Tag Archives: Southern China

The Changing Face of Fujian’s Tulous

Several weeks ago I travelled to Fujian Province on a school trip with our Year 6 and 7 students. This was a trip organised by The Hutong, a company that specialises in organising educational trips throughout China, who happen to be exceptionally good at what they do.

I have to say, despite being a self-proclaimed geography and history buff, I didn’t know much about Fujian Province. Located in south-east China, close to Taiwan, it happens to be where much of the Chinese overseas diaspora originate from. It’s a historically outward looking place, in a historically inward looking country.

Xiamen is probably the best known city in Fujian, a bustling port city of lord knows how many million people. Known as the gateway to Fujian, it was where we started our trip.

It is home to Gulangyu, an island situated just off the main Xiamen Island, which, we were told, was apparently the wealthiest square mile on earth a little over one hundred years ago. The entire island is a maze of former consulates and grand colonial era buildings from a bygone age. Today however, it’s been turned into a modern-day Chinese tourist attraction. It was pleasant enough, but like everything in modern China, it just wasn’t that inspiring. I think the crowds had something to do with it!

After a day of activities in Xiamen we headed out into the countryside, this was where things got interesting. The setting was beautifully serene, and we would be staying in traditional houses, called tulous. These huge buildings are hundreds of years old and nestled deep in the mountains of Fujian.

Some of these remarkable structures have been immaculately preserved and are now protected historical buildings, others have already crumbled, some (but increasingly less) are still inhabited by local families, as they have been for centuries.

Traditionally, up to one hundred families would live in a tulou (often referred to in English as roundhouses). Historically, people came here primarily to seek safety and shelter from the turmoil of more densely populated areas elsewhere in China. With their high, sturdy walls, and lack of windows on the lower-levels, they were easy to defend, and became relative safe havens from bandits.

As China has changed over the last three decades, many local people have abandoned the tulous for more modern and convenient apartments in the cities. But not everybody.

As we explored these areas it became apparent the traditional way of life is slowly dying out. But it hasn’t yet died out. There were moments during our trip, in villages we visited, where we felt we had walked into a different era.

For one of their projects, our students were tasked with interviewing local people, and given a project akin to Humans of New York, called Humans of the Tulou, set by our inspiring trip leader, Bruce. They were tasked with speaking to some local people, and asking them in essence, about their life. The overwhelming majority of people we spoke to were aged over 85 years old, and had some extraordinary stories to tell.

There was one lady, aged 90, who we interviewed, who was now the last person living in her tulou. When she moved in 72 years ago, to marry her husband, there were over seventy families here. Now it was just her. Everybody else had either moved out or died out, whilst her tulou crumbled around her. She had never left the local area, and assumed that we (four caucasian male school teachers) were from Xiamen, the closest major city. It was an utterly astounding moment, one I am unlikely to ever forget.


Many of the local people we spoke to seemed thrilled to have such an interest taken in them. In many ways, they reminded me of my beloved Nana, of the same generation and age, but of an entirely different world. They loved telling their life story to the children, and answering their questions, just like my Nana did to me.

Walking through the villages, we saw many of the older buildings were daubed in graffiti. This is a hangover and legacy of China’s turbulent recent history. The graffiti turned out to be Communist slogans and propaganda, dating from the Cultural Revolution, we were told. This particular slogan reads “Hooray for Chairman Mao”. Hooray indeed.


Perhaps strangest of all, were the portraits of Chairman Mao painted onto the walls outside people’s houses, which continue to be lived in. This was also a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, during which residents would have images of Mao drawn onto their houses as part of their efforts to keep the Red Guards out.

China’s recent history is a tragic combination of the baffling, bizarre and barbaric. The more I hear and read about the Cultural Revolution, the more I shake my head in a mixture of disbelief and utter revulsion. Below is my (failed) attempt at doing a Mao salute (it turns out there isn’t one really and it ended up more Superman / Black Panther than Mao).

China can be a cold place at times, as a foreigner you can be looked upon with suspicion, treated with contempt, and not always made to feel particularly welcome.

