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The Tulou of Fujian Province

From time to time a single photograph of a striking place or building will be the irresistible impetus for a trip to see the thing in person.  In surrendering to these urges I've found I really cannot go wrong.  My instincts seem to know when a thing is remarkable enough that any amount of bother will be worth the effort.  I found this to be true again when a picture of a tulou (pronounced too'-low) in Fujian Province in Southern China sent me, literally, packing.


China 001 Fujian Tulou [earth buildings) at Tianluokeng [Snail Pit village) in southwestern Fujian province. By Gisling

Fujian Tulou (earth buildings) at Tianluokeng (Snail Pit village). 

Source Wikipedia, taken by Gisling


There are thousands of these tribal apartment blocks in the hills of Fujian, most of them hundreds of years old and still occupied by their builders, Hakka Minority people.  They're made of mud bricks, 2 or 3 or 4 stories high, so their survival is an expression of their value to the people who live in and maintain these beautiful structures.  One cannot really feel the monumental size of the some of them from a photograph.  Standing outside the mud fortresses is awe-inspiring and I found myself feeling thrilled by the idea that these audacious and ancient buildings could exist today in their living grandeur and most people on the planet, myself included until recently, don't know of their existence.  Some are now open to visitors.


The tulou, mostly round, are really more self-contained villages than just living quarters with ancestral halls and shops in the courtyards and ground floors and groups of residents gathering in twos and fours for tea and card games as one sees in towns throughout China where traditional life is often played out in the streets.


China 002 Interior of Yuchanglou, its zigzag structure and part of ancestral hall. Foundation of dismanted minor ring can be seen. By Gisling

Interior of Yuchanglou, its zigzag structure and part of ancestral hall

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.  Taken by Gisling


To reach the tulou I flew into Shanghai and next morning, after a change of airports, flew on to Xiamen (Sha'-min).  I stayed for several days on Gulangu Island in the harbor to rest before my onward push to the tulou.  The problem was, as few western tourists frequent the area and most of the tourists are Chinese, there really isn't an infrastructure in place for non-Chinese travelers to easily tour the area and English speakers are hard to come by.  I eventually made my way to a very nice upscale Xiamen hotel where I was taken up to the travel office and offered a 1 or 2 day tour at a very reasonable price.  I was warned that no one was likely to speak any English but if I could cope with that fact I was welcome to join a tour.  So having come all this way I did not hesitate and signed up.


I won't go on about the unexpected difficulties I encountered over the 2 days of my adventure.  Suffice it to say I realized that I really hadn't had a clue, despite extensive previous travel, what it would be like to have absolutely no one who understood me.  I had given up convenience for the sake of experiences in the past but never language absolutely.  It was jarring to say the least although punctuated with unexpected moments of the kindness of strangers.  And it was all worth it.  I have the feeling I've beaten the crowd this time and may never have a similar experience in what's left of my travel life.


To see a photo gallery of my visit to the tulou, click here.

Read the prequel, 'Gulanyu Island', here.




To read more of PortMoresby’s contributions, click here.




Images (4)
  • Fujian Tulou (earth buildings) at Tianluokeng (Snail Pit village) in southwestern Fujian province.: Photo courtesy Wikipedia.  Taken by Gisling
  • Interior of Yuchanglou, its zigzag structure and part of ancestral hall. Foundation of dismanted minor ring can be seen.: Photo courtesy Wikipedia.  Taken by Gisling
  • Yuchanglou, a 700 years old rotunda tulou in Yongding county.: Photo courtesy Wikipedia.  Taken by Gisling
  • Earth building in Chengqi.: Photo courtesy Wikipedia.  Taken by Bolobolo

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No, Rob.  Sorry, I don't remember.  I read a lot of publications, online and off, and the original picture got lost in the dust of enthusiasm to research logistics.  I don't think there's any lack of enthusiasm in the world but that obscure places are getting less obscure every day.  What I do think is lacking is imagination.  We tend to read about places people have enjoyed, as here on TravelGumbo and follow, rather than setting out for parts unknown.  I believe if a place is hard to get to it has much more chance of surprising us.  I'm sure short vacation time and fear of the unknown both have their effects which can be a good thing.  More for likes of me to enjoy on my own.

I'm amazed at seeing this. At first I was thinking, well, communal dwelling, sort of like pueblos, and then I realized that this is much bigger, since you said there are hundreds of these. Do you know if they are in other areas of China, too? Are people still building like that now? 

Sisyphus, not to nit-pick, but thousands of them according to everything I've read, not hundreds.  They're built by the Hakka people so confined to Fujian and neighboring provinces.  I suspect there may not be many under construction as efforts seem to be going toward maintaining the ones standing.  When I was walking through the clusters I visited there were a few abandoned and in disrepair but not many, at least that I saw.  There very well may be more unmaintained in remoter areas.  Young people, as in many traditional communities, are moving away and some older residents, while living nearby, prefer new apartment blocks with convenience not found in the tulou.

These are living communities.  A few have been abandoned in favor of apartment blocks and are melting back into the earth, as mud-brick construction does, but most of the thousands scattered through the hills of the province continue to be villages in themselves, enjoyed and maintained by the Hakka communities that occupy them.  A few of the largest individual tulous and clusters have become tourist attractions but if you hurry you'll likely be, as I was, one of the only western tourists for miles.

Thanks, Dgems.  When I wrote this piece, last year, I didn't have access to my own photos.  In the next month or so I plan to post a gallery of my own pictures of the tulou so you'll have a better idea of the variety of structures and ambiance of the area.

HistoryDigger, I'll explain.  At the end of the first day of tulou visits, the large tour bus rendezvoused with a small van and it was indicated that I should bring my things and come with a young man.  Since no one could explain, I had to simply trust and go along, an interesting sensation.  I later realized that I was the only one who had opted for the second day.  


The young man drove me to a very basic village of mostly new buildings built, I suspect but of course don't know, for accommodating the growing domestic tourist interest in the area.  He showed me into one of the buildings, concrete and several stories high, his family's home and business, a hotel.  I've stayed in some very basic accommodations before but had never experienced a place like this one, both fairly new and also run down and depressing.  I was taken to one room which was bad, then another which was worse, the curtains torn and hanging, the sink in the bathroom had water coming in and also going out, all over the floor, among other glaring deficiencies.  To make matters far worse, there was a central stair well which seemed to amplify sound coming from the ground floor and the young man's shrew of a wife screaming incessantly at their small child.  I determined after a time that I couldn't stay. But how to leave?


I tried to communicate with the unpleasant woman, my supposed hostess, who led me to understand that there was no way to leave the village, no bus or taxi.  I seemed to be stuck.  I'd finally had enough and did what every sensible stranger in a strange land does, burst into tears.  To my complete surprise, though not a ploy by any means, it worked, keep it in mind for future travels.  She got on the phone immediately, I was told to get my things, and I was taken around the corner to another hotel which was perfectly comfortable, with a kind older couple as proprietors.  Interestingly, I seemed to be the only guest at both hotels.


I spent was was left of the afternoon sitting on a bench alongside the road, an attraction myself as the passing traffic, mostly on foot and bicycles, did double takes.  I had dinner, cooked by the kind hostess, and in the morning was shown back to the Shrew Hotel for breakfast.  The young man was my surly guide for the 2nd day, I pretended not to notice, had a fine time among the tulou before being taken back to the rendezvous point and returned to Xiamen in one of the larger buses.


That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.  

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