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Why I Set Up In Xiamen

I chose a new base of operations, but out of all the places in the world, why Xiamen?

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I often talk about having these “bases of operation” and “travel hubs” around the world, but I rarely discus why I chose these places to set up shop in. Often, I just sort of land in places, take a look around, say “This’ll do,” and use them as a travel hub for a few months or so. Though recently I’ve been using these hubs for quite a bit longer and the reasons why I select them have become far more complex and intentional.

My family and I are now all set up on Xiamen, an island that sort of hangs off the loins of China’s Fujian province. But why did we chose to come here when we could have gone anywhere?

Where is Xiamen?

Where is Xiamen?

Why Xiamen is a good travel hub

They speak Mandarin Chinese here

This was one of the main reasons we decided to build two consecutive hubs in China. I want my daughter to speak Chinese like a native. The experiment is progressing well, starting this week I noticed her saying things to people that I couldn’t understand. The first time it happened I was rather surprised:

“Petra, what did you say to that lady?”

“I asked her why her teeth were like that.”

The lady had buck teeth.

The kid is curious. Language is the work horse of curiosity.

I knew the day would come when her Mandarin language skills would start to surpass my own, and while I believe I’m still a step or two ahead of her, she’s picking up speed and will roll pass me soon.

Though I can’t say that China was our first choice. We shot for Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan first, but my wife didn’t turn up an acceptable job offer in any of these countries.

Which brings me to the second reason we’ve set up again in China:

There is work here

My wife did receive job offers in the other Chinese speaking countries she applied for work in, but they were all at training centers where she would be an English teacher working nights and weekends. My wife can teach English, but that’s not really what she specializes in. She’s a Montessori teacher and she likes to have her own class where she can teach her students to build block towers and use an abacus and all that Montessori stuff. She had her own class in Taizhou, and leaving that to become a “run of the mill English teacher” did not seem very appealing. Also, few of these schools seemed particularly excited about taking on the family — meaning the kid and I.

Yup, wherever my wife lands a job Petra and I go too. We need visas, residency permits, health checks, and all that stuff that employers get for their employees. Schools need to really want to hire an employee to take on this kind of package, and those in China seemed far more prone and willing to do this than some others (though my wife did get offered a job in Mexico that was more than willing to take us all on).

In point, China is desperate for teachers with my wife’s credentials and experience. “Montessori” schools have become incredibly trendy here, and schools struggle to fill their rosters with educated, experienced, and native English speaking (a big marketing plus) Montessori teachers.

Needless to say, my wife ended up with a stack of job offers from top notch schools around the China. Some of them were also willing to pay impressive sums of money as well.

So it became clear that at this juncture another shift in China would be our best move if we wanted to satisfy requirement A (language) and requirement B (wife’s work).

But why Xiamen? With all of these job offers from all over the country why did we decide on this place that few people outside of China has ever really heard of?

The air is clean(er)

Well, the air is drastically cleaner here than in most other parts of China. Xiamen is a permanent fixture on China’s “Top 10 air quality cities” lists, and Fujian province is known by the optimistic moniker “Clean air province.”

There was no way that myself or my family was going to live in air that we could swim through again. The air quality in Taizhou, Jiangsu province — our last base of operations — was bad. Real bad. So bad that sometimes we couldn’t even see the buildings across the street. I did not want to subject myself or my family to another term of huffing massive quantities of PM 2.5 again. Air is something that should be breathed, not chewed.

All that hype about Xiamen’s air being good proved to be correct: the skies are clear and blue (most of the time). All the factories were even kicked off the island. Now the main air pollutants here are from automobiles and whatever waifs over from mainland Fujian province.

Though I really meant the “er” part when I said that the air here is cleaner. Few places in China outside of Hainan Island, northern Yunnan, Tibet, and the far south jungle realms really have “clean air,” but even regarding this the air in Xiamen is pretty decent. For most of the days I’ve been here I couldn’t detect a glint of pollution in the sky.

Of course it helps that Xiamen is an island floating in the Pacific Ocean that is dosed with fresh sea breezes just about all day long. Which brings me to the next reason why we chose Xiamen:

Xiamen is an island

When we think of islands we think of beaches, warm weather, sunshine, sea breezes, seascape views, yeah, this is Xiamen. Just over a thin range of cliffs that rise up behind my apartment is the sea. I can walk to the beach, which encircles most of the island. Yes, the beaches here are big enough to get away from the crowds if you find the urge to leave the wedding photograpers, brides, and idiots riding four wheelers behind.

There are also dozens of other islands all around Xiamen that are easy and cheap to access by ferry. One of the keys to setting up a travel hub is the distance you need to travel to get some variety. To be realistic, even if you travel out of your hub often (which is what you should be using these things for) some nearby change ups is essentially to stave off the mental numbness that comes from being in a place too long.

