Gulangyu (鼓浪屿) is an island in Xiamen, a few minutes by ferry from downtown. It has a population around 17,000 and an area of about two square km (500 acres). It was a foreign enclave from the 1840s until the 1930s, and is now both a residential suburb and a major tourist area. In 2017 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cars, motorcycles and bicycles are banned, making the island both quieter and safer than almost anywhere else in China. The whole island is basically pedestrians-only, though golfcart-type electric vehicles serve as a sort of bus on a circular route around the island near the coast. The only vehicles powered by internal combustion are a few firetrucks. Everything from fruit to furniture gets moved about by handcart; you fairly often see wiry little Chinese hauling loads that much brawnier fellows might have trouble with.
The island is extremely popular with Chinese tourists, who arrive in droves, often in large tour groups. You can spot the guides because they hold up brightly coloured flags for their flock to follow. Although the island is quite scenic, the noisy crowds can be quite annoying at times. Gulangyu is probably best avoided during major Chinese holidays and may be more pleasant during the week than on a weekend.
Some readers may know the place from Neal Stephenson's novel ReamDe ISBN 9780062191496; much of the story takes place in Xiamen and one character, the female British spy, has an apartment on Gulangyu. Those who do not know the novel might consider picking up a copy for on-the-road reading when heading for Xiamen.
After the British victory in the First Opium War, Xiamen (then known as Amoy) became one of five "treaty ports" established by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, and Gulangyu became the main residential area for foreigners.
As in other International Settlements in China, the population was always predominantly Chinese but the police, the legal system, quite a few residents, and much of the architecture were foreign. All thirteen of the foreign consulates were on Gulangyu, along with houses, churches, schools, parks and a hospital. Both foreign traders and wealthy Chinese built mansions, often with large gardens, and many commercial buildings were built as well.
Today the island is a major tourist area; many of the old colonial-era buildings have become restaurants or guesthouses, and there are many shops geared towards tourists.
Gulangyu is sometimes called "Piano Island" and one of its attractions is music; there have been pianos on the island since the first foreign residents arrived in the 1840s. It is quite common to hear piano music (usually recorded and usually classical) in the streets as you walk about. There has been a Piano Museum for over a century, and more recently an Organ Museum has been built as well. Both have many instruments, some dating back to the 19th century, and both have recitals for the tourists.
As of August 2016, the cross-harbour ferry for ¥8 is now accessible only to Xiamen residents and tickets are sold only to holders of local Xiamen ID or foreigners who have applied to have their passport registered for 'local travel'.
Tourists visiting Gulangyu must now buy a special tourist ticket (35RMB for a return trip, 2018 price), and tickets are limited daily. Due to limited ticket quantities, you should buy your ticket online in advance if travelling during busy holiday seasons or the weekend. For example, if you were to arrive mid morning at Youlun Matou (邮轮码头) without having already purchased a ticket, it's possible you'll have to wait a few hours for a boat that has tickets available. Also: the tickets are return tickets, so be sure to hold on to your ticket after reaching Gulangyu! Return tickets are valid up to 20 days from the date of ticket purchase. You must have your passport with you when buying tickets, so do not forget it.
Tourists can travel from 3 docks to the island, depending on the time of day:
1. During daytime: Ferry from Youlun Matou (邮轮码头), located several kilometers from the center of Xiamen/main tourist area. To get there from downtown/Zhongshan area/Lundu Matou, you can take bus b1 or the special Lundu Matou tourist bus (邮轮码头旅游快线). Ferry operating times are 07:10 until 17:30 (winter) or 18:30 (summer) to Gulangyu, and 07:20 until 17:40 (winter) or 18:40 (summer) from Gulangyu back to Youlun Matou. For specific boat times see here(Chinese)
2. At night: tourists can take the ferry directly from Lundu Matou Terminal 2 (轮渡码头2号厅). This is the quickest option, yet still requires you to purchase a tourist ticket to get to the island. This service is called the Gulangyu 'Nighttime' service, and departs Lundu Matou from 17:50 (winter) or 18:50 (summer) until 06:30. Travelling from Gulangyu to Xiamen, services start 18:00 (winter) or 19:00 (winter) until 07:00. After midnight, there is only one service per hour. For specific ferry times see here (Chinese)
3. Anytime: From the other side of Xiamen, on the mainland at Haican Song-Gu Matou (海沧嵩鼓码头). This ticket is only useful for visitors who are not already on Xiamen island. Tickets from this port are slightly cheaper at 30RMB for a return trip. Operating times are 07:30 until 17:50 (winter) or 19:00 (summer). For specific times see here (Chinese)
Note: ferry times change depending on the season (summer or winter). Summer season is from 1st June - 30th September. Winter season is from 1st October until 31st May.
