Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hakka Tulou in Hukeng

When I left off, I had just visited the small city of Xiamen. You can take the bus from Xiamen to the tulou (which I'll explain more what that is in a minute). Stephen, the owner of the guesthouse I would stay at in a village called Hukeng, speaks good English and will email you good and accurate directions before you head out there. In Xiamen, I walked to the bus station to catch the bus that would take me to my destination. During this time, there was a heat wave and it was so scorching hot that there were these huge umbrella's at each street corner to keep people out of the sun while they waited for the light to change to allow you to cross. Often, many people walk with regular umbrellas to keep themselves out of the sun (something very common to do throughout China).

Riding public buses can always be an exciting experience, especially in developing countries, and this proved no different. Bus drivers in China swerve around, speeding as fast as they can, heading into oncoming traffic to pass cars in their lane. When ever they pass a car or take a blind curve, they never slow down, but rather beep their horn loudly and erratically. The Chinese are also famous for their upchuck it seems, and on this bus there was one poor fellow who really suffered. Likewise, because it is in their culture to expel everything from the system (it has to do with Chinese medicinal practices), someone will occasionally hack up a nice big spit and send it out the window or in one of the buckets in the aisle. If you decide to use one of the rest stops, you may need to pay 1 yuan, and it may be one of the foulest places you've been to (but not always!). In contrast to some really beautiful scenery out the window, we were trapped in this sensory offending vehicle.

On the buses, too, everyone seems to just pass out immediately, so I did the same. I woke up about 1 hour away from Hukeng to some really beautiful, green, hilly and rural landscapes. The bus zoomed by the beautiful views while I secretly wanted to jump up and say, “Wait! Stop here so I can take a photo!” We passed terraced mountains, crumbling tulou, and villages with very beautiful stone and rustic architecture.

A Tulou
The tulou were created by the Hakka peoples after they moved to central China to avoid conflicts. Once settled in the province of Fujian, the Hakka built these round fortresses out of dried mud to protect their community. Each tulou houses a town, and up to 40 families live in the fortresses. Although by the 1800's most imminent danger had passed, Hakka peoples who moved abroad and felt nostalgia for home would send money back to have tulou built, so not all of them are very old. However, it wasn't until recently that these because a major tourist destination-- once they became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Here is a description of the tulou from the UNESCO website:

Fujian Tulou is a property of 46 buildings constructed between the 15th and 20th centuries over 120 km in south-west of Fujian province, inland from the Taiwan Strait. Set amongst rice, tea and tobacco fields the Tulou are earthen houses. Several storeys high, they are built along an inward-looking, circular or square floor plan as housing for up to 800 people each. They were built for defence purposes around a central open courtyard with only one entrance and windows to the outside only above the first floor. Housing a whole clan, the houses functioned as village units and were known as “a little kingdom for the family” or “bustling small city.” They feature tall fortified mud walls capped by tiled roofs with wide over-hanging eaves. The most elaborate structures date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The buildings were divided vertically between families with each disposing of two or three rooms on each floor. In contrast with their plain exterior, the inside of the tulou were built for comfort and were often highly decorated. They are inscribed as exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization, and, in terms of their harmonious relationship with their environment, an outstanding example of human settlement. 
Locals try to maintain normal lives despite tourism

Ever since 2008, the tulou have become a major sight seeing attraction. The only thing is, communities still live in and around the tulou. Going from quiet, rural living to high-volume tourist area has to be a challenging transition for the locals. You pay a park entrance fee, but most of that money goes to the government. In return, if the buildings in the community are in need of any fixes, the government will fix it immediately. However, it still seems a little unfair that the people's who lives have been disrupted get almost no payment. Hundreds of people seem to come through the tulou each day (though it's possible that because it is such small area, that number might be off), and they're very loud, walking right through people's homes. The lack of payment/investment in the community kind of shows-- outside of the main center of town, the community continues outward, but it's very dilapidated. Even inside the major tulou in the town, it is a bit of a mess-- not at all what I expected.

