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