Tulous of Nanjing County, Fujian Province, China: Communal Living

For the best part of 2 years we have been living in China, and we take every opportunity to get out of our city and explore what China has to offer. However, I don’t often take the time to write about it here, and thought I would make this trip an exception.

Aside from providing an update of what we are up to, I also feel as though there is not enough information in English online about how to visit the Nanjing County tulous, and I wanted to share some of our experiences here. That said, the tulous offer a really unique insight into rural Chinese life, communal living, and alternative culture existing in China.

The Tulous (translated from Chinese as: Earth Buildings) are round houses made from natural resources. They are built up to 5 floors high and house up to 300 people. Some of them have housed the same families for over 25 generations. The houses are usually round in shape and feature a courtyard area in the centre. We were informed that the bottom floor usually features the kitchen areas so that water isn’t used in abundance on higher levels. It was amazing to imagine that someone could live their whole life in one circle, surrounded by the people they know and trust.

Despite this, we learnt that the clans who live in the tulous did so for more reasons than to simply live in close proximity to each other. Instead, rival clans used to fight a lot so the round houses were built as a form of defence from rival families. Today, it seems harmonious though.

Most of the tulous we visited were still inhabited by families who were more than welcoming to curious tourists like us. However, one must presume that many of the tulou inhabitants would have recently left their ancestral home in order to seek employment and wealth when the mass migration to the coastal cities began.

Anyway, our journey began from Ningbo and after researching our trip to the tulous we decided to book a train to Nanjing County, Fujian. Most of the information online points to travelling to the tulous from Xiamen (the nearest large city), but Nanjing is closer to the clusters and many trains stop there on the way to Xiamen from Shanghai etc. In fact, the train station itself is designed in the shape of a tulou.

Despite booking our tickets for the following Saturday we managed to charm the ticket inspector into letting us on our intended train with the promise that we didn’t mind standing up. In the end it turned out to be 6 hours of musical chairs as we prayed on empty seats. A flight to Xiamen would have taken us less than 2 hours, and a 3 hour bus from there would have taken us to the tulou clusters. But we decided to take the 6 hour train to take us directly and cut out the need to stay in Xiamen for the night.

Upon arrival in Nanjing, Fujian we realised that we were in the middle of nowhere. Unlike the busy city life on the East coast, there were no taxis or buses here. Instead there were touts offering us transport to the tulou clusters. We had previously booked a small hotel not far from the station (or so we thought). After a lengthy discussion with a driver we agreed to pay 220rmb our 45km drive to the hotel (as we arrived close to 10pm we took our chances on this being a good deal).


In the end we were very glad that we didn’t end up going to Xiamen instead though as we would have had to pay for a night in a hotel and missed the experience of arriving in YunShuiYao ancient town late in the night. We quickly noticed that the temperature had dropped significantly and we checked into our cheap hotel promptly to find it very cosy, modern and comfortable.

It is worth noting that there are two Unesco areas here. The first, Yun Shui Yao, requires 90rmb for tourists to enter. The second,  Tian Luo Keng requires 100rmb. People visiting may wish to select one or both of these locations depending on budget.

Websites recommended an 8:30 bus to the tulou clusters from Xiamen, requiring a change in Shuyang town. Yet, we found ourselves waking up right in the middle of it all. We were very lucky with the weather and went for a morning stroll through the narrow streets of the ancient town and out beside the glisteningly clean river. Here we had our first site of an ancient inhabited tulou, built on the bank of the river. We were invited in by a resident who offered us tea and allowed us to walk to the third floor to see the views from the top (she asked us for 5rmb for the privilege but we later found out we didn’t need to pay. We didn’t mind supporting her though).




From there we had a short walk towards He Gui Lou, a rectangular tulou with over 200 years of history. Inside many of the residence appeared to have become cigarette makers and were keen for us to buy from them.


We spent the rest of the morning walking along the river of the ancient town, taking in the fresh rural air and enjoying the morning sun. We visited another larger Tulou named Huai Yuan Lou before having an inexpensive rice cake and noodle lunch beside a mill (which supposedly featured in a famous film).



