As we looked out of the window of the coach from Xiamen to Yongding, scanning the rainy Fujian Province landscape, we finally caught our first glimpse of a tulou. We couldn't help but sit up straight in our seats and give a collective "Wow!" as we craned for a better view.
We knew we were close to the destination of our magical mystery tour. In Xiamen we'd asked the bus driver to take us to a place where we could see good examples of tulou. We had no idea where we'd be dropped off to meet our hosts from the Hakka minority group and explore the fascinating structures of this mountainous region.
After a three-and-a-half-hour drive through lush mountain landscapes, past green banana field after banana field, alongside clear creeks that trace the route of the brand-new expressway, we were excited to be nearly there.
"Here you are," the driver said as he pulled up. We gathered our luggage, put on our waterproofs and got off the bus. Before us stood an imposing enclosed structure just across a little creek. There was no chance of missing this one; here in close-up was a tulou.
It is said there are around 3,000 tulou in China, most in mountainous areas in Yongding and Nanjing counties in Fujian.
These are traditional communal dwellings of the Hakka people in Fujian, with most built between the 14th and 20th centuries. Up to five stories high, these fortified structures have earthen walls - some 1.8 meters thick - enclosing living areas, storehouses and wells. Some were home to hundreds of families.
Built in times when bandit gangs roamed the countryside, tulou offered their inhabitants protection, the fact that they still exist a testimony to their success.
Appropriately, Yongding literally means "everlasting settlement" or "eternal safety" in Chinese.
A short man welcomed Shanghai Daily photographer Wang Rongjiang and I from the bus, ushering us toward his guesthouse across the road. Faced with the alternative of standing in seemingly never-ending rain, we followed him.
The first floor was bustling with foreign guests and locals chatting in their dialect.
The man introduced himself as Li Huashi, owner of the guesthouse, as his wife, Jiang Zhenju, brought us local-produced tea.
Li said we could stay in his lodgings or inside the tulou, so we asked to see both.
His guesthouse-hostel has four stories with numerous rooms and two dining areas. The rooms we saw were basic, with two beds, a lamp stand and a TV. However, the bathroom included an electric shower.
Next we checked out the nearby tulou itself - Huanxing Tower. Outside its walls we noticed shabby mud structures, some of which serve as toilets and others as stores for animal manure to fertilize crops.
Entering the tulou through a stone gate in its impressive earthen wall, our first impressions were of dark wooden structures with "couplets" - red vertical hangings on either side of a door, with complementing lines of verse - brick buildings in the central yard, around which wandered chickens and dogs.
While tulou may provided a secure home for generations, in recent years, locals have moved across the creek to modern housing.
"The only people still living here are the elderly and small kids. Only one young man still lives here, and he makes a living taking tourists on his motorcycle," Li explained.
We climbed old wooden stairs until we reached rooms on the fourth floor. These are about 10 square meters, with one bed or two beds and old-fashioned bedding with large red flower patterns popular in the 1970s.
"Foreigners like to stay inside the tulou for a unique experience," Li explained. "But all our Chinese visitors prefer to stay in accommodation outside as there are no toilets or baths inside."
Weighing up the option of no toilet or bath versus a hot shower and a toilet, we decided to follow the example of our countrymen and women.
Before heading back to the guest house, Li showed us a fire-damaged wooden section of the tulou.
Incredibly, this occurred during China's the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom period around 1860, when rebels retreated to the area after a defeat.
Li's ancestors closed the tulou gates and the rebels laid siege. But on the third night, a child of the clan fell ill, and his father brought him out of the tulou to see a nearby doctor. The rebels seized the opportunity to break in, stole food and started a fire. While Li's ancestors put out the fire, the damage caused is still there.
Li told us with obvious pride that Huanxing Building is more than 450 years old.
"Our ancestors came from Henan Province in central China and settled in Shanghang in Fujian first. Then they moved here 500 years ago, under the leadership of Li Huode, the first member of our clan here, according to family tree records," Li said. "The third generation here started to build the tulou, and it took them 30 years."
However, living conditions in the tulou could be tough, Li said. "Some 30 years ago when I stayed in it, there were around 300 residents in around 120 rooms. The first floor the kitchen, the second the storeroom, while the third and top floors are bedrooms."
"I stayed in the storeroom on the second floor until I was 18, as there was not enough room upstairs. I was the youngest, with nine brothers and one sister.
"Only after I married did I have my own room. The living conditions were very poor and crowded, so we moved out as soon as we built our place across the creek," Li explained.
The sky was darkening as we left the tulou, and we noticed elderly women staring at us. "Don't worry, you don't have to pay for the visit as I led you," Li said. "Otherwise you'd each need to give five yuan (US 80 cents) to one of my aunts as an entrance fee."
Back at Li's, we chose a room with a view of the tulou for 130 yuan and, settling down to a dinner of deep-fried creek fish, tofu, and bamboo shoots with meat, asked Li and his family to be our guides next day.
