Yongding (永定; Yǒngdìng) is on the western edge of Fujian Province, west of Zhangzhou and south of Longyan, near the border with Guangdong Province. Most visitors come here to see the Hakka tulous, literally "earth buildings" but also translated as "roundhouses"; these are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Hakka (客家, Kèjiā, in Mandarin) translates as "guest families"; they are people who migrated to southern China — Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Hainan, Guangxi and Sichuan — some centuries back because of various wars and other troubles in the north. There are about 80 million Hakka spread out over those provinces and among overseas Chinese; in China they mainly inhabit relatively isolated mountain regions — the fertile valleys were already taken when they arrived — and Yongding is part of such a region. They have their own language, called Hakka in English and kejia hua in Mandarin.
A tulou is a structure where a number of residences are built inside a single fortified compound. Hakka people have been building these since the 12th century, and in the last couple of centuries some of their non-Hakka neighbors have built some as well. There are now more than 20,000 of them in this district and adjacent areas.
The people in the area are friendly, tourist infrastructure is minimal, and the countryside is extremely beautiful - which makes for a very pleasant contrast with other touristic rural areas in China.
Tulou generally housed a whole clan (a few dozen households, up to 800 people) and are three to five floors high; most are circular, up to about 70 m (200-odd feet) in diameter. They were designed for easy defense; you can see the openings for archers or riflemen on the upper floors but lower floors have no windows. The walls are typically a mixture of packed earth, lime and straw and about 150 cm (5 feet) thick, or a bit more. Other materials including stone, brick and bamboo are also sometimes used. There are usually only one or two gates, thick oak covered with steel plates, and there is a well and food storage to withstand a siege if necessary.
Most of these tulous are still in use, but the area has suffered an extreme population drain as the able-bodied have generally moved to coastal cities as migrant workers, leaving behind a population of the very old and the very young. The villages also contain modern housing, and older houses that are not tulou.
An amusing bit of historical trivia is that in Cold War days when the US first began getting satellite photos (initially, with poor resolution), intelligence analysts spotted many fairly large circular structures in this region, not far from Taiwan. They took them for missile silos and a considerable kerfuffle ensued in the American and Taiwanese military. Eventually they got spies in on the ground and found that the structures were tulous.
The easiest and most convenient way to get to tulous is from Xiamen by a direct bus. Other options include a bus through Longyan or a train through Yongding or Longyan. Xiamen has multiple bus stations, so pay close attention to the station name.
- From Xiamen, there are two direct buses per day to Hukeng (湖坑, pronounced Woo Kang) - at 08:40 and early afternoon from Fanghu Bus Station (located at 24.511502 118.133765), ticket costs 64¥ as of 2017. There are also seven buses to Yongding that depart from 07:10-16:00 every day from the Fanghu Bus Station. All buses pass villages of Gaobei (高北村) and Liulian (六联) which are convenient bases for exploring tulous. The Liulian bus station is also frequently referred to as "Tulou Station" (土楼汽车站). It takes around 3.5 hours to travel from Xiamen to Liulian.
- There is also a frequent bus service from Xiamen to Longyan, but you will have to transfer buses in Longyan. The journey from Longyan to Yongding is approximately one hour, and from Longyan to Hukeng is approximately two hours.
- The nearest train station is Yongding. There are two daily trains from Xiamen to Yongding (K230 and K298) that take approximately 3.5 hours and cost only ¥37.5. There are trains from Guangzhou to Yongding, too. Yongding bus station is close to the train station (0.2 km).
- The new bullet trains do the Xiamen-Longyan trip in less than 1 hour 15 min with greater comfort but higher cost. The fast trains also arrive at Longyan from the south Shantou or even Shenzhen. From either train stations buses and mini-vans are available to take you to tulous.
If you intend to see as many tulous as you can, it's best you find your way to Hukeng village, where the government showcased unit is, and stay at the many lodgings available right where your bus or taxi drops you.
The best way to see the different tulous is by private taxi or motorbike. Your guesthouse can help organize this for you, or else just walk around and some local will come up offering their service. Prices range from ¥100 to ¥120 for a half day tour. Be sure to negotiate a price before the tour. Most tours allow you to choose 4 or 5 tulous to visit and a car with driver, who also acts as impromptu guide is ¥200, (2011 pricing) A motorbike with rider is ¥120 and would therefore be expensive and uncomfortable if there are two or more of you. You are not allowed to rent or ride a bike. While you will not be hurried, starting the tour at 07:00 will mean you will be back at your lodging well before lunch time. There's no tour that operates by half day or full day. Just select one from the menu and you are on your way.
It is fairly easy to arrange a tour with a guide who can serve as translator; you can either join a tour group or hire a guide for you own group, though hiring your own guide will be relatively expensive for a single person or couple. Many travel agents in Xiamen offer such tours. Some of the Xiamen companies will do built-to-order itineraries, and Fuzhou-based Amazing China does those anywhere in China. It may help to have a guide who speaks Hakka as well as Mandarin, but it is not really necessary; nearly everyone you meet will know at least some Mandarin and many will be fluent.
As anywhere in China, Mandarin is the language of education, government and media, and the lingua franca for communication between groups. As anywhere, speaking that or having a guide who does will stand you in good stead. However, over 90% of the district's population are Hakka, so that language is also very useful here. The main local language of the surrounding region is Minnan.