No two islands are exactly alike. When groups of humans are separated by a geographical feature — a range of hills or mountains, a river, the sea — what they create ends up different. As of now I have no idea what most of the islands that surround Xiamen consist of — but I will soon find out.

Taiwan is 30 minutes away

When you look off the coast of Xiamen one of the islands that you can see is called Kinmen. It’s Taiwan. I’ve been there before, it’s pretty interesting, way, way different than mainland China.

Good transportation

Xiamen is an island, which means that it’s inherently a pretty self-contained place that’s easy to navigate and find your way around. What’s even better is that the city is fully rigged with an almost excessive public transportation network. There are buses everywhere, and the island is divided up like a pie by an elevated bus line that cuts across horizontally as well as vertically. Transportation is super cheap as well, and you can easily get from one side of this floating mass to the other for a single RMB (16 cents).

Interesting history/ culture

Xiamen used to be known as Amoy. This place is ancient, and there is an almost inexhaustibly history to dig into.

Xiamen is an excellent air travel hub

Xiamen is well connected in the East Asian air grid, and I can get all over the region — as well as China — relatively cheaply. I can get to the Philippines and back for $150; Thailand for $300; Seoul for $300; Malaysia for $400; Jakarta for $400. For one-way, reduce these prices by around 40%.

Xiamen is warm

Xiamen sits at sea level almost exactly one degree north of the Tropic of Cancer. It’s warm here year round. Good. There is no good reason to live in the cold — ever. I screwed up last year when I agreed to stay in a place that had winter. I don’t want to do this again. I will stay within 30 degrees from the equator from here on out, venturing out only for summers in the north or south.

Travelers and expats have their choice of the weather they get. Stay out of the cold. Only set up in places along the belt line of the world below 1500 feet.

Xiamen has forested areas and rocky outcrops

Though Xiamen is very quickly developing there are still large wooded areas, unoccupied hills, cliffs, and plenty of strange looking rocky outcrops. These are places that not even the Chinese can build on, places were nature said “No fucking way.” I can walk 10 minutes from my door and be ascending a small mountain through a covering of trees.

Xiamen is full of bars and cafes and cheap restaurants

There are places to hang out here. There are at least a dozen cafes within a five minute walk from where I’m staying and about as many bars. Cheap restaurants are also everywhere, I can easily score full meals with meat, vegetables, and rice for three bucks.

When setting up places to stay in look for locations to easily meet and interact with people. When it comes down to it, this is probably the most important factor in enjoying a place.

Xiamen is at the edge of China

Xiamen is a last stop location in China, and it feels like it. Being here is like peaking over the edge of a giant precipice: everything beyond is starkly different than everything behind. My gaze is not facing back towards the mainland here, but out beyond the realm of this continent sized country. Xiamen is on the edge, this is good.


Travels 2012 - 2013 with a hub in Taizhou, Jiangsu province.

Travels 2012 – 2013 with a hub in Taizhou, Jiangsu province.

My mental construct of the world now looks like an assemblage of nodes with little lines sticking out of them like the spokes of a wheel. All of these spokes connect to other hubs, and this is the jagged, irregular way I move through the planet now:

Go out, come back, go out, come back.

Then when I feel like I’ve completed one hub — one region of a country — I move on to the next. My wife is doing 12 month work engagements, so that means that I have this next year to travel out from Xiamen.

I have to admit that I miss traveling along those contiguous paths that neatly slice around the globe like pealing the skin off an apple, but the spokes of the wheel travel strategy is by all accounts a more thorough way of travel. Rather than breezing through places without looking back, having a solid center to return to means being able to really look at and try to understand these places.

Travel is about time. You invest time into places and hope for a good return. By thoroughly traveling regions you can double down on impressions and observations, draw connections, and build a larger body of knowledge about places, cities, countries, and regions.

Though, again, I miss those long range blasts of travel, and though I say otherwise now, I can feel a few coming on soon.

Xiamen photos

The ocean

The ocean

Plenty of beach to go swimming

Plenty of beach to go swimming

Xiamen, a nice place to be

Xiamen, a nice place to be

Palm trees line the streets

Palm trees line the streets

A ferry dock

A ferry dock

Ferries cruising around Xiamen

Ferries cruising around Xiamen


Filed under: China, Travel Strategy

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

2 comments… add one

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  • WanderfulTogether August 20, 2013, 11:50 pm

    now that’s closer to the Philippines!!

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  • Kate August 21, 2013, 10:31 am

    I studied at Xiamen University about 5 years ago and loved every minute of it. I still dream about noodles from the Muslim-Chinese restaurant. I’ll be back someday…

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