Doing the 'rounds' of the amazing tulou houses in Fujian Province

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November 5th 2014
Published: November 29th 2014
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Quanzhou railway station was on the outskirts of the city and was extremely large and modern. Railway and intercity bus terminals in China have all been taken from the centre of the cities to the outskirts and housed in smart glossy terminals resembling airports. Some are very large.... It only took an hour and half to reach Longyan, where we had to catch a bus onward to the tulou region.

The tulou (which means earth) houses were built by the Hakka people (one of the Chinese ethnic groups) and are made of rammed earth and glutinous rice, reinforced with bamboo and wood chips. The structures were large enough to house clans (a hundred or so families) and were often built in circular form with an open area in the centre. With only one entrance (with a very solid door!) and window openings set high in the walls, they were built to protect their families from bandits and wild animals. Tulous are the ancient equivalent of the modern day apartment complex. We were both really looking forward to visiting them - many are today only inhabited by a couple of families who rely on a combination of income from tourism and farming.

We left Longyan railway station and were promptly swarmed by taxi touts offering to drive us to the area. They were very forceful and pushy and thankfully we were rescued by a young man who had been sitting near us in the train. He spoke some English and offered to take us to the local bus station where we could catch a bus to the area. He did just that - paid for a taxi to take us all and made sure we had purchased the correct ticket onwards before he rushed off to catch his bus in another direction. We had no idea where we were actually going, but knew that it was at least a two hour trip. The scenery was great - hills, tiny villages, tea growing terraces, tobacco fields and lots of massive tulous. In fact we had read that there were three thousand in the area, which seemed initially an exaggeration, but we saw so many scattered through the villages as we drove closer to the main area that it was probably true. We also passed many small coal mines which were rather a blot on the scenery.

We arrived in Liuilian (today known as Tulou Town) which is in the centre of the tourist area. Late in the afternoon it was very quiet - in fact we could see no other tourists at all. We left the bus right outside a massive circular tulou which dominated the village. Crossing the road we found accommodation in a tiny guesthouse with half a dozen rooms. We were the only guests staying there for the few days we were there. There was nothing in the village - a couple of small shops, a few eateries and a couple of other guest houses. We set off to explore the area across the small creek which ran through the town. We didn't realise that once we had crossed the creek we were actually in the Hongkeng tulou cluster - we had entered by the 'back gate'. This is the main tourist tulou area and contains tulous which are round, square and U shaped. We realised this only when we noticed souvenir stalls closing down for the day.

We spent a couple of hours wandering the area, free of charge, though we paid to go upstairs and walk around the verandahs of one of the largest tulous. It was magnificent - a total of 222 rooms over four floors. Built in 1912 of two concentric circles it had a large square ancestral hall complete with Western style pillars in the centre of it. It is almost impossible to describe how big these buildings are - you really appreciate their size when you are on the top floor looking at the wide curve of wall in front of you and looking down and across to the opposite side. Later we were really pleased that we had paid to visit the top floor as it was to be the only one we were actually allowed up in.

This region had 46 tulou buildings placed on the UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2010 so tourism has increased here dramatically in the past few years. However the villages still have a 'small' local atmosphere and there has been none of the 'new for old' construction so prevalent in many other areas of China. It is still hard to travel around as there are few local buses and no tourist shuttles so you have to hire your own transport. We asked the guesthouse owner to find us a driver for the next day. We just had to decide which tulou groups we wished to visit!

We ate dinner in a tiny street cafe that evening - a lovely meal cooked by a vivacious young woman who was happy for me to go into the kitchen and point at all the veges etc we wanted her to cook. They are always the best meals we eat when we travel.. We ate all of our meals in her little cafe. The guesthouse owner had organised a taxi for us early next day so we had an early night. We 'borrowed' doonas out of the room next door to pad the mattress under our sheet - once again it was rock hard. The village was in total darkness by nine o'clock that night...

