Tag Archives: Hong Kong

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.

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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!

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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.

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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. 

Xiapu, the most beautiful mudflats perhaps in China

Xiapu? What is that? And where exactly- asked most of my local, Chinese friends, taking a little of my guilt of not knowing about this gem just 6 hours away by high speed aka bullet trains from Hong Kong- perfect for a long weekend getaway, okay even for a weekend one! Sample a few pictures to begin with while remembering that I am not a photographer- and think how this place would look in reality as well as to a real photographer! Quick facts about reaching there and other logistical details at the end…

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Xiapu has the most beautiful mudflats in China, perhaps one of the most beautiful even in the world! Mudflats are many things. The coastal wetlands also known as tidal flats built by tides depositing mud by tides or rivers are a delight for the photographers with sun rays falling on them making fantastic patterns, sea gypsies (human ones) working on the mudflats, whole village on the sea, kelp growing half a meter a day and so on. They are also a retreat for those getting maddened by the urban chaos, a gateway to the times gone by- and of course a magic of walking on the water during high tides! Well, okay, only the feeling- as it looks like one is walking on the water and not the real thing, but even that is worth dying for, no?

Mudflats are also a celebration of sheer human endeavour- human capacity to farm even the sea! yeah, they farm all kind of seaweed there, as well as fishes and crabs and what not with all the colourful gear one can ever think of! Just sample this- and I was cursing myself to not get a fisherman resting in his boat inside but then… what I managed to get was no less impressive in any case!

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And then there is the mother of it all! A blast from the past- a scene right out of a China of perhaps at least a few centuries ago- just that it is all faked. No, don’t let your enthusiasm dampen down even a wee bit, forget it getting killed altogether! They faked it with elan, down to the smoke from the fire by an old lady, but it is worth all the travel (some 30 kms from Xiapu town). It was, in fact, one of the highlights for me there!

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And then, while you are there- there are much more to come! Like an ancient village- more than 300 years old that we first passed by, and then returned to, small sleepy towns, devouring vegetables filled steam bun by the roadside shops, and if you get lucky enough as we got- a full throttle religious/cultural parade celebrating something we had no idea of- but which was just breathtaking with all the fireworks, traditional clothes and what not! And of course the whole cities on the sea! With proper wooden houses!

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How to reach Xiapu: Xiapu is just 6 hours away from Shenzhen on China’s High Speed Train network. It has a station of its own, well connected to the town.
Where to stay: Though very small, the town has many nice budget hotels. We stayed in Hotel Hanting Express, a nice chain hotel we had stayed in Fuzhou as well and will recommend that. Interestingly, the bathroom in our real big, almost a full apartment size by Hong Kong standards, looked strangely like a spaceship- really quirky. Hotel was spotlessly clean as well.
For Backpackers: Xiapu has no Hostels yet, but the hotels themselves cost just about the same- Ours cost us about 30 USD a night, that is it. (Photos at the end.)
How to see places: Xiapu has many places to see- most importantly Dong Bi, Xia Qing Shan, Ba Chi Men, Xiao Hao, Beiqi, Nan Wan, Yangjiaxi, Sha Wan, Yantian and so on. But as they are all located at distances some even 30 kms from town centre, and the timings would be odd- some for sunset, some sunrise, some mid day and so on- so best would be to book a Guide. It would be fun though- you watch sunrise, come back to hotel, have breakfast, go out again…

That said, Lin is the most famous, and celebrated on Tripadvisor and other travel websites, of them all! And he is miraculous! His WeChat contact number is: 15359700706. He is a local, a sweetheart who knows the place like the back of his hand! His English is just about okay, but he is a master of Baidu translation- like even if it looked bizzare in the beginning to converse like- we speak to Baidu, it translates, then he reads and he speaks to Baidu, and so on- but we had longish conversations even about his family, India! It made us feel so rooted!

What to do in Xiapu: Nothing much other than soak in the vibes of China that it had been a few decades ago- not too many malls, though a real big Wallmart- lazy, laidback life unlike other cities in China where they keep building something everyday! I loved to roam around in the night…

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P.S. 1: Fujian is a Mecca for vegetarians, such a pleasant surprise in China.
2. You can couple Xiapu trip with Fujian Tulous in nearby (just 2 hours by train) Yongding county in Longyan prefecture-level city. Wait for next post on that.

See ya soon..

If you haven’t seen its quirky festivals, you haven’t seen Hong Kong at all!

There are cities in the world. And then there is Hong Kong. The only one. Yeah, there’s no city in the world like this one. You don’t believe me? Fine- name one in which you can come out off an all glassy mall selling the top most branded stuff and climb a hill- right away. Yeah. That’s Hong Kong.


Dragon Boat Race

Which other city in the world can you find an all new, just out of the showroom Mercedes waiting for a tram, locally called Ding Ding, pass by. Yeah, that too not as a ‘tourist trap’ but an actually functioning public transport system used by thousands of the locals like me for their daily commute.


