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FUJIAN (福建, fújìan), on China’s southeastern coast, is well off the beaten track for most Western travellers, which is a pity because the province possesses not only a wild mountainous interior, but also a string of old ports, including Xiamen (厦门, xiàmén), probably China’s most relaxed coastal city. From Hong Kong, the well-trodden routes head directly west towards Guilin, or north to Shanghai, but a detour to Xiamen makes an excellent introduction to mainland China.

Culturally and geographically, the province splits into distinct halves. One is made up of large, historical seaports and lush, semitropical coastal stretches, whose sophisticated population enjoys warm sun and blossoming trees even in January. The other is the rugged, mountainous and inaccessible interior, freezing cold in winter, home to around 140 different local dialects and with a history of poverty and backwardness: when the Red Army arrived in the 1960s they found communities unaware that the Qing dynasty had been overthrown, and even today, the area is wild enough to harbour the last remaining South China tigers. However, while inland Fujian until recently knew very little even of China, contacts between the coastal area and the outside world had been flourishing for centuries. In the Tang dynasty, the port of Quanzhou (泉州, quánzhōu) was considered on a par with Alexandria, and teemed with Middle Eastern traders, some of whose descendants still live in the area today. So much wealth was brought into the ports here that a population explosion led to mass emigration, and large parts of the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines and Taiwan were colonized by Fujianese. In the early eighteenth century this exodus of able-bodied subjects became so drastic that the imperial court in distant Beijing tried, ineffectually, to ban it.

Today the interior of Fujian remains largely unvisited and unknown, with the exception of the scenic Wuyi Shan (武夷山风景区, wŭyíshān fēngjĭng qū) area in the northwest of the province, and the Hakka regions around southwesterly Yongding (永定, yŏngdìng). The coast, however, is booming, with colossal investment pouring in from both Hong Kong and neighbouring Taiwan, many of whose citizens originate from the province and speak the same dialect. The cities of Fuzhou (福州, fúzhōu) and Xiamen are among the wealthiest in the country, particularly Xiamen, with its clean beaches, charming streets and shopping arcades. The proximity of Taiwan accounts not only for the city’s rapid economic development and the proliferation of first-class tourist facilities, but also for the occasional outbreak of tension. During Taiwanese elections, mainland authorities often hold military exercises just off the coast as a gentle reminder to the Taiwanese not to vote for separatist candidates – a tactic which usually backfires, as demonstrated by the back-to-back election victories of pro-independence Chen Shui-Bian in 2000 and 2004, while military exercise-free elections in 2008 saw Beijing-friendly candidate Ma Yingjiu sweep to power. Cross-straits business manages to smooth over the cracks somewhat, but the hundreds of missiles pointing from the mainland to Taiwan remain.

Getting around Fujian has become easier in recent years, with a fast coastal expressway linking the main cities with neighbouring Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces. To reach the interior wilds of Wuyi Shan, you’re better off catching a train, with separate lines from Fuzhou, Quanzhou and Xiamen; Fuzhou also has a decent link through to Jiangxi province, and there’s another track west to Meizhou in Guangdong from Xiamen and Quanzhou. Otherwise, train travel within or beyond the province is circuitous and very slow.

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