Ancient Chinese Communes – Fujian Tulou

The sun hadn’t yet started its gentle rise by the time we awoke. Rubbing the sleep from our eyes Martin and I briskly walked to the metro station in the drizzling rain. With our two French friends, we caught the first subway to the train station and the second train to Xiamen, a city 3 hours by high speed train in the neighboring provence of Fujian. We tried to get comfortable in our in a hard sleeper room while two Chinese men chatted next to us. It was my first foray into the Chinese countryside. The dreary weather made us even sleepier. I sipped my coffee and wondered how I could have forgotten how to pack in the 10 months since we moved to China. My large backpack sat on the floor laughing at me for all the things I had stuffed it with for just an overnight trip. What had I been I thinking? 

Our driver found us waiting at the south exit of the Xiamen train station. We rushed to the car and sped way from the city. Immediately, I was miserable. The driver swerved, accelerated, decelerated, checked his phone, and almost hit three people and a post. It was raining and with five people in the car condensation perpetually covered the windshield. The driver didn’t keep the defrost on though. Instead, he would turn it on full blast for a minute and then switch it off. No fresh air. At least I was sitting in the front.

After two hours of this the driver finally asked us if we were hungry. YES! At the restaurant we first had some tea. The girl was a great saleswoman and tried her best to get us to buy some tea but to no avail. Chicken soup, eggplant in a clay pot with the most delicious brown sticky sauce and sautéed greens were our meal. The soup, as with most Chinese soups, was a little disconcerting with the chicken’s feet and head in the pot and all of the meat still on the bones. Thank goodness for eggplant. 

Twenty more minutes up a winding mountain pass had me shaking with nausea. We got out of the car to see a view of some famous tulou (土楼) in the Nanjing Tulou Scenic Area. The clouds and fog completely obstructed our view but instead of getting back in the car to finish our decent to the village (Tianluokeng 田螺坑土楼群), we walked down the staircase. Thankfully. I was so shaky! It took a bit to calm down my stomach.

Tulou are ancient houses for the Hakka people in Fujian. Most of them are round houses with three stories. The center of the tulou is open while the rooms line the outer edge of the building. Each tulou is for an extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, brothers, sisters – everyone lived together – just like a commune. The first floor has the kitchens. The second floor is for storing food for the winter. The third floor has the bedrooms. The middle of the tulou is open and usually had a well, a shrine or some gardens. 

While wandering around we found the most amazing candies ginger with sesame. We also found raw honey, smashed sesame into buttery layers and lots of tea. It was fun to walk around a traditional Chinese village. In the distance I saw terraced fields like Peru and houses like Vietnam among the unique Chinese decorations.

I took a Dramamine and we drove to another village (Xiaban 下坂村) with tulou. Then another village (Taxia 塔下村). Each looked similar and wonderfully unique. It was so nice to be in villages where it didn’t feel so manufactured.


This tulou had a wedding reception area in the middle of it!

Our hotel was a square tulou in Hongkeng Village (洪坑村), which was a quaint albeit touristy village. Our rooms were on the third floor with a wonderful heater as well as a hot water heater. I slept great. Our satisfying breakfast consisted of espresso, rice congee, bread, butter, jam, hard boiled eggs, and pickled veggies. We spent the morning exploring Hongkeng Village, which had several tulou. It was fun to walk around a city that didn’t have a single sky scraper.

Our hotel was a square tulou!

Firecrackers are a common sight at shrines. The noise and waste pollution makes me want to cry.

For our final tulou tour, we went to the King of Tulou (Chengqilou 承啟樓). We walked up the hill to see an aerial view of it.

Then we plunged ourselves into Chinese tourism hell. Tour groups each with their own tour guide screaming into a portable microphone and speaker system enveloped us. I was suddenly grateful for the empty villages we had visited yesterday. The King of Tulou was cool since it had two smaller tulou inside it Russian doll style. Although the weather was nicer we had enjoyed the tour more the first day because this one was more manufactured into a tourist site whereas the others felt more authentic.

The kitchens in the tulou are pretty basic.

Before leaving the tulou villages we ate lunch. The food in Fujian is not spicy and I found myself missing a bit of heat in my food. Even though one of our French friends can speak decent Chinese reading menus is still impossible. So we found ourselves asking for food we knew they were likely to have and we knew the words for:  eggplant, stewed tofu, sautéed greeds, mushrooms, and rice.

After another harrowing ride back to Xiamen, I was thankful to say goodbye to our driver and ready to return home. Unfortunately the soonest train meant waiting at the station for four hours. It’s easy to forget how many people there are in China. Even with trains leaving for Shenzhen every 15 minutes and each train holding around 300 people, we still had to wait four hours, which means nearly 5,000 people were ahead of us!

Next time we will buy our tickets online.

Martin and I with our friends Mathieu and Elise in front of our hotel.

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