Fujian: Tianluokeng and Xiamen

Tianluokeng from the entrance point above

Tianloukeng and the Fujian Tulous

There continues to be no detectable sign of any Western travelers anywhere we have been and Chinese people continue to find my white hair and beard something completely unusual, so that they ask to be photographed with me up to 20 times a day.

Anyway we slept very well on the last sleeper leg, having to get woken at 3:15 to get off the train at Longyan to wait until 7:15 for an ongoing bullet train to Fujian Nanjing, from where one can get buses to the tulous. To wile away the hours between, we watched an old Inspector Morse episode stored on the disc drive for such states of catatonic road block.

The bullet train was very smooth, all automatic doors and slim girls serving drinks bar style, and without noticing it you were off at a cool 195 km/hr and barely had time to sit down before it was time to get out at Nanjing.

Christine in front of our tulou room.

However at every move to a new place there is future shock to contend with. On emerging from the station there was no sign of ongoing transport and the No 2 bus, which was supposed to take us into the bus station in town refused to let us on. Instead a woman in a minibus insisted on taking us, but we then gradually realized she was trying to take us all the way to the tulous for an astronomical figure of up to 500 yuan and only managed to wriggle out for 30 on a ring road in Nanjing by getting her to stop and managing to liberate all our luggage and do some very wild negotiations by the road side to get away. We then got a free lift into town with a guy who was going near the bus station, where we caught one of those local buses that the local people use rather than the hyped up expensive tourist buses swishing past from Xiamen and wound our way up and up into the high hill country where we arrived at Tianloukeng tulou cluster and promptly found a little guesthouse room on the second floor of the oval tulou.

Our little tulou room is on the second floor of this one

Tulous are round multi-storey living quarters for a whole village of families designed to keep out marauding strangers. They are three to five storeys of adobe with blank exterior walls with a few high windows while all the compound dwellings point into a central courtyard. We had to pay a ticket entry of 50 each to get in but this gave us entry to three tulou villages Tianloukeng, Yuchang and Taxia, and Alice whose parents are in our tulou - Wenchang lou - the oval one at the bottom of the group of five showed us how to hitch a free ride on the tourist bus circuit to get to them all the same afternoon. Taxia is a pleasant village on the river with a couple of Tulous and a very strange temple.

The temple at Taxia

But nothing is ever simple here. The toilets and showers are outside. To get a meal was fraught with uncertainty because Alice ([email protected]) had gone to chaperone Chinese tourist clients and her parents, who probably speak Hakka, seemed to have as much trouble reading Chinese characters as we do, but with great care we managed to get fed two fairly plain vegetable and pork dishes for the somewhat generous figure of 50 yuan.

The view from our tulou over the valley

The territory is intriguing. On the same set of slopes you can find maize, bananas, rice, green tea, giant bamboos and conifers. We will sty another night here before heading for Xiamen civilization and the coast of China. Alice says we can catch a direct bus to Xiamen from here at 1:40 avoiding all the shuttling around we did this morning.

Taxia from the river with a large square Tulou on the right.

Charming Xiamen

The transition from the tulous to Xiamen is traversing a gulf so wide that it is very hard for any brain to comprehend it. The tulous are Fujian's prime cultural tourist card but they are remote and have a population of a few hundred. Xiamen is a city with a population close to the whole of New Zealand and is one of the most popular holiday destinations in China so it becomes crowded to oblivion.

Fruit salad on the way and fried rice in the alley

Tonight we are happily ensconsed in a neat little neighbourhood of Xiamen which we have become very used to and feel affectionate about in a way we can call home. The little hotel is in the most inaccessible part of a warren of alleys bordering on high rises back from the resort beachfront populated by young people who may be students at Xiamen university.

We just did a tour of the local fruit vendors to buy up the ingredients for a tropical fruit salad and then went to have fried rice at a little alley side eating place which was scrupulously clean and gave us a plate big enough for both of us for 10 yuan - a far cry from the 2 we paid at Pizza Hut for a couple of seedy entrees of salad and beef sticks. People are great here. The find it surprising that we seem to be living right in the heart of their little old town warren but they a all pleased to see us.

