Boats in Three Acts: Xiamen

January 22, 2018 – Xiamen, Fujian Province

“You can’t get there from here,” the woman at the ticket window said.

She did not look up at my outstretched arm, pointing across the bay. Nothing in her face moved, except for her lips. I stood for a moment and watched the boat docked “here” fill up with people, then rumble away, the start of a roughly five minute journey to “there”.

I turned back to the ticket woman, who still hadn’t moved her eyes from whatever was just below the window, out of my view, and I started to protest, having seen the boat go exactly where I wanted to go. She cut me off.

“You have to go to a different dock. Cross the street, then get on Bus 58. Go to the other dock.”

I sat down on a ledge not far away from “here”, and watched the cross-bay ferry arrive “there:” Gulangyu Island.

Gulangyu is a tiny, pedestrian-only island across the bay from Xiamen’s old town. The 2-square-kilometer island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting more than 10 million visitors a year who want to wander the lanes that wind past Victorian-era European-style villas, consulates, police stations and churches, many of them (at least I’m told) now converted into coffee shops and B&Bs.

Gulangyu once was a foreign island among a sea of Chinese. After the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 that opened up both Fuzhou and Xiamen to foreigners, nationalities from across the world settled on Gulangyu, administering it with an independent governing council. Thirteen countries took part in its administration before Japan took it over entirely during World War 2, and for decades the British Empire’s Sikh police force from India patrolled the settlement.

My plan to take a ferry to an island for a mini vacation had fallen apart, and instead of relaxing anywhere, I’d spent two full days stuffed into the seat of one metal box or another. I had one last chance to make something of my island plan, even if were for only a few hours before we had to catch the train to Fuzhou to catch the bus to the airport to catch the flight to Tianjin to catch the train back to Beijing to catch a cab home.

But “here” I was, sitting on the dock. Again.

I’d been thrilled the night before to discover that our hotel lay just up the street from this dock on the bay, across which, in the dark, a cherubic light illuminated the hilltop church as if it were the painted head of a some medieval saint.

If Gulangyu is a Cavallini, Xiamen’s old city, then, is a Picasso, a jarring and disjointed amalgamation of geometries that together make an almost coherent, maybe beautiful whole.

Xiamen’s newly rebuilt main old town shopping street is a white-blasted assault, European buildings juxtaposed against the international and Chinese brand name stores fitted into their lower levels and people everywhere. But outside this artery, a network of capillaries branches out like spider veins, and it’s in there one can find the lifeblood of the city.

Xiamen Old Town

Xiamen Old Town

These vessels narrow, some to just shoulder width, and overhead, buildings and wires twist upward, competing for space, all of them colonized by moss-like laundry drying slow in the humid air. Open doors face the street, and families laugh over dinner in front of LCD televisions on sterile floors below their loft beds. Up that way, the Buddha’s face shines down the stairs, concealed by a whole garden of plants. Down this way, a man fries noodles for a customer through a cloud of shifting steam and smoke, while his grandfather in the back rustles Mahjong tiles with the neighbors. One doorway leads into a hotel, while another one opens into a convenience store and another into a schoolyard.

Some of these veins pour out into community parks, complete with a stage, a library, some art. Other veins flow back into the arteries, where crowds jostle for seating at Vietnamese restaurants or red-paper shops. Some veins empty into the local seafood market, where vendors shout through cigarette-stuffed lips at passersby, trying to sell one last octopus, crab, or turtle before they pack up their stalls, and sling water into the street to wash up the blood, scales, and guts. By daylight, fresh hauls of shrimp, eels, and shark will fill the street, along with the cacophony and the smell.

We spent the night swimming these lifelines, then biked through the burgeoning art and bar district before settling in to chat with the owner-brewer at Fat Fat Beer Horse about life in Xiamen (he likes it). By the time we biked back it was near 1 a.m., but I still planned to make it to the morning ferry. At least the walk to the dock was short.

Or so I’d thought, before I stumble trudged toward Bus 58, lids heavy, to take it to “the other dock”, wherever that was.

