After two poor breakfasts in Wuyishan, our slightly odd re-purposed apartment block hotel provided a fine Chinese breakfast. Fortified with vegetables, noodles, a tea egg, cake and fruit we set off with S for a lengthy journey into the interior.
We left Xiamen in drizzle, the tops of the tower blocks lost in the mist. The weather improved as we headed west along the motorway and by the time we stopped for a comfort break the rain had almost ceased.
Leaving the motorway where the land became hilly we followed narrow roads that wound between tea plantations, banana groves and orchards of oranges and pomelos, the huge pomelos hanging from trees looking far too flimsy to bear their weight.
We paused at a banana stall where S bought some red bananas and some more normal looking bananas he said were ‘special’.
We scoffed the 'nanas as we drove deeper into the hills. The chunky red ones had a denser texture than ‘regular’ bananas but the flavour was the same, those described as ‘special’ had a more normal texture but tasted weirdly like apples - special indeed.
40 minutes later we were entering Fujian’s Hakka heartland. The Hakka are a Han Chinese group originally from the Yellow River Valley who migrated south to avoid war and famine. Many settled in scattered areas across southern China while others kept going and now make up a substantial proportion of the Chinese diaspora across south east Asia. There are estimated to be 30 million Hakka in China’s seven southern provinces (3 million of them in western Fujian) and maybe as many again living outside China.
The Chinese government, with their usual grim desire to regiment all tourism, have built an enormous office for the Tian Luokeng Scenic Area with parking space for hundreds of buses and countless cars. S popped in to buy tickets while we regarded the empty car park with satisfaction.
S had previously told us that he was not only Hakka but was born in this area, so first he took us to see an ancestor shrine…
…and then a forest. He referred to the trees as cedars, which looks doubtful to me, but this piece of ancient woodland clearly had some importance….
Then he took us to the Tian Luokeng Toulu Cluster, the region’s main attractions.
‘Hakka’ means ‘guest’, though the Hakka have not always been welcome guests, particularly in Guangdong Province where the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars (1855-67) resulted in a million deaths. Defence, at least in the Fujian/Guangdong border region, was provided by tulous. Tulous (Lit: earth houses) were built with a single entrance and walls up to 2m thick to provide safe homes for as many as 80 families. Tian Luoken is one of the 46 clusters making up the Fujian Tulou World Heritage Site.
|Walking down to the Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
Tulous are unique to Fujian and we first heard of them on a previous trip from Fujian tourism advertisements. We had expected them to be museums of the 'how life used to be' variety. We had never imagined tulous to be fully functioning, living communities, but they most certainly are.
|Just one door for the whole Tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
We had a quick look inside the first one. Strangely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe, the building is divided like a cake into vertical wedges, each family occupying a slice with a room on each floor.
|Inside a tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
Then we took a walk through the village to the next tulou.
Tourists are usually confined to the ground floor, but as we were the only visitors and half the residents seemed to be S’s cousins, we had privileged access. Looking down from the first floor we could see the shrine and the well - all-important in the event of a siege. The central area, now concreted over, was formerly used for growing crops for such emergencies.
The rooms contained little more than a wooden bed and a rough mattress. There is no piped water so night-soil buckets stand outside each door and these are taken out to the fields every morning and the contents used as fertilizer. I would not want to carry a full bucket down the steep and difficult stairs!
|Walking through the village to the next tulou|
|Looking down from the first floor, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
|Lynne among the night-soil buckets, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
We ventured onto the top floor, because we could…
|Top floor, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
…and observed the ground floor where almost every family had a stand-pipe, a sink and a gas bottle.
|Stand pipe, sink and gas bottle, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
Many families use their ground floor rooms to feed visitors and they have had a communal menu printed in Chinese and English. S introduced us to our cook for the day…
|Posing with the chef, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
…and with his help we chose autumn bamboo with pork, preserved vegetables with fatty pork and tofu buns with mushrooms. That sounds like too much pork, but autumn bamboo and preserved vegetables are typical seasonal dishes and S thought we should try both along with the stuffed tofu, another Hakka speciality. S ate with relatives while we were served with a feast in solitary splendour.
