Tulous: Earthen community homes USA mistook for nuclear reactors
Fujian Tulou(s)- the magnificent, fortified earthen building were yet another revelation for me- the Hong Konger of almost 6 years! Such a shame that I knew nothing about them till a botched visa delivery for China- they asked me to collect it on the day before Chinese New Year holidays start and then when I reached, just after the lunch- last staffer was locking the office! With the holiday plan for Xiamen gone, I decided to go for a virtual tour and there they were! The Tulous, a whopping 46 of whom built between the 12th and 20th century are inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 2008 as the legend goes- thanks to their circular shape confused to be nuclear reactors by the United States at the height of the Cold War! So Tulous were finally calling me and I was all set to make an amend and become a Tulou veteran.
Tulous, are mostly three to five story fortified buildings- most commonly circular or rectangular- built for communal living for a whole clan. Built to repel the attacks of the pirates with provisioning for ration for a full year, they often have just one gate. The ground floor will be meant for kitchens, first floor would be granaries and upper floors- with each living unit exactly of the same size- to ensure equality- meant for living. The tulous will also have concentric inner rings for bathrooms, wells and other provisioning. They mostly have a few wells as well.
Built by mixing earth with stone, bamboo, wood and other readily available materials, their walls are up to 6 feet (1.8 m) thick and additionally reinforced by branches, strips of wood and bamboo chips. With this much fortification, they were, of course, next to impossible to break into in the times they were built. Further, as our friend showing us around told us: often sitting by some kind of natural fortification like at the top of a hill (like Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster) or river- like Cuxi Tulou Cluster- once the residents see ‘bad men coming- and close the main door-often 40-50-inch-thick (1 meter to 1.3 m) wooden doors reinforced with an outer shell of iron plate’ the ‘bad men’ would have to ride on exceptional luck to defeat the insiders- sitting with granaries having all the ration for an year or more and gun holes guarding only entry!
Look at the photos again- the kitchens and granaries at the first floor have no windows, practically making the structure impossible to breach! Add the numbers inside- bigger tulous housed as many as 800 people- of the same clan and one might need a whole army to take on them!
Reminder: Though often called as Hakka tulous too- after the majority of the Tulous belonging to the Hakka people, not all of them are Hakka. Their neighbours in South Western Fujian known as Minnan people also have their own Tulous, mostly to the east of Yongding in particular in Nanjing and Pinghe counties.
How to reach: Just hop on a Shenzhen- Longyan high speed train (there are three in a day- get off at Longyan, hop on a local bus for Yongding county which is closest to three of the most famous Tulou clusters and you are good for an exciting weekend soaked with history and, of course, adventure! Otherwise, one can also couple the trip with Xiamen, just 2.5 hours away or can also go to Yongding station though that too is almost an hour away from the Tulou clusters.
Where to stay: Complete the experience by staying in one of the centuries old tulou like we did- don’t expect too much luxury though, the beds will be hard, as they are almost everywhere in China, you may or may not have an attached bathroom, but the experience of living in a building constructed 200 or even 300 years ago will be amazing!
We stayed in Tulou Fuyulou Changdi Inn– a Tulou more than a century old and with the owner Steven making you wonder what’s better- the warmth, the home away from home feeling he gives or his fluent English! With him you are mostly set with an itinerary from an insider who knows his stuff… So go on discovering the places- You will perhaps begin with Tianluokeng Tulou cluster meeting the slanting one of the oldest one built in 1308, and tallest at 5 stories and a village temple on your way back. Then you will meet the Chengqilou (承啟楼) nicknamed “the king of tulou”, of Gaobei Tulou cluster- with 15th generation Jiang clan living inside with 57 families and 300 people!
That done, you will be back in the Hongkeng Village with a Tulou cluster by the same name- enjoy your evening seeing them and then sitting/walking by the river in the village with Tulous on both sides! You may also have local wine brewed in one of the Tulous to top it all up! Wake up to the soothing sound of the river next day and head over to Cuxi Tulou cluster- I saw accommodation there too though could not find out much- and they looked far more basic than the one in Hongkeng, though, also far more older, if that does the trick for you!
Accommodate more Tulou clusters if you want to- though basically this is more or less all that one needs for an extensive and authoritative Tulou experience.
For those with more time on hand- go on to Fuzhou, not a city high on travel bucket lists but worth enough for a day for the 3 lanes and 7 alleys, founded in 2nd century AD and continuously inhabited ever since, itself! And beyond that lies the beautiful mudflats of Xiapu- a paradise for the photographers and also for anyone looking forward to a way back to idyllic life yet not spoilt by the modernity!
My detailed piece on Xiapu, around 6 hours by high speed train for Shenzhen, worth a standalone visit on itself, can be found here.