For the last 10 months I have been living in both the Xiang’an and Siming areas of Xiamen, China for my Year Abroad. Below are my observations and tips to upcoming students travelling here.
Chinese people typically refer to Chongqing, Wuhan and Nanjing as the “Three Furnaces” of China because of their extreme heat in the summer months. However, meteorologists would also add Fuzhou, capital of Fujian Province where Xiamen is located, to the list. If Fuzhou is anything like Xiamen, I’m inclined to agree as from July to September the blaring sun coupled with the constant humidity can be suffocating.
This is a particular problem in the new, four year old Xiang’an Campus (where the language students are educated) because of its simply leviathan size and lack of fully-fledged trees which would give ample shade as seen on Xiamen University’s (Xiada) older, Siming Campus. As someone who daily douses themselves in factor 50, I survived these temperature highs with fewer struggles than I imagined, although at the start of the exchange I found myself having two cold showers a day to adjust.
Other temperature extremes include typhoons (not to worry, this just means a lot of rain and wind but no flooding) and cold winters, exacerbated by the fact that the dorms don’t include or permit heaters. Fortunately buying a duvet is cheap! I would not pack a duvet, as it takes up valuable luggage space and during the summer months you’ll only want a sheet at best. Pillows can be purchased cheaply at the student shops just outside the dorm blocks.
The dorms are located on the West side of the Campus, 10 minutes walk from West Gate (Xi men) where you can catch buses and 30 minute walk from the Overseas Building where you study. These distances make it imperative to buy a bike early on; my roommate even learned to cycle here just for this necessity. Bikes can be purchased near the big canteen (Xiqi) next to the Chinese student dorms for around 150-400 kuai (or £20-50).
The dorms themselves are six stories high and will either have a balcony with a sink and mirror or a small adjoining room with the same. They are fairly small with two beds, two desks, one wardrobe and two safes. I never really felt like my room was overcrowded with a roommate and it’s fairly easy to catch some privacy as class hours are likely to be different. Your “flat” will have three other rooms apart from yours and will hold eight people maximum, all of the same sex. However in the complex and classes everything is mixed. Your flat has one universal sink, two Western toilets (plus two urinals if you are male) and showers in the same cubicles which cost <2 kuai per hot water use or are free for cold water. Sink water is not potable so you must buy either a water dispenser or bottles of water for consumption.
In the summer months I used the cold water shower, it’s meant to be healthier too!
Some students had heard that if you paid extra you could have your own room. While this may have been in effect in previous years, it was no longer available.
Unfortunately, Chinese and Foreign dorms are kept apart and so your roommate will be international (mine was Korean). Especially if their English isn’t at a high level, this can be an opportunity to practise Chinese but I admit it’s a shame we are kept apart from the Chinese students.
Washing machines are located one the first floor. There are surprisingly few and cost 3 kuai to operate, so save your coins! Drinks machines and hot water is also located here. Our flat bought a washing machine cheap on Singles Day (China’s Black Friday) from Taobao (A site similar to Amazon).
As soon as you get your student card go to the bank immediately to link it to your new Chinese debit card. Go early to avoid the queues, and I mean before opening early. I went later and waited around 4 hours to finish, go early and this is dramatically reduced. If possible go with a Chinese speaker since not all the workers can speak English.
Your student card can open the gate to your dorms complex and the library gates, but without money you won’t be able to eat at the canteens, use the showers or pay for electricity for your room (about 30 kuai every month or so). Whilst you’re here (bank is near xiqi canteen) you should probably get a Chinese sim and Internet modem too. If you don’t get your card early enough, go to the Third Floor in Xiqi (kiosk at the far left end to buy vouchers) or the small canteen near the dorms for options to buy food with money. You can also go to the East Gate (Dong men) for restaurants.
Before China you should download the Southampton VPN and unlock your phone (or buy a Chinese phone once you’re here). Once you have a phone in China your two most important apps will be WeChat (Weixin) as a means of communication and Baidu maps.