|Our excellent lunch, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
|S's smiley cousin in the square tulou, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
The square tulou is not really any different, except for the angle in the roof!
|Inside the square tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
Outside we watched the sole worker in the carefully terraced, night-soil fertilized November fields.
|The sole worker in the night-soil fertilized fields, Tian Luokeng Tulou centre|
Before taking a brief look in the oval tulou where the rains came down and the brollies went up.
|Inside the wet oval tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian|
|The Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster from below|
Built in 1308, Yuchang Lou is five storeys high and is so big its shrine is a tulou within the tulou.
It is famous for the zigzag struts in the top two storeys. S called it ‘China’s leaning tower of Pisa’, but unlike the oft referred to tower, it does not actually lean and the design was at least semi-intentional; after a measuring error it was cheaper and easier to put the struts at a slant than cut a whole set of new ones. It looks worrying, but has been that way for 700 years and not fallen down yet.
Uniquely each ground floor room has its own well.
Unsurprisingly one of them served as a tea shop and, equally unsurprisingly, it belonged to another cousin. S brewed up local black tea and then a more flowery potion for us to try.
Then he let the amateur have a go.
S informed us proudly that in its long history the tulou had often been attacked, but never taken and outside he showed us the hole made by the Japanese in 1938 before they gave up and went away. Letting cold reality intrude for a moment, we had seen what Japanese artillery had done to Nanjing’s mighty medieval fortifications, and if they had really wanted to take the tulou they could have blown it to bits in an afternoon. I suspect they felt they could afford to leave it and move on.
The Tulou does not exist in isolation and the village outside is inhabited by the same clan, the Liu.
Four ceremonial pillars stand outside the village temple. From the 9th century until 1905 entry to the civil service and its many lucrative positions was by competitive examination in Confucian principles (we visited a rebuilt examination centre in Nanjing). These examinations could be passed at County, Provincial or National Level and the pillars commemorate successful local candidates.Following the river a couple of miles upstream brought us to Taxiacun (Taxia village), a large village where most of the building are 15th century tulous. All the façades on the left bank in the pictures below are the sides of rectangular tulous
It is picturesque place, a Chinese Bourton-on-the-Water, and I am sure it looks lovely in the sunshine, but we were just happy the rain held off (mostly).
It is a good thing the road is lined with cat's eyes - in the dark it would be easy to drive into the river
The Zhang clan of Taxia once had a feud (S called it a ‘war’) with the Liu of Yuchang Lou. A marriage had been arranged between a Zhang boy and a Liu girl but sadly, the girl died in an accident before the ceremony took place. Despite there being no wedding, the Zhang family demanded her dowry, a piece of land beside the Yuchang Lou tulou. The Liu found this unacceptable and violence followed. That is S’s version, and he is a Liu; maybe there is a slightly different Zhang version. The feud (or ‘war’) happened long ago, no one knows exactly when, but that does not mean it has been forgotten.
The Zhang temple has a magnificently fussy doorway in a land of fussy doorways. It features flowers, dragons and other mythical creatures, and what may or may not be a boat.
The Zhang are more numerous than the Liu so they have a small forest of examination success pillars outside the temple beside a semi-circular pond.
The time had come to return to Xiamen. It was a long way and the last part of the joury involved heavy traffic so we were not back in our hotel until 8.30. We spent two nights in Xiamen, but hardly saw the city as the next morning we made our way to the airport and then to Hong Kong…. from where the next series of posts will come.At one point on this journey, in Hangzhou possibly, we were wondering if we had been to China too often and it was beginning to lose its fascination, but this trip kept the best to last. The tulous are unique, a still thriving link to a way of life so different from our own - for us easily the highlight of south east China.
South East China
Part 1: Nanjing (1) Sun Yat Sen, The Zhonghua Gate and Salt Water Duck