As the administrative capital of Fujian province, China, it’s easy to believe Fuzhou lacking in character. We’d been to this city numerous times. But our experiences had been of hospital blocks and Fuzhou main station. Neither are the prettiest of sights.
You see, that’s often what we find with cities in China. It’s as if they’re constructed of walls.
The first wall encloses the plethora of government and official buildings scattered around the city. Second are the concrete apartment blocks so characteristic of China and other once-or-now communist countries. Third are mountains that envelop them all, which are often insurmountable, not through sheer cragginess, but rather the orchards and chicken farms that abruptly cut off the paths.
Last weekend, Ola had a Chinese language exam in Fuzhou (she’ll blog about it soon). So, we decided to spend a little longer there and we discovered many hidden nuggets previously unknown to us.
If you can navigate your way through the concrete jungle, Fuzhou has plenty of delights to offer. Here are some that we discovered.
Three Hills and Two Pagodas
Fuzhou’s original name literally translates to ‘Three Hills and Two Pagodas’. These three hills are Yu Shan, Wu Shan and Ping Shan which lie on the corners of an isosceles triangle. Black Pagoda and White Pagoda are two towering pagodas that look upon each other from east to west and west to east.
We only had time to visit Yu Shan (also called Sea Turtle Mountain), a 58 metre hill situated bang in the centre of the city. From the top, it offers spectacular views of surrounding Fuzhou. The climb up isn’t difficult.
It’s a maze of temples, pagodas, museums, monuments of revolutionaries, and grottoes. There’s plenty of signs around in English, explaining everything – although sometimes the translations can be a little difficult to understand.
The most spectacular part of this park by far, however, is the White Pagoda and its temple on the southwest side of this park. We were fortunate enough to be there just before lantern festival. The strings of lanterns radiating out from the pagoda made an impressive display. But I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor sods who had to put them up there.
February is also a great time to visit. This month marks the coming of spring when the flowers bloom. Some of these are so alien I don’t even know where to look for their name.
Gu Shan Mountain
The Brave Hiking Trail and the Cable Car
Right on the east side of Fuzhou, the 925-metre Gu Shan (Drum Mountain) is where the city ends and the countryside begins.
As we approached by bus, we had that sense of awe that we’d encountered many times in East Asia. The way the mountain jutted out of the landscape reminded us that each of China’s huge cities are but small blemishes on a much more giant land.
We got off the bus, walked the road to the foot of the mountain, passing buses and stores selling Chinese street food. Soon we arrived at a fork, where we could either turn left into the cable-car station or climb a steep path all the way to the top.
We decided to take the cable car. It was a long ride up which gave us plenty of time to gaze out at the growing rows of pines and cityscape as it unfolded beneath us. The path ran underneath us from where hikers looked up and waved as we passed.
At the top, we saw a sign which denoted that steep path as the ‘Brave Hiking Trail’. A rather apt name, we thought.
Gu Shan Peak
The mountain is far enough from the city that it feels like a world apart. Around the entrance area there are a lot of tourists, although we didn’t see any westerners.
We started off by eating in an outdoor cafeteria serving cheap food. I had ban mian, a local Fujian dish from Sanming of noodles in a sesame and peanut sauce. Ola had meatball soup. Both tasted good, particularly when eaten in such fresh air.
It was reasonably crowded up there, being a Saturday. But just a short walk from the cable car entrance is a ticket booth (70 yuan / $10 return) to the peak. This was well worth doing as the crowds diminish and grottoes are dotted around where monks used to live. There’s quite a lot of stairs involved, however, so be prepared to raise your energy levels.
I just wish I knew Chinese as there’s a lot of Chinese poetry inscribed on the rock faces around here. These apparently date back to the Song Dynasty (960- 1279 AD). It’s restful enough, however, just to sit and stare at the prettiness of the symbols set against the surrounding scenery.
To get there, grab the number 36 bus from central Wuyi Square. A teller will be selling tickets at the back of the bus, which cost 1.5 yuan (0.2 USD) per passenger. Look out for a road leading to a car park at the bottom of the mountain on the left. You can get off just after that.
The cable car costs 70 yuan (10 USD) per person for a return ticket.
West Lake Park
Ola had her exam in an education centre on the northwest side of town. So, this gave me a little time to explore and I was resolute to make the most of it.
First I dropped into a local temple, with a tiny two yuan entry fee. There was a lot to read there, albeit in Chinese, and not much else. The place did have an incredibly charismatic and jovial ticket seller, however, who wanted to practice his limited English.
After that, I had about two hours to explore the West Lake Park just on the North West side of the city.
Now, I know of two West Lakes – one in Hangzhou, one in Hanoi. I’ve visited them and they’re both massive. Fuzhou West Lake is measly in comparison.
