Too much of China is like Disneyland. Cleaned up and repackaged for the masses. I wanted to go see something more authentic. I hoped I get that by visiting the old roundhouses, or Tulou, in and around Yongding county.
I had to catch a bus to the transit town of Longyan and was really helped out by a nice Chinese girl who got my ticket and on the bus she even called ahead to reserve a hotel for me. In Longyan she helped buy my onward ticket to my base in the village of Liulian. She put me on the connecting bus to the other bus station in Longyan and said goodbye. Chinese people are great sometimes.
Tulou from the outside
I arrived in Liulian late in the afternoon and was greeted off the bus by the lady who runs the hotel I would be staying in. The room was a little expensive at 80 yuan but was fully equipped and of a decent standard. I went for a walk round the village in the remaining daylight hours and explored some of the surrounding tulou. I had been told there are thousands of them but it's hard to comprehend until you get amongst them, they are literally everywhere. And most are still occupied by the local indigenous Hakka people. The old people sit around gossiping in the single doorway, and with a big "Ni Hao" I would walk in and have a snoop around. The tulou have a hard mud and brick outer circular wall (mostly circular, theres quite a few square ones) and inside they have three or maybe floor stories of rooms constructed out of beautiful dark wood. The central courtyard is the common area where people carry out their business or just sit around shooting the breeze. There are small altars for the gods, piles of fresh vegetables sitting round and chickens roaming around at will. Finally, real China.
Happy for the evening and looking forward to more exploration the next day I went back to the hotel and was called over by a Japanese guy sitting in the downstairs restaurant area. I couldn't believe my luck, he was an anthropologist living and studying amongst these people for 18 months and spoke the local Hakka dialect perfectly. He normally lived in the tulou but had checked into the hotel for one night, probably for a monthly shower. Here I was sitting with maybe one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about the Hakka people and their traditions, but unfortunately his level of English didn't extend beyond basic conversation formalities.
Tianluokeng Tulou Group
Tianloukeng. He gave me what advice he could but couldn't elaborate more on his expertise. We sat and drank tea with the hotel staff, actually my first proper Chinese tea ceremony and I was happy knowing it was genuine, free and without any catches or extortionate bills at the end.
Later in the evening a Belgian couple arrived and checked in and I sat with them for some dinner. They were hardcore vegetarians and ordered some tofu and eggplant dishes. I had meat. As happens often in China, vegetarianism is little understood, the tofu had bacon and the eggplant had lumps of chicken. Needless to say, I enjoyed my meal. Late in the evening, the hotel staff set up a barbeque in the carpark across the road and we sat talking with the Japanese guy and enjoying the quiet of village life, albeit a village with a big tourist trade.
We agreed to explore together the next day and had a relatively early start. There are a few routes around the countryside and our Japanese friend had advised us of the best two. A taxi for the day would cost 500, so we each hired a motorbike and driver for 200 apiece and it was a great way to get around. It was a nice, not overly sunny day, and we had the wind in our hair. Our drivers were a happy bunch and acted as guides as best they could.
Our first stop was the famous Tianloukeng cluster, a group of five big and differently shaped tulou grouped close together. It was a little pricey at 100 but we were promised access to a number of other sites. The drivers dropped us at the top of a hill with a great vantage point looking down at the tulou, then we walked downhill to get amongst them. These were a little more touristy, with souvenir stalls and contrived tea drinking invitations but impressive with their size, and there were still actually people living here. Next up was the vast Yuchang Lou with 270 rooms, it was huge!
This is how the day proceeded. The most impressive ones are obviously big attractions but we had avoided the crowds, most of which arrive in day trips in the afternoon. We balked at the additional entrance fee of 40 for another big one, hadn't we paid enough? So we skipped that, but it turned out in the end we had probably missed one of the most photogenic. This was the only downside of the day.
We got back to Liulian for lunch then headed out again. There was a rather mundane one converted into a museum but after that we were free to explore the surrounding village which had loads of them. All in all, a great day, if a little on the expensive side for me.
Room for the night, toilet in the corner
The Belgians were staying in the hotel, I had chosen to sleep in one of the tulou in the village. We had a nice dinner in a tulou converted into a restaurant just outside the village then I had to rush back as I had been told the tulou gates shut at 9pm. I had hoped to spend the evening mingling with the locals at night, but sundown means lights out and bedtime, I had to find my room in the pitch black aided by the light from my mobile phone. My room was basic in the extreme, the toilet was a plastic bucket in the corner. There was little else to do but set up my mosquito net over the bed and go to sleep.
Perfectly fitting for the situation, I was awoken by cocks crowing at 5.30am. I lay on until 7 then got up to find life continuing as normal downstairs. I went back to the hostel and had breakfast. There were some more impressive ones just beside the village but they wanted an entrance fee and I had little time so skipped it and killed time until my bus.
It's a great place, but one day is enough, I was back on the road. A bunch of Vietnamese students at the bus stop would help see me safely to my next destination, back to Xiamen.
About Apple Travel
Apple Travel has been organizing tours to tulous for years. They have 1 day to 3 day tours to the Longyan and Zhangzhou tulou areas. They are the only travel agency in Xiamen specializing in Fujian tours that cater for the English-speaking market. Every week for the past few years, AppleTravel has been taking local tourists, Xiamen expats and Xiamen locals to the Fujian tulou areas. The easiest and most comprehensive way to learn how to tour tulou areas is to consult Apple Travel. You can reach them by dialling (+86) 0592-5053122 or visit the website at www.appletravel.cn. Apple Travel can also provide self guided tours, car rental and vehicle with driver.
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