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Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, September 30, 2006

16th Sept - Yong Ding to Xia Men to Gu Lang Yu

On the bus, we met a lady who wanted to buy a house in Xia Men. Her daughter was graduating soon from the university in Fu Zhou and intended to find work here.

’No way is she going back to Yong Ding where we originally came from. She will not be able to get used to the life back there so we are moving here where the land prices are cheaper (compared to Fu Zhou). By the way, while you are in Xia Men try the freshly made green bean pastry.’

In China, chances are that after graduation, you will be absorbed into the city where the pay-roll is. Mum, Dad and family could be miles away and therefore not economically viable to visit. Aren’t you happy Raffles Place is only 40 minutes away from Jurong East?

China’s jolliest bus driver and conductor told us which bus to catch to get to the Gu Lang Yu ferry. The problem was that there were three ferry terminals spaced about 200 metres apart opposite the picturesque island famous for its collection of old houses. In such boggling situations we thought it was wise to head for the one with the sign ‘Gu Lang Yu’ above it.

16 yuan got us a return trip and the dubious 1 yuan safety insurance China so often slaps her commuters with. We hopped on the crowded ferry, watched the metal gates slide shut and the golden dragon’s head on the bow in front of us get smaller and smaller as we chugged not towards but around Gu Lang Yu. Not too bad, at least we are getting a free tour of Gu Lang Yu thrown in.

The moment the moorings were released, an excited candid commentary was unleashed at machine gun speed. Targeted at all the developments and attractions in the foggy distance, it was a most successful lure to get the tourists on board to part with 10 yuan for the binoculars rental so that they could see things like the Xia Men bridge, oil refineries, waterfront housing development, sea birds and the island features through blurry lenses. The crowd fell for the ruse and the business-savy boatmen made at least an additional 200 bucks! From the sea, the cable cars, central lookout, green-water beaches and colourful crowds of Gu Lang Yu looked worryingly like Sentosa.

For reasons unknown to us, our ferry dropped us at the furthest possible jetty from the main settlement area. You knew where the centre was because the island’s only McDonalds was there looming above the Visitor Centre which didn’t hand out any free maps of the island. You had to buy them from the touts outside or photograph them from the boards.

After ten hot minutes, we realised that Gu Lang Yu (which is much smaller than Sentosa) wasn’t Sentosa. It was what Sentosa should aspire to become. The only vehicles on the island are the electric buggies which the truly lazy will pay 50 yuan to circumnavigate the little island. You could do the same trip on foot in an hour and a half. Supplies, construction materials and tourist baggage are piled on two-wheeled carts and pulled across the island by sunburnt coolies. Under one shady corner, one guy belts out old Chinese numbers to an electric guitar-erhu accompaniment. His repertoire so he claims is 600 songs wide! More importantly, there is a vibrant resident population here thriving on tourism and serving up an amazing variety of excellent and reasonably priced seafood dishes. Most importantly, these friendly folks who still manage to remain friendly despite the daily influx tourists are housed in a lovely chaotic clutter of colonial houses oozing with heritage and history!

An overenthusiastic tout fond us some decent accommodation at a small guesthouse tucked away in a small street three minutes away from the main area. The first place he led us to was cheaper and more rustic but unfortunately couldn’t accept foreigners as we only found out after some light bargaining and room inspection. Still it is wiser not to declare your nationality at the beginning if you want to be given a discount. Like the lady in Yong Ding, the owner of this place refused to take a risk and take us in despite the stiff competition. Perhaps the feared authorities are vigilant enough to sweep the tangle of small streets often enough.

After a good lunch of cheap noodles (yet another impossibility on Sentosa), Karen returned to the room to crash while I explored the main district for a while. One thing you would notice in China is that some locals tend to place a sheet of paper or tissue between their butt and whatever they are sitting on. You can guess what happens when they leave. Not much of a problem actually, they are just doing their part to keep one of the many long-broom sweepers busy.

I also found the pleasant Youth Hostel with free WiFi which didn’t pay touts any commission. Facing the main jetty, walk 150 metres to your right. It’s hidden behind some buildings on a small hill to your left.

If you are into colonial architecture check out the Visitor Centre which features all the buildings on the island with historical value. There is also a scale model of the entire island and the ‘interactive touch screen booths’ so often found in Singapore.

Karen was still concussed so I had a good dinner of beef, clams (hua1 ge2) and kong(1) xin(1) cai(4) the most widely available vegetable in China. The purple coloured loaf stuffed with red beans we had for supper was uniquely Gu Lang Yu.

17th Sept - Gu Lang Yu

Today we did the usual tourist thing beginning with a horrible breakfast of the cheapest noodles you could find on the island – only 2 yuan – and therefore horrible, what were we expecting?

