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Trip 37 — Jeju and Xiamen Walks

Xiamen day 4: Yundang Lake to railway station, the long way around
Wednesday, 9 August 2023

Yesterday: 16354 steps/12.60 km/7.83 mi/2h 19m
Grand total: 93577 steps/73.38 km/45.60 mi/13h 51m

The wayfinding issues at the Andaz continued when I got to my floor: There were no signs near the elevators that pointed the way to the various room-number ranges. I picked a direction and of course got it wrong; only then did I see the tiny numbers along the corridors opposite the elevator bank. If you don't see them until you've walked to a wall, what good are they?

Somehow I found my way out the main entrance, which of course was down the side street I'd shied away from. Across the street was a casual restaurant where people were picking their food from tanks. I let them recommend a crab ("The chef can decide the preparation," I typed — simply grilled with ginger) and seafood noodles, accompanied by a Snow-brand beer.

This was the China I remembered, where they bring a package of tissues instead of napkins and charge you for them, and where they give you hot water to rinse your dishes at the start of the meal — a ritual I never mastered. But I finally have mastered the art of not ordering too much at such places, and I kept the bill handily just under 200 yuan, the threshold above which Alipay kicks in a three-percent credit-card fee.

It took about five minutes to find my way out of the hotel yesterday morning, five minutes that would have been helpful to have in the afternoon. For Abecedarian Walks end-to-end continuity purposes, I had to start the day's counter at the mall access, where I'd entered the hotel the previous day, and not at the main entrance.

I knew the floor I needed was some-letter-1, and when I checked out, they led me to an elevator off the reception area. Must be B1, I saw when I got inside. Nope, that's parking. Back to the lobby. It was by the pool, I think. Nope, dead end. Back to reception. "The mall?"

They put me in the same elevator. "Floor G." The ground floor, under the lobby. Couldn't find my way out there, either, but another staff member escorted me in the right direction, to an unmarked door. All told, it took three people and two rides in the same elevator to get me out of the building. It didn't help that the floor associated with the button "G' is announced as "First floor" inside the elevator and called "L1" by the mall.

Two pork buns put a smile on my face, and I headed back toward the lake. Construction was booming here, too. I seemed to be the only person not dressed to build, and the cranes hung like vultures over the structures rising under them.

I reached the lake and all was tranquil again. A woman walking ahead of me was singing short operatic phrases, and when she went off her own way, the birds took over. Except for a dank and grimy street underpass, this stretch was delightful. Then it was time to follow the busy road to the coast, and I was getting sticky with heat and dodging scooters again.

It's been almost a quarter-century since Lai Changxing was tried, and I couldn't tell how much of his legacy lived on. No Internet search could tell me the location of his planned 88-story tower, or whether any of it had been built. But on this busy road to the coast was the 68-story Xiamen International Center, the city's tallest building, looking like a giant bagel slicer with a handle cut out at the top, still in its same unfinished state as in 2016. The foundations had been laid in 1996, just before Lai's arrest, and then work had been abruptly paused. Was it originally one of his ventures?

I turned south at the coast and passed one of the terminals for ferries to Gulangyu, 20 minutes away or less, depending on the route. It's car- and scooter-free and also known as Piano Island because of its large museum devoted to the instrument. I failed to plan ahead to leave an extra day to visit it, so I'll be due for another trip to Xiamen sometime.

Another wharf had restaurants and sunset cruises. I could see the Conrad and its twin ahead. I passed a military zone. And then, without warning — unless it was posted in Chinese — the sidewalk ran out on the coastal side of the busy ring road. This was just before the road flew out over the water; near the Conrad was the start of the long walkway I'd enjoyed just a few days earlier. I backtracked past the military zone, to the first intersection.

Time to head back inland, to the train station. Along this stretch, it was particularly hot and the scooters were particularly obnoxious. They came along in both directions on the sidewalk, with limp beeps to scatter walkers out of their way. I tried not to take it personally, but I didn't see why I should care that their drivers had chosen my path to intrude upon. The urgency of those walking was just as valid as that of those on the bikes. If they wanted to use my designated space, they needed to do so without my accommodating them and without making me feel in the way. But I didn't make the rules, so all I could do was curse them under my breath.

