A rush to buy train tickets for China’s “National Week” holiday (dubbed “Golden Week”) led me to Quanzhou 泉州. When I announced my intention to spend most of my time there instead of the neighbouring, and much more famous Xiamen 厦门 (formerly “Amoy”), people were confused.
Reader, I do not regret my decision.
Quanzhou may be “end of the line” in some respects (being the end of the old maritime Silk Road, a far less well-known route than its overland counterpart), and “in the middle of nowhere” in others (as most passengers seemed to be heading to either Xiamen, which is an island, or Fuzhou, the provincial capital).
Yet the city has its own energy, a quiet presence which modernity has clearly failed to erode. The centuries have passed unheeded. An oddly timeless lull hovers over the old arcades, where shopkeepers sleep at noon and their caged birds fall silent. There are architectural gems and ruins which haven’t been ruined.
A highlight was the Buddhisttemple, Chéngtiān Sì (承天寺) complete with pools filled with a variety of turtles and terrapins. I was lucky enough to sight a large black turtle, who seemed to be the solitary member of his species. Unlike in Chittagong (Bangladesh), the turtles here are not part of a legend involving sorcery, rather, they simply exist and are maintained as a reminder of the harmony in which mankind should exist with nature.
The arched gate of the Ashab/ Qingjing mosque (清真寺/”Mosque of Purity”) is a reminder of Quanzhou’s dynamic mercantile past. This structure is China’s only surviving mosque from the Song dynasty, built by Arab traders in 1009. A graveyard remains, overgrown and majestic, with tombstones which still detail the life and death of these alien residents from a millennium ago. Old curio shops at the north side of the mosque seem to give credence to the popular legend that this is indeed the birthplace of the “Aladdin” story, and that the lamp which inspired the story was purchased from one of the surviving antique dens, where many curiosities have passed through since.
In the 13th century Marco Polo described Quanzhou (where he was sailing back to Europe from) as rivalling Alexandria, the premier port city of the day. Today, it is unfairly held up as the “Shanghai of the Song dynasty”, which may express the cosmopolitan and bustling atmosphere which once animated the city, but doesn’t do justice to the fact that part of Quanzhou’s charms is the very fact that it did not modernise in the same ways, or at least, at the same pace as other Chinese cities, and has therefore retained a lot of its historic character (with several parts of the city being meticulously restored, as recognised by UNESCO).
It’s the relatively quiet way in which the city conducts its business which made me warm to it. There are still people pulling carts of fresh fruit and vegetables through the city. There are still youth hostels which are basically people’s ancestral homes, opened to the world, but located in tiny, almost-closed-off stone alleyways.
Yes, there are cars and buses (and of course, scooters), but there remain still autumnal evenings with an endless, ambiguous stretch of time reserved for intricate tea ceremonies. Food and drink, and entertaining are still an art here, and, in a different age, religions from all corners of the world find themselves represented here, and linger.