People still live inside tulou and traditional structures, which tourists walk through regularly
However, I stayed at Stephen's guesthouse in the village. His family lives in this tulou-esq structrue that was built in the 1800s. It has a square quartyard in the middle that the all the rooms face. One quarter of the house is full of guest rooms with good beds and hallway showers. The rooms are very clean and comfy and are some of the best in the area. They serve food as well. When I was there, there weren't a ton of people, so it was a nice little retreat. In the heat of the middle of the day you can just relax in the courtyard and drink tea or water.

They provide a simple map to guide you around the village, which is really nice. If you do go, I recommend waiting until the end of the day to check everything out, once things have quieted down and the tourists have mostly gone. During the day I was able to hike up the moutains on the sides along the rice terraces. There is also the ability to do some biking. Stephen has 2 bikes, which were already taken out by the time I got there. I'll pass along the suggestion of my friend Bruce, which I didn't get to see before heading out because Google was blocked while I was in China and I could not access my Gmail: “From stephens - find the  ticket gate to the Hong Keng Tulou cluster - and as you  face away from it and out to the car park towards the road - you would hang a right on yourbike, cycle for about three kms, and then veer of left ( pretty much your first left) to Hukeng town.  You go past some modern rubbish and then through an older bit of town, and take your first left again -- and this should set you on the way to the Nanxi valley area. Look out for Yanxiang Lou aout 8 km from this turn off (about 12 km from Stephens. Very beautiful tulou).”

Overall, the area is really beautiful. I wish I spoke more of the local language or Mandarin-- walking through people's homes without being able to engage them by asking them how they're doing or thanking them for welcoming me, is awkward. I had a bit of that missed connection with the people and in many ways felt acutely aware that the locals were annoyed by my mute, gawking presence. Still, to see these historic structures in this lush, green setting was amazing. I really wish I could have done more biking there. My friend Bruce does bike tours in the region from time to time and if you happen to be in the area look up his website to see if he's doing a tour. You can read more about it here: http://sensiblereason.com/eco-friendly-china-biking-way-inspiring-places/

Select photos:

The courtyard at Stephen's guesthouse

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Xiamen, China


For the month of July 2014 I spent time in both Hong Kong and mainland China. There is in fact a difference between the two, not so much as politically as socially, but I'll get to that in a bit. Between 1840-1898, the British purchased a lease for the various portions of Hong Kong (sort of like how New York City has 5 boroughs, Hong Kong consists of 3 main areas known as Hong Kong Island, Kolwoon, and the New Territories, along with another 260 islands and peninsulas). It wasn't until 1997 that Hong Kong was handed over to the People's Republic of China. However, during the hand off, the British stipulated that China must not impose socialism on Hong Kong, but rather preserve its capitalist system for 50 years, making it a Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong is specially situated as a point where east meets west-- literally where communism can meet capitalism.

However, this isn't only politically or economically a special zone, it's also very different in the minds of the Chinese and expats that live there. Thanks to the British rule, many Western cultural nuances have been brought to Hong Kong that are not necessarily common on mainland China. For example, on mainland China it is considered best for the health to regularly spit and it is common to see parents potty training their children on the street. These are definitely not acceptable in Hong Kong and people in Hong Kong are regularly horrified by these social norms in China.

However, I will say that I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion. Hong Kongers have often told me that they are actually afraid to go to mainland China because of the filth and danger. I found mainland China to be extremely safe and while there were some aspects to the Chinese culture that were a little shocking-- well, isn't that part of the adventure? China is beautiful and full of really awesome people. I met many Westerners who live both in Hong Kong and on mainland China and didn't know any Chinese people, and not surprisingly they didn't feel totally at home in China and over time grew to really dislike the culture there.

Anyway, in order to also maintain their independence, Hong Kongers of Asian descent speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, which is the official language of the Chinese state (many Westerners, not surprisingly, don't speak anything beyond basic Cantonese-- but you can definitely get on without it pretty ok). In almost every way, the people of Hong Kong have fought to keep themselves a little separated-- and in doing so have truly created a social anxiety about mainland China.

