My initial impression of Fuqing was much the same as many Chinese cities I’ve been to. A sprawling mass of concrete apartment blocks and wide noisy roads.
My wife and I had planned to visit for the weekend. But on the Friday night as we walked from our hotel to the centre, we wondered if there would be much here.
That night, we walked to Wanda (the chain shopping complex) and ate ice-cream in Hong Kong waffles on Golden Street. This was the most interesting of many of Wanda’s Golden Streets we’d seen on our travels in China, with cascades of colourful lanterns and parasols dancing in the breeze on wires overhead.
Our real destination wasn’t the city, however, but the villages that surrounded it. We found they helped paint Fuqing with unique character that made it well worth a visit, despite first appearances.
Read on to discover my first impressions of the villages outside Fuqing.
The South Shaolin Temple and Dongzhangzhen Village
Saturday took us in search of Fuqing’s South Shaolin temple. This is the smallest of three Shaolin temples in Fujian, all of which claim to be the 2,500-year-old original South Shaolin temple of legend.
Baidu maps has placed this in the village of Dongzhangzhen, just north of the massive reservoir that lies northwest of Fuqing. Our Didi driver seemed surprised, however, when we arrived to find no temple. The local villagers instead directed us eighteen kilometers further – away from the reservoir and into the hills.
We stepped out from the car onto soft ground, muddy from the previous night’s rains. The air was fresh with the scent of mountain pines. We stood and gazed out over the raised dirt ford across the dried-out stream.
Fuqing South Shaolin Temple from Distance
Surprisingly, there weren’t many visitors. Instead workmen in yellow helmets smoked under a tall construction crane that lifted long metal poles onto a scaffolding. Beneath this, a pagoda had begun to take form.
We explored the temple grounds, marveling at the golden Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and the tall stone Bodhisattva, Guanyin, who overlooked the construction from above.
This Angry Looking Dog Guarded the Temple GroundsThere wasn’t any sign of the Shaolin monks. Only an angry looking dog with squinty eyes like George Bush Jr. which guarded the deserted school at the top.
On leaving, we realized we had no clue how to return. We knew there were buses, but we didn’t know when and where to find them.
Fortunately, a kind elderly couple offered to drive us back. They dropped us off at Dongzhangzhen village.
There we took some time to explore the village’s canola farms, honey bees from the local hives buzzing all around us and spectacular views of the reservoir beyond. We traversed across to a park which led down to a lakeside beach, from where we watched cranes skim over the still waters.
Haikou Town and Mi Le Fo
The following day, we left Fuqing in search of another idol. We’d heard of a massive Laughing Buddha as long and wide as it is tall, just north of Haikou town.
This time, we knew the way by bus. We ended up a little down the road from Longjiang bridge (a Song dynasty stone bridge that spans the Longjiang estuary), passing a duck farm and a troop of goats.
We must have stayed on the bridge for a good half hour, while I photographed cranes and cormorants that had perched themselves on small sandy islands. Mopeds whizzed by as I did.
We eventually crossed into Haikou town where children rode bicycles through narrow streets, between buildings made of dirty red brick. It felt as if we’d entered another age, quite a world apart from the concrete jungle of Fuqing.
After a lunch of carp fresh from the tank and prepared the Chinese way in soy sauce and ginger, we walked a more modern road towards Niuzhaicun village. The rhythmic sound of machinery thrumming from a quarry behind.
Again, the map proved to be wrong, although this time the fault wasn’t Baidu but Tripadvisor. We had to ask a couple of local schoolgirls for directions. They responded by wilfully escorting us to Mi Le Fo, the site of the Laughing Buddha.
Steps rose to Mi Le Fo’s right, into a cloister of temple pagodas where incense smoke had settled between the boulders. This led around the back of the Laughing Buddha to the other side where a small dog in pyjamas played beside the pond.
We climbed another set of stairs to discover Buddhist shrines nestled within grottos that emanated a sense of spirituality as old as the rocks themselves. The path seemed to lead further into the mountains, but the sky threatened rain and we had to get back to Xiamen.
Later at Fuqing train station, a poster in Chinese displayed a photo of the South Shaolin temple with the words (translated): “The source of Fujian. Remember your roots.”
I’m not sure if Fujian’s temple is the original South Shaolin Temple. But both there and at Mi Le Fo, I felt a sense of being transported back in time.
Getting to Fuqing
Fuqing is on the main Chinese east coast train line from Beijing to Shenzhen. The train station is outside of town, so you may need to use a taxi to get to your hotel.
When we were there, no easily accessible buses that went to the South Shaolin temple, and so we had to use the Chinese Uber-like taxi service, Didi to get there (tip: ask your hotel staff for help).
We used Baidu maps to navigate by bus from Fuqing to Haikou town. This does, however, need a little bit of deciphering Chinese.
Thanks for reading my article about Fuqing at Being a Nomad. An edited version of this article was first published in the Xiamen Daily newspaper. Have you ever visited any Chinese sites (temples or otherwise) off the tourist trail? If so, please let us know about it in the comments. We’d love to hear about your adventure.
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