At the start of the year they give you a booklet with important dates for getting your Residence Permit and Health Check. Ideally the Residence Permit should be done in the first 30 days of your stay and will require 2 trips to the island. You can go with the coordinated university bus or by yourself but it involves a few stops. Buy a folder and make sure you keep every form in it while you are here such as proof of your jabs (Typhoid, Hep B and Japanese Encephalitis were recommended to me), your room deposit of 1000 kuai and various slips you need for your permit.
This whole routine is a headache, but once it is out of the way, everything gets better.
There are two train stations called Xiamen North and Xiamen station. From Xiang’an, both take at least 90 minutes to get to by bus (price is 1 kuai and 2 kuai respectively) and you should aim to arrive at the station, with physical ticket in hand, an hour before departure. You can get taxis from Xiang’an, if you’re lucky then from West Gate bus station, but generally you should phone one beforehand to pick you up from the student halls. Unlike on the island, taxis don’t frequent Xiang’an often and will cost you over 70 kuai to go to each station.
Therefore, it is best to pick up your tickets a day or two or three hours before because of the sometimes horrendously long queues. You’ll then do a quick security check.
If you link your Chinese debit card to your mobile number at the bank, then you can access online banking and will be able to use Taobao, WeChat pocket and, importantly 12306.com (be careful to make sure it isn’t a scamming site). A Chinese train ticket site which doesn’t charge additional service fees for each purchase. If you haven’t linked your account, want to use your English debit card or use an English site, then Ctrip is your next best option. It charges a service fee of 20 kuai per ticket but also offers 50 kuai off hotels for every purchase. Check the high speed train network to see if your location is there or can be reached using two or more fast trains compared to one overnight train.
I’ve gotten 8 hour trains from Guangzhou to Shanghai on a 2nd class seat and been fairly comfortable most of the ride. The trains are better in China than in the UK. If you book a ticket you have a guaranteed seat on an air-conditioned, non-smoking carriage. 2nd class comprises of sets of two and three seats and 1st class of lines of two seats only with access to charging ports. If you miss your train, go to the cashier at the gaiqian 改签 counter and they can put you on another train later in the day free of charge or refund your ticket. If you haven’t picked up the ticket and it is more than two hours before your departure, you can also cancel tickets on Ctrip and they do this for you.
I once got switched to a standing ticket as it was the only one available. If this is the case you can sit in open seats or at the dining car but in the former, will have to get up if the owner of the seat gets onboard.
As for flying, the airport is on the island in the Huli quarter on the north. Sometimes flights will be cheaper than the train (or only marginally more expensive) and will get there much faster, so it is always good to check. Ctrip again is useful here.
Buses from Xiang’an leave from West Gate and East Gate. The 759 takes 1 hour to Siming’s West Gate (called Xicun) and comes once an hour, as of 2016 at every 10 to the hour. 751 leaves much more frequently but takes 2 hours to arrive. Other buses go to Xindian, a nearby town with a movie complex and KTV and Xiamen North station.
If you do unfortunately find yourself sick in Xiamen, there are options available. On Xiang’an Campus there is a small clinic open near the Xiqi canteen. On Xiamen island there is Diyiyuan 第一院, a Chinese hospital. You will need to register and set a 100 kuai deposit down on a hospital card before you find care, you can find nurses here who speak English and doctors should have some level of English too.
These hospitals are very likely to provide Traditional Chinese medicine, a Taiwanese, Western Hospital can be found in the Haicang Area to the West of Xiamen island called Chunggang Yiyuan 长庚医院. Here you will need to take a number from the machine to the left of the registration counters to ask for a specific department. This hospital tends to run more tests than the others so is a good choice if you want a second opinion. Dentists are also found at hospitals.
Always take your passport and remember that the University provides Free Travel insurance which includes Emergency Health Cover!
If you have any other questions about Xiamen, Xiang’an or China, feel free to message me on email@example.com