I got off the bus 20 minutes later. I’d seen a sign for “To GulangYu”, and I walked up to the ticket window at an even smaller dock than the first.

“Gulangyu,” I said. “One ticket.”

“Do you have the card?” she asked.

“What card?”

“So you’re a tourist. You can’t take this boat. You have to take the tourist boat. The local boat is 8 yuan. The tourist boat is 50. You can’t take this one. You don’t have the card.”

“But how do I get to the tourist boat?” I asked, after a sigh.

“Take bus 58.”

I wanted to scream. As I pedaled lethargically back to where I started, I was ready to give up.

No more boats for me.

I passed the stop where I’d first boarded Bus 58. I stopped and watched as the bus pulled in. People loaded on.

No, I thought. No more boats.

I looked across the bay at the island, the church high above the trees, tree which hid all but the peaks of those colonial buildings. I imagined walking under those trees gazing at history as I strolled, winding my way up the hill to the church — no bikes, no cars — and looking back toward Xiamen and its skyline. I imagined sipping a black coffee and sitting in the warm winter sun, gazing out over the sea. I ran to catch the bus.

I rode Bus 58 to its last stop. I arrived, finally, at the tourist ferry terminal. The boat tickets were sold out. I turned around and started my day-long journey back to Beijing.


Being watched at the Xiamen train station.



Boats in Three Acts – Jinmen

January 21, 2018 – Jinmen, Taiwan

I ran to break my 20 before the bus rumbled off toward the train station. I would not pay 20 yuan for the 1 yuan bus fare so I sprinted past the trucks where slack-faced men heaved crates or gray, wriggling, water-squirting shrimp out of the truck interiors and into stacks on the street hoping to find a market or a stall.

It was 9:15 a.m. If the bus made it to the train station by 10:15, we could get the 11 o’clock train to Xiamen, where we could get the 1:30 p.m. ferry to Taiwan’s Jinmen Island by 2:15. The nice relaxing boat ride to a nice relaxing tropical island was still salvageable, with a little added transportation and a bit of extra money.

Fuzhou at least has a cool train station.

Fuzhou at least has a cool train station.

We made it to customs just in time for the ferry. My friend breezed through. They scanned my passport. Then scanned it again. Then called a second immigration officer over to scan it a third time. Then they called the supervisor. Then they took my passport away and asked me to stand on the side and wait. My friend never looked back, I lost sight of her, and I got scared.

I waited five minutes, then almost 10. The ferry started to board. At last, the scowling supervisor brought my passport back. Sometime in the past I’d folded the front page, and it would no longer scan. But they stamped me out of China, and I hustled to the ferry, hoping they’d let me into Taiwan and I wouldn’t end up stuck on the ferry dock for the rest of my life, unable to enter either country–or get anywhere else.

I did get in. Relaxation at last! We entered Taiwan, changed 300 yuan to Taiwanese dollars, and walked around the corner to rent a motor scooter. We explained our situation and our plan to take the last ferry of the day back to Xiamen.  We would take the 5:30 ferry. Could we bring the scooter back at 5?

“No,” the clerks said.

“We’ll pay for the whole day, no problem.”

“No,” they said, one of them arching her eyebrows. “The last ferry and the one before that and the one before that are already booked. If you want to get back to Xiamen at all, you need to go buy a ticket. Now!”

Mao and Qiang


We’d been on Jinmen about 10 minutes. By the time we reached the front of the ticket line, we’d been there 30. We had just enough time to eat a bowl of noodles at the gift shop, drink a Taiwan Beer next to the parking lot, and, since the currency exchange had closed in those 30 minutes, try to get rid of some of the 1300 dollars I’d exchanged.

By the time we got back on the boat, we’d gotten to spend about an hour in Taiwan. And I still had one more boat lurking in the future.

Eleven hundred Taiwanese dollars still dwell in my wallet.




Boats in Three Acts – Fuzhou

Act 1: Fuzhou

Saturday, January 20 – Fuzhou City, Fujian Province

Don’t try to take the boat.

Taking the boat might seem like it will save you time. It might seem like it will save you money. It might even seem like a relaxing trip to a relaxing tropical island. But it won’t be any of those things.