But for what it doesn’t have in size it makes up for in character. There’s a series of bridges that connects the islands of the lake, which can be explored readily. The central island was packed with tourists but I found some more peaceful areas as I moved outwards.
It was a great place for photography. There were tulips growing on one of the bridges, making for some nice macros with pedaloes blurred out in the background. I didn’t have enough time to get on a boat, but they seemed to run at around 40 yuan per go.
Next time I return to Fuzhou, I intend to go to the Fujian Museum on the northernmost island. This massive building dominates the entire island and is meant to be packed with tons of information about the province.
The West Lake is about a forty minute walk from the centre of Fuzhou.
Fuzhou Old Town
I met Ola just after she had finished. We went for some Hakka food in the area then decided to go back to the hotel, both pretty tired. But, still, we decided to take a diversion via Fuzhou Old Town.
I’ve often heard China referred to as the ‘New Wild West’. I think part of this comes from the general disregard for the law by many of the locals. But areas like Fuzhou’s old town feel to me like 19th century American saloon villages, with the wooden buildings running in straight lines down the street.
We entered the old town through the stone arch on the north side of Nanhou street. It was the Sunday after Chinese lantern festival and so the street had packed up with Chinese tourists. This gave it a kind of bustling character and made us ever the more feel like we were in China.
It’s a great place for shopping with stalls selling Chinese woodcarvings, stone carvings, pottery, Vietnamese style hats. There was plenty of local Fuzhou street food as well, most places packed.
And, for those missing home, it even has a Starbucks. They’ve kept true to the architecture of the area, which actually make this an interesting building to visit.
Further down the road, a dozen or so narrow alleys led off from both sides of the street, some decorated with hanging parasols. Signs explained the history of each of these alleys turning the street into an outdoor museum.
Some Wonderful Restaurants
I’m not going to dwell too long on this, as I’ve already written a lot. But I did want to include a few recommendations. Two chains in which I’ve eaten in other cities and one surreal restaurant in the old town.
We first encountered Mrs Chou in Putian, a city north of Fuzhou where we lived for two years. The food there had astounded us and so we felt delighted to find one restaurant right next to our hotel.
They serve Sichuan style food. We had frog served in a spicy broth with yams, mushrooms, and tofu. If you’ve never had frog before, it’s delicious with a texture half way between chicken and fish.
I suspect Mrs Chou might have been founded in Fuzhou as we found restaurants all over the city.
Just east of Wuyi square, in the same building as Ajisen Ramen, is the Li Restaurant. This is another chain with a lot of food from all over China.
Simply put, fantastic food. Try their pumpkin mash in particular, served up in an iron dish. It makes for a great dessert.
The Four Seasons
We were just about to leave the old town when we saw this restaurant. It looked so appealing from the outside that we just had to go in.
A little China tip. Some of the more expensive restaurants often have cheaper dishes on the menu that will still fill you up. Quite often, they’re happy to have foreigners in there and so will be welcoming even if you don’t pay much.
Plus, they are often fascinating places.
The Four Seasons looks like a converted temple. The staff allowed us to walk around this historic building and it felt like we’d traveled back in time a couple of hundred years.
They sat us in the centre of a courtyard, with a stream running around us. We ordered some sweet and sour that came served in half a pineapple and some fish flavoured tofu balls in a coconut curry sauce.
Their speciality seems to be hotpot with raw meat served on top of bowls of shaved ice. Waiters run around with these bowls as families chat away.
This restaurant is worth checking out, for both the friendly staff and the antiquity of the building itself.
How to Get There and Around
Fuzhou is on the East coast and so easily accessible. Trains run from Shanghai, Shenzhen, and less frequently Beijing.
It also has its own airport with shuttle buses to the centre.
So long as you know where you want to go on the map, you can easily get around using the Baidu Maps app on an iPhone or Android phone. Just click on the location then click on the bus icon and the app will show you where to go. We’ll blog more about how to do this soon.
Be warned when using any taxis in Chinese cities that you can easily to get ripped off. Either be prepared to pay a premium or to haggle. A way to avoid this is to use the designated taxi stands at the airport or train stations. Here, policemen ensure that taxi drivers are using properly working meters.
Where to Stay
One difficulty many face when staying in hotels in large cities in China is the hardness of the beds. You might as well be sleeping on a plank of wood. Another, is that hotels are often in such an obscure area of the city that it’s difficult to get around.
We stayed at the Jinjiang Inn in the centre. Wuyi square was only a short walk away.
This is a budget hotel, so you can get a room for less than 150 yuan (20 USD). We found the beds to be soft in all the ones we stayed in. You can book a room on Ctrip here.