XIAMEN, China (Reuters) - Dirty, polluted, and congested -- China’s large cities have an unenviably poor reputation.
But Xiamen, located on the southeast coast two-and-a-half hours by plane from Beijing, is so different from that image that you could be forgiven for thinking you are no longer in China.
Long, clean beaches, lush vegetation, fresh seafood, beautiful old buildings and a relaxed atmosphere, Xiamen is refreshingly different, a hidden treasure.
It makes an ideal place for a long weekend city break, especially as an escape from the chaos and construction of capital city Beijing, host of this year’s Summer Olympic Games.
Tourism is booming in Xiamen, helped in part by the opening of low cost flights from Southeast Asia. Last year, Xiamen played host to more than one million overseas visitors.
Xiamen is one of the country’s wealthier cities, thanks to its strategic coastal position which has helped it attract billions of dollars in foreign investment, and it’s only a hour’s flying time from Hong Kong.
It is the ancestral home to large overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and to many in Taiwan. The Hokkien dialect spoken in Xiamen is broadly similar to what is generally known in Taiwan as Taiwanese.
Xiamen is famous in China for two, very different, reasons.
The first is Gulangyu, a tiny island less than two sq km once home to foreign diplomats, which has managed to preserve its unique colonial architecture despite decades of Communist rule.
The second is Xiamen’s proximity to a group of islands administered by Taiwan since defeated Nationalist forces fled the mainland at the end of a brutal civil war in 1949.
Gulangyu can be easily visited. Kinmen, the main island occupied by Taiwan forces and also known as Quemoy, cannot be visited by the ordinary foreign tourist, at least not directly from China. It’s still a sensitive military zone.
Literally meaning “drum and wave island,” Gulangyu was made a so-called “foreign concession” at the end of the Opium War in 1842, meaning foreigners were allowed to open consulates and live on the island.
Many of those buildings are still standing today, and give the island a laid-back, old-world feeling, similar to the French Concession in Shanghai, now rapidly being gentrified with boutique hotels and high class shops and restaurants.
Some buildings, like the old U.S. consulate, have been magnificently preserved or restored.
Others await their turn to be returned to their former glory.
“House of an overseas Chinese, don’t damage. Violators will be reported to the police,” has been scrawled onto the wall of one house, where weeds have grown between the neo-classical pillars.
“Don’t use as a toilet,” another sign on the same house reads.
The island has a disconnected, laid-back, old world feel to it, despite being only a five-minute ferry trip from Xiamen.
The only vehicles allowed are little white electric buggies, with most goods being moved by men pulling hand carts.
The food is great.
The island is famous for its fish ball soup, and visitors should also not miss out on “er-ah jian,” scrambled egg and oyster pancakes served with a sweet and sour chilli sauce, which is also a popular street food in Taiwan.
The Cold War may have finished almost everywhere -- North and South Korea being an obvious exception -- but little known to much of the outside world, Xiamen has its own militarized frontier from the same era.
Just opposite Xiamen lies Taiwan-held Kinmen, where thousands of troops are dug in to repel a feared Chinese invasion.
Tourist boats leave regularly for the 30-minute trip to see Ta-tan, the only part of the island group most captains will dare to get close to, lest they spark a military incident.
Police give a cursory check of passports or identity cards before boarding, and otherwise give no further interference.
It is a very surreal experience. The boats draw up so close to the shore you can clearly see propaganda signs on the Taiwan side, and large flags of the Republic of China, still the island’s official name.
Bunkers on shore keep a close watch of the boats, even if there is little sign of soldiers.
The pristine beaches have spikes driven into them, to help repel invaders, which appear to all be rusting fast.
The military build-up is far from one-sided. Chinese warships moor not far from where the tour boats leave, and large swathes of land in the hills overlooking Xiamen and Kinmen are off-limits to civilians.
On the way back to Xiamen you may also be able to catch a glimpse of one of China’s propaganda signs.
“Reunify China using one country, two systems,” proclaim giant red Chinese characters on a Xiamen beach, referring to Beijing’s policy of giving Hong Kong and Macau a large degree of self-rule that it hopes one day Taiwan will also accept.
-- Xiamen is connected by air to all of China’s major cities, and many of its smaller and more obscure one. Regular flights also go to Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, Singapore, Toyko, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Jakarta and Seoul.
-- Try and stay on Gulangyu. There are some gorgeous little guest houses, and one or two more upmarket resorts, though they are rather tacky.
-- www.whatsonxiamen.com is a good site to browse before going to Xiamen. english.xm.gov.cn/ is the government's official English language Web site.
Editing by Megan Goldin