I feel for the scooter drivers, though. The size of their vehicles is reasonable, and they should have a place that doesn't interfere with people walking and keeps them safe from cars. Obviously that space should be taken away from the car lanes. Xiamen has a subway, an elevated busway, an elevated bikeway, and many local bus routes. Like most big cities, it gives far too much space to cars, simply because cars came along first and their drivers are more likely to have the money and other wherewithal to influence the building of infrastructure.

I completed Abecedarian Walk number 16 at the train station, exactly where I had started it, right near the manual-check exit gate (and only two blocks from the Andaz, it so happens, but I had to complete the coast). But Xiamen is unique in the Abecedarian Walks for being the first island where I entered and departed at different points. I'd arrived by train, but I'd be flying out.

Between the station and the airport, I looked for Lai Changxing and places mentioned in Oliver August's book "Inside the Red Mansion." Next to the railway station, he wrote, there was a crowded market. The main section was shoes, clothing, household items, and all those other things found at similar places. The more underground you went, figuratively, the less wholesome the merchandise became. You could find cheap illegal copies of books haphazardly reprinted in China, often containing duplicate or missing pages or other errors. At the market's furthest reaches, you could buy yourself a fake identification card or passport.

China is much cleaner now than it was then. The gleaming shopping mall I found under the station, with its superbly strong and welcome air conditioning, may have replaced what was formerly a somewhat dodgier affair. It began with the shoes, settled into fried chicken and noodles and other food-court types, continued with upscale clothing, and had a supermarket near the far exit. Before the stairs leading to a dusty door were people sleeping or resting on the floor, but other than that the mall was as wholesome as any modern shopping center.

Not that I expected to find a big sign in English saying "This way to the illegal goods," with a flashing arrow. Any of the no-entry or staff-only doors downstairs might have led to that sinister world. And perhaps the original market survives elsewhere. But it wasn't for me to find, and I didn't have the time or connections to go looking.

There must be something magical about 1 p.m. on Xiamen, because, as had happened the previous day, the air suddenly got much cooler. But this time it was accompanied by rain.

Lai Changxing's Red Mansion, where he plied people in charge with entertainment, women, and cash so they would choose to ignore his smuggling and embezzling, was on the way to the airport, more or less. Mr. Oliver's book placed it at 22 Huaguang Road; a Web site had it at number 2, but it was a short street.

I headed north and soon had to divert because of one of those excessively large roundabouts with fences and no pedestrian overpass. By the time I found one (and even here was not safe from the scooters, who had a slim, smooth gradient in the middle of the stairs), it was easier to continue up a side road than the main road I'd been following.

The rain became steady, punctuated by thunder. A sign saying "Chinese Burgers" caught my eye and I hoped a quick lunch break would give the rain time to pass. These were spicy chicken sandwiches — duck was also an option — and not what I would have called burgers, but the spice and crunch were satisfying and accompanied by chicken tenders and some welcome Pepsi.

The rain didn't stop, but I had to move on. A temple-topped mountain stood between me and Huaguang Road. I climbed the steps carefully and paused at the top to get my bearings. I had to give in and dig out the poncho again. A man was waiting it out nearby, practicing his spitting.

Back down I went on the other side, slowly; the stairs seemed slippery and I confirmed each one with a grip of the handrail. After a bit of zigzagging, I came to the southern end of Huaguang Road.

A Getty Images picture from the South China Morning Post and a YouTube video show the Red Mansion as an ordinary brick building with the upper floor covering only half the top, giving it a fat "L" shape. Nothing on the main Huaguang Road had that shape. A couple of buildings on a side street had vaguely the same shape and color, but the windows weren't in the right places.

There's not much about the building on the Internet. For all I know it's been torn down, and perhaps number 22 or number 2 is on a different road, much as my hotel at 101 Hubin East Road was actually on a parallel road. With more time, I could have walked the streets of the neighborhood all afternoon, but I was running out of time to reach the airport, and the rain wasn't helping.