Due to large renovations and clampdowns for the 2017 BRICS conference held in Xiamen, there are no longer any local fishermen along the dwarf willing to take passengers to Gulangyu.
Please also note: ferries may be restricted or changed during the typhoon season (around September-November) or during windy weather, so check in advance for any typhoon warnings.
Cars, motorcycles and bicycles are banned, but the island is small enough to walk around as long as one is physically able. It is, however, quite hilly. Walking about, there is quite a bit of nice colonial architecture to see, much of it tucked away on back streets.
There are golfcart-type battery-powered vehicles that run on a fixed route circumnavigating the island. Riding one of those around to the back (west side) of the island can be a good escape when the main tourist areas are crowded. Fare starting from the ferry terminal is a flat ¥10 for any distance. If you board elsewhere, then ¥10 gets you anywhere before the ferry terminal; to go beyond it you would need to pay again.
One can also hire a boat — on the Xiamen side, on Gulangyu at the docks near where the ferry comes in, or at another dock a bit north of that — for a ride around the island. This takes about an hour.
Starting from the ferry stop, most travellers either jump on a golfcart-bus for a tour or turn left onto Dragon Head Road (Longtou Lu), which is one of the main shopping streets and leads to the sights around Dragon Head Hill. An alternative is to walk straight ahead, heading inland; this gets you to a large map of the island, then to the local tourist information office (which has a left luggage service), to one of the few banks on the island, and to another shopping area. Off to the left as you walk inland are a set of steps which lead up into a pleasant area with several guesthouses and a number of restaurants.
A discount card can be bought on the island which gives entry to The Statue of Koxinga, the Piano Museum, Sunlight Rock (including cable car ride), the Aviary, the Organ Museum and the International Calligraphic Carving Art Gallery for ¥80.
- Sunlight Rock (日光岩) (on Dragon Head Hill). This is the highest point on the island with great views as far as Xiamen. Entry included into Buddhist temple, the Aviary and a cable car ride to the aviary on Yingxiong Hill. Warning: climbing to the top involves a lot of stairs, so probably not good for young children or the elderly. ¥60.
- The Aviary (Accessible by cable car from Sunlight Rock). Over 1000 birds from over 100 countries. Many peacocks, including a rare Albino, several types of cranes, lots of ducks/geese, and other large birds (e.g. emus). Watch for falling excrement. Aviary performances take place several times per day.
- Shuzhuang Garden (On the left as you walk from the ferry terminal toward sunlight rock). Named after the original owner Lin Erjia (aka ShuZhuang), a wealthy Taiwanese businessman who fled here when Japan took Taiwan in the 1890s. Highlights include the 44 bridge, the Piano Museum (see below) and the rockery with hidden sculptures of all 12 zodiac animals. There is also a small private art museum to the right of the main entrance.
- The Piano Museum (Shuzhuang Garden). A museum of pianos, including rare specimens from the 1700s. The entry fee to Shuzhuang Garden (normally ¥30) includes entrance to the museum. Guided tours several times a day include performances on a few of the instruments.
- International Calligraphic Carving Art Gallery. A small gallery of carved calligraphy from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artists. Admission normally ¥10. Entrance near the main gate of Shuzhuang Garden.
- Statue Of Koxinga (Haoyue Garden) (5 minutes walk southeast of the ferry terminal). Zheng Chenggong, or Koxinga as he is generally known in the West, drove the Dutch out of Taiwan in the 1660s. His headquarters were on Dragon Head Hill at the south end of Gulangyu; a watchtower and some other fortifications remain, and the statue is nearby. ¥15.
- Having defeated the foreign devils, Koxinga is one of the few people regarded as a hero by the current governments of both China and Taiwan. Things the official Chinese accounts do not mention are that his father, a seafaring merchant from the Quanzhou area, dabbled in piracy and that his mother was Japanese. As the Manchu conquerors of the Qing dynasty moved south, the father surrendered and became a Qing official, but the son remained loyal to the Ming and fought on; at one point, his armies got as far as menacing Nanjing. Eventually, he found himself defeated on the mainland so he went off, bringing most of his army, and took over Taiwan.
