(Written for a travel writing competition.)
Despite being situated merely a few metres away from the coast of Xiamen, Gulangyu Islet is surprisingly difficult to get to. I failed on my first attempt because I had forgotten my passport. The next day I returned, only to find that the ferry terminal directly opposite the islet is for residents only. All other passengers, foreigners and Chinese tourists alike are directed to a bus that takes you to the International Ferry Terminal on the outskirts of the city. This terminal is an incredibly crowded place, mostly thanks to day-trippers to Gulangyu, although you can also sail from here to further away places, such as Taiwan.
We joined a queue to buy tickets, but found we would have to wait for three hours until the next available boat. It seemed that everyone wanted to visit the islet that weekend. Determined to see what made Gulangyu Islet so interesting, we bought tickets and waited until it was time to board our ferry. Of course, when the time came, a vast amount of pushing and shoving ensued, as people strived to get a seat on the boat. My friend and I waited politely for this to subside and chose to stand by the rail at the back of the boat, which in our opinion gave much better views anyway.
The journey took about fifteen minutes and we enjoyed the sea air and views of the city on one side and tiny islet on the other. When we landed, the islet was packed with visitors walking around and enjoying the sights. I instantly saw the appeal of the place, with old Portuguese-style villas, clean beaches, delightful views and plenty of exotic trees and flowers. Somehow the place reminded me of a film set in the Caribbean. You just had to ignore the vast crowds of people, although as the ferries ran every fifteen minutes and each one was packed with around 500 passengers, this gave me an idea of how crowded the tiny islet, with an area of less than 2 square kilometres, would be.
Gulangyu Islet is crowned by a large rock, boasting excellent views of the area, but it was cloudy that day so we decided to save our legs and visit the piano museum, an interesting place where we learned about how several former island residents went on to become famous pianists around the world. I found it hard to imagine how anyone could actually live on the islet these days. The whole place seems to exist just for tourists, indeed every building appeared to be either a museum, hotel, cafe, restaurant or souvenir shop. A lot of construction was taking place, to restore the islet to how it would have looked during its days as a foreign concession. However, this merely added to the unrealistic feel of the place. Despite the construction and crowds, the islet had a certain charm and appeal, although I didn’t find it quite as ‘restful’ as the guide book had claimed.