Breaking the beauty of all that is 8 am, a machine-gun sound of firecrackers rattled my peaceful surrounds at a volume that would wake the dead. Or at least, loud enough to wake the only foreigner sleeping in the tulou. I guessed it was time to get up.
I had just spent my first night in a Fujian tulou and I rolled out of bed and sleepily scuffed to the balcony to find out which young punk decided that firecrackers in the morning would be a funny way to interrupt my rural bliss. When I reached the railing and looked down into the circular, cobblestoned courtyard three floors below, there were no young punks - just an old lady laying out another string of fireworks.
She lit the fuse and while it fizzed away, she walked to the shrine at the far end of the courtyard, put her hands together and prayed briefly, paying respect to the ancestors. The firecrackers started up again, the ancestors were appeased and another day had begun in the tulou.
When I first read about tulou (literally, earthen buildings) I was surprised that I hadn't heard of them before. Giant structures that rise from the picturesque Fujian countryside, the "roundhouses of Fujian" are more like circular fortresses than houses.
Between three and five stories high and up to 70 meters in diameter, their pale, earthen color and slightly cracked veneer give a timeless and organic look.
Tulou in Fujian were built by the Hakka ethnic group from the 12th century until the 1960s. After migrating from northern China, the Hakka settled in a number of areas, but Yongding county in southwest Fujian is where they really left their mark.
Facing constant threats from marauding bandits and wild animals, the Hakka decided to build fort-like structures large enough to house entire villages. The result is a collection of structures that not only protected the Hakka from the outside, but today provide a wonderful glimpse into their old ways.
Tulou have thick, earthen walls made from a mixture of rammed earth, glutinous rice and bamboo strips. Each level has between 20 and 70 rooms facing inward to the circular courtyard, usually with an ancestral hall in the middle.
Today more than 20,000 tulou still survive and in 2008, 46 were World Heritage listed by UNESCO. Many are well set up for tourism, but in the vast majority, life continues as normal.
As I discovered, the best way to experience the magic of this unheralded piece of Chinese history is to get out there and spend a few days living in a tulou.
On the inside
Inside a typical tulou
The surrounding landscape is a gorgeous combination of lush, forested hills and winding valleys of tea plantations and terraced rice fields. After a half-hour ride on the back of a motorbike, I arrived at Tianlluokeng, an incredibly photogenic cluster of five tulou set on a mountain slope that looks down a valley of fertile farmland.
I wandered into one of the quieter tulou and stood there for a while with my backpack on, gazing at the circular, wooden interior, until eventually a woman wearing rubber boots and holding a sickle sauntered over and offered me a room on the third floor. Naturally, I took it.
Tulou in villages like Tianluokeng are geared for tourism and when you enter their gates, you are often greeted by stalls with souvenirs. Normal, communal life still continues for the Hakka, with women sorting through dried tea leaves, men making baijiu (strong white spirits) and residents cooking, washing dishes, playing cards, smoking and having a chat.
I spent the next few days exploring villages by foot, witnessing firsthand life in and around these earthen fortresses.
Touring the tulou
There is a plethora of lovely villages awaiting exploration in Fujian. Many of them can be comfortably covered in a one-day organized tour from Xiamen.
Gaobei is a village with many tulou, including the enormous Chengqi Lou, built in 1709 with a diameter of 63 meters. Regarded as one of the more majestic, Chengqi Lou is four stories high with 288 rooms and multiple rings of buildings inside the outer wall.
A quieter village is Xia Ban, with numerous, superbly intact tulou spread along a shallow valley. Xia Ban is where you will find one of the oldest remaining tulou, Yuchang Lou, built in 1308.
A few kilometers away is the village of Shang Ban. This is possibly the most authentic of tulou villages in Yongding - I wandered around for a couple of hours without spotting any sign of tourism. Here, in each tulou that I entered I was greeted by residents who were surprised to see a tourist. They consider their earthen abodes as home rather than a tourist site. A couple of them even offered me a nip of homemade baijiu.
If you are feeling adventurous, make your way to Yongding, five hours by bus from Xiamen and then take a local bus out to the villages. This way you can move around independently, poke your head inside any tulou that takes your fancy and spend an authentic evening sleeping on the upper level and eating dinner with your host family.
Getting around can be difficult due to the lack of public transport, so be prepared to pay for the occasional ride on the back of a local motorbike.
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.