My travels started in Hong Kong, then took me to mainland China for 3 weeks, and then back to Hong Kong for a week (total of 5 weeks). For the purposes of this blog, however, I will start with mainland China and come to Hong Kong at the end. You'll find that I did not visit what Americans would call the main attractions... but little did I know that these were really touristy areas for Chinese people. You can definitely beat the crowds, but if you're not prepared for it, the Chinese tourists masses can be overwhelming. Even in China, many Chinese prefer to travel in large groups. And these groups tend to seem to be packed together, so that you are swarmed by hundreds of people.


From Hong Kong you can fly to Xiamen (pronounced "Shee-yah-men") for 1 hour or take a train from Shenzhen, just over the boarder from Hong Kong on the China mainland. When I went to get my Chinese tourist visa in New York, they required that I show my transportation confirmations from Hong Kong to mainland China-- train tickets are hard/impossible to buy online in advance, so I was forced to go the airplane route. I took Hong Kong Airlines and found it to be amazingly comfortable. The flight was on time (which apparently for China is quite shocking), really comfortable, pretty empty, and there were snacks and coffee/tea! It was actually a really nice flight-- better than JetBlue even!

I stayed at the hostel Koala's, which was really comfortable and in downtown Xiamen but pretty hard to find. The weather in Xiamen was scorching hot and super humid-- probably over 95 degrees and 95% humidity-- not ideal weather for wandering around a town with all of your bags. The hostel is located right downtown on a side street. It's a great location and has a cool hangout/lounge/bar area, though on a Friday night it really wasn't even being used other than by a few people watching TV. In general, not many Westerners come through Koala's, especially in the summer, though they do get a lot of study abroad students during the school year, so most of the guests are young Chinese travelers.

Once I dropped off my bags, I immediately headed out to the town. At a small shop I bought a Chinese SIM card for my travel phone for about $10. The credit didn't last me very long, but for the rest of my trip people were able to call me which was extremely helpful. Walking to the main shopping street is a bit of a shock-- in the back alleys behind this street the shops are very simple and grungy, the shopkeepers often live right in the back, and the facades of the buildings are dirty and decrepit; however, on this main boulevard, which is closed to cars during the day, there are big, beautiful, and expensive shops-- particularly Western chains, like Nike and Esprit. But as soon as you deviate, you're back in these poor, small alleys.

(Please note that despite the appearance of the alleys, they are completely safe. China is really surprisingly safe-- during the entire time I was there, I didn't feel unsafe and nervous. Especially for women travelers, sometimes you can find yourself in a city where the men are very aggressive. Contrastingly, in China I never felt that there were any local people hitting on me or making cat calls.)

The view from Starbucks
From the main thoroughfare in downtown Xiamen, you can walk down to the water. All along the water is a huge highway alongside a boardwalk facing Gulangyu Island. This waterfront area is really nice and has many fancy hotels and with the main attraction being a 5 story Starbucks-- I kid you not! The Starbucks has five floors facing the ocean, complete with comfy couches and a nice bookish ambiance, as well as an outdoor rooftop!

Along the waterfront, you can take a ferry over to Gulangyu Island, which is the main attraction at Xiamen. Here was my first interaction with Chinese tourism. The ferry runs every few minutes and it only takes about 5 or 10 minutes to cross the little channel to the island. People mobbed the ferry boat and once on the boat, it was selfie central. Everyone wanted a selfie with the water and city of Xiamen behind them.

As everyone pushed off the boat when we arrived, I immediately felt overwhelmed. I walked down the main road out of the ferry station and into the island and there were so many people every which way I looked. With the heat and humidity, my ability to tolerate such crowds was minimal and I was beginning to get really cranky. Then, I noticed an alley curving up and away behind the buildings. I ducked into it and was immediately happy with the solitude. Wandering around from alley to alley, I discovered a really beautiful and peaceful Gulangyu. The winding and narrow alleys are lined with stone walls that have a lot of ivy growing on them.

Throughout the island are “historic” buildings from the 1930's, which isn't particularly old but the buildings are not maintained so they are covered in ivy, adding to them a really interesting and beautiful look. With the ivy on the abandoned buildings, vines hanging from trees, and the humidity lingering in the air, it felt like a scene out of the Jungle Book.

