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China Deep Dive: Xiamen part II - Hakka tulou

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One of the most unique features of Fujian is the Hakka tulou buildings that are concentrated in the Nanjing and Yongding counties, about a two and a half hour drive west of Xiamen. The Hakka began constructing these communal residences in the twelfth century and the most recent was built in 1912. They are large circular buildings with walls composed of packed earth over a meter thick occasionally mixed with other materials. They lean inward for gravitational support and the buildings are generally three to four stories high. There are also tulou in Jiangxi and Guangzhou provinces but the majority of the buildings and the best known are in Fujian. We took our friend's son along with us for the day long road trip to the tulou. We stopped for breakfast in an old town called Shiqiao that was split in half by a creek that could be crossed with stepping stones.

Our first stop was at the Yuchang tulou which was built in 1308 and is five stories tall. It is a truly remarkable structure that resembles a modern sports stadium. The tulou functioned as a village within one building, with individual families generally occupying a stack of apartments from the first through the fifth floor. Cooking was done in the ground floor unit, the second floor was for food storage, and the upper floors were the living quarters. The original purpose of the tulou was to protect the villagers from marauders, which is why they have only one entrance and no windows on the lower floors.

One of the interesting features of Yuchang is that the support beams of the upper floors are slanted due to a measurement error in the design phase. The walls also have a marked inward tilt which is intentional as it strengthens the building's structural integrity. The ground floor is mostly occupied by craft workers and souvenir shops but many families still live in the upper floors.

We proceeded onward to the Tianluokeng Cluster which are the most popular tulous for visitors due to their scenic location on a hillside surrounded by terraced fields. There were several viewpoints from which to gaze out over the cluster as we approached, one of which featured a small teahouse with an outdoor patio.

The Tianluokeng tulous were ensconced within a small village that featured some tourist infrastructure such as an ice cream shop but was otherwise very quiet and devoid of any visitors other than ourselves. The nickname of the cluster is "four dishes and a soup". The five buildings were constructed at different times between 1796 and 1966 but have a very similar appearance except for their shapes.

The lowest of the five tulou was the only one with an oval shape and looked out directly over the hillside. Small fruits were drying in the sun on flat woven baskets outside the front door. For a few moments I gazed out over the terraced hillside and the dense greenery beyond, bemused at how I had become so closely associated with this fascinating culture on the opposite side of the world from where I had been born. Without Mei Ling traveling in China would surely have been a far less colorful experience.

Inside the tulou there was a small restaurant. Mei Ling entered into discussions with the proprietor while the kids and I checked out two huge frogs that were lounging in the well in the courtyard. Mei Ling went over the menu options with me and I asked if the frogs were available as well. I was joking, for the most part, but it turned out the frogs were indeed available and they were soon netted from the well and deftly executed and cleaned by the cook.

For the next hour or so there was a flurry of activity as Mei Ling and the kids pitched in to help prepare the meal. Vegetables were trimmed, a chicken was hacked into chunks, and the frog was stir-fried in a steaming wok. The coup de grace was a bowl of deep fried insect larvae.

We had ordered a wild rabbit as well but after waiting around for almost an hour we decided to forgo it. Apparently the man of the house was still hunting for one on the hillside and we were too hungry to see if he would be successful. We sat down and consumed the fruits of our labor, another in a series of unusual meals that we've had in China.

Darkness was falling when we left Tianluokeng but Mei Ling still wanted to stop at another famous village called Yunshuiyao on the way back to Xiamen. It was pitch black when we arrived but the buildings were beautifully illuminated for visitors. The town was split by a river and an illuminated, very modern bridge connected the two sides. The lights had attracted numerous cicadas which were buzzing loudly and hopping around the bridge, and Mei Ling couldn't resist another opportunity to harass them.

There will still some restaurants and shops open in the town but we had just eaten and for the most part it seemed that the locals had turned in for the night. The route that we chose to return to the car was along a winding road where oncoming cars passed unnervingly close. Eventually we found a path that took us to a strange stone walkway that had a deep ditch in the center. There were a few inches of water in the ditch and a line of enormous snails with silver shells slowly making their way to some unknown destination.

It was two more hours until we arrived back in Xiamen and we were ready for some snacks in a night market before bed. One of the specialties here was skewers and we found some deep fried grasshoppers, an old favorite of mine. There were also succulent silkworms and whole barbecued frogs that went great with the refreshing local lager. I didn't think twice about having frog for the second time that day. It was a completely different flavor and I had to make the most of being in China for the first time in four years.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:32 Archived in China Tagged road_trip family fujian xiamen tulou family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog tianluokeng yuchang

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