Very little English is spoken in the region, except by a few people in the tourist industry; this is a rural area and many locals, including most of the well-educated ones, have left for jobs in the cities. Even Mandarin may not be universally known among the largely very young and very old population who remain, though it is at least reasonably common.
The UNESCO World Heritage List entry for Fujian Tulou includes 46 buildings at ten locations, mostly but not all in this district. There are also many others scattered in between and around the main attractions.
The main clusters are:
- 1 Hongkeng Tulou Cluster Scenic Spot (洪坑土楼群), Hongkeng. This site contains some beautiful tulou of different shapes - round, square, and U-shaped. Zhencheng Lou (振成楼) is the highlight and Rusheng Lou (如升楼) is the smallest tulou. It is located across the street from the Tulou Bus Station in Liulian. A point to note is that Zhencheng Lou is the government showcase unit and is therefore heavily padded up for touristy appeal.Those who know avoid the place, simply because everything looks so unnaturally spick and span, not to mention the overabundance of souvenir stalls. But its rear gate is where the public transport stops and picks up passengers to or from Yongding or Xiamen. ¥70, students ¥45.
- 2 Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster (田螺坑), Tianluokeng. On a slope of Hudong Mountain, sit five tulou - three circular, one oval and in the middle a square tulou. The locals call this place si wan ee tang (literally four bowls and a soup). These were built over 600 years between the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the 1960s. At night, the place is lit up with multicoloured lights which make interesting photos. However, you have to stay the night, most probably at the lodgings provided by the lady operating a local style teashop. Be prepared for a long and boring night after the initial excitement with your photographing done. A better option is to stay in one off the guesthouses in Taxia. ¥100, students ¥50. Admission includes Yuchang Lou (裕昌楼) and Taxia Village (塔下村).
- 3 Yuchang Earth Building (裕昌楼). Twenty Five generations have lived in this tulou, even though it is leaning up to 15 degrees in places. The slant mentioned is what makes the inhabitants proud. Whatever the reason their ancestors used crooked beams and columns, these have withstood the test of time. Chinese tourists particularly marvel at this curious crooked building. Included with Tianluokeng ticket.
- 4 Gaobei Tulou Cluster Scenic Spot (高北土楼). This is the largest of the tulou, on the route from Xiamen to Liulian. The main building is called Chengqi Lou (承启楼). ¥40, students ¥25.
- 5 Chuxi Tulou Cluster Scenic Spot (初溪土楼群). This is perhaps the most picturesque of the tulou clusters, and is located approximately 30-40 minutes south of Liulian. ¥55, students ¥30.
There is a Chinese government site (in Chinese) for tulous.
Souvenirs are available throughout the area and include mini tulous, snow globes, keychains, and magnets. The region is also famous for its tea. Most tulous have stores and vendors inside, but be sure to haggle as prices for tourists are unexpectedly high.
Each site has local restaurants so you will not go hungry.
- Ke Lai Den Hotel, Hongkeng. This place has an English menu.
- 1 Dongnan restaurant 东南餐厅 (southeast restaurant), 永定区沿河南路环卫站 (By taxi or tricycle), ☎ . 9:00-4:00(next day). In a white building (Yongding Environmental Sanitation Office) near the railway and Yanhe Park. Orthodox Hakka cuisine is served here.
Most of the more touristic earth houses offer simple lodgings, which generally will not provide the most basic conveniences and should cost around ¥30. Rooms are simple, and bathrooms are frequently located outside of tulous. Many tulous also close around 20:00 every evening.
Hukeng village has several lodgings that are a step up from this, speak basic English, and offer Western food and coffee, try:
- 1 Fuyu Building Changdi Inn, Hong Keng Village, Hukeng Town, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. They also offer a pick-up service from Xiamen. QQ: 364804398 Rooms starting at ¥100.
There are in fact plenty of sleep options. Almost every other restaurant and shop has rooms upstairs for ¥60-80 (2011 pricing). As you alight from your bus or taxi, depending on which section of the road you will be approached, by the owners of these establishments, who would be more than pleased to allow you to view rooms before taking. Generally, the rooms are very clean, well-kept, with en suite bathroom, western W.C., TV, Aircon. No toiletries or towels however. Ask and they will supply you the towels. Sheets and blankets are already spread out and are very clean.
If leaving the area from a village, the bus stations are very informal. Check with locals to make sure you're waiting at the right spot or just flag down the bus as it passes by. For example, at Gaobei Village, the bus station is located on the road X620 roughly at 24.661687 117.007028, but long distance buses depart from the main road X622 at 24.660854 117.006176. About 10 min before the departure of a long distance bus, staff will accompany passengers to the bus stop and wait till the bus arrives. It's possible to buy the ticket either at the bus station (arrive early enough) or at the bus. Ticket to Xiamen costs 60¥ as of 2017.
There are regularly scheduled buses from Liulian (or Tulou Station) (see "Get In" section). Direct buses for Xiamen leave at 07:30, 12:30, and 15:00 (20 min later from Gaobei Village). Different ones terminate at different stations in Xiamen, but this is not crucial; most stop in more than one place and driver will be yelling out the names when approaching them.