- Koxinga's arrival was the first major Chinese incursion into Taiwan; many of his troops stayed and settled. This was followed by a surge of other immigration, mainly from the Xiamen, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou areas. Modern Taiwanese is essentially the Minnan dialect of those cities
- Underwater World (from the ferry terminal, walk to the right and look for the big blue building). Admission is a steep ¥90 for adults, ¥50 for children/seniors, but you can just stand outside and take photos of the Jules Verne-esque octopus statue.
- Gulangyu Organ Museum. The organ museum is in the Trigram House (Bagualou) in northwestern Gulangyu; it is currently the only and the largest organ museum in the world. Matched with the piano museum in southeastern Shuzhuang Garden, it attracts a lot of music lovers from around the world. There are many styles of organ collected in this museum.
- Bright Moon Garden. Bright Moon Garden (Haoyueyuan) is on the Covering Rock (Fudingyan) on the east (Xiamen side) coast of Gulangyu. It covers an area of 3 hectares (30,000 square meters, about 7.5 acres) spreading along the shore with a sandy beach, rocks, trees and pavilions. Its name is from two lines of a poem about a King of Yanping. In the park stands a bronze sculpture of Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) and some of his soldiers, 13.7 meters long and 4.7 meters high (about 45 by 15 feet).
- Oriental Fishbone Gallery, No 27 Guxin Rd. Includes personalized explanations of every art-piece and autograph of the artist himself. ¥20.
- University of Design (almost in the middle of the island). has some beautiful granite sculptures. A very old Buddhist temple is nearby.
- Waxworks museum. includes waxworks of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.
- Huaijiu Gulangyu Museum (怀旧鼓浪屿馆) (Inland and uphill from the ferry stop). A museum focusing on the colonial-era foreign residents of Gulangyu, in a building that was once a German bank.
The south end of the island also has some lovely gardens with a lot of various types of eucalyptus.
There is a beach just south of the ferry stop and others around on the other side of the island.
Try walking all the way around the island. The distance is about 4 km (2.5 miles) and there are good paths. If you decide to give up, just jump on a golfcart taxi; they circle the island near the coast, and come along quite often. Alternately, just ride a golfcart taxi or a boat around the island.
Get lost. Get away from the tour groups by getting lost in the back streets of Gulangyu which have some fascinating architecture. It is fairly easy to get lost, usually by wandering into a residential district. This can be confusing, especially if one does not speak the local language, Minnan Hua. There are an awful lot of narrow winding streets. However the island is fairly small, walking downhill will always get you to the coast, and there are paths and golfcart-type transport all along the coast, so getting lost is annoying at worst.
Items aimed at the tourist trade abound on Gulangyu — some amazingly tacky, some amazingly lovely, and more-or-less everything between.
As in any tourist area in Asia, many things are much cheaper than in western countries but asking prices tend to be high and bargaining is usually necessary. Gulangyu merchants have some excuse for high prices; they have to cover costs of transporting goods to the island. In general, things are more expensive on Gulangyu than in downtown Xiamen; on the other hand Gulangyu has a much broader range of tourist merchandise and a better selection on some items.
The two main shopping streets are Dragon Head Road (Longtou Lu) — which runs south near the shore from the ferry stop, off to your left as you arrive, to Dragon Head Hill or Sunlight Rock — and Quanzhou Road which is roughly parallel to that but further inland and on higher ground. There are many smaller streets with shops, mostly running off those two.
Shops along these streets sell mainly art and handicrafts. Items on offer include: beads, lacquer work, sculptures, pictures carved on stone, Chinese antiques, reproductions of Chinese antiques, jade, fake jade, other jewelry, silk and other clothing, and ceramics. There are also T-shirts, hats and other tourist merchandise, plus artists offering portraits or cartoons.
The island caters to tourists so there are lots of places to eat but many are not particularly good because the proprietors are not worried about attracting repeat business. Some are excellent, though.
If you enjoy seafood, you may be pleasantly surprised, as Gulang Yu's local cuisine tends to emphasize seafood. The streets are lined with restaurants and food stalls that sell a variety of such dishes (look for red plastic tubs of fresh seafood). If you're more interested in a sweeter snack, there's a great ice cream place located right near the ferry's drop off point. Prices are higher than in Xiamen.