Our next step was to return to our previous hotel to pick up our luggage and make our way to Tian Lou Keng where we would be residing inside one of the ancient communal buildings. In order to get there from YunShuiYao we needed to catch the green public bus (number 6) to the tourist centre. You can catch the bus directly from the road on the opposite side of the river. The journey took about 15 minutes and cost 3rmb.

We were expecting scores of tourists at the tourist centre, particularly as we were visiting during Qing Ming (tomb sweeping) holiday. To our surprise there was hardly anyone in the centre and we had not seen a single foreigner up until this point. It is worth noting that there are no ATMs anywhere, and Alipay is currently used scarcely. We found this out the hard way.

Once we paid for the Unesco Heritage entry we waited to board a bus to the tulou cluster. We were again surprised to find that the bus needed 10 people to justify the journey and we had to wait for others to arrive. This would seem normal anywhere else, but we very rarely have to wait for people to fill up a bus in China.

The area is very well prepared for tourism, with dozens of buses waiting to take people. Yet, there were fewer than 10 people in total. We were not to complain about getting away from the crowds.



We told the driver that we would be staying in Ta Xia Village for the night, and we kindly offered us and the 8 other passengers a proposal. He suggested that, since there were so few people, he would take us to different tulou clusters and wait for us to return to the bus before moving on meaning he could ‘drop the two foreigners off’ at their village at the end of the trip. Everyone was happy with this convenient arrangement, especially as it meant transport for the day was sorted for 15rmb.




Our first visit was the most famous of them all, TianLuoKeng itself. This is the most famous cluster, and the image that you see most frequently on Google searches. This is mainly because it is magnificent. From above the cluster you can see the 5 earth buildings contributing to the community with the spectacular backdrop of the hills. This is known locally as ‘4 dishes, 1 soup’ due to its layout. It was this view that I had wanted to see when persuading Nicki to visit Fujian. It now appeared that we had been successful in our mission and it felt a lot like mission accomplished.


We then descended down the hill to visit inside the tulous and observe the structures from the outside. We both found it fascinating to consider that they were fully functional homes as it would be easy to think of them attractions instead. There were people drying flowers in the sun for tea, drying laundry on lines, and sitting around chatting. We were in a community.





After hoping back on the bus we made a short journey to Yu Chang Lou, which I believe is the tallest tulou with 5 levels.



Our final stop was our final one, Ta Xia Village. We found ourselves walking along the quaint town trying to find our accommodation. When we didn’t stumble across it by chance I asked a local, who offered to take us in his car instead of trusting us with his directions. It was that kind of hospitality which cemented our love for the area.


DSCF2988When we arrived at the accommodation we were not disappointed. We stayed at Nanjing QingDeLou Inn, which is a historic earth building converted into a very hospitable homestay for visitors. Its main selling point is that you get to spend the night in tulou-esque accommodation, in a room surrounding a nice courtyard. We were given a ground floor room, which meant we heard every creak from the movement above as the wooden structure had no noise or heat insulation. This may sound like a negative, but it is not. It really added to the authenticity of our stay. During the night the hosts allowed for guests to socialise in the middle of the courtyard, which is perhaps how social living should be. We woke up the next day satisfied with the knowledge that we had spent the night in an ancient tulou.

We spent the next day relaxing in our calm surroundings and did not leave Ta Xia village. We walked along the river in the morning towards De Yuan Yang, an ancestral monument towering above the village where spires representing ancestors stand proudly.





Reminding ourselves that we were on holiday, we took the time to relax in the afternoon, taking full advantage of the suntrap courtyard of our tulou, taking in the atmosphere of a riverside restaurant, and indulging in a few local beers.



It was then time for our final night in Fujian before the kind host offered to take us on the 90-minute journey back to Nanjing Station for 200rmb, rather than leaving the evening before (which would be required for a public bus).