Next morning our cheery driver turned up and we headed off to visit pretty Taxia village. This tiny village of 1600 people has over 40 earthen buildings which line the banks of a bubbling stream. It also has one of the best preserved and oldest (400 years old) ancestral halls in China. In front of the hall are twenty two stone carved flagpoles which were built in remembrance of various family members of the village clan, the Zhang. Next we visited Yuchang Lou, a five story circular structure with 270 rooms which too thirty years to build from 1308. It was the oldest tulou we visited. Interestingly in this building the internal pillars on the third and fifth floor were at opposite angles to each other - a little quirk, supposedly added by disgruntled builders to spoil the look, that none of the others had. Another feature was that each of the twenty five kitchens within had their own water well beside the stove instead of the usual large well set in the centre of the internal courtyard. By now I had realised our driver loved taking photos as he kept borrowing my camera to take photos of us. Actually it was great to have photos with both of us in them!

We then travelled up into the hills, passing many more tulous in villages, to a lookout above the village of Tianluokeng. What a fabulous viwepoint we had of the cluster of tulou below us. Probably the most photogenic village of all as it's main cluster was a large square tulou, surrounded by three circular and one oval tulou. Still in awe of their massive size we spent the next couple of hours exploring the tulous in the village whilst the driver snoozed in the car. There were main tulous that the tourists visited within all the villages (you had to pay an entrance fee for each village) and these tulous had souvenir stalls set up within. They were selling tacky tulou snow globes and cheap plastic toys and locally grown tea and tobacco. The tiny twigs attached to the tea leaves were being removed by hand in every tulou, and the men were hand rolling the tobacco into cigarettes which were sold in tulou branded boxes.

Outside village life went on - it was persimmon season and everywhere we looked you could see rows of the orange fruit on wooden trays and flat baskets drying in the sun. The semi dried fruit was then sold very cheaply to the tourists. To add to the colour were trays of amaranth flowers, which are added to tea leaves, also drying in the sun. However we found that we were made very welcome at most of the lesser tulous in the village with their owners inviting us in to wander the courtyards within. Many only housed a couple of families and some were sadly dilapidated.

We then drove to the Hongkeng complex (this time through the front gate) and it was teaming with Chinese tourists. We only visited the main tulou, Chenghi, the king of tulous, built in 1709 with an astounding 400 rooms it once housed 1000 people. Today it was full of tourists and tourist tack so we left quickly and went in search of a bank in the nearby town hoping to find an ATM which would accept our card. Foolishly we had forgotten to replenish the wallet in Quanzhou. Unfortunately the only ATM in the area didn't like our card. We had enough cash left for meals, the bus fare onwards to Xiamen and a couple of hours with a taxi next day. However after spending another couple of hours exploring the back end of the tourist area (again through the back gate, though we had to pay for a ticket this time) we decided that we had seen just enough tulous and really felt no need to visit more villages the next day.

We did thoroughly enjoy the last couple of hours when we walked along the creek which flowed through the tourist area. Everybody had boarded their buses and the area was peaceful and quiet once again. There are literally dozens of earthen houses and tulous along this stream and late in the afternoon all the residents had closed their souvenir booths and were working in their small fields. Row upon row of large tulous, some with barely walking space between them... Once again we were invited in to look and we 'chatted' with a lot of the elderly residents enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. It was nearly dark when we went back to the little cafe to eat. A simply wonderful day......

Next morning we walked to a nearby village which was made up of a combination of ugly modern brick houses and old tulous. One old man invited us into his tulou for a cup of tea. He was so pleased to see us and made us very welcome. He appeared to live alone within the large shabby tulou. A bit of a spooky place to be after dark but he's probably lived there all his life. After lunch we caught the bus onward to the coastal city of Xiamen which was our departure point from China. Fujian sees a lot of local tourism but we saw no other western tourists in the tulou area (except one Australian man visiting with his Chinese wife). It is an amazing place - with Datong it was my favourite part of this trip - and is worthy of a visit. Fujian in general is one part of China I would happily revisit. Check out the photos to get some small idea of just how amazing these structures are!

Additional photos below
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29th November 2014
The interior walls of Zhencheng Lou, looking from the top floor

Fantastic travel!
I've been following your adventures, and this is my favorite--off the tourist track and exotic! Backdoor visits to amazing tulous, singing birds and a helpful friend getting you on the right bus. What a great holiday and great photos!
29th November 2014

Loving your blogs keep them coming. Tea with the man sounded just like my idea of travel too.

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