Roads Less Traveled
Text and photo by Paul
A province with a long history of emigration abroad, Fujian's unique culture is arguably more mainstream in Chinatowns overseas than in its own coastal location on the east coast of its homeland. While you might be pleasantly surprised by the mix of modern skyscrapers and colonial architecture of Fujian's major metropolises like Xiamen, the real gem of tourist sites in the province is found in the charming Hakka earth houses located four hours from the coast.
The Hakka are a subgroup of Han Chinese who arrived from central China and settled in the southeastern provinces of Guangdong, Jiangxi, and Fujian before migrating overseas. A number of notable figures, including Deng Xiaoping, have traced their ancestry to this unique culture and people. During the 17th century, conflict between the Hakkas and the Cantonese drove many refugees to the rural mountains of western Fujian where they began building earth houses to protect themselves from bandits and wild animals.
The Fujian earth houses (福建土楼Fújiàn tǔlóu) are large, communal living structures built of rammed earth and brick that made for easily defendable walls. Most of these large houses were built round in shape with different internal sections for food storage, armor, temples, and residences that held as many as 300 people. UNESCO designated 46 of the earth-house clusters in Fujian world heritage sites in 2008.
To get to the Hakka earth houses, take a direct bus from Xiamen that winds you through stunning rural countryside of scenic farmlands and lush green hills as make your way to Yongding. Since the earth houses are scattered in small clusters throughout the remote area, it's best to choose only a few to visit for the day. Before entering the buildings, take a moment to notice the gun holes on the outer walls and the iron-shelled wooden door at the main gate.
The inside of the earth houses offer fascinating glimpses into the miniature Hakka worlds of a forgotten time. Start off by roaming around the ground level where you can visit the ancestral halls, shrines or kitchens in the common courtyard. As you slowly work your way up the wooden stairs to the residences on the upper levels, make sure to snap a few shots of the beautiful roofed tiles and eaves below. Be careful not to wander into an unsuspecting grandmother's private quarters though—people still inhabit these buildings.
As there are more than 20,000 earth houses in Fujian, if you haven't had your fill by the end of the day, there's no need to rush back to Xiamen. With basic Chinese, you can talk to one of the earth-house residents who will be happy to cook you a simple meal and let you spend the night for a reasonable price.
Flight from Chengdu to Xiamen: 2.5 hours, RMB700 to 1,300
Bus from Xiamen to Yongding: 4 hours, RMB45
Most buses leave in the morning on the hour from Xiamen's downtown bus station.
Things to See
Zhencheng Lou—most lavish earth house
Hongkeng Earth-house Cluster, Hongkeng Village, Yongding Town, Hukeng County
Yuchang Lou—one of the oldest and tallest earth houses
Xiaban Village Earth-house Cluster, Shuyang Town, Nanjing County
Chengqi Lou—largest earth house
Gaobei Village Earth-house Cluster, Gaotou Town, Yongding County
Jiqing Lou—largest rotunda earth house
Chuxi Earth-house Cluster, Chuqi Village, Xiayang Town, Yongding County
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 23 ("streets")