Winter ride

Winter ride

10 December, 2013
Fujian Tulou
Cycling tour through earth fortresses of China
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A Winter Ride through the Fujian Tulou
 
Orange persimmons against a blue sky, yellow corn drying against age-darkened timbers, maroon rosella, green tea hedges - these were the colours of our winter weekend-cycle to Fujian’s earth-fortress roundhouses known as tulou.
 
Tea fueled our journey  – the regions delicious Iron Buddha Oolong, a welcome respite from the challenging hills. You raise a sweat even in winter but the rewards of choosing to cycle easily out weighed any pain.
 
Byways into forgotten Tulou
 
Yongding and Nanjing counties in Southern Fujian are home to thousands of Tulou – the traditional clan homes of the emigrant Hakka who fled war in their northern homelands from the 12th century onward. Forty six tulou were listed as outstanding examples of a unique defensive and communal architecture in harmony with their environment by UNESCO in 2008. It is increasingly difficult however to experience the living Hakka heritage, as these famed few tulou are rapidly transforming into souvenir emporiums and tour bus paking lots.
 
 We avoided all 46 UNESCO tulou, bar one – the magnificent Prince of Tulou’s  Fu Yu Lou, where we breakfasted on noodles and purple Taro buns escaping to the back roads before the buses pulled in
 
On bikes trucked in from Xiamen,  we rode away down tiny farmers roads to happily forgotten tulou, where traditional ways remain undisrupted by tourism.
 
Along the Nanxi valley’s “great wall of tulou”, old folk drying persimmons invited us to scrump our own fruit with a pronged bag attached to a bamboo pole.
 
A free-range chicken, killed and plucked of its feathers by the river, was cooked up with mushrooms and herbs gathered in a nearby fengshui forest for our lunch.
 
Vibrant red chili’s and the famous Hakka Tofu, sun drying on bamboo discs, also appeared on the table.
 
We realized that the smaller the roads we travelled, the more  actual tulou dwellers we met - rather than the thousands of tourists at the checklist tulous.
 
The scent of tea
 
The pass from Yongding into Nanjing county gave us the breeze on our faces perfumed by the scent of tea being roasted. Tea reverence has transformed the landscape of Nanjing County into a patchwork of tea-hedges, sheltered by bamboo and intercropped with orchards. On two wheels you simply follow your nose into home factories where famers hand sort the tips, roast, then  compress them into the Iron Buddha Oolong pellets - one of China’s most magical teas.
 
Tulou Hospitaility
 
Poking our heads into random tea farms and tulou along the way, the reaction of locals was to first, gasp at the madness of biking all that way to see them, then flip the switch on the kettle and motion us toward the ceremonial tea table. Tea in Fujian is served with “Kungfu’ ceremony – brewed with a lot of leaf in a small lidded bowl, decanted into a jug after counting to seven, then poured into tiny cups with lots of sloshing of the tea. The more remote the tulou, the better the tea, with growers offering their finest leaves from a limited not-for-purchase personal stash.
 
This fundamental cultural nicety has changed in the UNESCO tulou, where after buying a ticket to get in you are hustled into a tea shop to buy average tasting over priced tea.
 
Authentically experiencing the culture and not changing it are key principles of sustainable travel that are difficult to balance with the mass tourism planned for many of these tulou .
 
Sustainable Travel

The beautiful 1950’s era Qing Xing Tulou where we stayed that night is amongst the last group of tulou to be constructed in the traditional rammed earth round house style. Managed by an NGO called Friends of the Tulou who maintain it for its aging residents, they offer rooms by prior arrangement for self-catering study groups who will not impose on the residents day to day lives.
 
I sampled a bowl of rabbit and wild herb soup, declined the numerous cups of tea, nodded, smiled and watched the wrinkled residents herd chickens across the cobble stone courtyards and gossip by the  massive front door.

Living in a crumbling tulou is sweet and homely for a cycling tourist, but quite unfashionable for young Fujianese, who mostly opt for better plumbing, and the privacy offered by modern block homes away from the clan.
It’s sad but a practical approach to changing times.
 
A stunning experience, cycling the tulou does feel like a last look at a disappearing culture.  The rustic landscape, the architectural brilliance in the self-sufficient tulou, the warmth and generosity of the people – feel like treasures that are slipping away.
 
Cycling to visit them, may not turn this around, but it is the best way to appreciate them, and least likely to hasten that change.
 
Join us for the next turn of landscape colour palate on The Hutong’s Spring Tea and Tulou Eco Cycle .
 
 
About the author
Bruce researched the Fujian Tulou as a destination for the Hutong – a cultural centre in Beijing that facilitates service and educational immersion trips for international school students. He now runs a regular adult eco- cycle weekender to the Tulou and will be operating similar eco cycle weekenders to other destinations accessible to Hong Kong.
 
His next Fujian Tea and Tulou Eco Cycle will be in Spring 2014 and operated through the Hutong.
 
http://thehutong.com/fujian-tea-tulou-getaway/
 
For further enquiries, please write to bruce@thehutong.com or follow Bruce’s Bike Aways Facebook Page
 
 

By: Bruce Foreman
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