One thing that’s surprised me about living in China is how easy it is to get around by train and the number of weekend trips it’s possible to do. Teachers at York regularly head to cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, and go hiking at scenic sites like the Yellow Mountains in Anhui Province or Wuyishan in Fujian Province.
Since moving to Fuzhou in late August 2017 I’ve been on several short trips within China that were easy to plan and relatively inexpensive, leaving after work on a Sunday or on Monday morning, and returning in time for work again on Wednesday afternoon.
Xiamen is a coastal city in Fujian Province, known for its nice climate and old colonial architecture. In early December, with four other teachers, I took a one and a half hour train on a Monday morning and returned Wednesday morning. In my experience, Xiamen was an ideal city to visit from Fuzhou for a weekend.
We stayed at a capsule hostel—each person has their own individual “pod” that you can seal shut at night—which we thought was cute and fun at first, until we slept in them on our first night and found that the capsules got uncomfortably hot! The hostel was still good value for the price though, and the location was ideal at just a fifteen-minute drive from the train station.
On our first day, we walked to Nanputuo Temple, a large Buddhist temple complex. It happened to be having a festival that weekend, and the temple was filled with local worshippers, tourists, and singing monks. In the evening we briefly checked out the Shapowei Art Zone, but found that there wasn’t much actual art to speak of, just street vendors and restaurants, though we did find some good Mexican food!
The next day we took a twenty-minute ferry to Gulangyu, the pedestrian-only UNESCO World Heritage island off Xiamen’s coast, which was by far the highlight of the trip. The weather was wonderful and the island was a beautiful mix of beaches, gardens, and randomly enough, a piano museum, which houses over a hundred different pianos from different countries and time periods.
Xiamen and Gulangyu were quite gorgeous and a nice break from Fuzhou, and I recommend Xiamen as a quick weekend getaway in the wintertime.
With eight other teachers, I took a four and a half hour train to Shanghai over the weekend in mid-October, leaving on Monday morning and returning Wednesday morning.
Part of the appeal of bigger, more cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai is the amount of good western food, and our first stop when we got off the train was lunch at an amazing burger place. On our first evening we took a walk along the Bund, admiring the city all lit up at night, and took advantage of a large bookstore with wide selection of English novels, something you can’t find in Fuzhou. We stayed at a hostel right on the Bund, and the rooftop bar had a terrific view of the city.
Our next morning was spent exploring the wide boulevards and little cafes of the beautiful French Concession. Then it was off to the Propaganda Poster Art Center, a gallery of original propaganda posters from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Located in the basement of a residential building, the museum was small but definitely worth the visit. The day concluded with a walk through People’s Park and dinner at Pie Society (decent pun, delicious pies). Overall, two days was a good amount of time to get a first taste of the city, and if I go back I’d like to also check out the Shanghai Museum, some contemporary art galleries, and Shanghai Tower’s observation deck.
The first time I went to Beijing was during the National Week holiday in early October. I went by myself, taking a nine-hour train both ways (never again…I will definitely be flying next time!) and spent three full days there. I think this was a good amount of time, though I would have liked to have spent longer, because there were still plenty of sites I didn’t get the chance to see (like the Summer Palace). For that reason I wouldn’t recommend trying to experience Beijing in just two days.
Because it was National Week, the city was flooded with tourists from across China, though some sites weren’t too unbearably crowded. On my first day, I went to Yonghe Temple or Lama Temple, an active Buddhist lamasery and one of the highlights of my trip. The temple complex featured room after room of exquisite statues and colorfully painted ceilings, courtyards with centuries-old trees, and worshippers burning incense and leaving offerings of fruit at various altars.
I paid a quick visit to the nearby Confucius Temple and then walked through the hutong, or narrow residential alleyways, to the Drum and Bell Towers, then all the way to Jingshan Park. The park was filled with people singing opera, and after climbing a small hill I got a terrific view of the insanely-crowded-looking Forbidden City, which confirmed that I’d made the right choice not to try visiting it during the holiday. My guidebook recommended an off-the-beaten-path site called the Workers’ Cultural Palace, a park and temple building that was showing a temporary exhibition of German paintings and sculpture.
On my second day I went to the beautiful Temple of Heaven Park, then met with a friend to wander through the the 798 Art Zone. Unfortunately, like Xiamen’s art district, the area was pretty heavily commercialized and there seemed to be more cafes and promotional installations open than there were actual art exhibitions.
My last day was spent at the Great Wall. I went with a group that organized expeditions by bus to some of the less-crowded areas of the Wall. It was clear and sunny, and we hiked about seven kilometers of the very steep Longquanyu section to the Little West Lake. The views were breathtaking!
Much of this section was unrestored “wild wall,” the stones almost completely overgrown with trees and bushes at parts, and our hike also took us through chestnut orchards and deposited us in the midst of the Great Wall Chestnut Culture Festival, which was just as quaint as it sounds.
Back in the city, I realized I couldn’t leave Beijing without having Peking duck. It ended up being of the most delicious meals of my life. I also wandered through the Sanlitun neighborhood and grabbed a beer at one of the microbreweries that have been cropping up throughout the city.
In December I went to Beijing again to visit a friend, this time taking a flight that left Sunday night and returned Tuesday night, which was about a million times more pleasant than the train I’d taken in October! I got to explore the hutong a little more and hike the Mutianyu section of the Wall.
It was unbelievably cold, but it was fun sipping hot chocolate at a little concession shop on the Wall and watching people ice-skate and dance on a frozen lake near the hutong. Beijing is a really wonderful city, and I still haven’t been to the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace, so I’d definitely like to return at some point during my remaining time in China.
Helena Duncan is an American teacher at our Cang Shan Branch. You can read more of her blog posts here.