One interesting sight was that as I wandered through these mostly empty alleys, occasionally I would stumble across a wedding photo shoot. I must have seen a dozen of these couples wearing fancy wedding suits and gown, sweating like crazy in the heat. A quick Google search tells me that Gulangyu is the wedding photo hotspot.

Because of the crowds, I avoided the major tourist attractions on the island and stuck to wandering around. There are lots of forests or preserve on the island, and in one of them I found a look out point at the top of this old metal ladder. From here I could see the whole island, and there was no one around but me!

I continued walking around and at one point stopped at a small stall to buy some water. The shopkeeper invited me to sit with him for tea, and since it was pretty hot and I was feeling tired, I agreed. He had a “point & speak” book that was supposed to have cartoon images to show the meaning of the Chinese words, but this was basically useless. When I saw the cartoon image for whiskey I made a joke since it was the only thing that made sense in the whole book. Next thing I know, they guy is offering me beer. I was feeling nervous about the tea (who knows how clean that cup is), but in retrospect I had nothing to worry about and should have just sat and enjoyed the company. I didn't speak any Chinese and this shopkeeper didn't necessarily have much, but here he was offering me all that he had as well as his company! This is such a great example of Chinese culture in this area-- very generous and welcoming!

The ladder up to the lookout point
I then followed the path back towards the ferry. Feeling hot, I bought a coconut for 15 yuan (about $1) and sat in a park under the shade of a tree looking out over the water towards Xiamen. “Life is good,” I thought.

After two very hot hours on the island, I'd had enough and headed to the hostel. A little while later, I met with Peter, a local who I was connected with through a colleague at Touro Law where I had been working the past year and a half. Touro used to have a summer abroad program in Xiamen and Peter was the liason. Now, peter works with the Chinese government in sending high school and middle school teachers and principals to the US and Canada to practice English.

Dinner with Peter
Once again I was astonished by the hospitality of the Chinese-- Peter was very kind and picked me up in his car. We then we to a great restaurant (definitely needed a car to get there-- not a tourist place at all!) that serves Hakka food. Hakka is a group of Chinese people who migrated to Southern China, including the Fujian province which is where Xiamen is, from Centrala and Northern China many centuries ago. Hakka food is not very common but it is definitely its own type of Chinese food and Chinese people around the country are familiar with it. We had a fabulous mean of bamboo shoots, chicken, beef and vegetables with rice. The food was all very delicious, and I was particularly impressed with the bamboo shoots! The Chinese style of eating is sort of like family style, where there are several large dishes in the center of the table and everyone has a small plate and rice bowl. You use chopsticks to grab food from the middle and then hover the food over the rice or put it on the rice and then eat and enjoy!

After dinner we went to a vista point that overlooked the whole city. The spot is hard to get to-- you definitely need a car-- so only locals were there. People were enjoying picnics and walking up and down the mountain and the sun set and the city illuminated. It was so beautiful and so special that I had the opportunity to go here thanks to Peter!

Some interesting sites in the food market
The next morning I woke up early to check out the market at Xiamen. Supposedly this old village area with a market is nice. I thought it was pretty disgusting and I really wouldn't recommend a visit—there are much nicer markets in other parts of China (it is totally possible I missed the nicer area, though I don't think I did). There were lots of interesting things you could buy there, all sorts of live fish and mammals and birds to buy for eating (though many of the fish were belly up and the animals looked sickly). I saw tomatoes and meat fall to the incredibly dirty ground and then get put back in the pile. Also, the smell was repulsive. You also don't really want to walk off the main path as it gets pretty sketchy pretty quickly.

After this little adventure, I collected my things and headed to the bus station to head north to see the tulou, or round Hakka fortresses. This was just DAY ONE on mainland China! Still have four more weeks to cover!!! Stay tuned!!!


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Denver, CO

This past weekend I got on a jet plane and headed to Denver to spend basically two days and one night in the "mile high city." I left after work on Friday night and arrived in the wee hours of the morning Saturday. After a few hours of sleep, I jumped in a car with three incredibly fun people and hit the road by 7am to go to Loveland, a "small" mountain about 2 hours from Denver (1 hour with no traffic).

