My new friend was called Chen, and he and I were going to be millionaires. Chen had decided this after I’d bought him a drink. ‘Everything makes money here! China is like ancient Rome!’
He shouted as he got hold of me in a headlock. From the sympathetic glances I was getting from the bar staff, I sensed he’d pitched a business plan to an unassuming tourist before.
The Chinese government is keen to woo as many foreigners as it can to new inbound destinations – which is partly why Franco-Dutch airline KLM has just opened up routes to Hangzhou and Xiamen, two ‘model cities’ that bookend China’s south-eastern seaboard, swarmed year-round by domestic sightseers but as yet largely untroubled by visitors from the West.
Historically, Xiamen is China’s second busiest port after Shanghai, and since its anointing as a ‘special economic zone’ in 1988 it has emerged as a pop-up Manhattan of boxfresh skyscrapers and rush-rigged tower blocks. It’s said to be one of the country’s most liveable cities – the least polluted and least traffic-clogged (petrol motorcycles are banned here on pain of two weeks in prison, Xiamenites will proudly tell you). Yet stepping off our plane at the airport we shrank from the cigarette-butt-yellow aura we found ourselves inhaling. ‘Xiamen has 2.5 million people,’ the guide announced as our transfer bus shuffled through the island’s heaving (though noticeably motorbike-free) morning rush hour, ‘so this is a very small city.’ In Chinese reckoning, ‘very small’ translates as roughly one-and-a-quarter Dubais.
Boarding the ferry to the compact satellite island of Gulangyu, people seemed to be jostling me along the gangplank. Minutes later the crush dispersed, along with 170 years of global economic history, as we disembarked into the colonial era. Cars are out and cobbles are in on this dishevelled monument to the good old days of British trading hegemony, which faces down Xiamen’s glossy financial district across the harbour like a stubborn old-timer who refuses to sell up.
We wove through the warren of museum-piece villas and consulates, their grandeur strangled by the hanging roots of banyan trees and in every other courtyard disrupted by young couples posing for wedding photos. Colonial ghosts seemed to congregate at the eerie Piano Museum, perched on a high outcrop at the south of the island, where dozens of silent antique Joannas overlook Gulangyu’s pretty gardens and bustling beach. Beyond them were the silhouettes of monster derricks and cargo ships, bows pointing out towards the grey Taiwan Strait.
Standing sentinel against defiant Taiwan for six decades, Xiamen is now officially at ease, transplanted by decree from China’s militarised frontline to its new economic frontier. In the past year its inhabitants have even been granted travel permits to Taiwan, unheard of since 1949, and many are hopping over to meet family members for the first time. It also became the site of the country’s biggest popular protest since Tiananmen Square when, in 2007, more than 20,000 Xiamenites staged a sit-in against plans to build a Taiwanese-funded chemical plant within the city boundaries. In this instance Beijing capitulated to the people’s wishes and re-sited the project. Clearly there really are worse places to live than inside a national money engine.
Need to know
Etihad Airways flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Chengdu for approximately Dhs1,690 return (www.etihadairways.com). Air China then flies direct from Chengdu to Xiamen for approximately Dhs525 (www.airchina.com.cn/www/en).
Where to stay
In Xiamen, the modern Le Méridien hotel offers a palatial setting and great views over the city. Doubles from Dhs411. (+86 592 770 9999).
A tourist visa to China costs from Dhs110. Contact the Chinese Consulate in Abu Dhabi for more information. ae.china-embassy.org/eng/.
Abu Dhabi to Xiamen
Flight time: About seven hours to Chengdu, then 2.5 hours to Xiamen.
Time difference: Four hours ahead of the UAE
Dhs1 = 2 renminbi.