Cattle pens of Gulang Yu

Gulang Yu is a little island off the southern coast of China. I had never heard of it until I decided on doing a weekend trip to the city of Xiamen, itself mostly situated on an island. Xiamen is an hours flight from Hong Kong and it also had the cheapest flights from Hong Kong for the period that I had in mind. A friend from China mentioned Gulang Yu as one of the well-known tourist spots.

The Dongdu International Cruise Centre at Xiamen was sparkling and modern; it had self-ticketing machines (only in Chinese), baggage storage facilities and was nicely air-conditioned. I dropped off my suitcase at about noon and queued up for a ticket. The earliest available ferry was at 1:50 PM, an hour and half away. The crowd at the station certainly did not help. I had some food and went through security. More specifically, they verified that the name on the ticket matched the ID – a measure to eliminate black marketers hoarding tickets and then selling them at an extortionate rate.

In any case, the ride was not too bad. I found a seat on the middle deck. Someone vacated it because the sun fell intensely upon it. Well-protected by my hat, I wasn’t too bothered. We took a twenty five minute ride (I was cautious to time myself) to the Dai Cao Ao pier on Gulang Yu.


The island immediately felt extremely artificial. There were plenty of trees and shade but it was obvious enough that professional landscape architects had gone over it in some detail. It was a place for the Chinese to get a taste of Europe, but not something of interest to international travellers. I walked further. One thing that was interesting about Gulang Yu was that there were no cars; there were no motorcycles or even bicycles – all banned by law. Now that did give it some charm.

There was a fort where a general named Zheng Chengong made a stand against the Dutch colonisers centuries ago and managed to hold them off. The highest spot on the island, Sunlight Rock, was part of the fortress. I enjoyed the very brief climb and walked further. The streets grew on me after a while.

Nevertheless the going did get a little tough after a while. It was above 30 degrees Celsius, very sunny and humid. I periodically took off my hat and wiped the sweat off my bald head. My clothes were drenched in sweat. I bought multiple bottles of Pepsi and Coca-Cola and consumed the sugary drinks with much pleasure. And because one highest point wasn’t enough, I found what I suspected to be the second highest hill and enjoyed that vantage point.

The place was popular with couples taking their wedding pictures. At one spot I saw no less than four pairs of brides and grooms with their photographers in tow. I watched in amazement as one bride, in a matter of seconds, stripped down from her white wedding dress into a black bikini on the beach to pose with her surfboard. 

Eventually I decided that I had covered enough of the island. At about 5PM I arrived at the San Qiu Tian Ferry Terminal. There was a big queue outside the terminal. I joined it. There were massive queues to the same place and they looked like monstrous snakes. After about twenty minutes, I was in the terminal.

Ahead of me were three big rectangular spaces separated by aluminium barriers. Each was about 5×40 metres. I showed my ticket to a guard who pointed me to one of the spaces. There was a small row of seats along one side, but I knew that the ones who stood in front would get the first seats on the ferry. I moved ahead and stood at the barrier. In five minutes, the entire space was filled with people and I was at the head of it. We waited about twenty minutes. I got to watch as the other two spaces opened up and the people were let out. I couldn’t help but compare our situation to cattle being transported, only we were crowded even thicker, because standing humans don’t take up a great deal of space. The barriers were closed in front and behind us. We stood there like obedient cows, awaiting instructions from “the authorities” regarding when and where to move.

Finally it was our turn. A ferry company employee opened the barrier ahead and we moved forward. I was fast and out the gate and among the first – to the next holding pen. This one was even more stifling than the previous one, with a proper grille to prevent people from falling into the sea. We waited there another fifteen minutes before the boat finally came. The grille was lifted and the cattle rushed in.

The boat ride back out of Gulang Yu was not too bad. I got myself a seat on the middle deck and breathed the fresh air. Was the trip worth it? No, given the strain and the amount of traveling that I had to do to get there and back. No, because it wasn’t spectacular. Gulang Yu is a nice weekend getaway for someone living in Xiamen. International travellers should find some place more interesting to see.

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