Sunday, February 8, 2009

Yongding and the Tulou Earth Buildings

On the second day of my trip, I did a day trip to Yongding, which is a rural area about two hours outside of Xiamen. I was more nervous about this trip than any of the other places I went. Since it is in the countryside there would be few English speakers and I had very little information about what to do once I arrived. To plan the trip I had been using a combination of my Lonely Planet book,, and any local resources or tourist maps available when I would arrive in a city. For most places, that was plenty, but for Yongding all I had was the name of the city and some basic information. It was really just a sidebar in my book with no maps or anything too useful. Traveling alone there with shaky Chinese skills was certainly going to be a challenge. The main draw of Yongding is what they call tulou, "earth buildings", or Hakka houses. The tulou were mostly built by the Hakka tribe, which still live there today. The tulou are basically large circular structures with an outer ring with rooms where the residents live and an interior circle that is a common area. They are literally built of out "earth" or, according to wikipedia, earth, sand, and lime. The tulou contained an entire community and often were essentially self-sufficient, with some crops, livestock, wells, and even temples all inside. This would allow the residents to live their lives without leaving the safety of the tulou. Since a lot of the tulou are around 300-500 years old, it is easy to imagine how this type of protective structure would be popular in the country that sealed itself in with the Great Wall. While the tulou can vary in size, the largest can hold over 600 people, so you can imagine how large they can be. Without giving away the ending of the story, here are some pictures to give you an idea of what they look like.
Tulou from Outside
Tulou from Inside
Well inside Tulou
Livestock in Tulou
Cooking and Cleaning
Family Eating in their Room
Temple inside Tulou
Taking the bus to the countryside from Xiamen was an interesting experience. I have not spent too much time in the countryside and you definitely start to see a lifestyle there that does not exist in the big cities in China. There were some other foreigners on the bus in the beginning, but they had gotten off at an earlier stop than I did, so I was basically left alone to fend for myself. The bus finally arrived in a small city center and the remaining people all got out. It seems everyone besides me knew where they were going and immediately dispersed. Soon I was left alone in this small city with no map or any clear signs of where to go, not even in Chinese. I started walking down a road that looked like it might have something, but to be honest, I really had no idea. As very few foreigners go to this area, the local people were staring at me even more than normal in China. They seemed to be quite shocked to see the presence of a "Laowai", or foreigner, walking confusedly down the dirt road. The people all seemed to congregate in small groups outside, often around a small fire since it was a little bit cold that day. There were chickens, cows, and other livestock just wandering around. I would have to say at this point I was probably further outside of my comfort zone than I have ever been. There are definitely more seasoned travelers than myself who have been in a lot crazier situations, and I found at as the day went on how friendly of a place Yongding is and how many Chinese tourists go there, but in those first moments I really had no idea what was going on and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. After a short while walking, a local guy on his motorcycle pulled up and asked if he could help me out. As the roads were pretty narrow and rough, most everyone was riding on motorcycles in this area. The man had a map and said he'd take me to some tulou for a small price. Now, I'm not normally in the habit of going with strange men who ask me if I want to take a ride on their motorcycle, but in this situation, it seemed I had no choice. So I hopped on and he took me to a group of smaller tulou. They were definitely interesting to see in person and since this was a less frequented tulou, some of the people living there were again pretty surprised to see me there.
Tulou from the Top Floor
Tulou Side
Some Dude
After that first group, the driver offered to drive to some of the better ones. I ended up riding with him the whole day, for around 6 hours or more. The only fee he required was around $25, which is probably more than he normally gets. To be honest, I couldn't have gotten luckier with my driver. He was very good-natured and spoke quickly in a series of staccatos. He basically served as my tour guide and helped me all day long, even helped to buy my bus ticket back home since I had no idea where to get it. I could tell he was somewhat happy to be driving a foreigner and took any occasion to show me off to his friends or other Chinese people we met.
Riding on the Motorcycle My Driver
There was a traffic jam through the center of town, so my driver took me on a shortcut and we stopped by his tulou. He beamed with pride with a big smile on his face when he pointed out which tulou was his. His tulou is unique in that it's a square instead of a circle. While he was taking care of a few things, I chatted with an old women living there who was saying how her room was very large and let me take a look. She asked what country I was from and then started listing out all the countries she knew. The room was actually relatively small and I didn't even see a bed around. I didn't know whether to pity her for her humble situation or to feel jealous about how happy and proud she is with what she has, when I need an ever increasing quality of life to be happy it seems.
