March 1 – 3, 2013
As the six of us (Paul, Matt, Connie, Becky, my wife and me) are having some late night snack at Riyuegu Hot Spring’s (日月谷温泉) canteen in Xiamen, Connie pops the question that’s probably in everyone’s mind, “Why do you want to visit Fujian Tulou?”
It is a fair question – intended for me, as I am the one who made the suggestion and caused all of us to be in Fujian in this particular evening. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, tulou (土樓) is a type of Hakka rural dwelling that is usually circular or rectangular in shape. The Chinese name means “earth building”, giving clue to the massive rammed earth walls that hold the building intact.
Now, take a look at the photo above. Would you want to see them in person, where despite numbering tens of thousands in southern Fujian Province, the majority of tulou is utterly identical and the rare ones that are slightly differentiated have been turned into tourist traps?
For most, and probably a few among us, the photo would have right off the bat distinguished all desire to visit. Why travel more than 500 km just to see some glorified farmhouses?
That all of it could be traced back to a causal Friday night is not surprising. Like always, many unpremeditated objectives were declared over a few drinks while the six of us were blowing off steam after another hectic week – such as going to Tibet before the death of the current incarnation of Dalai Lama, going skydive, and starting up a business, among many others.
Aiming for the stars was aspiring, but I needed something in the immediate future to look forward to – something that only consumed a weekend and wouldn’t break the bank. How about somewhere in China for a weekend trip during the first weekend of March?
A round of “yea, why not?” later, each of us took out our smartphones to mark down the date, though nobody had any clue where we would be going.
Two weeks later I was flipping through a photobook of China. One of the chapters was on Fujian Tulou, where my mind promptly pinpointed it as where we would be going in March – it seemed relatively close and probably cheap enough.
Ranging from mildly interested to downright indifferent, the others voted yes. The choice didn’t inspire much enthusiasm, but regardless how it arrived to this point we had come up with our destination. Kind of like how the Republicans chose Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008.
After a brief round of discussion through emails and messages, we finalized on taking an overnight train from Shenzhen to Yongding (永定) on Friday March 1 ($278), then fly home from Xiamen (廈門) two nights later on March 3 ($480).
A slight issue with this itinerary – as Paul expressed in shock two weeks before the trip even though it was him who helped buy the tickets. “We will be arriving there at 4:40 in the morning!”
Indeed – and hiring a driver for the day became a necessity. After some shopping around online, I landed a deal of 900RMB that would get us all the way to Xiamen. I was expecting something cheaper but all these online contacts held their ground firm.
To hedge the possibility tulou would turn out as a huge bore, Becky suggested we spent that Saturday night at Riyuegu Hot Spring resort (1300 RMB – double room including hot spring admission and massage). A smart plan, albeit a slightly expensive one, to keep the girls off my back and give them justification to make the trip.
To round out the itinerary we would spend Sunday on Gulangyu Island (鼓浪嶼) before flying back home with Spring Airlines.
The Night Train
When March 1 finally descended upon us, the excitement of anticipation was now replaced by the reality of needing to execute our ambitious plan. We gathered after work in Kowloon Tong, then onward to Shenzhen train station. None of us had taken an overnight train in China before. How crowded would it be? How about the hygiene? We were stepping out from our daily comfort zone into an unknown.
Our hard-bed compartment, no. 16 and conveniently located next to a washroom on Cart 5, had a total of six bunker beds, three on each side. Expecting much worse, our cabin’s cleanliness was well within tolerable level, at least under the dim fluorescent light. At 21:40 our train punctually took off for the long journey to its end destination Quanzhou (泉州).
A train conductor soon appeared. Besides the typical round of inspection, she swapped our tickets with plastic cards so she could wake us up before the train reached Yongding the next morning – another unexpected display of well-intentioned customer service.
But nothing could compensate for the rowdy nature of our fellow passengers. Almost each stop along the way there were people getting on and off the train, and in each instance they uniformly elected to make the maximum amount of noise possible.
Lying on the perpetually vibrating bed, my consciousness was turning into a haze yet my senses seemed to have heightened. The ceaseless conversations out in the corridor, the periodic flushing of the toilet next door, and the interminable background noise of the train wheels turning on the track managed to hold my full attention even as my mind had wandered faraway – a merrier place more suitable for a Friday night.
The Morning when Time Stopped
Last night’s effort did come with a reward – we had an extremely early start to the day at 4:40. Actually scrapped that; we would all rather sleep for a few more hours. The prospect of a 20-hour day ahead was not exactly greeted with excitement in our cabin. Our collective craving for sleep was so strong I could almost feel it in the air. But no matter our mood, there we were, stepping out of the train onto the dimly lit platform. The weather – heavy fog with a light shower, was a visualization of our mental state.
With everyone so lethargic, there was no better time to pull a practical joke, especially one that’s pre-planned. When asked to provide my name so he could identify us, I gave our driver Xiao Chao Paul’s nickname “Big Bear”. So there he was, holding the “Big Bear” sign at the entrance area of the train station. The scene gave us all a good laugh, but the biggest joke was probably on Xiao Chao as he wasn’t entirely sure what’s going on.