Li was quick to offer advice on the area's attractions. "Chengqi Tower down the road is not worth visiting as it's packed with souvenir stalls. Although it's called the 'Prince of tulou,' it's actually more like a department store," he said.
We agreed on routes covering a view-taking platform and the picturesque Chuxi landscape and a price of 420 yuan for Li's son-in-law, You Dexin, to drive us for six hours.
When we'd eaten we chatted with the family, including Li's daughter, Li Yuanyuan, who speaks very good English, useful for dealing with foreign guests.
"I studied tourism and some English in Xiamen. But there I felt that I was like a grain of sand on beach there, so I returned to help my parents make a living," she explained.
"Foreigners are straightforward, so I only have to show them the rooms and ask whether they want to stay.
"My husband drives for tourists; the car was a marriage present from my parents," Li Yuanyuan added, with obvious pride.
Driving tourists brings her husband on average 200 to 300 yuan a day - an impressive sum of 6,000 yuan a month.
"The business will eventually belong to my brother, as that's the tradition," she said. "So maybe in a few years we will move back to my husband's tulou and develop tourism there," she said.
When Jiang returned, she told us how she met her husband, more than two decades ago.
"His sister married a man in my village, and she brought him to my home to see if there was marriage prospect," she explained. "The first time we met I didn't even dare to look at him. The marriage was decided later," she said.
"On the date of my marriage, I had my lunch of pork, fish and duck on a flat bamboo basket on the stairs of the tulou as women here were looked down upon at the time and didn't dare to eat on a table, even on marriage day," Jiang told us.
Things have changed over the years, and Li Yuanyuan echoed her father's views on how things are different for the tulou too.
"I liked growing up in the tulou as there were dozens of kids and we had a good time. But now young couples try to move out, as it's not a convenient place to live. A young man must have a new house outside, otherwise no girl will marry him."
After our meal we returned to our room and quickly fell asleep to the sound of the creek outside, a day of tulou exploring ahead.
'An outstanding human settlement'
Tulou - literally meaning earth buildings - are communal residential structures popular in mountainous areas of southern Fujian Province, with most dating from between the 14th and 20th centuries.
Constructed without using any concrete, iron or bricks, the largest tulou can house more than 500 people.
In 2008, tulou were added to the World Heritage list by UNESCO, which described them as "an outstanding example of human settlement."
The appearance of a tulou is so unusual that it is said that the CIA spent years studying satellite photographs of them during the 1960s, believing they were nuclear reactors.
Although tulou come in all kinds of shapes - including square, rings, semicircle and even hexagons - the most popular form is round. Common throughout is that they were intended to provide a fortified home for hundreds of members of a clan.
A standard round tulou usually has three to four stories. All rooms inside are exactly the same size. Those on the first floor are used as kitchens; the second floor contains storerooms while the third and forth floors are bedrooms.
The central courtyard is the public space where residents socialize.
Some large tulou are the result of repeated constructions. For example, the Chengqi Tower in Gaobei village of Yongding County has a totally four rings.
No matter large or small, each tulou has an ancestral temple where people pay respect to the ancestors and Buddhas in special festivals. It is also a place for wedding ceremonies and memorial services. Some temples were also where children went to school.
Its walls shone golden in the light
Our first stop was Chuxi, a cluster of tulou in a valley with a deep creek to the north. In the bright morning sunshine, their earthen walls looked golden, shiny and warm.
Villagers were getting on with their everyday business: an elderly woman hung washed greens to dry on a bridge rail; others were busy cleaning; while kids walked to school.
The first tulou we visited was Jiqing Building - nicknamed as "72 stairs" tulou as it has 72 stairways inside instead of the usual three to four.
The 600-year-old structure looks in very good conditions, and its stairs seem strong, without creaks often heard on the old wood. Red lanterns were hung outside dwellings on the ground and fourth floor.
The earthen wall is nearly 2 meters thick, and all the wooden structure - including the 72 stairs - were made without a single iron nail.
One of the oldest tulou in the area, Jiqing Building has been listed as Key National Relic Protection Site in 2006 and was included in the UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2008.
Built by a clan surnamed Xu between 1403 and 1424, the four-storey building has 56 rooms on each floor. There is also a one-storey worship house in the middle of the courtyard where inhabitants paid respect to ancestors.
Nearby are one-story structures that in the past served as dining rooms and meeting rooms. All the residents have been relocated and the site is now used as an exhibition on the Hakka people.
I noticed a square-shaped indentation on the wall of first floor, and learnt that this was a secret escape hole in case bandits succeeded in entering the tulou. It would be covered by a cabinet and only a few seniors in the family knew the secret.
Jiqing Building, like most tulou is round as Chinese ancestors believed that sky is circular while the earth is square. They thought building a circular structure would endow it with supernatural strength.
And on practical grounds, a circular shape allowed for stronger defenses and was better for observing enemies.