Once again I was thwarted by a missing crosswalk, and I lost a few minutes retracing my steps once I found an overpass. Then I had to cross under a busy road with no obvious way to continue. My phone was acting up because of the rain — the touch screen wouldn't let me zoom or scroll with wet fingers, and it instead jiggled with its own dance — and so I was committing as much of the route as I could to memory and going somewhat off instinct.

Running, and coated with sweat and rain, I arrived at the terminal entrance three minutes before the cutoff to receive a boarding pass; I was already checked in but had to have my passport verified.

"Health declaration?" the woman at the entrance asked.

I need one to leave? That's on me for not knowing, but what a nuisance, and difficult on a wet phone.

"Scan the QR code," she said. There was a giant poster. Of course the code wouldn't scan. (Why must all of these notices post only the QR codes leading to the underlying Web sites? It would have been easier to type in the site location, if I'd known what it was.)

"It doesn't work," I said.

"You can use my phone," she said. I was one of many people trying to hustle their way through the entrance. I thanked her and moved to the side.

Name, passport number, all straightforward, though the name converted to Chinese whenever I pressed a space, so I entered it as one long word. What countries have I been to in the past two weeks, and what regions of China, and on what dates for each? Never mind that; I'm putting in Fujian province for the whole duration.

I achieved the resulting QR code and took a picture of it with my phone, returned the woman hers, and entered. Two seconds later a man glanced at the photo. He waved me through. No one else asked for it.

Then a bag security check. It was now exactly one hour before my flight time.

Two minutes later I found the check-in desks and was relieved to see around ten people still there. I soon had my boarding pass and was ready to go.

At the security checkpoint, they asked to see my power banks. I carry two in case one fails, and I've replaced both since Eysturoy. They glanced at the larger one and placed it back in someone else's tray, which I took as permission to reclaim it.

They examined the smaller one: first a man, and then he handed it to a woman.

"Sorry," she said. "This one does not have the capacity printed on it. We can't let you take it on the plane."

"It's ten thousand," I said.

"Unless it says it somewhere, we can't let you take it," she said. "That's the rule of the Civil Aviation Administration."

"Is there any way?" I asked. The thing was slim. How much damage could it do?

She led me to her superiors and a few other people. They looked at the power bank but came to the same conclusion.

I grasped at straws. There were all sorts of numbers printed on the power bank with regard to wattage and voltage. I found a string of characters with "10K" in the middle.

"See, it says 'ten "K,"'" I said. "That means ten thousand."

"That's the model number," she said. I knew I didn't have much ground to stand on.

"I'll show you the model on the Web site," I said, starting to search for it.

"I'm sorry but we can't accept that, either." She was kind about it and seemed to understand the absurdity of China's unique rule.

"Is there anything we can do?"

"We can deliver it to someone," she said. That was actually a very reasonable offer. "But it has to be someone in China."

I thought about it. I could have had it sent to someone I worked with a few years ago, except I'd have to look up the address of their school, or I could dig out the business card from Joost's restaurant. But in either case I'm sure the recipient would be wondering why the heck they were receiving a power bank in the mail. (Later on, I wondered whether they would have considered Hong Kong part of China for this purpose.)

"I don't know anyone in China," I said.

"No one in China? You don't have a friend here?"

"You can be my friend," I said. "Enjoy it." We laughed.

"Shall I keep it for you for next time?" she asked. I couldn't tell whether she was serious. "Shall I get your phone number?"

That was getting a little too familiar. "No, it's OK. You can have it." We smiled again and I headed toward the gates. I just wanted to sit down, cool off, have a drink, and try to dry out. As far as I knew, my flight was about to board.

But we were delayed for two hours because of the rain. The moisture in my shirt and the air conditioning cooled me down tremendously, and I was soon shivering. I had some hot noodle soup to warm up. By the time we boarded, I was dry and warm enough.

China is tough, perhaps even tougher than before the pandemic, but it's worth the effort. I'm sure I'll be back, if only to visit the piano museum. Maybe I'll even get WeChat Pay to work, if they ever get back to me (it has been well over three days). I'll just make sure all my power banks are labeled correctly. And maybe it's time to invest in some moisture-wicking shirts.

Next trip: Usedom Walk