Jesse Warren, October 26, 2009, Shenzhen Daily

quanzhou maritime capitalFOR years, Chaozhou has remained my regional destination of choice. A small, charming town rich in history, culture, cuisine, and friendly people, it never fails to provide an exciting weekend getaway. But after five years on the throne, Chaozhou’s reign has just come to an end. The Fujianese city of Quanzhou has everything Chaozhou has, and more.

Located 10 hours from Shenzhen by bus, Quanzhou is a small coastal city just beyond Xiamen. Once the largest sea port in China, it has largely avoided the radar of foreign travelers in China.

There are plenty of good reasons to visit Quanzhou. For starters, it packs a heavy punch in the museum department. If you’re big on learning local history and culture, the north side of West Lake is the place to be. Two enormous structures are home to the Quanzhou Museum and the Fujian-Taiwan Kinship Museum, respectively. The Quanzhou Museum exhibits are as nice as any I’ve seen in China, including the Shanghai Museum. You’ll learn plenty of Zheng He’s ancient sea voyages throughout Asia. The Taiwan Museum will have to wait until next time, but it looked impressive from the outside.

Just like Chaozhou, Quanzhou has a Kaiyuan Temple of its own. This one is the largest in Fujian Province and dates to the year 686. But there’s more than just temples here. Two gigantic stone towers (the tallest in China) dwarf the temples on either side, but it’s a shame you can’t climb to the top. A network of gardens throughout the complex makes for a nice stroll with plenty of benches to allow visitors to sit and relax. In the far corner is the Museum of Maritime History. Here you can see the reconstructed remains of an ancient ship from the Song Dynasty, as well as sculptures, stone tablets, and ceramics intended for export during the Song and Yuan dynasties.

Due to its maritime trading history, Quanzhou has seen significant international influence. The city had a foreign population estimated at 100,000 at its peak, with many Muslims settling there. The most evident marker of this is the Qingjing Mosque, which is now exactly 1,000 years old. The site is partially in ruins (think of the Acropolis), and is well worth the paltry 3 yuan (US$0.44) entrance fee. Although Quanzhou was home to one of the largest foreign communities in ancient times, this is not the case any more.

Quanzhou might just be the temple capital of China. Just stroll the streets, and you are bound to run into a temple of some kind, whether Taoist, Confucian, or Buddhist. They dot the older northwest quadrant of the city, and are well preserved and cared for, but not overly gentrified. If temples are your thing, Quanzhou is your city.

The city’s northern edge is defined by a long, winding mountain ridge. The peak, known as Qingyuan Mountain, offers a splendid view of the city beneath. You could spend an entire day hiking its trails, stopping by temples, teahouses, restaurants, and villages before arriving at the top to view the sunset. I opted for the easier route and took a motorbike to the top for 60 yuan roundtrip along the winding road. Hundreds of locals were soaking up the fresh air and scenery while walking, biking, or riding to the top.

Quanzhou also boasts some of the friendliest people I have ever met in China. While you are sure to be invited in for tea when you visit Chaozhou, you’ll experience no less in Quanzhou. Moments upon stepping off the bus, a local guided me, on motorbike, to the beach I was looking for. The next day, a factory owner invited me to his sculpture factory for a tour. Later, while photographing an old neighborhood, another local invited me for what turned out to be a long night of karaoke and club-hopping with his entourage. And finally, something we can all relate to, the ubiquitous “hello!” from strangers. While in Shenzhen it often feels mocking and insincere, in Quanzhou it felt innocent, genuine, and always accompanied with a smile or wave.

Old neighborhoods, a beautiful lake, blue skies, vibrant night markets, nearby beaches and mountainous tea farms are just a few more reasons to make Quanzhou your next travel destination.

Next time you think about visiting Chaozhou or Xiamen for the weekend, consider the small Fujianese city just beyond. Chances are you’ll come away with a rich and fulfilling travel experience.