!
DAY 4 – Xiamen to Shanghai
Our last day in Xiamen had finally arrived and after checking out of our hotel we stopped by a small café on Datong Road to grab a bite to eat. To our disappointment the sun had finally fully revealed itself for the first time during our entire trip and so we stopped by the docks to get a clear view of Gulangyu Island afterwards.
A few minutes later we boarded the airport shuttle bus and made our way back to Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport around 1:00pm. Our flight didn’t leave until 7:30pm—I can’t remember why we went so early—so having read online that there was a Lantern Festival taking place on Jimei’s Haicang Citizen’s Square and hot air balloon rides at Yuanboyuan Expo Garden, which were both near the airport, we decided to spend our last few hours exploring the events.
With that we hopped on a city bus, crossed over Jimei Bridge, and arrived at Haicang Bay only to find out that both events had in fact been canceled. Womp.
Nevertheless, we caught wind of some great scenery in the area.
We also stumbled on a few lanterns nestled around the garden.
Fast forward a few hours later and there we were: content and relaxing on the airplane, just waiting to disembark from our terminal. I had even taken off my shoes, whipped out my copy of That’s Shanghai magazine, and slouched into my seat when all of a sudden a gentle voice spoke into the intercom: “Our plane has been delayed to do weather conditions.” Damn! “Well”, I thought, “No problem, the sky will clear and we’ll take off in no time”. About 45 minutes later the same voice appeared with the same message, and about 25 minutes after, we were given another: “Our flight has been cancelled.” F@#!.
Actually, it turns out that multiple flights had been suspended that night, but while hundreds of others were stuck sleeping at the airport, our airline fortunately arranged for us to have an overnight stay at a nearby hotel. After beating the crowds of passengers to the shuttle bus, we finally checked in at the hotel around 10:30pm and ended the night by munching on a few mouthwatering beef barbecue sticks.
The next morning we boarded a shuttle bus around 6:00am and settled onto the plane by 8:00am. It was about a 2hr flight back to Shanghai and I slept like a baby for the entire trip.
What an incredible 4-day trip to Xiamen!
Like my article? Please tell me by leaving a comment below! Safe & happy travels!
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