Local people here spoke the Minnan dialect, a separate language from Mandarin. The warmth in which we were received by the Minnan people throughout the trip was unique to many of us. for we had never been made to feel so welcome in China before.

I particularly like the picture below of a lovely elderly couple who invited us into their house for tea one morning. If you look closely, you will notice the portrait of Chairman Mao in the background, with the poster of the big red Ferrari next to it on the wall. Oh China…


Rural Fujian was a stunning place, and it was a wonderful privilege to meet the people we met, in the twilight years of their simple, yet remarkable lives, during a period of such unprecedented and monumental change, and to see their way of life, as it was and continues to be, before it’s lost to the modern world forever.


Riding the back roads of Yangshuo

This is Yangshuo.

Nice, right?

The pictures above (not mine) were taken of the surrounding countryside, and not Yangshuo city itself, clearly. Like all Chinese cities, the city was particularly uninspiring. Arriving there after twelve hours of travel, we found it to be very busy, bigger than we (naively) imagined, and generally unpleasant. It is however, blessed with a great Indian restaurant – check out the Ganga Impression Indian Restaurant if you go.

Fortunately, we didn’t stay in the city, but on the outskirts next to the river in a lovely little place called the Yangshuo Village Retreat.

Taxi’s are rare and expensive here, as are private drivers and even motorbikes, so as we were staying a little bit out, we decided to pay £3 a day each to hire mountain bikes from our hotel.

Having travelled a fair amount around China, we have realised that pretty much anywhere that features on a tourist map, or that is listed as a “must-see” here, is for us, a no go zone. We can’t bear the crowds, the extortionate entrance fees and the universally tacky commercialisation found at these places.


The beauty of Yangshuo for us at least, was not about ticking off the different designated scenic spots and experiences that the local government have decided are appropriate for domestic tour groups, but about getting away from the mayhem of the beaten path, and being able to enjoy the serene tranquility of the jaw dropping surrounding countryside.

So that is exactly what we did. We cycled everywhere, days of cycling for hours on end, stopping only for fried rice, coca-cola and sometimes chocolate oreos in little rural villages and towns, set against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen on our travels in Asia.

Once we were away from the designated tourist spots (which we did cycle through once or twice, and they did look naff), we were by ourselves for hours at a time. There were no cars, there was no pollution, there were no crowds of people, there weren’t even any other cyclists for the vast majority of the days.

The thing we loved about Yangshuo (apart from the amazing Indian restaurant) was how easy it was to escape the crowds, and get away from it all. We ended up having an absolutely lovely time, just going at our own pace, on our own terms.

Particularly striking, was that for hundreds of millions of Chinese today, their country has changed beyond recognition in the last thirty years. However, for hundreds of millions of others, particularly the older generations, living in these small little villages, not that much has changed. Levels of development were akin to many towns and villages we have seen elsewhere in Burma, Cambodia or the Philippines, which are widely considered much, much poorer than China today.

It was kind of surprising, because although you hear all about the vast gap between rich and poor, and there continues to be of course, a huge wealth divide in the major cities, it isn’t until you get out into the sticks, that you can begin to grasp the full extent of it.

Over the last two years I have seen wealth and opulence on a scale in China that is unimaginable to the British middle classes. But here in the countryside around Yangshuo, despite the newly built expressway nearby, or the bullet train that now stops at Guilin, or the fancy hotels in and around the city, life doesn’t appear to have changed all that much.  For all its wealth and swagger, China remains a very poor country in many places.

Also of interest, were the sheer number of abandoned construction projects we saw in every single town and village we went though. On the bullet train back to Nanjing we even went through a city that was half-built and appeared abandoned, who is paying for all of this I wonder?

Somebody, somewhere, is out of pocket.

Is this a sign of things to come? Is the money running out?

Don’t ask me!

Avatar’s Pandora exists, in China, kind of.