Today we did a massive walk in the heat, firstly to the local beach which was nothing to write home about, then to the great Buddhist temple of Nanputo which was insanely crowed but at least free to visit and an experince in itself. Then we set off through the city n bus connection (1 yuan each) to catch the ferry to Gulang Lu an island that like Hong Kong and Macau used to be the French protectorate of Amoy.

Pagoda containing the four-fold deity

We chose exactly the most crowded moment to arrive in Xiamen - a sweltering humid summer weekend when people from wide areas of China converge on the city. The ferries posed a particular puzzle. We knew you could take a simple return trip to Gulanf Lu for 8 yuan each but all the signs said 20-180 for tours and the ticket booths were crammed with massive queues of Chinese tourists.

For the second time today, Christine and I nearly lost oneanother in the crowds and it was only after a lot of probing and demanding an answer from the ticket tours booth they they spun us two 8 yuan return coin tickets and we passed through the x-rays into a crowded holding pen to wait a few moments for the next ferry. The ferries work constantly like a conveyor belt so by the time you count to 100 another rings its bells and the holding gats slide open.

Xiamen from Gulang Lu

The island itself is a quaint throwback to European fantasy times with colonial houses with sculpted reliefs of Greek and Roman scenes with decaying mansions being slowly engulfed by strangler figs. Christine sat in the shade while I climbed all over the Eastern half of the island, which has become a Mecca for newly weds to have their photos taken, so we were entertained by a parade of stressed out brides struggling in the heat to look wholesome literally stitched into their wedding dresses of all colours and styles.

Wedding blues in shades of red

Tomorrow morning we take the bullet train from a station about 20 kms north across the city which will be a fraught journey in itself full of uncertainties, but the city has treated us very well and has an ambience which I find extremely likable.

But let's scroll back to the shock one experiences making the transition from the village culture of the tulous to this urban holiday mecca of southern China."  " 

We awoke in the tulous at about five and by six we were up and on the road to a fast pack to catch the 7am bus from Tianluokeng tulou cluster to Fujian Nanjing. This was a big haul with me carrying both my packs and half Christine's bag up the steps till we were both breathless. The bus eventually arrived and we squeezed into the back and I took a few shots of the mountain hairpins as it careened down and down past the tea plantations into the foggy river valley that eventually leads to Nanjing.

There we waited for a connecting bus to Xiamen which duly left at 9.20. A beat up bus but surprisingly with good air conditioning although the plastic coated windows gave almost no visibility. The road now wound through urbanized development with great chains of high rise tower blocks half of them still under construction on broken concrete highways until we eventually crossed a great bridge into the island on which Xiamen city stands.

Expensive promeades with mediochre urban beaches.

Nearly all the people got off at the second to last stop, which in retrospect was we we should have as well and then proceeded to a completely alien bus station. We had no idea where we were and a couple of touts were trying to get us to go with them to our hotel for a hefty fee. We laughed at them when we realized they had no taxi meter and managed to strike up a conversation with a couple who took us down a block to where the 87 bus could take us across the island supposedly to within 5 mins walk of our destination.

Harbour panorama of Xiamen waterfront

Now Xiamen, with a population of 3.5 million, is one of the most popular holiday destinations in China. It is a beautiful clean garden city with a colonial relic island of the French called Gulang yu, so to arrive on a summer Saturday is a toxic misadventure for hoping to find a hotel room and the rates soar into the stratospheric. Also Xiamen is far too big to stroll down the street and find a cheap hotel as we usually do. To avoid this problem I had booked a cheapish hotel on the internet on CTrip the night before and despite having no https it duly said I had paid and that there was no possibility of cancellation.

A street in central Xiamen

Now in Xiamen everyone is very helpful - in fact almost too helpful. Quite a few people speak English so we had lots of help including a Korean guy who took us two stops too far and then rang the hotel who denied we had a booking and said they were full. But we HAD to get to the hotel or CTrip said we would lose the entire 299 yuan (about $50 US) so we began sleuthing out how to find it ourselves.

Left: Older buildings in central Xiamen overshadowed by gleaming glass palaces.
Right: A network of alleys in central Xiamen with impromptu powerlines.

