After a disastrous brunch of not being able to fully enjoy our food as it look a lot longer than it should have done to enjoy our meal, we were collected from our Xiamen hotel and taken to 2 hours inland from Xiamen to Yongding county. Last year while we had ventured to Sanya and Guilin’s surrounding areas we had clocked other people’s journeys and one friend had gone to see the Tulou. In April, during the week that should have been a holiday for us, but was not, I got details of the place that our friend, Jennifer, stayed at. The guest house was owned by a guy who spoke English and the place that she had stayed at was authentic and rural. So I WeChatted him and tentatively put some dates in the calendar.
Tulou are buildings for communal living for the Hakka people. The Fujian Tulou were designated a World Heritage site in 2008 and in the area we visited there are about 30 different styles of Tulou buildings. Each Tulou we came across over 3 days felt and looked different to ones we had seen before. Most of them are still inhabited with only one that we visited a museum with no residents. Jiqing Lou in Chuxi was built in the Ming dynasty (1403-1424) is 2826 square metres, 66 metres in diameter, 3 stories high with 56 units (rooms) per story all connected by 72 staircases. There was a hall in the middle of Tulou and actually many that we saw didn’t have this middle structure.
There are no windows on the first two floors, either to provide protection from any attack but also as storage rooms. Access is via one grand door and on many of our visits we just ambled in through the door having already paid one entrance fee at the gate to the village. Many of the inhabitants of the Tulou that we saw during our stay carried on with daily life. But the ones we saw at the start of the visit were definitely more geared up for tourists.
We had been provided with a 7 seater car from Xiamen. With 6 passengers, 5 suitcases and 5 day sacs the car was a squeeze. Most of us had slept during the journey but it had been agreed that we would see some villages on our way to our hotel. Getting in and out of the car was not easy – especially for me as I was in the back seat with the kids – but this endless manoeuvring was also telling me that I was absolutely fine.
Our first proper glimpse and first stop out of the car was at the Tulous were of the colloquially named 4 dishes with a soup, the Tianluokeng Tulou cluster.
We were able to walk down from the view point and look around. It was here that we entered a Tulou and a man just took my phone out of hand and showed me how to do a vertical panoramic, rather than a horizontal normal version of a panoramic photo. The result was that Eleanor looks as if she is decapitated but you get the feel of the Tulou – it looks like a stadium. Amazingly, the man didn’t want any money for his efforts and my phone was returned. The photos that are on my blog have come from my phone, but my trusty DSLR has also been used and I can’t wait to see those photos.
Other Tulou nestled beside rivers, but what was lovely was that while there where bridges for vehicles, there were a lot of stepping stones over all of the rivers we saw. This Tulou below, I am not even sure if I went into it, as I was much more taken with the riverside setting where I also saw fish trying to go upstream and jump up.
The sites were not busy. We were the only “laowai” (foreigners) that we saw (until our last evening), but there were not hordes of Chinese tourists either. The busier Tulous like the first cluster had endless souvenirs trying to be sold in the main courtyard. We did buy a Tulou magnet, but refrained from buying the ocarinas, tea and cigarettes. In one of the villages, we lost Lady G but then found her round a corner supping tea. I joined her and she bought tea and few other things and I chose a bamboo container that will sit on my desk as a pen holder. The couple that we bought from were very unassuming and didn’t even try to sell us anything, he was a fine craftsman and they had been very kind in providing us tea.
But I was very glad when at 6:30pm we arrived at our 5000 square meter Tulou. The Changdi Inn as a building has been in the present owner’s family for 140 years. As a business, the current owner’s father had set it up with two hotel rooms and he would go to the local railway station seeking travellers. Now there are 18 rooms that can be booked through booking.com, or directly through Stephen with WeChat. We are happy to recommend this place, just as Jennifer had done so with us.
The building was originally home to 3 brothers. Each brother accessed their area through the three doors which are just off a large cobbled courtyard. Stephen’s pride of his Tulou is obvious from the moment he met us, through to serving us all our meals made by various family members while serving Illy coffee at breakfast.
Our days of sharing a hotel room with Eleanor are ending and in most places where we stay she has her own room. At the Tulou I wasn’t entirely sure what I had booked, but Stephen was aware we needed a second bed. Stephen showed us to our floor – the fifth floor. It is rare for there to be 5 floors in a Tulou. As we climbed up narrow wooden staircases each floor had a mini enclosed courtyard, with a square table. It had 4 bedrooms and one bathroom. Once we got to the top, we were afforded two bedrooms. One double and a twin at either end of the courtyard was was behind a closed door. The other two rooms at the top of our staircase seemed to be storage rooms and definitely hadn’t been renovated. Our rooms had been renovated and were of this century. We had been offered a room that was definitely of the period but I wasn’t sure of whether the mattress matched that period either (I.e was it hard?).
The next morning, Martin went out running. It was cooler here than in Xiamen or indeed Suzhou, but it was still warm! We had QR codes to get into the village but I hadn’t shared them with the group and so Martin ran the gauntlet getting back into the village! At 7:30am Eleanor and I were woken up from our sleep with an electric drill or similar sounding from above our heads. What a start to the day. Stephen has no control over when work is done to the building as the State is responsible for its maintenance – very different to the UK’s property of cultural note.
After breakfast we left our teenager in bed and the rest of us walked around the village. It had been clear from our Tulou wanderings the previous day, that only the ground floor of the Tulou was public. Stephen told us that if we were to go further up we would have to pay. In the main Tulou in the village we were approached by a man and we duly paid 20rmb each and then we were shown up the three flights of stairs. Everyone needs to do their laundry was our takeaway and satellite TV is available anywhere!
These maybe World Heritage Sites but it is still a home to someone and this was prominent in the last village that we went to on our last day. The Yuchang Luo was built between 1955-1957. It covers an area of 1838 square meters with floor space of 3609 square meters. It is 11.1m in height and 36 rooms on each floor. With chickens roaming free, each unit had its own sink, an oven, burners and some had bamboo baskets and with produce drying in the sun to be consumed later. The children could be heard in a kindergarten close by and it struck us that we had only seen the elderly and the young. Anyone of working age had probably gone to seek their fortune in the city or look after the children who were school age in the city. As we left the area, a motorbike sounding a tune pulled up, and a few children and adults came out. On inspection this was the Hakka version of the ice-cream van. The guy wasn’t selling any frozen products and honestly, I have no idea what he was selling – it looked like small round balls coated in a sesame seed or desiccated coconut. One girl handed over coins. A rarity in a country now reliant on electronic payments.
It was a lovely couple of days and I hope that people continue to stay here. After I had posted pictures on Facebook, Suzhou friends said that they had stayed here in 2011 and 2018 with one of the differences in their stays being that the toilets had moved indoors! Stephen is a great host, he thinks about everyone’s needs – from the Illy coffee to the Nutella provided at breakfast to alongside his mum’s and wife’s breads. He also ensures the Tulou we visit are ok with tourists, he told us on our departure that he would be usually sending us to another Tulou but that he hasn’t heard great reviews about how the residents treated tourists, so he had chosen the one we did go to as they were welcoming. And indeed they were because we were left to our own devices – we talked quietly, took photos that didn’t intrude and didn’t go up to the floors. We were respectful and it left us with an impression that these buildings have been here for centuries and they will continue to be preserved.