I remember watching Avatar back in my final year of university and being spellbound by those ‘floating mountains’ and the dramatic landscapes created in the fictional world of Pandora. I almost wished that I could go to Pandora just to see the mountains and avatars, for surely no such landscapes exist on our Earth. Never did I imagine that despite all of its majestic beauty, landscapes like those seen on Pandora, actually existed on our earth.


Then one day, in the midst of Avatar setting all sorts of records at the Global Box Office I was reading the Daily Mail online and a headline grabbed my attention.

Found! The stunning mountain that inspired Avatars ‘floating peak’

I clicked on the article, and much to my amazement, discovered the landscapes created in Pandora were inspired by a mountain range in China. I was blown-away by the pictures, of course the mountains weren’t floating (which was ahem, a ‘minor’ disappointment) but nonetheless, I added yet another place onto my seemingly endless list of places I dreamed of visiting.

When the opportunity arose to come to China, visiting the Avatar Mountains (known as Zhangjiajie National Park, within China) was one of the first things I looked up. How do we get there? How far away from Nanjing is it? What’s it like to visit?

I quickly found it’s a long way from Nanjing – over 1,000km. There were no bullet train links, and it would be an absolute mission to try to do it overland. So we decided to fly, and spend a significant part of our Easter Holiday there.

We arranged to meet a couple of Amelia’s school friends, who were on a whistle-stop trip around China. Hiking the Avatar mountains sounded appealing to them, and a nice contrast to the huge metropolises of Beijing and Hong Kong, which they were also visiting.

A long way from home...
A long way from home…

Zhangjiajie was quite simply, absolutely stunning. I have never seen somewhere quite so unique, that amazed me with its beauty, but also dumbfounded me, in that I struggled, and am continuing to struggle to comprehend how the hell these mountains even came to be formed in the first place?! They are a natural wonder of the world, surely. UNESCO has rightly awarded the peaks World Heritage Status.

The peaks are precariously balanced, some seem barely as thick as a car, yet tower to over 1,000 metres in height – skyscrapers of karst rock, of varying thickness, standing vertically over densely forested ravines, through which streams, wildlife and Chinese tour groups rush through.

I thought of the mountains as giant dominoes, some of the peaks looked as though they would merely need a gentle push (from a very strong man, admittedly), and they would topple into the others. Looking out from some of the viewing platforms; the views were dramatic. All I needed was an Avatar to come flying through a ravine, and I would have felt like I was in the closest thing to Pandora.

The weather conditions were not ideal for photography, so the pictures below don’t quite do it justice!

zhangjiajie 1 zhangjiajie peaks zhangjiajie stream

Fortunately for the first two days we were able to appreciate the majesty of the park. On the third and final day the fog and rain clouds descended in on us to the point where visibility was reduced to 50 feet. The views weren’t quite so spellbinding at that point.great views

The only problem with this place is, 35 million other people (99.999% of whom are Chinese) also have this experience, or something close to it – every year. The park was spectacular, spellbinding, marvelous, majestic and wondrous. The development that had taken place around it, and at times, in it, is sadly a tragedy.

You can’t begrudge millions of people wanting to visit one of the most spectacular sights in their own country, because ultimately we are tourists ourselves. However, the monstrous development that has taken place in recent years around here, has led to UNESCO warning it may lose World Heritage Status. Naturally, you would assume authorities would heed this warning – perhaps they have. Regardless, at the summit of one of the most popular peaks we witnessed a large McDonald’s under construction, which will be opening within the next week or two. Whilst I’m not going to lie and say that we wouldn’t have enjoyed eating a Big Mac over Fried Noodles from a small local vendor making a living from selling snacks, it begs the question, is nothing sacred in China?

mcdonalds at the summit

Despite my complaints, Zhangjiajie National Park was awe-inspiring. Just don’t expect it to be a great nature reserve. Expect it to be a ‘National Park with Chinese characteristics‘, and you won’t leave disappointed.

Avatar re-enactment
Avatar re-enactment
And a lovely chicken soup for dinner.... Mmmm.
And the food was lovely…. Mmmm.