Pok Fu Lam Dragon

And while we are at this- which other city have you seen using every possible mode of transport, of course barring bullock carts? We have ferries linking not merely outlying islands to the city but even parts of the city- like Star Ferry linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon operating since 1873 in various forms and still using one built in 1956! Quirky fact here: The company was founded by an Indian Parsee merchant Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala as the “Kowloon Ferry Company” in 1888- that 126 years before you know who became Prime Minister of where. We have tramways established in 1920s and still operatioal. And Samapans aka local, Chinese boats, and Metro Rail network, and buses, and mini buses and light rail and name it- we have it.


Cheng Chau Bun Festival

We are city which has the sea and the hills, and a jungle of concrete and glass and many real ones, falls 100 an dmore meters high and rivers mere 4 kms long. Of course we draw a lot of tourists because of this. And they come here with eyes dazzled with all the glitter and the organised chaos in its flea markets- Ladies Market in Mong Kok and Temple Street Market in Yau Ma Tei taking the cake.


Tradition can be sexy too!

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They look at their travel guides and do the stuff- Must Visit in Hong Kong, 1 day in Hong Kong, 3 days in Hong Kong and all that! They religiously visit the Victoria Harbour- the identity of the city, its establishing shot as they call it in cinema studies, and the Victoria Peak which gives a magnificent view of the city of light (pollution) that gets instantly Instagrammed and Facebooked. Some of them do manage more of a real taste of the town and go to Tai O, the stilted village of our own, to Lamma Island and Cheung Chau where no motorized vehicles are allowed barring small ambulances and other necessary- government owned ones. Yeah, there are places in Hong Kong where no cars are allowed!


They do go to the overrated Disneyland, the real gem of a theme park named Ocean Park with rides turning you upseide down over the sea- scaring the crap out of you and to real big, 250 tons Big Buddha aka Tian Tan Buddha- mostly to find it hazy and misty- damn you Hong Kong weather! But then, most of then don’t really get the real feel of this city!

The feel that lives in its festivals! Hundreds and hundreds years old festivals still being celebrated with the same zeal and same way- sans of course the police, the medics and the tourists! They give you the real feel of the city- continually inhabited by homo sapiens since pre historic time but not much more than a fishing village till even 400 years ago and its transformation into the megapolis it became.

Watching these festivals can in fact stun you into an amazed silence! That high flying banker you always see in sapper business suits doing a lion dance dressed as a lion right to the head gear! That beautiful doctor you go to as much for flirting as for medicine playing the drum like a boss leading the real tall dragon that needs hundred and at times even more people to carry it!

My absolute favourites is the Fire Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village that coincides with the Mid Autumn festival usually in Oct! Best part about this almost absolutely non touristy festival is the super long dragon taken to each and every house in the village to bless them maneuvering the real narrow lanes and by lanes. Added advantage: You could be the only “non Chinese” attending the same and thus given a pride of the place, like I was, with locals wanting to tell you all about it- that it is celebrated to thank the Gods who helped villagers fight a particularly nasty Plague that ravaged it centuries ago. Second best thing about this one is that unlike the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance- which is way too touristy, you don’t have to see it from afar- other side of the barricades. You can actually touch, put incense into the dragon and can even carry it if you are daring enough to face both hot ash and bends in the narrow lanes unknown to you!

Close second on the list is the Cheng Chau Bun Festival, or Cheung Chau Da Jiu Festival- a Taoist Festival marking a Taoist sacrificial ritual held on 8th day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, usually in May or June. It disbelieved to be celebrated, again, after the Gods responded to the villagers pleas for ending a plague and protecting them from pirates. The wishes are believed to have been granted once the villagers brought an image of the god Pak Tai to the island. Even since, they parade the deities through the village lanes to chase out evil spirits. Funniest part of the more of a carnival than festival comes at the fag end- with the famous Bun Tower climbing competition- where men and women climb atop real high bun tower to snatch the buns symbolising good luck for the new year. Note that this a mere One Village Festival- yeah, it is that unique!

Then there, of course, is the Dragon Boat Festival, a very typical Chinese festival held on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month (normally in May or June) that has gone truly international with dozens of international teams participating! The festival- believed to be celebrated in memory of he story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty.[10] Qu was upset over the king aliging with a rival state of Qin, as he suspected its intentions and was exiled for his opposition. His fears came true however, and Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. Deeply sad Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River. It is believed that local people who greatly respected him raced out their boats to save him but could not. From there comes the Dragon Boat Race! Failing to find even his body, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu. From there comes zongzill the rice wrapped in bamboo, reeds and many other forms of leaves that is now famous across South East Asia!

Yet, Dragon Boat Festival was a very local festival until 1976 when Hong Kong first organised an ‘international’ dragon boat race with just one foreign team from Nagasaki, Japan, off Shau Kei Wan. Who would have known that the race would grow this big and become such an international event with over 200 national and international teams participating! So next time you plan a visit try looking around for dates which may accommodate joining one such festival at least! As it is if you haven’t seen any of the Hong Kong’s quirky festivals then you haven’t seen HK at all!