This is far from easy for two reasons. Firstly no one can read English script of Chinese names so you have to write the address in Chinese characters. I had done this from the CTrip confirmation on the laptop so we had the critical trump card.

However the area was a resort beach strip with an expressway and luxury high rises all along it and no on knew where the address was. The day was claustrophobically hot and Christine was just about expiring. We hiked back two bus stops on a bus and then began a search on foot. Here's the catch. The address is: Ziyouren Theme Inn 73 Dongzhai, Zengcuoan, Huandao Road (Huandao Lu). When we actually got there it was called Freeman's.

This might seem straightforward, but it isn't. Huandao Road is a ring road also called Island Ring Road that's runs right around the Eastern side of the big island Xiamen sits on and there is no number on Huandao Road. This is because Zengcuoan Lu is a side street off Huandao Nan Lu and it turns out Dongzai was a little side alley off Zengcuoan Lu after you walk right down and round the avene to the point where it turns back towards the coast again. At first no one knew where Dongzhai was at all but a few people waved east along Zengcuoan. So we hitched a No 2 bu along this side street for two stops and asked again. A fruit seller waved around the corner into an alley and we set out along the alley asking people where Dongzai was and they kept waving us on.

The entrance to Dongzai on Zengcuoan Lu

After a lot of opening and shutting the computer and pointing at Chinese characters we eventually realized that the alley we were in WAS Dongzai but where was 73? We asked in a house and they said back the way we had come and further north.

Then we began to realize that Dongzai is a whole tree of alleys with the nodes somewhat randomly numbered along the branches so there is no particular sequential ordering to follow, so after turning north and wiggling along a series of alleys counting numbers we came upon 72. But the girl we asked outside 72 had no idea about 73, then another leg along there it was 73 and some sort of hotel!

Freemans and one path in the Dongzhai alley system

I fact it was a hotel consisting of two three storey buildings in the alley with the name Freeman unrelated to Ziyouren Theme Inn. Furthermore it transpired there was a big issue about the booking. CTrip had taken the money but the hotel claimed the rooms at this price were full so it shelved the booking. After a lot of argument on the phone CTrip agreed to cancel the booking and refund us and the hotel agreed to give us a more expensive room with an ensuite. Whew! We finally had a place to stay and hopefully, in about a month, we will get our $50 refunded.

We then set out for the centre of the city to try to book a ticket for Suzhou on the bullet train because the trains out of here are almost always booked up. We were getting smarter now. Back at Zengcuoan Lu there was a bus stop with only two buses 20 and 135 so we caught a 20 and sure enough it went all the way to Zhongshan Lu the equivalent of Queen Street.

Colonial buildings in Gulang Lu

We hadn't eaten all day and for the last three days had been eating pork and vegetable noodles in the tulou so we swept into a Macdonald's, wolfed down a chickenburger each and walked up to the train booking office mentioned in Lonely Planet and they said it was just outside, but by this time we had arrived three minutes too late. We pleaded with a guy in CITS (the government travel service) next door and he ran around the back and got them to open up long enough to give us two tickets for Shanghai in two days time, as all the seats on the train linking directly to Suzhou were already gone. This will be okay because there are scroodles of trains between Shanghai and Suzhou which are only 50 kms or so apart and it seems the office may have been closed next day (Sunday) so we at least have our exit strategy covered.

Then we got equally lost in another warren of ancient alleys like the ghats of Varanasi that lie just behind the high rises and the Millennium Hotel in the city centre and after some debate made it back to KFC to have another bash at junk food before hitting the number 135 bus and successfully making it back to our funky little hotel up the warren of charming little alleys running back from the beach resorts.

So the transition from the remoteness of the tulous and how to adapt to negotiating pork and vegetable noodles with a woman who may not even speak Chinese let alone English to a pulsating city with a mind numbing address system has been completed. We now know where we are. We know exactly how to go to and from town for 1 yuan each and we have a ticket out of here in two days time all the way to Shanghai where our plane leaves, with four or five days to play around the water towns

It's the only time I have ever eaten at both Macdonalds and KFC in one day, but if you had been eating tulou noodles for three days at a stretch, you might do that too!