Explore centuries-old tulou buildings on a bicycle tour through Fujian

  • [Tuesday] 09th Sep,2014
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Time Out ride off the beaten track and explore centuries-old tulou buildings on a bicycle tour through scenic Fujian province

The sweat, the strain, the huffing and puffing – it had all been worth it for this. After a long morning of biking, the 20-minute uphill climb had nearly beaten me. Much of the time the slope was so steep that I decelerated to a pace slower than a baby’s crawl. Sharp bend after sharp bend promised end points that kept failing to materialise. But it all culminated in a delicious descent.

Feet off pedals, I zoomed downhill, breaking occasionally to take in the scenery flashing by. Near-vertical banks of hillside flank the road – bursting with greenery, flowers and waterfalls. And this exquisite landscape is just a bonus. The real reason I joined this cycle tour is to explore the tulou – the iconic rammed-earth dwellings that punctuate the countryside across southern Fujian.

Built by the Hakka and Minnan peoples between the 12th and 20th centuries, these impressive, multi-storey complexes and the traditional, communal way of life practised by the numerous families living within them, managed to survive the bulldozing over the last few decades as China advanced, thanks to their remote nature and the mountainous geography surrounding them.

A Unesco-listing in 2008 and a rash of new highways in recent years have brought busloads of visitors to the most famous of the tulou, but hundreds more remain well off the tourist map. Located down dirt pathways inaccessible by car, these dwellings are best reached by bike. But with reliable maps and decent signposts hard to come by in the area, this can be something of a challenge.

Fortunately, our group has a pair of excellent guides. We are led by Bruce, a Hong Kong-based Aussie who uses his well-honed sense of direction to shepherd us through mazes of tea and sweet-smelling tobacco fields. It helps that he’s been visiting the area for eight years. He is joined by a local guide, Liz. With Liz around to translate, we are asked inside for tea with such regularity that we find ourselves having to turn down every other invitation. 

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Historically, the residents here would not have been so hospitable to outsiders. Each tulou was like its own fortified city, designed to keep intruders out. Their rammed-earth walls stood up to five storeys high and two metres wide – thick enough to resist cannon fire. Within these walls, storage rooms for stockpiling, wells, and expert pickling skills (still on show in the local cuisine today) allowed the clan members inside to survive a siege. 

Many of the tulou are doughnut-shaped, with circular, wooden balconies enclosing an open-air courtyard in the middle, with the balconies lining the interior leading off into individual rooms and homes. On our first night we stay in one of the more unusual ‘phoenix-shaped’ tulou, in a Unesco-listed cluster in Hongkeng village. From the outside it looks like a rectangular mansion. Inside, balconies look out onto a warren of buildings with tiled roofs reaching up to different heights. A woman leaning out of a window at the top of a tower brings to mind the scene from Romeo and Juliet

In this atmospheric setting, complete with red lanterns, I chat with one of the residents. Like everyone else living in this particular tulou, he’s surnamed Lin. He tells me they are all part of a single clan. At one time, 27 families, comprising some 200 people, lived in this one building. Today, only 60 residents are left, with many of the rooms now rented out to travellers. 

The advent of tulou tourism has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s helped provide work and reasons for the young to stay on, instead of abandoning their communities for the lure of China’s boomtowns. In the Unesco-listed areas, there has been greater incentive to repair historic structures instead of tearing them down to make way for modern, identikit, white-tiled homes. On the other hand, alongside preservation, the bump in visitor numbers has brought about change too.

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During a pre-breakfast stroll alongside the river that runs through Hongkeng, we have the sights almost to ourselves. But on the way back, we see evidence of the village gearing up for the arrival of crowds of day-trippers from the coastal city of Xiamen: stalls stockpiled with tobacco pipes and mini tulou in snow globes.

No such knickknacks are present at the communities we visit later in the day. We reach these tourist-free clusters by going off-road on our bikes, winding along bumpy gravel tracks, stopping to snap photos and drain water bottles, slogging up, then rushing down countless hills. 

Our thirsts whetted, we’re thrilled to be invited into an old couple’s abode: a ground-floor room inside a grand, round tulou. As we drink, I take in the simple surrounds; the bare white walls decorated only with a poster of Premier Xi Jinping. Later, we spot myriad Mao Zedong murals on crumbling walls.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Communism proved popular here. For the better part of the millennium proceeding Marx’s manifesto, the residents were already living as a community of equals. They farmed collectively and rotated household chores. Kitchens and bathrooms were shared; all the bedrooms were the same size and style. Instead of allocating different floors according to social hierarchy, individual families would own one vertical column, with the eldest members residing on the ground level and the youngest sleeping at the top. Today, as many of the young leave for the comforts of city life, traditional practices are fading. Many of the less-accessible tulou we visit are almost abandoned; only a handful of pensioners dozing in doorways remain.

By the end of the trip, my legs are groaning from cycling over 90km in two days, but despite the fatigue, I’m happy that I’ve been given a glimpse into this unique world before it disappears entirely.

The author travelled with the Fujian Tea Tulou Eco Cycle Getaway through Beijing-based tour company The Hutong. Departures are scheduled throughout the year and cost 3,300RMB per person (excluding flights); the next trip is from 5-7 September. See www.thehutong.com or emailbruce@thehutong.com for more details. Guide Bruce Foreman also organises bike trips elsewhere in China – see www.bikeaways.com for more information.