My first leisure trip to China included my most unusual homestay so far – two nights in a Fujian tulou. Fujian is a Chinese province to the north east of Hong Kong. Tu-lou literally translates to earth building. The buildings are traditional communal houses of the Hakka people of the area.
A Fujian tulou is typically a big building made of mud, wood and stone, with big high outer walls and an entire community living inside. I walked into one that was 600 years old and a few that were built as recently as 30 years ago. The one that I stayed at was more than a hundred years old. The tulous are also commonly called round houses, but many of them are squarish in shape as well. The roofs are made of tiles.
The tulou structure is three to five floors high with an orangish brown colour on account of the mud caked on the walls. The almost regular-sized door leads into a huge open round courtyard. Satellite dishes line up across the top floors, providing much needed entertainment. Airconditioners are visible outside some rooms. Not all tulous have the big open courtyard that I mentioned, but I suspect that they all started that way.
Eventually the occupants may have decided that they needed more rooms and built them right in the centre where space was available. There was at least one tulou where I came across a two-storey concrete building in the middle of the tulou, along with a bunch of other smaller structures that were built in a more traditional mold.
The ground floor rooms were meeting rooms, dining rooms, workshops, kitchens and such. Climb up the wooden stairs and one arrives at the many bedrooms. As I explored, I became intensely aware that I was literally tramping over houses that people currently lived in. On one occasion, a woman asked me to vacate a higher floor (well, I presume that’s what her body language meant, given she spoke no English and I no Hakka). At some tulous the people charged extra (tourists pay an entrance fee to visit the tulou clusters) for the right to go higher up. Given that this was a heavily touted attraction and that the locals were already getting paid, I chose to get the upper floor views unless the signs (or the locals) explicitly forbade it.
The privacy considerations did not end there. I came across children playing in the safety of their house. People cooking, cleaning, resting, drinking tea with their friends and so on. On occasion people were bemused to see me walk in and noticing their apparent discomfort I limited myself to the ground floor. A sign in front of one tulou clarified things. It started that the building was not a UNESCO heritage building and was private property and that tourists were to keep out.
I visited three collections of tulous. The group at Chuxi was good. It was a relatively quiet area where we could enjoy the sights and no one stopped us from going upstairs to take pictures. I first checked out a vantage point up a nearby hill from where I could see the tulous from above. The Chuxi tulous were organic living buildings, frames constructed hundreds of years ago, pipes laid perhaps fifty years ago, air conditioners and satellite dishes from ten and computers and routers from five years ago. I walked through the houses of real people.
The next stop was the King of Tulou. I arrived at a place infested with tour groups and tourist trinkets. Some of the rooms had been replaced with shops selling tourist trinkets. Access was barred to the higher levels unless you paid extra. The biggest structure, The King of Tulou, had concentric circles of smaller structures in the centre. We could only view them from the ground and were stopped from going above even for a price. Local photographers had cameras set up at a strategic location and offered to take our pictures with the circles from above. I was having none of that. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. Suffice to say the King of Tulou was a massive disappointment and I do not recommend it at all. I took a walk by the side of the tulou and found a path that was devoid of local tourists. It led me to a smaller round tulou with a few grannies at the entrance. They beckoned me in and I entered. It was quiet, had an open courtyard and looked real and lived-in. I enjoyed the sight and sounds (or lack thereof) for a few moments before rejoining the crowd.
Surprisingly the best was close to home. I stayed at the village of Hu Keng. A well-maintained and aesthetically pleasing road snaked through the village next to a river. There was a big round tulou on the route to my guesthouse. I entered to find an impressively maintained display. No signs in English and no one stopped me as I made my way up. It was also one of the more beautiful buildings. A circular construction ran almost all the way inside, terminated only by a square pavilion at one section. No photographers harried me as I enjoyed that place.
After a day’s walk around many earth buildings, I returned exhausted to my dwelling for the night. This was a square tulou. The building itself was split into multiple sections with brick walls separating some of the sections to prevent passage. Some or the other of a bunch of kids, their parents and grandparents (our hosts) were visible around the house throughout the day as I stayed. I noticed one crib to rock the babies and at least one mattress. The guest room section had modern conveniences. There were shelves of books in Chinese and English as I would expect in any hotel. I had an air conditioned room with good WIFI. Some sort of Chinese board game sat in play on one of the floors.
I tried exploring a bit more of the other sections but found more of the same: tea areas, courtyard, spaces for sitting, playing and sleeping. This tulou was a bit more unique perhaps in being segregated quite strongly contrasted to most of the other buildings that I’d seen during the day.
I thought about privacy again. It was one thing to suffer the invasion of strangers. It was another entirely to have no ability to have a quiet moment away from friends and close family. The opinion of the foreigners who visited was unanimous: we wouldn’t like to live that way.