So don’t try to take the boat.

Mawei Port

A boat place in Fuzhou. A place you shouldn’t go.

This past weekend a friend of mine needed to leave China on a visa run: out, stamp, in, stamp, done. Legal for 60 more days.

Flight prices had climbed higher than I’d have liked on the normal visa trips to Seoul or Hong Kong, and the timing of flights to Xiamen (厦门), where tourists and visa-runners alike can take the 45 minute ferry to the outlying Taiwanese island Jinmen (金门) were not so appealing (arriving 2:20 a.m. Sunday, leaving 9 a.m. Monday?). But after a little research, I discovered Taiwan owns another small island just off the Fujian Province (附件省)coast, this one a 1.5-hour boat ride from the provincial capital Fuzhou (福州). I’d not heard anything good about Fuzhou, nor had I heard anything bad, and my Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t have much at all to say about it, which I figured was either good or bad, so I booked a cheap “business” hotel in the port district of the city and a 1000 RMB (150$) plane ticket from Tianjin to Fuzhou and back two days later.

Fuzhou has a long history as a critical port, even serving as the sailing-off point for the most famous of China’s explorers, Admiral (and eunuch) Zheng He (郑和), who in the 15th century sailed several times from Fuzhou to the Indian Ocean and, on a few occasions, even to the African coast. Hundreds of years later after the First Opium War with Britain, the Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the war and humiliated the Chinese, also opened Fuzhou up to foreign trade (read: Western exploration) as one of five treaty ports in China. Fuzhou was open for saving souls and selling stuff to them.

Most relevant, perhaps, in the 1950s Fuzhou was on the front lines of the of war between the communist People’s Liberation Army and the nationalist Guomindang, or KMT, under Chiang Kai-Shek, and KMT aircraft bombed the city frequently after the PLA occupied it in 1949. By then, the KMT had withdrawn to Taiwan. Against the advice of many of his commanders, Chiang brilliantly left a substantial rear-guard force on Mazu Island — where we planned to make our run — to protect the main Taiwanese Island from immediate invasion and to serve as a base for the eventual campaign to retake mainland China. Huge characters in Chiang’s hand foretelling that event, which never happened, still face the mainland. For years, then, Mazu served a pivotal role in preventing the conquest of Taiwan as it was bombarded by big guns from the mainland, and some stories even tell of communist frogmen sneaking across the waters at night to slit the throats and take the ears of KMT guards in the island’s many military bases. Although Mazu still hosts a sizable Taiwanese military presence, hostilities have obviously ceased and those bases, forts, and tunnels serve as some of the main tourist attractions on Mazu, though tourists are warned not to wander far off the roads, into the unmarked minefields or unexploded bomb shells that litter the landscape.

Simple plan, then: Take the 30-minute Saturday morning train from Beijing to Tianjin, fly 2.5 hours, find the ferry port, take the bus downtown for the evening, catch the 9 a.m. ferry to Mazu Island (妈祖), rent a scooter, spend a couple of days exploring those old military fortifications and Taiwanese temples, watch an island sunset from a rooftop, catch the 2 p.m. ferry back to Fuzhou, take a cab to the airport, take the train back to Beijing.

OK, maybe not so simple, but still, it made sense, and for a while, it worked accordingly.


We flagged down a cab in the Fuzhou airport and loaded into the back.

“Mawei,” I told the driver.

“Ok. But you have to pay extra to go to Mawei. It’s way out of the way from where I was going. I won’t be able to get any pick ups there. One time I waited five hours,” he said.

“Fine, fine,” I said.

We drove for a while.

“Are you from Fuzhou?” I asked. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah. Fuzhou is a good place. It’s developing fast,” he said we drove past a power plant venting plumes like an underwater volcano and through the skeletal ribs of half-completed highways. “But not Mawei. Nobody likes Mawei.”

Great, I thought. At least it’s near the ferry.

We drove on through construction sites and industrial plants. The driver ranted, flicking his hands around as he took them off the wheel, about foreigners coming to China and making easy money, while Chinese, like his brother, go to America and can’t even find a decent job.

