I’m often being told that I like taking risks and that if anyone sets out deliberately to get lost, then I’m that man! Well, in my defence, I love exploring new places, and what better way to do that than to “get lost” in the first place, whence you can all but guarantee to come across new experiences!
And so it was that no one should really be that surprised that on a recent trip from Beijing to the Philippines, I found myself making a transit stop in Xiamen, also historically known as Amoy – a major city on the southeast coast of China, overlooking the Taiwan Strait. The city was a treaty port in the 19th century and one of the four original Special Economic Zones opened to foreign investment and trade when China began economic reforms in the early 1980s.
Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport is one of East China’s main air hubs with flights to over 60 domestic and international destinations. Unsurprisingly, the airport is the headquarters of Xiamen Airlines – the first privately owned airline in the People's Republic of China. Established on July 25, 1984 it is 51 percent owned by China Southern and is the only major Chinese carrier which operates an all-Boeing fleet.
XiamenAir has been consistently given the title of "Best Airline In Mainland China” in various surveys, which I think does not say an awful lot about the competition! The cabin crew, almost to a man (or woman) can best be described as surly, though in their defence it can’t be much fun having to put up with the bad manners of the majority of the passengers. (I find a simple smile and an uttered 谢谢 usually do the trick in bringing the said flight attendants back into the real world.) But there’s no denying that with its long consecutive profit record and high profit rate, the airline is one of the most profitable airlines in the world.
No doubt, one of the reasons XiamenAir is so popular is that their fares are way lower than anyone else’s, to the point where flying between BJ and Manila can cost half the fare quoted by the other main carriers, albeit that those transit times can be very frustrating – of which more later.
Xiamen was a foreign enclave in the late 19th century, after the British forced the Chinese to open it as a treaty port in 1843. This gave Xiamen Island and neighbouring Gulangyu lots of foreign-styled buildings built by residents from around the world.
So I have arrived in Gaoqi International Airport and have five hours to kill. I wander outside into the street and pretty soon my eye falls on a large direction sign indicating it is only 3½ kilometres to a coffee museum, called Angelique. 3.5km is the equivalent of a 35 minute walk for me, and anyone who knows me will know that I’m a fan of offbeat museums. So what better way of killing time until my next flight?
In 2006, Xiamen was ranked as China's second "most suitable city for living", as well as China's "most romantic leisure city" in 2011. And you can soon see why. The climate is probably best described as subtropical, and the place is full of lush palm trees and other subtropical delights…
There’s also a huge number of trees that are in desperate need of a haircut – those beautiful air roots hanging from the branches that give them such a beguiling sexy look to them!
The major roads are lined with narrow parks, some maybe only 100 metres wide, but which give Xiamen a wonderful edge over so many other cities in China.
The city planners have done an amazing job of making the place so attractive, as pavements meander through the parklets bordering the not-so-busy roads.
And lest you could possibly lose your way here, there are loads of intimate-sounding maps that some might feel are verging on the overly-familiar in their effort to be both welcoming and helpful LOL.
34 minutes after having left the airport, I arrive at Angelique. The 3.5km sign was pretty accurate in that respect. Unfortunately, what it wasn’t so accurate in was the fact that this old colonial-style building is no longer a museum; it’s just part of the Angelique empire – transformed into office accommodation or storage, or whatever.
I search on my trusty iPhone – something I probably should have done earlier – to find that the museum has moved another 11kms from where I am now standing. Somehow Angelique has metamorphosed into Anjelioue, but there is no doubting that this is one and the same place.
It’s even close to the Gulangyu Antique Piano Museum – a private collection of hundreds of pianos from around the world, including failed designs, such as a corner piano.
I do the maths, and realise that I will be hard pressed to get there, do the museum(s) and get back for my flight in time; so with tears in my eyes I wander off into the sunset in search of other stimuli.
Beside me is yet another park-like setting. This one has something a little extra … by way of an old discarded lavatory pan. I’m not sure it adds a huge amount of glamour to the park though.
Another street. And another lavatory pan! What is it about Xiamen that they are so profligate with their old loos?
Soon I am heading my way back in the direction of the airport whence I come upon a long street market with advertised prices that would surely create a stampede by cost-conscious bargain hunters back in Beijing.
You can even buy cute white bunny wabbits, ducks and geese that I fear are hardly likely to become household pets.
I am soon back at the airport with a taste to explore more of beautiful Xiamen.
My return flight the next week is transiting through in the middle of the night. A seven hour stop over. Fear not, sweet reader. Your favourite blogger has foreseen all eventualities and has even read the small print in the XiamenAir brochure.
Well… maybe not all eventualities. Owing to a late arriving incoming flight, XiamenAir is two and a half hours late in leaving Manila; and by the time we get into Xiamen not only is my stop-over a mere 5 hours and 55 minutes long, but to add insult to injury the B11 counter in Domestic Departures is long closed – in fact Domestic Departures itself is also now closed though I am helpfully advised that I can come back at 5am to make enquiries. As the check-in desk for my next flight also opens at 5am, I am left contemplating the prospect of sleeping on a bench in the McDonalds end of the Domestic terminal (so much classier, don’t you think, than the KFC end!).
At least the next aircraft has something approximating to an onboard entertainment system; though “breakfast” (I think that is what they call it) is a roll and… another roll served in a cardboard box.
And in the baggage hall of Beijing Airport, they can’t even get the flight number correct on the display boards, leading to widespread confusion, not to mention keeping everyone waiting for over an hour before the first bags come off the belt.
So will I fly XiamenAir again? Probably, though not for the delightful onboard service, I have to admit. Instead I will be doing so purely to get another stop-over or two in that wonderful south China city.