The frame is made of pine, which can last thousands of years, according to the experience of ancient Chinese.
Walking around the top floor we surveyed the green mountains as the sun climbed in the sky. And it was so quiet; only an occasional dog bark breaking the silence.
I couldn't help thinking what an amazing movie everyday life in Jiqing Building would have made.
Next we went to the adjacent Fuqing Building, which also belongs to the Xu clan. Built in 1849, families still live in the three-story structure.
Inside was plenty evidence of everyday live. Colorful clothes, wooden toilets, bamboo baskets and couplets were everywhere. Dogs and chickens walked around while cats snoozed on doorsteps. On the roof tiles, vegetables were being dried.
Yet while a pleasing traditional scene for visitors, as we'd already hear, tulou life brings its inconveniences for residents.
A young woman washing clothes in the courtyard explained that the water flows down from the hills and is stored in a tank. "We cannot install washing machines here as there is no space," she said.
When I went to the third floor, I saw her again, hanging clothes to dry outside her home.
"It's not convenient, as you can see," she told me. "I have to wash clothes in the yard and hang them upstairs."
"We don't have money to build a new house," she added.
Leaving Fuqing Building we climbed to a view platform on a hill. From there we could see dozens of tulou - round, rectangular, square, oval, even hexagonal - dotted around the valley, all homes to the Xu clan.
A tulou serves as a village unit, described by UNESCO as "little kingdoms for the family."
Just then, thick cloud moved in to cover Chuxi valley, transforming the scene into something from an exquisite Chinese ink painting.
Next we traveled from Chuxi to our next stop, Yanxiang Building. Opposite the tower is a hydro-electric power station. Its water rushes past the building, where a man was doing some cleaning.
Paying a 20 yuan "sanitation" fee, we followed the tulou owner, a man surnamed Su, through the front gate of the tower.
Immediately, we could see that this is a very different building. The brick entrance of the tower was covered with traditional paintings and calligraphy. We noticed three Chinese characters on a door that read "da fu di" - "high-ranking official's home" in modern Chinese.
Built in 1842, Yanxiang Building is enclosed by a stone wall. "Once robbers entered the courtyard, they couldn't escape," Su said.
More elaborate than other tulou, it features stables, a two-storey school and even a recreation room, Su explained.
He said its doors have a novel feature to extinguish fires. In the past, if bandits had set the tulou ablaze, water could be released from a tank above and cascade down the doors - like a waterfall - through a gap at the top and put out the flames.
At the worship room in the middle of the courtyard, we saw paintings of Su's ancestors, wearing the clothing of Qing Dynasty officials. We could see from pictures in the worship room that the family has wide connections all around the world, with relatives successful businessmen overseas, scholars and professionals.
Yanxiang Building is very clean and tidy, with a red lantern in front of each door of the four-story building.
"Only four people still live here: my wife, me and two elderly people," Su told us.
"We make a living through tourism and provide accommodation. When the tulou needs repairs, we have to call relatives overseas to raise money."
Looking out a lookout hole in the tower we could see farmland and cattle and even an abandoned yellow tulou among trees. Behind are hills and looming mountains. We wondered how Su's relatives could leave this beautiful landscape to go to other parts of China and overseas.
Leaving Yanxiang Building, we drove to a viewing platform among the mountains. In the valley below are an array of tulou, some in good condition; some decaying.
Gazing at the view, it was deeply moving to think how these fantastic structures have provided such strong shelter the people of the area over hundreds of years, and still play an important role in their lives today.
If you go
How to there:
Both Xiamen and Quanzhou are good first-stops for a tulou trip. This is not only because they have airports, but because the Fujian Province cities themselves have many places of interests worth visiting.
Travel agencies offer one-day tulou trips from Xiamen or Quanzhou. However, it is highly recommend that you stay in a village for at least one night. That way you can experience life with local people and enjoy the rural peace in the early morning, before travel groups descend on the villages.
There are hundreds of tulou scattered in southern Fujian Province, but the most famous ones are located in Nanjing and Yongding counties. Travelers can take long-distance buses to the counties and then get to the different villages by minibus.
The distances between villages are usually 5 to 10 kilometers. As buses are few, it is often more convenient to rent a motorbike or a car. Riding along the winding mountain roads is a thrilling experience, but can be dangerous in wet or icy weather.
All the villages have guesthouses run by local people. Or if you can live without a modern toilet, choose a room in a tulou. In some Nanjing villages, a room costs 50 yuan (US$8) per day for one person. Otherwise a room with two beds and a bathroom in a standard guesthouse is around 100 yuan per day. While accommodation may be basic, the tranquil beauty of the green mountains outside your window more than makes up for this.
Almost all these family guesthouses provide meals. Tourists can order from menus or just eat with the host family.
In addition to family inns, there are a few tulou that have been converted into modern hotels. The price for a standard room there is more than 300 yuan.