“Why do Chinese go to America? I don’t get it,” he said, turning around to look me in the face. “They should stay here. I really don’t get it.”

He threw up his hands one last time.


The river near Mawei Port.


The hills near Mawei Port.

Later that afternoon after checking into the hotel and finding our room with not three but four unplugged floor lamps in a line against the wall, we took a bus up to the ferry terminal to make sure we could find it and also to check the departure times. Then we caught a bus to downtown.

One hour and a half of bouncing over unused train tracks and through unfinished subway zones later, in the dark, we arrived.

The centerpiece of downtown Fuzhou is the “Three Lanes, Seven Alleys” area, which has been revitalized as a touristy slice of Ming/Qing China.  Brand name shops and trinket dealers crowded the main strip, but the murmur of the tourists faded to footsteps in the lantern-lit alleyways where coffee shops added their bright glow to the fire-touched white walls. Just outside the historic district, a canal cut through a restaurant strip, and crowds lounged under the willow tendrils outside fish and hotpot restaurants of varying qualities, most of them out of my price range. Somewhere, a impromptu street band strummed and crooned in the night. Across the river, a man flowed through Tai Chi forms before hopping on his scooter, still in his traditional martial arts clothes, and drove away.




We rode bike-share bikes the five kilometers to our next stop: Fuzhou’s lone (maybe?) craft brewery, Pocket Brewing. As we rode nearly kilometer-long bridge across the sandbar speckled Min River, I passed a woman on a motor scooter. She drove, headlight off, earphones in, watching a movie on her phone, which she propped up on the left handlebar.

The taproom was typical, if a little messier (Halloween and Christmas still happening–at the same time!), than the norm (wood tables, exposed metal) but the beer was decent (especially the passion fruit stout). Next to our table, a group of increasingly drunk young businessmen order flight after 20-glass flight (shaped like an airplane, heh), knocking them back like shots while chain smoking and chewing on pickles and pea pods. A bowl of crab claws they left mostly untouched. After a while, the drunkest of them ambled over to our table and started shout-slurring stuff while his friends tried to coax him back. He pounded the table and bellowed something like “Ammerrrca!” over and over glowering crooked at my forehead, then asked if he could kiss my friend. Without waiting for an answer, he pecked her head.

“Bu bu bu bu!” his friends screamed. “No no no no!”

“Mei shi!” he screamed back. “No problem.”

He turned and kissed me on the head. Everyone laughed. He turned back, grabbed her by the face, and kissed her on the mouth.

“Bu bu bu bu bu!” his friends screamed. This time, he didn’t scream back. He just swung around and latched on to my gaping mouth with his spirit soaked lips, writhing like still-glistening worms stranded out on the sidewalk on a warm-but-not-hot summer day. His friends wrenched him off me, undoubtedly waiting for me to take a swing, and tried to drag him from the establishment. He grabbed a shelf showcasing bottles and cans of rare beer. They began to rain down on the table, a dangerous, unforecasted precipitation. At last, three of them together pried his hand off and bulldozed him out of the bar as he shouted “Ammmmercaaaaaaaaaaa!” one final time.

The businessmen left at their table made it up to us with no small amount of beer.


A morning mist hung over the harbor, slicking the streets with a greasy moisture and blurring the cranes on the horizon to fuzzy orange stickbugs, stabbing at the sky. It looked like the back of my eyes felt.

Still, we were up and stepping off the bus early to catch the 9 a.m. ferry.

The guard at the gate stepped out of his shack.

“You going to Matsu?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, stepping cheerfully past him.

“It’s not running today,” he said. We stopped and turned.

“It’s not running today?”

“No. It can’t go out today.”

“Why not?”

“It can’t go. It’s not running today. Come back tomorrow,” he said.

Our flight back to Tianjin was “tomorrow”.

“Are there any other ferries to Taiwan?” I asked, The haze cleared from the back of my eyeballs as the hot sun of desperation burned through, and the grease slid sour into the back of my throat.

“Yeah,” he said. “From Huangqi.”

He must have seen my shoulders sag with relief.

“But you can’t take it,” he said. “You’re American.”