So many things could have (and probably should have) gone wrong on this trip. However, with a bit of luck, kindness, and research we came away with one of our favourite memories from our time in China. I would not be surprised if tourism really took off in Nanjing County, but a little part of me hopes that it stays as unique and special as it is now.



Ubud, Bali: Endlessly Eating.

After our adventures in Sumatra we had decided to spend a week in Bali for some R&R. Nicki and I had never been on a holiday designed for relaxation together before and we were sure that it was going to test our ability to ‘do nothing’.

We arrived in Bali in the late evening and got our taxi towards Ubud, the area we decided to stay. In hindsight we would have been better off going with the heckling private taxi men than the official taxi service, since we feel we paid over the odds for the trip.

Ubud was our chosen destination on recommendation. There are several popular areas in Bali but Ubud, with its slightly hipster/hippy reputation, seemed to come with the most positive reviews.

We were holidaying in Bali during rainy season, and we did not see much of the sun during our week. This did not effect us too much in Ubud as it is not a coastal place and much of what to see did not require us to be outdoors.


We made a great effort to sleep in on our first day, reminding ourselves that we had nothing to be up for. But we were up in time to catch breakfast at a local restaurant, Habitat, which served the most amazing bowl of vegan food. I am a huge cynic of food stuffs such as chia seeds and have previously thought that the food market exploits people who have a desire to keep their body clean, but this bowl was a whole new world to me: coconut milk mixed with dragon fruit was mixed with kiwi, banana, museli and…chia seeds (I still don’t know what they do).


Feeling full of fruit we headed towards the Monkey Forest up the road to see a park full of monkeys. This was worth a visit and similar, if not as ethically comforting, to the sanctuary of monkeys I saw just outside of Kyoto in Japan. Instead these monkeys were an attraction for selfies. There were very entertaining episodes of people holding bananas and then getting a shock when they were pounced on by a monkey but Nicki still remembered the Orangutans, so she fearfully kept her distance from these primates. They bigger ones were quite scary actually.


dscf2601Our days were largely centred around food and Ubud is the perfect place to make food your primary focus. We ate at lots of wonderful restaurants at cheap prices (although paying in tens of thousands doesn’t make it seem inexpensive). Every lunch and dinner we ate somewhere different and we used TripAdvisor to seek out new and exciting dishes. Nicki tried her best to eat a vegan diet for the first few days, but she was too tempted with cake. It was a valiant effort.



One of my favourite places was a small non-profit restaurant, Fair Warung Bale, that donated any money made to healthcare. The food there was amazing and abundant. Anyone who visits Ubud should definitely eat there!


Aside from the food, there was yoga to be done. We visited the Yoga Barn in Udud and spent an afternoon in Yoga. I am the least flexible person but found comfort in the other men who were struggling to keep up with the bendy people. We were in a huge open wooden shack protected by a thatched roof and it was nice to do some yoga with the rain adding to the ambience. It was like doing yoga in a giant tree-house. The Yoga Barn was a great introduction to yoga and Nicki really enjoys it so she was in her element.


Despite this experience, I was finding it hard to warm to some of the people in the Yoga Barn café. There were lots of people eating raw food with fantastic postures but with an added aurora of superiority. I prefer pretentiousless hippies.

We were also fortunate enough to witness a traditional woman’s dance at the temple on Monkey Forest Road. The dancers seemed to dance with their eyes, which was as captivating as it was unnerving.



After a few days in Ubud we decided we needed to see what other parts of Bali had to offer. I was particularly intrigued by the place that seems to lure the most tourists: Kuta. I managed to persuade Nicki to visit the costal resort for the day, although it was clear she had her reservations.

Nicki’s instincts were completely justified when we arrived. Kuta was one of the most disappointing places I have ever been. In my eyes Bali has always been synonymous with beautiful beaches, wonderful food and positive vibes. However, our first experience of Kuta saw us stare stone-faced at the most disgusting beach littered with rubbish. We asked each other; surely this is not the right place?


