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retun to quanzhouJesse Warren, February 18, 2011, Shenzhen Daily

PLAYING second fiddle to its bigger and richer sister city of Xiamen, Quanzhou is often overlooked, but for no good reason. This city in southeastern Fujian has all the history, art, culture, entertainment, and hospitality one could hope for in a travel destination. After more than a year since my first visit, I was finally able to return, with great expectations and I was not let down.

The first port of call was Luoyang Bridge, dating back to 1053, and regarded as one of the “four famous ancient bridges” in China. In fact, it did not seem ancient at all, having been repaired over the years. One could be forgiven for thinking it was contemporary. Spanning the Luo River, it stretches about 1km a few meters above the water. It was relaxing to stroll across the bridge and take in the marshland and singing birds with the city in the distance.

The beckoning hill of Daping Mountain, visible from the freeway, is topped by a giant statue of a soldier on horseback: Koxinga, or Zheng Chenggong. He is credited with driving the Dutch out of Taiwan in the 1660s, and seen as a hero by leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. The statue site is crawling with tourists, while children slide down the slopes, creating a festive atmosphere and providing an aerial view of the city.

Nearby, ancient Lingshan Islamic Tombs seem to be rarely visited. Paths wind through the trees among grave sites, new and old, that dot the hill. I’ve always found graveyards to be peaceful and serene, and this one surely exemplifies that spirit.

It was refreshing to come across several coffeehouses on the smallest of lanes, often with artistically decorated interiors. Despite being the birthplace of kung-fu tea, Quanzhou apparently has its own coffee culture, thankfully without a Starbucks in sight.

While conventional traveling involves big tourist attractions, another approach emphasizes “going local.” For a big city, this is surprisingly easy in Quanzhou. While wandering the old streets and taking photos, it’s almost impossible not to be invited in for tea along the way. And you should oblige, and experience one of China’s great social traditions. This friendliness and inviting attitude define and permeate the city.

Across the Jinhe River to the south of Quanzhou is the newer Licheng District. In the center one can find a large grassy knoll, Citizens Square, which is dotted with locals picnicking, strolling, flying kites, and so on. Across the street is the Quanzhou Amusement Park, featuring an enormous ferris wheel, but a steep admission price.

From there, relying on iPhone maps alone I saw a temple, and in the same direction, a small mountain range. Deducing the temple must be there, I set off on a motorbike. Suyan Temple was the last stop of my trip, featuring winding hilly trails, leading to yet another stunning aerial view of the city at sunset. If vistas are your thing, don’t miss this one. Yet again, I was blessed by local geniality from a man who drove me down in the dark.

Quanzhou is not your average Chinese city. It’s the kind of place where time moves slowly, and the people seem happy. It’s one of those gems “off the beaten path.” Only a seven-hour bus ride from Shenzhen, there’s no reason not to visit. The city is brimming with attractions and I haven’t even mentioned the most popular ones. And equal to those are the small unexpected encounters you find along the way. To find out more, you’ll simply have to visit yourself.