China’s mega cities look like a thrilling version of some dystopian future. Sky-high metal and glass buildings pierce the skies with enticing flashing lights and a nervous neon glow. While down below, slow moving traffic clogs the road and a rebellious orchestra of car horns keep shuffling pedestrians alert.
Just a short drive out of any futuristic Chinese city however, a world that has hardly changed in centuries can be found. Two hours inland from the coastal city of Xiamen in China’s Fujian province and suddenly the sky is blue and the mountains are lush. I am on the search for the ancient tulou buildings that are unique to this region of China.
Winding roads snake around the many mountains until I reach my destination – a group of ancient buildings known as the Hongkeng Tulou Cluster. Here, I gain my first glimpse of the famous tulou – enormous, round, ancient buildings that were built to house and protect entire villages. Tulou translates as ‘earth building’ (named after the materials from which they are made).
I am spending my first night in Fu Yu Tulou, a majestic 18th-century, three-storey tulou featuring a series of connecting internal courtyards with narrow corridors that lead to the old wooden rooms where I’ll be sleeping. Our host, Stephen Lin, a sixth-generation landlord, and his family, were instrumental in ensuring the village achieved UNESCO status in 2008, which guarantees this unique cluster of buildings is protected from the functional cement boxes that are constructed for housing or office buildings across China’s developing regions.
Hongkeng straddles a narrow river, with an ancient bridge crossing at its middle, allowing me to visit the old tulous on both sides. Next morning, I set off for the town of Meilin by bike with a guide.
Passing old temples and farmers drying corn, the going is steady, a pace that allows us to enjoy our environment. Even in some of the most rural parts of China, the roads are well paved, making riding up steep hills that bit easier. It’s not long before we cycle into Meilin, in time for our lunch of greens, chicken and rice.
The afternoon takes us to the Nanxi Valley, through steep hills packed with rice paddies. From high up on the long, winding roads, we enjoy breath-taking views of a scattering of yellow, rammed-earth fortresses among green fields.
The onward journey takes us further up the winding hills with views of rice paddies as far as the eye can see. It seems as though I’ve spent hours struggling up the steep mountain, but the reward is worth it. I let my feet leave the pedals and coast down the mountain, speeding up for more than two kilometres of freewheeling.
We stop for a break in the hills of Nanxi at a vast tulou, first created in the 12th century, that once housed more than 40 families; Hakka emigrants fleeing wars hundreds of kilometres away.
This evening we’re staying at the well-preserved circular Yanxiang Lou – known as the Scholars Tulou – where we are hosted by Mr Su. Accommodation here is basic, but staying in Mr Su’s clan home is a true honour and after 60km cycling adventure, a clean bed and a full belly is all I need to fall into a deep sleep.
Before setting off the next morning, we see remnants of one tulou that has been reclaimed by the jungle. Marked with bullet holes and scorched by fire, it was attacked by Taiping Rebels who swept through the area a century ago.
Back on our bikes, the sun rises higher in the sky as we negotiate small pathways through tiny villages. We stop at the town of Shuyang and the locals come out, pouring fresh green tea made from the local crop. The hospitality of these locals is even more refreshing than the tea they offer us.
Everywhere we look, tea plants fill the sky, and pickers, threshers and fermenters are all busy at work. As we move on, the tea gives way to the Aoyao tobacco fields, with racks of the long leaf drying beside the roadside as we struggle on to our final destination.
With 110 kilometres of riding over two days under our belts, we enjoy a stunning lunch at Qingxing Lou, one of the last tulou to be built in the traditional style in 1959.
By visiting Fujian on bike, we’ve skipped the hordes of tourists on buses and, in fact, haven’t laid eyes on another tourist all weekend. I’ve been given a rare insight into a place and culture that feels like it’s been untouched for centuries.
Tom Pattinson is a writer for Khunu.com