Train is definitely the way to travel China. The stations and carriages are clean, tickets are reasonably priced, and with speeds of up to 220mph/350kph you can quickly reach almost any Han city (infrastructure outside of ethnic Chinese areas is noticeably subpar).
If you speak, read, and write Chinese then buying tickets is pretty simple. Even if you don’t, there’s a smartphone app called Ctrip that lets you look at schedules and purchase tickets for a $3 fee. I purchase my tickets without booking fees in Chinese on WeChat Pay or Alipay, the latter being the ubiquitous smartphone payment app run by the eponymous Alibaba tech giant.
A leftover from the days of tight travel restrictions, which have largely been lifted outside of Tibet, tickets can only be printed at a Chinese rail station after presentation of a passport. The self-printing kiosks can only be used in conjunction with a Chinese ID card. In the larger cities there’s usually a booth in the ticket halls where a clerk speaks at least some English. Just be prepared to shove out of the way any elderly patron who tries to cut in line (locals will help you do this, and it’s a great way to learn Maoist-era calls for behavior reform).
The journey by high speed train from Hangzhou to Xiamen, down south in Fujian province, takes a little less than six hours and cost 389 yuan ($61). I arrived around 8pm and immediately ordered a taxi on my phone to take me to my hotel. Uber lost the ride hailing battle to Didi, the local competitor, and you can use the popular WeChat messaging app to order and pay for rides (I prefer to use Alipay, but for whatever reason it says I don’t have enough “social status points” so I use WeChat; I use Alipay for everything else, like ordering delivery). It cost less than $2 for the 10 minute taxi to my hotel. Taxis in China are cheap.
The driver dropped me off in some back alley, which our maps said was the location of my hotel. “This can’t be it,” I thought to myself, so I wandered around a bit trying to find it. There were 15 hotels all right next to each other, and I finally walked in and asked a clerk for directions.
Chinese people all see me and immediately think, “WE MUST HELP THIS POOR, DEFENSELESS FOREIGNER OR HE WILL DIE.” He told me to sit down, gave me a Coke (coca cola, I’m not in South America anymore), and called my hotel to have someone walk me over. Turns it out I had reserved a room at the exact hotel in the alley I thought for sure couldn’t be it.
Rather than brave public transit, I took a taxi straight to Xiamen’s Wutong Wharf. The 30 minute ride cost only 66 yuan ($10.45) and was definitely worth it.
Ferries depart every 30 to 60 minutes from Wutong Wharf to Jinmen Island, just a mile from China. Jinmen, formerly Quemoy, rose to fame in the post-WWII and Cold War era. In 1949, Republican forces under Chiang Kai-Shek evacuated to the island of Taiwan but opted to keep forces on Jinmen and Matsu islands. The People’s Republic of China, which controlled the mainland, knew that to launch an invasion of Taiwan they first needed to control these islands. Because of miscalculations and errors, Mao Zedong failed to take these strategically located sites and thus was unable to conquer Taiwan. Through the Cross-Strait Crises of the 1950s China shelled Jinmen, which is only a mile away from its coast (and about 100 miles from Taiwan). In the 1960 presidential election, JFK and Nixon sparred over who would be tougher on China and the prospect of a nuclear confrontation over Jinmen was raised.
Tickets from Xiamen, China to Jinmen (controlled by the Republic of China, AKA Taiwan) cost 140 yuan ($22). Within 5 minutes of entering Wutong Wharf I’d purchased tickets on the next boat and had cleared the minimal security check. Although China fervently claims Taiwan, the reality is that Jinmen is not controlled by China. So I went through Chinese immigration control, which was very easy. It took about a minute of digital facial scanning, verifying the validity of my passport, and confirming the authenticity of my visa to get permission to leave the country and an exit stamp.
After an uneventful 25 minute boat ride I arrived at Shuitou Port. After leaving China it was a little strange to see large signs proclaiming WELCOME TO CHINA. Taiwanese immigration consisted of filling out a short customs form, and about 30 seconds later the immigration official had stamped my passport…right next to my Chinese work visa (coincidence?). Americans don’t need a visa to enter Taiwan, so it’s really easy.
There’s no ATM that accepts foreign cards at the port on the Taiwanese side, but I had some Chinese yuan with me and was able to convert into Taiwanese yuan. The Chinese and Taiwanese 100 yuan notes look almost exactly the same, and I thought I was going to cause World War III when I accidentally handed a clerk in Taiwan a banknote from across the Strait.
“You’re 27 and still not married?!” a local asked me in a thick Min accent and incredulous tone as we both waited for the bus to Jincheng, the island’s capital “city.” There are backpackers that wear a wedding ring when traveling through these kinds of places to stop all the interrogations about why aren’t you married and would you like to meet my daughter she’d love to move to the United States here’s her phone number. Women get asked that way more often than men, though. It’s also more of a conversation to be had on Chinese sleeper trains, where the best and worst part of the experience is sharing a compartment with an elderly woman from a small town that is your new best friend and wants to know absolutely everything about your life from the time you were born until the present day.
Accommodation in Taiwan is a lot more expensive than in China, so I stayed in a hostel in a village a few miles outside of the capital town. Jinmen Island is mostly rural farms and jungle, just above the Tropic of Cancer and about the same latitude as Cuba, and it was a nice change of pace to stay in a village rather than my usual Chinese megalopolis. I did notice a high proportion of locals missing an eye, arm, or leg, and wonder if the shelling from China decades ago had something to do with it.
“Why would an American come to an obscure village on an obscure island in Taiwan?” the hostel worker, a Taipei native doing seasonal work to get away from the big city, asked me. This is a pretty out of the way place to visit, but after two and a half months in some of the world’s largest cities it was nice to visit a tropical island of sparsely populated villages. Plus, China is pretty dystopic and I needed a break.
Connecting to the hostel wifi was an experience. Lo and behold, I was able to access Whatsapp, Google, Facebook, and Youtube! Much of the internet is blocked or tightly regulated in China, though I can access restricted content at low speeds with use of a virtual private network (VPN). Taiwan doesn’t have those restrictions, and it was a little weird to see people openly using things like Instagram and Facebook (both of which were blocked by the Politburo in China).
They speak Mandarin in Taiwan, though the Jinmen locals speak a dialect called Min. I had no trouble conversing in Mandarin on the island, and the Taiwanese backpackers convinced me, another American, and a Czech woman to take seven shots of 58% alcohol liquor. I don’t know if it made my Mandarin better, but it was a really fun night and I talked for a couple hours with the Taiwanese. We were all in our mid-20s, which was nice.
Recently, China and Taiwan have made it easier for people and trade to cross the Strait between the two countries. There are some hassles for locals because both countries make a show of refusing to recognize the other’s passport, but for foreigners it’s quite easy to enter and leave each as long as you have a Chinese visa. Taiwan doesn’t require a visa for most Westerners. Jinmen is a very popular way for people to go from China to Taiwan or vice versa, and I heard you can buy air tickets from Taipei to Jinmen or back for $50 to $60 on the day of travel. Then it’s $22 each way by boat to China.