We then walked around the town looking for places we were recommended by TripAdvisor. It appeared that Kuta was still sleeping from the previous night, since the only people we seemed to see were groups of Australian men in singlets or beer bellied Aussie couples. There were a few bars and restaurants open so we decided to pop in for some breakfast.


Upon eating a mediocre meal we were already missing the uniqueness of Ubud, with is character and identity. Kuta was not our kind of place. So much so that we returned on our 2-hour drive back to Ubud within a few hours, deciding to spend our afternoon and evening in a place we enjoyed rather than a place we were quickly growing to dislike.

We made it back to Ubud in time to enjoy the majority of the afternoon. We decided to visit a restaurant situated in the midst of the rice paddy fields a short walk beyond the city. Nicki claimed that the walk was reminiscent of Julia Robert’s experience in ‘Eat Pray Love’. However, we kept missing the hidden signs directing us towards the restaurant and ended up walking into the darkness, with only a phone torch preventing us from slipping into the paddy fields. And then, when we arrived we found the Sweet Orange Warung restaurant to be closing. We were lucky enough to return the following day, in the daylight and really enjoyed eating with a view over the rice fields.


dscf2642dscf2640However, we then had to navigate our way back to the town in darkness and we took a route through the fields without another person in sight. My instincts were telling me that it wasn’t a good idea as we talked single file along a narrow boggy path in the dark. I was leading the way, and I was glad I was when I saw a large rat scurry across my path as I don’t think that was something Nicki wanted to see.

Our time in Bali was drawing to a close and the weather was picking up, meaning we could exploit the outdoor pool at our hotel (as well as a couple of indoor massages). There was one final thing we wanted to do before we went home, a cooking class. We had enjoyed the experience in Udaipur, India so thought we could add Indonesian cuisine to the list of things we will intend to, but never actually, cook at home.


This time we were part of a group of 24 people cooking all sorts of delicious dishes to eat ourselves. It was a really good experience and I am always amazed with what you can do with raw and fresh ingredients. I don’t think I am ever going to have the patience to be a good cook, but I enjoyed learning from the locals at Paon Cooking class.


That was that. We were now ready to return to China for our final semester before the Summer. Our experience in Indonesia was an eye-opener: we realised that the beauty and diversity of Sumatra made it an amazing destination for travel, and that Ubud is a place you really need to embrace to fully appreciate it. Kuta, however, is somewhere I don’t think I will be returning to. Bali and Sumatra made for a trip to remember.

Sumatra, Indonesia: ‘Forest People’ and Volcanoes.

Chinese New Year has quickly rolled around again, and it has given us another excuse to explore a different part of Asia. This time Indonesia has been our host.

We decided to break our 18-day holiday into 2 parts, adventure (Sumatra) and relaxation (Bali), as we are slowly learning that experiencing a few places in detail is more satisfying than making whistle-stops in several places.

Upon arrival in Medan, Sumatra we were taken on a 4 hour journey by car towards the jungle. The roads were both busy and bumpy for long stretches and we had our first encounter with the Sumatran rainy season as sheets of rain fell onto (and into) our car. We were excited and apprehensive about what lay ahead as neither of us really knew what to expect from our jungle plans.


We needn’t have been, however, since our jungle base in the village of Bukit Luwang was both accommodating and comfortable. We were given a luxurious room with a jungle view and a porch way with our own hammock. This gave us a good night sleep before our jungle trek began the next day.


The primary purpose of our jungle trek was to try to track down some Orang-utans. Nicki and I had decided not to buy each other Christmas presents this year, but instead treat each other to a couple of days in the Sumatran jungle with some orang-utans. We set off across the bridge that separated Bukit Luwang from the jungle and began our walk into the depths of the jungle. Our guide handily pointed out different plants, insects and animals that only a trained eye would spot and normally had a story to tell about everything.