Loveland is the closest mountain to Denver, but you need to take 2-lane mountain roads to get there. On the weekend, it is important to hit the road between 6am and 7am or the drive could take double the time (like, 3-4 hours). I was on the mountain by 9:30am. Loveland's base is at about 10k feet and the summit is about 13k feet-- pretty high up for us sea-level dwellers.

The weather was pretty much amazing. Saturday in Denver was a beautiful 70 degrees and sunny. Up at Loveland, however, it was in the 20s-- and without a cloud in the sky! They had just seen 2 feet of snow in the 2 days prior, so fresh powder blanketed the slopes. What's cool about Loveland is that you can take a "ridge cat," which will drive you up to the ridge of the mountain, beyond where the lift will take you. It's free but you need to reserve a spot at the base before taking it. However, it's windy up at the ridge and the powder is deep-- you definitely need really wide skis for that! Even if you don't want to take the ridge cat or hike 15-30 minutes for the deep stuff, there was still a ton of powder off lift #9 (not that that means anything to you if you haven't been there-- lol). There were great powder runs, little jumps, moguls, and fun glading. It was the perfect "little" mountain, nice and close to Denver!

What's exciting is that powder skiing is totally different from ice skiing. In the Northeast, because of the limited about of snow, lower elevation, and freezing temperatures, we generally have icy skiing, forcing you to dig deeper into your edges and look for narrower skis. Some people love this skiing, especially if their into racing. Powder is a totally different feel: you need wider skis to stay on top or you'll just sink in; you need to lean back more to keep your ski tips from just diving down into the snow; and when you fall, it doesn't seem to hurt so much (though you may be buried in snow!).

What was great about skiing in the last weekend in March was that there was no one on the mountain, except for some hilarious locals participating in a "scavenger hunt." The whole mountain was littered with teams dressed up in funny costume, running around the mountain doing different challenges. The event was sponsored by none other than a beer company. Still, often I feel like I had the whole trail to myself! On a gorgeous, powder-filled Saturday! To be fair, conditions are not always this great so late in the season and some of the other mountains were a little more bare, but Loveland was amazing! Best skiing of my life!

The next day we headed to Red Rocks. Red Rocks is a famous amphitheater located in a gorgeous state park with these massive, protruding red-hued rocks. The venue is built right into the rock and the formation creates a perfect sound amplification. Fun fact: I think I saw in the museum that the first documented concert there was in 1910. It's free to park there and many locals come to do workouts on the steps of the theater. There is also great hiking in the park and very beautiful vistas. I would highly recommend it! You do need a car to get there though.

Also, I guess it's kind of a touchy thing, but, you know, in Colorado they have legalized recreational marijuana use, so, naturally, us voyeurs have to at least go look and inquire. In case you missed it, as of January 1, 2014, the people of Denver as well as visitors can go to dispensaries that sell medical and recreational marijuana (there are limitations, restrictions, etc. which you can Google). The dispensaries all around town and, just like any other business, there are small boutique shops, mom & pop shops, and chains. Even though it has been 4 months since legalization, people are still pretty pumped about the whole thing and the novelty hasn't worn off. One guy in the store just kind of burst out, "Soon it will be like this all over the country!" Another girl I spoke with said that even though she lived in Denver this was her first time buying at a dispensary and she seemed really excited. It was all pretty thrilling and I was definitely nervous to go, but I just wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about. And just like buying lotto tickets, you go up to the register, show your ID (you need to be 21), talk to the cashier (they're pretty knowledgeable and you can consult them and talk about your needs/wants), choose what you want, and walk out. The best way to describe it is: so weird. But it seems to work: people seem happy and excited by it and business is booming-- many stores have lines out the door and around the block! It's definitely a contentious issue, but I had to just take a peek and see for myself and report back.

And just like that, two days and one night were over! Thank god for Jetblue's flight sales for getting me to some of the best skiing I've ever had! And yet again, another win for Couchsurfing-- I met the coolest people who I hung out with, skied with, and hiked with. They were interesting, friendly, and trustworthy and I would definitely go back and see them again. Maybe this summer I'll check out a show at Red Rocks!