A big net was draped over part of the island. Some birds got stuck, some got thrown in and you wind up with Gu Lang Yu’s ‘100 species Aviary’. He crowd loved the bird show where poor manacled parrots and cockatoos get blasted with techno music while doing stupid things like riding mini-bicycles and picking up trash but the highlight for me were two giant yellow hornbills. They look mighty miserable behind the black mesh of their separate enclosure.

From the aviary, we took a cable car across the valley to Sunlight Rock. Yes, and the Chinese do make life exciting here by taking off the window panes to make the 3 minute ride more thrilling. It’s been years since I brought 2T1 to Sentosa, played the role of the life-guard while they swam and somersault in the lagoon, took them for their first walk in on forest trail and paid for their cable car ride back to mainland. Boy was I rich then. Here on the dangle to Sunlight Rock, I loved the exposure but not the colour of the sea here! Take off all the windows on the cabs at Faber and market it as an extreme sport.

Sunlight Rock at noon should be called Sunburn Rock. The huge outcrop right smack in the centre of the island has been converted into THE lookout point all self-respecting tourists on Gu Lang Yu must make their pilgrimage to. It looked so commercialised and we intended to give it a miss but our tickets to the Aviary included the cable car ride and admission into Sunlight Rock so go with the flow.

Thousands of tourists cannot be wrong and the 360 view on the tiny concrete viewing deck was fantastic especially the cityscape of Xia Men with the characteristic mess of Gu Lang Yu’s red rooftops in the foreground. There was also a sign here near the cliff’s edge that read ‘Caution, Drop Down!’

We made our way down to the small cove to confirm that the beaches at Sentosa was a better place to take a dip. There are more container ships and oil tankers berthed here but a fair number of locals were splashing about in the green waters just next to the speedboat landing zone. We gave up and went to scout for a decent seafood restaurant for tonight.

It’s easy to be convinced of the quality when two and a half dozen bubbling basins of prawn, clams, fish, crab and eels are on display outside the restaurants. At one joint, one friendly guy answered all our questions about some of the weirder live-forms on display and we promised to be back for dinner. He told us that he has seen many Singaporean tourists and they come with a grossly wrong assumption that China was a poor country and that Xia Men and Gu Lang Yu was going to be cheap. They wind up complaining and being unreasonable in their bargaining. He also noticed that we are very careful with our expenditure unlike the bingeing locals. We told him that most Singaporeans did not eat as much but preferred to spend the dough shopping. In his nice humble way, he was trying to tell us not to belittle China especially Xia Men which is ranked amongst her wealthiest cities.

The local laksa is not spicy and is filled with shrimps, squid, small oysters and fried toufu. Looks overrates the taste a tad though.

We found The Tunnel after lunch. It’s like an old CTE burrowing right through the island. Flat, cool, clean, lighted and about 800 metres long it is a wonderfully simple feature and a much appreciated shortcut for the cart coolies. But you can trust the Chinese to squeeze in a Terracotta Warrior museum somewhere in the middle!

There is always McDonalds after hours in the sun and there is always the regret after the first bite into the quarter-pounder. They used cucumbers instead of pickles and a synthetic-looking pink mustard to be washed down by the chemical caramel coffee that came with it! MacYuck! One lady in the corner was having some serious makeup done by her friend using the polished metal casing of the fire hydrant as a makeshift mirror!

We next headed for what was to become our favourite attraction on the island – The Underwater World. The seal and dolphin show was passable but the live specimens rivalled ours in Sentosa. Among the more interesting are Japanese spider crabs which had incredibly complicated mouth structure, the oddball cow fish, seaweed-like sea dragons, the grim stone fish, the giant grouper, the scary-then-funny sturgeons (they looked like they had banged their noses into the wall!), the entire cast of Finding Nemo and my personal favourite the feather-finned Lionfish. The specimens are exceptionally impressive as there is always a fair number of them in the clear tanks. I think there were 6 or 7 Lionfishes! Power!

The dead specimens included the ghastly ‘Eat Man Fish’ or piranhas floating in formaldehyde with the help of nylon strings. Of course some mouths were prised open to reveal the rows of incisors! The main selling point is a 232 18 meter full skeleton of a sperm whale. It is the largest in the world. A sensationalised video captures the emotional retrival, chopping up and transporting of the skeleton to Xia Men. Tears were flowing as they plunged their chainsaws in the massive carcass and two professional knife sharpeners were hired. It looked like every Xiamener was involved.

The bones were reassembled and the resultant skeleton perfect. They went a step further to ‘bring the whale back to life’ by creating a live-sized model of it! The pros say that Mr Big died from a fracture in his ninth vertebra. Maybe kena knock by one of the hundred tankers out there.

The finale was the shark tank whose inhabitants were not as diverse as ours.

Thus inspired, we went to fulfil our promise of a seafood dinner - undisputedly the highlight of the day. Two huge prawns sliced down the middle and laced with garlic and super fresh red snapper. Too bad for us the Jap crab wasn’t in the basin.

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