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Latest update: 2 October 2023

The Chinese city of Xiamen is now often a stopover for travelers to Indonesia and Japan. Usually, that transfer is quite long: 12 hours is no exception. So what can you do during that time?

Free visa for China

Fortunately, I am allowed to leave the airport in Xiamen. Passengers in transit receive a free 72-hour visa for China (read more about it on Xiamen Air’s website). When I fly to Bali, I have 12 hours on the way there and even 18 hours on the way back. At the airport, I follow the signs to customs. After fingerprinting and many questionable looks from the customs officer, I get my temporary visa.

If you want to stay in China longer, please make sure you arrange the necessary documentation in advance. For example, check iVisa.

Welcome to Xiamen

Taxis in Xiamen

From the airport, you can actually get anywhere in the city by taxi for a maximum of 60 Yuan (8 euros) – prices in 2017. The starting rate is 10 Yuan and applies to the first three kilometers. After that, you pay 2 Yuan per kilometer. The meter is turned on immediately: no hassle with negotiating. I am amazed at the navigation skills of the taxi drivers: these men and women know their way around. None of them have a navigation system (Google Maps doesn’t work in China anyway). Voice messages are continuously sent and received during the ride. That seems a bit unsafe to me, but I’ll take it for granted.

Print photos and Chinese names

One problem: I don’t speak a word of Chinese. How do I let people know where I want to go? Few people in Xiamen speak English, except a few on the university grounds. I find that a little frightening all by myself, so I already research what I want to see at home. I print photos and Chinese names to explain where I want to go to the taxi drivers. I stop the taxis in the street. I even dare to take a bus once (it was only one stop, but still!). I would count on two hours for each attraction below, except for the Railway Culture Park and the beach. You only need an hour for those.

University grounds

For your driver: 厦门大学, 思明区思明南路422号

The Xiamen University campus is a popular tourist attraction. Tourists may enter the grounds from 2 pm. On the way to Bali, I skipped this visit because of the enormous queue already lined up an hour in advance. During my transfer on the way back, I try again, and I can walk through at the entrance around 3 pm – no queues. But, at the gate, a Chinese guard keeps repeating one word to me over and over. I don’t have the faintest idea what he’s talking about. The power of repetition does not work for him now. Finally, he gives up and lets me through. Later I see other people take out their IDs. He probably meant that. Oops.

The faculties, student residences, various shops and coffee shops, and beautiful gardens are on the grounds. Small red tents are at several spots with students dressed in red; they help you find your way. First, be sure to visit the Furong tunnel. This tunnel is no less than one kilometer long and connects the campus with the main building. It has murals everywhere you look. Of very variable quality, if I’m honest. It’s a popular selfie spot as the students whiz around on their bikes. There are two small coffee shops in the tunnel. By the way, the temperature in the tunnel is pleasantly cool – which is lovely in this stuffy city.

Zhongshan Road

For your driver: 中山路步行街, 361001思明区

Zhongshan Road is a pedestrian shopping street in Xiamen. The shops open at 9 am. You don’t go here to stock up on a new wardrobe. Instead, expect small shops with souvenirs, sweets, dried fish, gold jewelry, perfumes, and knick-knacks. Be sure to wander into a side street every now and then. This is how I end up at a small market where Chinese people do their daily shopping. The architecture on Zhongshan Road is praised by travel guides. However, I am not that impressed because there is also a lot of new construction.

Baicheng beach

For your driver: 白城沙滩, 361005厦门大学南部

Behind the university is Baicheng beach. To visit the beach, walk off the university grounds and cross the bridge. At the end of the day, it is busy on the beach. Despite the oppressive heat, no one swims, and I don’t see a single swimsuit or bikini. People just kind of hang out. It’s not the most beautiful beach ever (the continuous clouds, or smog, don’t help with that either). Still, you can enjoy people-watching and a walk on the boulevard.

Nanputuo Temple

For your driver: 南普陀寺, 361005思明区思明南路515号

The Nanputuo Temple is a Buddhist temple that attracts many visitors. Behind the temple is a mountain you can climb to get a nice view of Xiamen. This is my first time in China, and this temple meets all the requirements for me to be labeled as typical Chinese: the colors, the decorations, and the monks. It checks all the boxes.

Railway Cultural Park

For your driver: 铁路文化公园, 思明区万寿路

Part of the Xiamen railway line is now used as a pedestrian zone. I walk about two kilometers along the well-maintained piece of abandoned track surrounded by beautiful plants and tall buildings. Many Chinese do the same, usually accompanied by a parasol to protect their skin from the sun. Along the track, there are some works of art and seating areas. People read a book or fanatically play a card game. The short walk is an oasis of calm in the busy city.

Botanical Garden

For your driver: 厦门园林植物园, 361000思明区虎园路25号

At the end (or the beginning, depending on where you start) of the Railway Cultural Park is a botanical garden. You can enter for 40 Yuan. It is a huge garden that is loved by bridal couples. Three bridal couples are taking pictures on the lawn at the same time. The signage is in Chinese and English, but I still find it confusing and end up back at the bamboo garden several times. The park also has palm trees, flowers, and herb gardens. You can also take a steep climb to visit a temple and have a view of the city.

Coffee street

For your driver: 厦门咖啡一条街, 思明区筼筜路西堤别墅

The coffee street is at a lake. This is an almost Western-looking part of Xiamen full of coffee shops and restaurants. Sporty Chinese appear around the lake in the evening: runners and old ladies doing aerobics. In the outdoor cafes, I catch some English conversations.

Free hotel with Xiamen Air

Are you flying with Xiamen Air (formerly Xiamen Airlines)? Then you can go to their lounge or even a hotel for free. At the Xiamen Air transfer desk, you can request a hotel at a maximum distance of 10 kilometers from the airport. You have to pay for the transport yourself, but the room is free if there are two of you. I am traveling alone and can either share the room with a female passenger or pay an additional fee. That surcharge is 130 Yuan (about 17 euros). I decide to pay as I want to relax in the room both in the morning and evening.

I end up in the HM Yelin Hotel. I have a large room with a large bed and a good shower. It’s not the latest of the latest, but you won’t hear me complaining at this price. The staff doesn’t speak a word of English, but they are used to these visits. Smart: the reception has business cards with instructions in Chinese for taxi drivers so that you can safely reach the hotel when you set off.

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First published: April 2017. The article has been updated since.

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