The initial stages of our trek were not difficult and before long we found ourselves eating tropical fruits whilst sat on a wet log. In fact, rain was incessant throughout the day, but it didn’t dampen any spirits. The natural umbrellas of the trees above prevented us from getting soaked, and the cooling of the rainwater made the sweat from our bodies less noticeable.



We soon came across our first Orang-utans. We were surprised to see them so soon since we were warned that rain could prevent the orang-utans movements and so we were asked to be prepared not to see any at all. We stood gawping and taking photos of mother and baby as the mum sat lazily in the tree as her child swung playfully between the branches.


After a jungle lunch lunch, freshly prepared by our guides, we came across another Orangutan, and the most famous one among the guides: Mina. The guides seem to know all of the Orangutans and we had already heard many legends about Mina. One of the guides had a bite scar on his leg to prove his life-long relationship with the most aggressive orang-utan. When word spread about Mina’s presence close by Nicki went into Fight-or-Flight mode as her own survival instincts kicked in. And then, when Mina bound into sight ahead of us, Nicki took off in the other direction. She basically legged it.

Mina carried her twin babies (whom she protects even more vehemently since the death of her previous child) and occupied a tree in front of us. We backed away to a safe distance. I then noticed that Nicki was not in sight so I called out for her. ‘I’m here’ was her reply from the considerable distance. We were then all instructed to cautiously walk past Mina without making eye contact whilst the guides occupied her attention. Thankfully Nicki made it back in time to experience the sight of this great ape up close. It was amazing to see such a majestic animal in the wild, and within feet away from us.



Back as a group we continued our trek up steep hills, and then back down them. The early part of our trek had left us complacent and we now had to be more sure footed and aware of the ground beneath us as the rain was starting to take its toll on the ground. Not only was it getting steeper but it was also getting muddier and a little less easy to navigate through. Nicki was amazing throughout.


As we continued our trek deep into the afternoon we came across more orang-utans and we were starting to feel very lucky to see so many. Additionally we were given glimpses of other primates, including black gibbons and macats.


The hardest part of our trek was the last 40 minutes where we had to sharply decline towards the river. At one point we had to toss a rope down the path and almost abseil down the muddy path, such was the gradient of the hill.


However, we were eventually victorious in our mission to reach camp. As we did so we noticed that another orang-utan was knocking about near our shelter. We had come all of this way only to find an orang-utan at our camp anyway.



For the rest of the evening chilled out in the river, ate nice food, and drank a beer with our head torches on before retiring for a night under a shelter in the jungle.


We were asleep pretty early, which meant for an early start the next day. We embarked on a 2-hour trek up and down the hillside, which made for a completely different exercise given that the equatorial sun had replaced the previous day’s rain. As much as we loved the previous day’s adventure and all the thrills it brought, Nicki was not having any of this. She wanted to be back at the shelter, and I don’t think I was being too helpful by acting like I was having the time of my life. Sorry Nicki.

DCIM100GOPROHowever, there was a sense of achievement when we made it back to camp, drenched in sweat and new memories. We were then able to walk slightly upstream and cross the strong current to bathe and massage in the natural waterfall feeding the river. It was a nice way to unwind and reflect on an eventful couple of days.

Our final couple of our in the jungle featured a jungle fruit salad before rafting the aggressive river on a raft made of rubber rings (probably wouldn’t pass any health and safety measures back home). We travelled quickly down stream, picking up pace where the water was most angry, and got very wet on our way down. We were back within half an hour. In fact, the rafting was a real highlight, bringing us all the way back to our lodge for a well-earned shower.

A few achy muscles and dirty clothes were ample cost for an incredible 2 days in the jungle. It may have been a bit of a struggle, but seeing orang-utans in the wild is something we will never forget. An amazing Christmas present.

We returned to find out that it was exactly 2 years since I saw the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, so who knows what 25th January 2019 will bring. Chimpanzees maybe?

The next day we decided to have a nice rest, remembering that we are on holiday. So we woke up late, had a big breakfast and sunbathed beside our jungle view with a beer. We were on holiday, after all.

