To continue the theme of most of my trips lately its dark, cold and raining. It all adds to the atmosphere though. I’ve taken the speed train to Nanjing, Fujian. Following the 160 minute train journey it’s a 25 minute taxi ride to the bus station and a further 75 minute journey to our hostel that dwells in the heritage site we are here to see. I’ve brought my closest friend here in China along for the adventure. I’m grateful to have Chinese speaking company as although this is a well known tourist sight, I would struggle to find my way here alone. The more rural you go the more essential it becomes to have a grasp of the language. The commute out of the city and into the country is a bumpy route that winds around narrow mountain roads but well worth the effort to see the earthen buildings, the Fujian Tulou houses.

rural nanjing at night

Arriving at night we are greeted by the resident dog of our hostel who sleepily lays at my feet and rolls onto its back indicating the attention I’m obliged to give. After being taken to our rooms we abandon our bags on the bed and immediately head out for food. It’s late and our options are limited but the “mother” of the hostel takes us down the road, the dog in tow, and we order several local dishes that do not disappoint. Suitably full we decide to wander the cobbled streets faintly lit by a rainbow of lights that reflect off the wet stones. There are tea houses, pottery classes and souvenir shops all alive with people regardless of the hour and weather. We return to the hostel after a short while and play cards while drinking tea and discussing the plan for the following day.

rural village of nanjing

We set out early in the rain and begin navigating our way through this rural county to explore the history of these ancient Chinese dwellings. The word Tulou literally translates as earthen structures. Appropriately named, the buildings are constructed with load-bearing rammed earth walls that reach several stories high. They can each house hundred’s of people living as one community, generally made up of several families or the smaller tulou’s house one family clan that span the generations. The living quarters are like a corridor around the peripheral enclosure walls and a common courtyard takes center stage. The rooftops, made from clay baked tiles, are beautiful in their own right.

huaiyuan tulou building

The first tulou we come across is called Huaiyuan. There is a sea of colorful umbrella’s following the echoes of tour guides giving an account of this earth house which I’m unfortunately unable to be privy to. I ignore the glances that I have become slightly more accustomed to and wander inside this circular dwelling. The architecture is astounding. I have never seen structures quite like this and I am unprepared for how they are still very much lived in. I imagined tulou’s to be more like standing museums of an old way of life but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The kitchens are situated in the lower levels with the preparation areas being outside a few feet away. Food is being washed and prepared by the residents and clothes are being hung out to dry above. I feel almost apologetic for stumbling into another’s home with a camera and no invitation.

tulou interior

I follow the circumference of the building and become more comfortable with intruding this home. Many of the residents have stalls where they sell trinkets, teas and hand rolled cigarettes. Beautiful paintings are also available for purchase along with black caged birds that I have seen being kept as pets in the community I live in back in Fuzhou. I buy various items to take home for friends and move on to find the next earth building named Hegui. Outside this tulou I’m approached by an elderly lady who my friend tells me will take us up to her home inside the tulou for a small fee. The upper levels of the tulous are not open to the public and I’m intrigued to see them but my friend disagrees with paying and we stick to the ground level. Admittedly I regret this decision but it is the one we made.

art studio in tulou town

We wander down the streets of this ancient town and purchase some steamed sweet potatoes to warm ourselves in the relentless rain. We discover an old art studio that is empty but clearly not abandoned. Paints and brushes are out and beautiful work displayed on the walls. Unsure of whether we should really be inside, we quietly explore the studio then take our leave onto discover the square tulou of this sight. The building has an external wall surrounding it and the two structures are divided by a quaint courtyard. The wall i imagine would have been for defense purposes. Tulou’s were built to withstand arrows, gunfire and even cannon fire. A communal well sits within all the tulou’s and there is also a shrine for worship laid with offerings and clouded in incense.

tulou cluster of fujian

As the day draws in we head back for dinner and get an early night. The morning is a case of taking one bus then another to a second tourist site called Tianluokeng which is a cluster of tulou houses in the mountains. Upon arrival we step on to a balcony and take in a view that even the rain cannot dampen. There are four circular tulou’s with a square tulou sitting in the center. I read a sign that explains the the arrangement is related to ancient Chinese philosophy and represents the derivation of the five elements. Intrigued, we wander down the cobbled slope into the heart of the tulou’s. These seem to be larger structures housing bigger communities. Although the trinkets and souvenirs are all the same, the personalities of each tulou is individual. My favorite being the last tulou we enter that has colored hangings to protect from the rain and the courtyard is full of tables and people that seem to be in celebration. This communal style living has such appeal to me and makes me wish I could become a part of this lifestyle.

large tulou interior

The Tulou’s of Fujian have an extraordinary charm to them. They are like earth fortresses that live in harmony with the environment and provide a community lifestyle of equality. They were named a UNESCO cultural heritage site in 2008 after a decade long campaign. To find out more about these fascinating rural dwellings I recommend watching Secrets of the Fujian Tulou, failing that come and visit China and discover one of its many rich cultural sites and open up a world of history unparalleled by any the west can offer.

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square tulou
tulou shrine
tulou cooking station
caged birds of the tulou