A World Heritage site gives plenty of reasons to ponder its existence, writes Owen Young.

You know you have arrived in China when the wall-sign in the gentlemen's toilets advises in English, "One Step Forward, One Stride Civilised".

We were making a quick bathroom stop, entering China by coach from Hong Kong through the bustling road border at Shenzhen city. A few days detour to Guangdong province and then a one-hour flight would take us to Xiamen in neighbouring Fujian province.

Xiamen city is on the coast of Fujian, across the strait from Taiwan. It is the staging point for our target destination, the Unesco-designated, World Heritage "Tulou Earth Buildings".

These unique communal earth structures lie inland within mountainous Fujian.

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In early April, the morning springtime air of inland Fujian is cool and frequently misty but still comfortably warm by our antipodean standards. The famed Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Compassion) Chinese tea originates from these cool mountains.

Looking down on traditional Hakka tulou early buildings.
Looking down on traditional Hakka tulou early buildings.

We headed down new toll highways towards more winding roads inland. As we were limited to just a few days in Fujian and with three to share costs, we opted to hire a taxi and driver to tour the Tulou (literally "earth buildings"). Mr Deng happened to be our airport taxi driver and had quoted us CNY1000 (NZ$205) for a day tour in his cab to the Tulou region. Taxi riding in China is often a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons, but our man had already impressed us with his restrained road manners. So, Mr Deng was duly engaged.

He was typical of taxi drivers worldwide, not a native of his city. He is also emblematic of the migrant worker in China, relocating to the big city in pursuit of prosperity. Xiamen, incidentally, was formerly the "treaty" trading port known as Amoy, forcibly opened for foreign trade by the British after the First Opium War in 1842.

Starting our journey at 7.30am, it took three and a half hours and 150km to reach the first tulou - the so-called Tian Lou Keng (Snail Pit) group of four circular plus one square tulou.

This site is perhaps the most well-known tulou "cluster", as evidenced by the sudden noisy arrival of a coach of Chinese tourists. Mercifully, most of them took only an obligatory snapshot from the viewing platform and just a few of us were left to wander down to explore the tulou village.

This is a functioning hillside village. Stone-paved paths meander down past washing lines and villagers drying vegetables, between the large tulou. River stone boulders are used to form the building foundations. The tulou walls match the biscuit-coloured surrounding soil. The single large square tulou here was a more intense terracotta colour.

The tulou have substantial overhanging timber roof eaves, 2m to 3m deep, to protect the walls from rain and erosion. Blackened smoke flues from kitchens protrude, gargoyle-like from the outer walls. A sign proudly announces, "Protecting the Cultural Heritage and Preserving Our Cultural Homeland".

Of course there are the obligatory souvenir stalls and hawkers, but by Asian standards they are relatively subdued. One of the circular tulou here is given over as a tourist venue, decorated rather unnecessarily with red paper lanterns, but most in Fujian seem to still function as accommodation.

The tulou earth buildings are associated mostly with the Hakka ("guest families" in Cantonese) ethnic group, but nobody knows for sure where the Hakka came from.

The Xiamen skyline as seen from Gulangyu.
The Xiamen skyline as seen from Gulangyu.

Academics say earthen construction expertise and language indicate that they migrated centuries ago from north China to Fujian and neighbouring Guangdong province. Notable Hakka include the founder of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat Sen, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and the actor Chow Young Fat.

Unusually, the tulou display no social hierarchy in the uniform repetition of rooms and there is also a striking lack of decoration, carving or paintwork. Scholars ponder also the question of how the Hakka were allowed to build these large structures, during a period when imperial rules strictly dictated and restricted building size and shape.

By lunchtime, all this wonderment had left us rather hungry. Mr Deng ushered us to a nearby "restaurant", which was simply a small, clean shop space. An amiable young waitress took our orders for chicken and vegetables. We had observed chickens pecking outside and wondered if one was about to be freshly culled for us. Indeed our "white-chopped chicken" and chicken soup, took a long while to prepare. However it was uncommonly flavoursome for Westerners accustomed to battery-fed, frozen chickens.

The vegetables were a tasty local selection of stir-fried, mixed wild mushrooms, a dish of giant bamboo shoots and something less appealing that looked like fern shoots.

We tend to be unaware that even the dominant Han people of China are made up of literally hundreds of ethnic variations. Our waitress was unusually tall, thin and dark skinned, whereas many Fujian women are fair-skinned, ruddy-faced and robustly proportioned (by South Asian standards). In springtime, older women sit sorting tea leaves for drying on bamboo trays and tea is offered for sale. Noticeable too, is the predominance of women in the countryside. Young men are largely absent, gone to the cities no doubt, in search of work.

A visit to Fujian is rewarding not only for the unique tulou but also for the picturesque villages that nestle within the lush mountain valleys. Ta Xia is a particularly exquisite example, a village of stone and earthen buildings straddling a small river, with snow-capped peaks beyond. The authorities have recently installed concrete roading for tour buses, which would have damaged its original appearance.

It was a big day. We were well satisfied that we had managed a good sampling of tulou architecture and of mountainous Fujian. Mr Deng was now running late to hand over his cab to his night-shift driver. We headed back through peak hour traffic to Xiamen. This finally brought out some of his Chinese cab-driver skills. However we arrived safely back at our hotel just after 6.30pm.

Xiamen city itself offers enough for a few days enjoyment. A small city by Chinese standards, it is a comfortable tourist destination. The port means seafood of course - sauteed crabs, scampi and oyster congee, spring quickly back to mind. There are many European colonial buildings and attractive pedestrian walking streets. Gulangyu Island in the harbour is a key Xiamen attraction. This pedestrian-only precinct is full of charmingly dilapidated old European residences and historic buildings, market streets and a busy village square.

Fujian may be overshadowed by its powerhouse Guangdong neighbour, but it will always hold a unique tourist trump-card in its World Heritage Tulou Earth Buildings.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Cathay Pacific and sister airline Cathay Dragon offer connections to Xiamen via Hong Kong, with return Economy Class fares from $848, on sale until March 13 for departures until October 31.