The next stop was Berastagi, a 4 hour drive from our luscious jungle retreat. We left early in the morning after consuming the fruit platter provided for us at breakfast and checked into our hotel before midday. Berastagi is at a slightly higher altitude that Bukit Luwang or Medan so it had a slightly cooler feel to it.

We walked around the town throughout the afternoon and realised that we were the only tourists about. It was quite apparent that Berastagi isn’t as well equipped for foreigners as other aspects of Asia but that made it a little more authentic than we thought it would be. We eventually found a nice roadside café that provided us with a delicious Nasi Goreng (the most popular dish here: a mix of rice and other nice stuff).


That evening we hired a guide for our volcano trek the next day as we were for-warned about the risks of going it alone. In fact there was a list on display of all the foreigners who had perished on the volcano because they went up without a guide: the perfect advertising.


To my surprise one of the volcanoes erupted in front of my eyes (Nicki was unfortunately napping). I was amazed by the nonchalant reaction of all the locals. They told me that it frequently erupts and that everyone who used to live on the mountain has been relocated. Thankfully, we were climbing the more peaceful volcano the next day.


We set off at a sociable time in the morning (choosing not to get up early for sunrise) and began climbing the mountain. It turned out that we were hiking on one of the most popular days of the year, since locals were also on holiday for Spring Festival and it was a weekend. However, it was nowhere near as crowded as China.


Several things became apparent quickly: our guide wasn’t quite physically fit enough for walking uphill, foreigners were walking safely without a guide, and littering was accepted. It was shocking to see plastic bottles, wrappers and other rubbish distributed carelessly all the way up the mountainside. This was completely in contrast to the attitude of everyone in the jungle.

It was quite a steep climb until we reached the unmistakable stench of sulphur which indicated our approach to the volcano crater. Many locals had camped at the summit over night to celebrate the arrival of the new Lunar year. There were several sulphur vents producing dangerously hot steam from deep within the earth. Our guide informed us that these kept the volcano calm as it literally ‘lets off steam’ all the time rather than let it build up inside.


We were able to walk around the crater and enter the middle where a pool of rainwater formed a lake. The colour of the water apparently discoloured by the chemicals in the earth below it. Thankfully there was no eruption whilst we stood in the crater. It really was a spectacular sight and it really reminded us of a scene from Iceland…or Mars.






From there we began our decent down a much more tricky root. But our guide was more nimble with his feet going down. We did not see another soul on our 2 hour trek down but we did have to slide down a mud-‘slide’ and negotiate our way across fallen trees on a less well trod path.1881940307


Eventually we reached some for of civilisation in the form of some hot springs. Only, it was more like a children’s swimming pool than the romantic mountainside Jacuzzi we had envisaged. Still, we got into our swimming gear and bathed with the locals (all of whom were fascinated with our whiteness and made no excuse for staring incessantly at us). As we were preparing to leave an old man made some comment in Indonesian about me, which made the whole pool laugh. They didn’t laugh quietly. Everyone in the pool was laughing hysterically and the old man made more comments, which made them cackle even louder, like a comedian at the top of his game. We had no idea what to do as we stood there being laughed at. I ended up nervously moving around the corner but could still hear the roaring laughter. Then, having left the scene in a haste, I realised that I left my swimming trunks beside the pool. I couldn’t go back out of fear of further ridicule so I left them there. It has to be a low point.

We were soon over the embarrassment and clear of the smell of sulphur. Our final challenge of Sumatra was to get back to Medan for our Bali bound flight. We decided to go back to public buses so made our two-hour journey crammed in the back of a colourful old bus beside a breastfeeding old lady.

Having got back to the airport at a tenth of the price of a private bus, Nicki decided to should spend our winnings on a Starbucks Coffee.

Our Sumatra adventure was over. It is an amazing island and one that I thought I’d only visit through David Attenborough and a TV screen. Seeing Orangutans was the real highlight of the trip and well worth effort needed to find them.

We are now onto a new experience and test for us: rest and relaxation in Bali.