Saturday, May 20, 2017

Deep in the Concrete Backstreet Jungle of Xiamen, China

Adventure travel to me does not only mean engaging in active and physical types of activities. I am not very keen anyway on (adrenalin-pumping) adventure sports travel but I do love hiking and the outdoors, and taking the road less travelled, and even roughing it up a bit with nature adventure trips.

But adventure to me can also mean exploring the world of history, art, culture and the food customs of a place, and even a small backstreet alley as well in a busy concrete city such as Xiamen.

Chinese Art Wall Alley in Xiamen, China
View hotel window

Who would not be curious with this alley decorated in Chinese art?

In Xiamen, I was evicted from my 100-year old mansion hotel in Siming district (near the famous Zhongshan Lu pedestrian street) because the hotel did not have the permit to accept foreigners, and so I moved to a standard hotel nearby. Police even escorted and helped me check-in! At this new hotel, my room's window view is looking down to a small alley.

The alley is quite noteworthy because the area surrounding Zhongshan Lu is a bit old and scruffy-looking but in a Chinese positive way, while this narrow pedestrian street’s wall is pimped up professionally with a colourful template of Chinese drawings, calligraphy and relief sculptures. I have not seen anything like this here in Xiamen. It just stood out. I mean, why showcase an art like this in a somewhat hidden alley?

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View from hotel window

This is another view from my hotel window (if I look up).

Chinese Art on Wall Alley in Xiamen, China

The alley is elevated from the main street of Ding'an.

Well, I am a very curious individual and the type as well who would go out of the way to investigate.

So one morning I walked to the alley and inspected the interesting drawings, writings and sculptures on the wall. It’s too bad that I do not understand Chinese but I can tell that the whole street wall tells a story that is perhaps based on old Chinese events and history. The famous Opium War perhaps?

As I walked on further past the wall, the street became narrower and the surroundings, shabby and dismal. I was now treading on the real backstreets of Xiamen where some of the locals live and tourists don’t visit. A concrete urban jungle of buildings is standing side by side like a puzzle being weaved together but does not make any sense at all. Sights of loosely hanging drainage pipes and cable and electrical wirings in a spaghetti mess welcome my view. I can see some windows fitted with iron railings and conflicting thoughts on fire safety and theft saddled me. There were balconies covered with plastic laminates and rusty aluminium leftovers. It seems that life here is a matter of survival. It’s very cramped and I can understand if someone who is used to large spaces will suffer claustrophobia if brought to this place. The occasional laundry hanging disrupts the scene, as well a few historical looking crumbling mansions with grass growing from its walls. Those mansions I thought could have been worth a lot of money, but the location, even though very central is a bit screwed up.

Chinese Art on Wall Alley in Xiamen, China
Chinese Art on Wall Alley in Xiamen, China

I wish I knew the story behind the wall drawings.

Backstreet concrete jungle of Xiamen, China

In the deeper parts of the concrete backstreet jungle in Xiamen.

No vehicles can enter here as well except perhaps for a scooter which you will have to manoeuvre cautiously. The area reminds me of not very inviting densely populated squatter places in the Philippines where I had the chance to visit during my younger years on a Bible study (yes, I was very religious before) and charity outreach programs. The only difference is that this cramped area in Xiamen is concrete, better looking and doesn’t stink. I would even bet that some of the interiors of these homes here could be very modern and well-furnished.

I pressed on walking and carefully making a mental map of the street layout so I won’t get lost. Here in the concrete backstreet jungle is a maze of narrow grim-looking alleys and if you are not sharp enough you can get lost easily. The locals didn’t really mind my presence at all. I am sure they know I am a stranger in their neighbourhood but perhaps they are too busy with the cares of life to even wonder what I was doing there. So I continued walking, looking around, observing my surroundings, inspecting and taking pictures when no one is looking.

This is the beauty of having a small point-and-shoot pocket camera with you when travelling. It is not obtrusive at all. I do not scream tourist or foreigner and I can keep it by the hand or slowly just tuck it into my small sling bag, jacket or trouser pocket. In addition, taking pictures is made quick. I have developed the art of taking multiple shots in seconds =) Yes, I have years of this skill under my belt, haha.

During this discovery walk, I also discovered a children’s school, which I never would have thought will be situated in a cramped place like this.

Wudanfenzhen Hengkiang street xiamen

Interestingly, this street, however, has a Roman alphabet translation that says, ‘Wudanfenzhen Hengkiang’ 

Concrete backstreet jungle of Xiamen, China

I would not be surprised if these properties have modern and state-of-the-art interior fittings inside.

Concrete backstreet jungle of Xiamen, China

Some buildings are beautiful but are in a state of ruin.

As I went deeper into the network of backstreets, I realised that I am slowly stepping out of my comfort zone. I still remember how to go back – which intersection to take, was it left or right – but if I continue on I am sure I will lose my way in this urban maze. I have to remind myself that nobody speaks English here so it's not like I can just ask anybody the direction to the main street, although at the back of my mind the adventurous in me is saying – It doesn’t matter, you will eventually get out and bump into a more civilised-looking street. Truth be told, I do this a lot and just explore areas and streets with no map at all. But anyway, I didn’t like the hemmed-in environment and I also realised I needed to visit other places, so I retraced my steps back to the main street.

I found this little alley jaunt really interesting. It gave me an idea how some of the locals here live. Xiamen is comparable to other cosmopolitan cities in China and Asia. Many locals invest on a mortgage in highly urbanised and modern environments, whilst others enjoy their buying power and live in expensive houses and mansions along the coast, but some have to settle in confined and sombre places like this.

Life is the same in any place, city and country. It is not fair. Comfort, the good life and equality are something you always have to strive and work hard for, but for many, they remain a dream.

Concrete backstreet jungle of Xiamen, China

You have to watch your step and your head as well!

Beautiful yet crumbling building in Xiamen
Children playing inside the school courtyard

I also happen to pass by a school with children playing in the courtyard. Did not expect to find a school in the middle of this area.

Travel Period: December 2016
Destination: Siming, Xiamen (Fujian), China

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Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

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