- Yuanxiangkou Fish Balls (原 巷 口), four locations around Gulangyu; one is behind the ICBC near the ferry terminal, ☎ . An award-winning shop that is most famous for its fish balls, which are stuffed with pork and cooked in a savory soup. Try the fish balls alone (¥6) or with noodles (¥8). Unless you're an adventurous foodie and/or read Chinese well enough to understand exactly what you're getting, however, skip the other "snacks" (小 吃) even though they're supposed to be famous Gulangyu specialties.
- Shirley Valentine (on the far side of the island). Serves fresh fish and noodles. Recommended are the mussels with noodles and green tea. A seat under an umbrella on the sea shore is a must.
- Chu Family Coffee, 15 Zhonghua Rd, ☎ . Quiet and lovely place. The building was recently renovated. They offer coffee, western-style food and desserts. A bit overpriced, like many of the venues on Gulangyu.
- DeGuo Sausage, LonTouLu 178 GuLangYu / 龙头路178, ☎ . 10AM - 8PM. A Bratwurst (German sausage) restaurant run by a few expat Germans ¥25.
Not far inland of the ferry stop is a large building with some interesting upmarket tourist shops and several restaurants including a large KFC on ground level and a place on the second floor that has reasonable food, good beer, and a patio with a fine view. There is a central courtyard that sometimes has acrobats, jugglers or musicians.
Near that is the main market for Gulangyu residents, mainly selling fruits, vegetables and seafood. Nothing is cooked, nobody speaks English, and some prices are higher than downtown Xiamen, but the place can be an adventure and a pile of fruit here will be cheaper than lunch in a restaurant.
- Black Cat Coffee (Black Cat Cafe), 14 Yong Chun Rd. You can come just for the coffee (~¥30-35) and a look at the restored home and gardens, but definitely consider their food menu. They offer a la carte options for seafood and mixed grill items for ¥100-140, and 4 course set menus for ¥160-190. The "Italian consulate menu" is good. It consists of a crisp roast duck caesar salad, a sweet and creamy pumpkin soup, choice of prime rib or salmon, and dessert. The front porch tables enjoy sun after 1PM, and American oldies play on speakers throughout the cafe. ¥30-200.
There are numerous places to stay on Gulangyu, mostly at moderate prices. Near the ferry wharf there are several places within a stone's throw of each other. When you get off the ferry, walk straight. Immediately on your left, you will see a stone stairway leading to the top of a small hill. At the top, turn right onto Lujiao Road and you will find a youth hostel and several hotels.
- Bayview Inn, 17 Longtou Rd (Once on Lujiao Road (see above) look for a yellow/white building and a sign.), ☎ , , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com. Check-out: 12 noon. Very nice, clean inn near the ferry terminal. Free internet and wi-fi. English speaking staff. The website is in Chinese but there are detailed pictures of all the rooms on the site. Air-con and mosquito plug-ins provided. ¥45-60 dorm, ¥188 twin, ¥322 twin ensuite.
- Consulate Inn (former British Consulate), 14 Lujiao Rd (South and inland from the ferry terminal), ☎ .
- Gulangyu International Youth Hostel, 18 Lujiao Rd, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Just up the road from 'Naya'. Spacious grounds. Grubby dorms, iffy bathrooms. Peeling paint. No kitchen. Better go to Bayview Inn across the street for a few yuan more, or stay at Xiamen International Youth Hostel, 41 Nanhua Road, on the mainland, which is impeccable. (City bus 1 or 21 from the railway station.)
- Just a Hotel (有间客栈 - You Jian Ke Zhan), ☎ . A nice and cozy hotel on Gulang Yu. Really friendly staff and a nice boss "Jason". If you don't find the place, give them a call. Family-Style, private Bathrooms From 168 to 260.
- Naya Home Hotel (former German Consulate), Lujiao Road. Wonderful homestyle hotel, quaint decoration. Also doubles as an Italian Restaurant/Cafe with outdoor seating. No individual dorms.
- Remy's Garden Hotel, No.65 Kantai Rd (over on the west side of the island).
For most travellers, the only place you can go from Gulangyu is back to Xiamen.
If you own or charter a boat, there are other choices but some caution is required. The Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen is nearby and — while there has not been artillery fire across that strait since the 1970s, —both governments still consider the area sensitive and keep substantial military forces there.