Driver's Tulou
Tulou Hall
Old Woman's Room
Child in a Crib
One of the highlights of all the tulou is the Chengqi tulou. It is the largest, with over 400 rooms and as mentioned could house over 600 people. It was pretty loaded with Chinese tourists and had a market inside selling souvenirs, but was still really great to see.
Chengqi Tulou (World Heritage Site)
Inside Chengqi
Chengqi Side
While driving between the different groups of tulou, I was able to see a lot of the countryside. Since it is China, even in rural areas there are still a lot of people walking around in the villages and farms. They had a lot of terraced farms and old buildings everywhere. While driving around, people were all quite curious and were always staring at me. As often happens in China, the people will say "Hello!" to you wherever you go, then run away shyly, since they're a little unsure about foreigners and that's all the English they know. It's so funny sometimes to see Chinese mother's advising their kids to say hello when they see me.
Larger Village along River
Terraced Farms
Probably the best tulou grouping is Tianluokeng cluster. Basically, there is a group of five or so tulou altogether on a hillside in the midst of terraced farms. There is really a dramatic view from above and below.
Tianluokeng from Above Tianluokeng and Me
Tianluokeng from Below
My Driver and I
With very few foreigners in the Yongding area, there were, of course, a lot of Chinese people trying to talk with me. Normally, when I said that I am able to speak a little Chinese, they would get so excited and start speaking so quickly that it was impossible for me to understand. A lot of them wanted to take pictures with me, which is another pretty common thing in China. After this trip I have a very simple barometer to determine how many foreigners have penetrated the area. It's based on the number of people staring at you and how many people ask you to take pictures with them. In Hangzhou, I've only had people ask to take pictures with me two or three times after living here around six months, but in Yongding in one day I had at least 10 people ask. I sometimes asked them to take a picture for me as well.
Some new "pengyoumen (friends)"
At the end of the day, the driver asked me to eat dinner with his family. It was pretty interesting, but once they started speaking the local dialect, I couldn't understand anything. They poured some concoction from a Sprite bottle that ended up being some kind of moonshine as far as I can tell. Try turning down some people as eager to please as they were, even with the obvious health concerns of drinking some mysterious alcohol from a sprite bottle. They invited me to stay the night and had a nice room for guests that even had a western style toilet! It is possible to stay inside of the tulou and I wanted to try that, but I ended up staying in the guest room that was in another building as to not disappoint my driver. I know this blog ended up to be pretty long, but I wanted to write as much as I could remember since it was one of the most interesting travel experiences I have had. To be honest, there are a limited number of years left for people to still have a similar experience. Currently, there are still a fair number of people living in the tulou, but with each passing year there are fewer and fewer. Most have lived in the tulou their whole lives and don't really know any other way of living, but as the older generations go away so will the lifestyle. These days, young people will leave the villages to go to the big cities for more opportunities and who can blame them. While the living situation is interesting, I don't know a lot of people who would be content living that lifestyle the rest of their lives. Most of the people remaining are old people and young children, since as the parents will be so busy working in the cities, the grandparents will watch the children until they are old enough to go to school. It is truly one of the last generations to live that lifestyle. I imagine that in the future it will turn into a purely tourist attraction and you can already see tourism has cleared out most native people at the most popular tulou. Probably it will end up being like some of the pioneer villages, mining towns, or old colonial towns we have in the US, where people dress up in old clothes and pretend to live the lifestyle, but in reality it's just a show. It is sad, but as they say, there is no progress without change. Now I will step off my soapbox. To lighten the mood, here are a few more pictures of Chinese people doing what Chinese people do:
It is Necessary to Use an Athletic Stance to Take Pictures
Young Boy Lighting a Firecracker with a Lit Cigarette
Some More Enthusiastic Photographers
For those interested, here is a link to all my pictures on picasa:


Stephen said...

This reminded me of my visit in India to a rural farming village. You go there as a tourist, but you find out that you are actually the tourist attraction. I bet news of you traveled through the village fast and I'd put money down that they're still talking about you somewhere in that village.

Phil Dawsey said...

Man I don't know if i'd have the nerve to go somewhere like that alone, but I'd def like to do things like that! I tell you though, if those kids don't say "hello" to me, I'd get pretty mad, so it's good their parents teach them well. haha. I think there should be a crazy chinese section at the end of every post, love it!