Yuchang Lou 裕昌樓
Our first stop was Yuchang Lou (裕昌樓), an hour drive from the train station and famous for being one of the oldest surviving tulou (built in the early 14th century) and its crumbling yet intact interior. We were all a little lightheaded from the ride. The driving itself was fine but the bombardment by a nonstop stream of cheesy Chinese pop and country songs was intolerable. So why did we suck it up during the entire time? We perceived Xiao Chao’s incessant yawning as a warning signal that our car would crash under the impenetrable fog the moment we turned off his lifeline that’s his music – our collective eardrums had to sacrifice for the greater good.
6 am. The weather remained suffocatingly awful. Clearly there would be no sunlight for the rest of the day. But there we were, arriving at Yuchang Lou, and we had to throw ourselves into the darkness because that’s what we traveled all the way for, the reward being a round-shaped building we could barely distinguish without any presence of light.
Once inside, the feeling was unexpectedly one of familiarity. Of course I had seen photos of this tulou before, like every other place I have intended to visit. Usually seeing a picture or a video is no substitute for the real place. That’s why we make the effort to travel, to indulge our senses in reality. But my surrounding appeared exactly the same as what my eyes had informed me long before I first stepped on last night’s train. What stood tall above me felt as flat as a two-dimensional photograph, a facade that’s preserved for tourist consumption. We were allowed to roam around freely in the darkness without any supervision (this is someone’s residence after all), which I appreciated, yet instead of feeling stimulated, my senses lingered in a state of comatose.
What if you have found out after watching the first installment of a long series, for example the Fast and Furious franchise, that you just don’t care for the protagonist at all and are secretly rooting for Vin Diesel to be killed off in the first race. Too bad though – you have bought all five DVDs in a discounted bundle. Nobody is holding you at gunpoint to finish them, but you have already slotted the whole day for watching movies without any alternative. The human nature of refusing to come to terms with sunk cost is enough for you to continue to watch Vin Diesel lives his life a quarter mile at a time.
That’s how I felt leaving Yuchang Lou. The time read 6:40 am.
Hekeng Tulou Cluster 河坑土樓群
After enduring two soggy and uninspiring stops, the Tianluokeng Tulou cluster (田螺坑土樓群) and Taxiacun (塔下村), at 9:30 the sky finally took a turn for the better as we approached Hekeng Tulou Cluster (河坑土樓群). A short hike to a hilltop lookout gave us a far-reaching view of the below valley occupied by tulou in different shapes and sizes. Our mood finally experienced a slight uptick – the view was fantastic, and the village appeared lively enough to hopefully allow us to spend some quality time there without immediately thinking ahead on what’s next.
Hekeng doesn’t have a single tulou that can match the fame of Yuchang Lou. Actually the entire village didn’t appear much like a tourist destination, with children chasing each other along the narrow corridors and children freely searching for food in the communal area. Invitation to sit down for tea, which we initially were unsure of and turned down, was the local’s customary display of hospitality towards visitor. Feeling more at ease, we followed a young mother back to her home. Originally from Hangzhou, Xiao Zhang had brought with her a two year-old daughter to temporary stay in Hekeng to care for her husband’s ailing uncle.
“People here are very hospitable. It is second nature for them to invite everyone back home and chat over tea.” Xiao Zhang explained to us as she busied herself with refilling our cups with tea and passing along mandarin oranges and dried seeds. We enjoyed her company and the opportunity to learn a little about Hekeng, though in our heart we were just happy to have a place to chill and watch time pass. We sensed Xiao Zhang probably felt the same way – a young lady like herself must often be quite bored in a rural village mainly populated by the elderly and the very young. Around noon we bid goodbye to Xiao Zhang and Hekeng while she focused on lunch preparation.
Chengqi Lou 承啟樓
With the moniker “King of Tulou”, it was inevitable that coming to Chengqi Lou’s (承啟樓) we had adjusted our expectation a little bit – it would either live up as the King or be an intolerable tourist trap, with no in-between. And Chengqi Lou stood unequivocally in the latter territory, an aggregation of souvenir shops selling identical and tacky plastic eyesores ran by locals who were too eager to showcase their homes in exchange for a few dozen RMBs. Another place irrevocably ruined by the Chinese tourist industry.
There’re more than 20,000 tulou in the area, but we were ready to call it a day. Riyuegu Hot Spring was waiting for us and we couldn’t wait to jump into its embrace.
All About the “Who”
Many tulou have fallen into an irredeemable state of tackiness like many other tourist sites across China, but some thankfully are able to retain their rural charm. Yet at the end this trip was never about tulou. It was about going somewhere, anywhere, with the group that we have. It was about our preference for each other’s company and to create some common memory together. So Connie, this is my response to your question.
Tulou just happened to be the option I chose. It did its job alright.