Discover historic gems galore in Fujian's cities
THOUGH it may not have internationally renowned metropolises, the province of Fujian in south-eastern China is filled with cities famed for their cultural richness and year-round clean air.
According to the China National Tourism Administration, Xiamen, Quanzhou and Fuzhou have been the province's most popular cities this year, with Xiamen the most visited city in the region.
Much of Xiamen's appeal lies in Gulangyu Island, a 1.87 sq km romantic retreat a ferry stop away from the city's downtown area. Gulangyu, also known as Piano Island, is home to a number of celebrated Chinese pianists and has the country's only piano museum, which houses more than 30 ancient pianos from around the world.
Tourists will also find historic Western consulates and mansions that served as financial institutions when the island was a leased territory in the early 20th century. The diversity of historic buildings has garnered the island its other nickname, the Museum of Architecture.
Cars are forbidden on the island, which allows for a more leisurely walk along alleys dotted with boutique stores and quaint hotels. In some secluded nooks, it is common to see couples posing for their pre-nuptial photo shoots.
The one drawback is that Gulangyu is often packed with tourists, though there are great spots off the beaten path.
Zengcuo'an, a former fishing village with a laid-back lifestyle, is an ideal getaway to avoid the tourist hordes. Located on the southern coast of Xiamen, the area is filled with quaint alleyways, souvenir shops, pubs and a food market that is reminiscent of Taiwan's night markets.
Must-try dishes include the sausage within a sausage, oyster omelette and the tusundong, or sea-worm jelly. The sea worms are boiled and then cooled to form a jelly. Soya sauce, vinegar and mustard are often added before serving.
Tourists looking to do more than eat and shop can take a stroll on the beachfront boardwalk and experience the gentle breeze.
A city nearby that is usually off travellers' radar is Quanzhou. Radiating lovely historical charm, it is famous as the starting point for the Maritime Silk Road and as the largest port in Asia during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties.
During the peak of its ancient glory, the city hosted a number of legendary travellers, including Marco Polo and Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who compared Quanzhou to the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.
One important group of foreigners who came to Quanzhou via the Maritime Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) were Muslim merchants. A testimony to their clout is the majestic Qingjing Mosque, also known as the Ashab Mosque. It was built to resemble a mosque from Damascus, Syria, in 1009, and is one of the oldest Arabic-style mosques in China.
The 20m-high arched gate is made of green granite. Its domes are carved with lotus plants and Arabic scriptures. When Islamic preachers followed their trade contacts to Quanzhou, the Ashab Mosque's worshipping hall became the centre of Islamic prayer in the region.
Although the hall's large dome has since collapsed in an earthquake, the open-air, grassy field dotted with gigantic pillars evokes an awe-inspiring sense of solemnity.
For a closer glimpse at the city's historical and cultural past, include the Wudianshi neighbourhood, or Five Shops District, in your itinerary. A 30-minute car ride from the city's downtown area, the district includes more than 100 traditional buildings from the Song and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. The buildings were renovated and relocated to the area as part of a project launched in 2012 to resurrect and protect the city's cultural heritage.
The neighbourhood gets its name from a Tang Dynasty legend that boasts of the first-class dishes and impeccable service of five restaurants owned by a family surnamed Cai.
Walking among the buildings is like walking down the city's memory lane. Almost all of the traditional houses were built with huge granite slabs mixed with red brick, in what seems like an irregular pattern but actually is a distinctive style of southern Fujian architecture. The craftsmanship is illuminated by the Cai family ancestral hall, the centrepiece of the district.
In honour of the family which operated the five restaurants, the hall has a graceful swallowtail roof ridge dotted with intricate carvings of flowers and birds. Vivid brick sculptures of people and time-honoured couplets are inscribed on pillars featuring vigorous cursive script.
Quanzhou bustles with a lively street-food scene, which last year attracted A Bite Of China, a documentary series on Chinese cuisines, to film in the city.
Leading the recommendation list are beef noodles that have a chewy and tender texture and paste noodles, a signature local soup that combines thread-like noodles, shrimp and clams.
A trip to the provincial capital of Fuzhou would not be complete without visiting the Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, a century-old neighbourhood crisscrossed by ancient lanes and alleys.
Featuring the architectural complexities of the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the area is known as the "living fossil of the ancient city street system". With Nanhou Street as the neighbourhood's axis, there are three historic lanes to the west and seven alleys to the east.
Most of the buildings' walls have a curvilinear outline and are referred to as the Saddle Wall. A closer look at the walls reveals tiny seashells embedded in them. According to historians, sand from the area's beaches was used to make the structures' bricks.
The area boasts more than 150 ancient buildings, the majority of them the homes of prominent historic figures. Qing Dynasty imperial envoy Lin Zexu, regarded as a national hero because of his fight against the British opium trade in Guangzhou, and Yan Fu, a scholar and translator, resided in the area.
You'll need patience when you stroll along the alleys and lanes, because every house has its own distinct character. In the Double Plum Study, you have to go through rockeries to reach different halls. The well-preserved ancient furniture on display and the ornamental latticed windows that are shaped like flowers lend a refined touch.
With the variety of old and famous restaurants in Nanhou Street, the area is a nice spot for dining. Yuwan, or fishball, is a signature Fuzhou snack that you don't want to miss. Made from the minced meat of eel or freshwater fish and shaped into balls, the soft and spongy yuwan makes for a savoury meal.
Fuzhou is one of the hottest cities in the country, so try not to visit in the summer. If you find yourself there in the searing heat, tea shops in Nanhou Street serve local jasmine tea to help you beat the heat.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK