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March 14, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

One of the primary reasons for our stop in Xiamen was to visit the Hakka tulous, which we knew would be a bit tricky to coordinate. Oh, what is a tulou (pronounced “too low”), you ask? Ok. For those of you that do not know, and this will be difficult to describe, they are large ancient multi-story, multi-family, mud or earthen clay housing units in the shape of a donut (round, and sometimes square), inhabited by the Hakka minority people. They vary in size but some are so large they contain an entire village, with shops and temples on the bottom floor and housing units on the upper floors — kind of like a modern shopping mall with apartments units on the upper floors.

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Oh! And they have recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and the government of China is making huge tourist attractions out of them. The only problem is that because they are very common in this area of China, there are many locations to see them. While driving through this area of the country there are literally thousands of tulous (they say over 40,000) dotting the landscape. People still live in them — in fact they’re still building them, albeit ugly concrete versions now. The government has chosen some very specific sites with the largest, oldest, and/or most spectacular ones designated as the official UNESCO sites with all the tourist infrastructure that goes with it, or as Phil says, they have been “UNESCOed.”

After discussing our options with Phil, our hostel host, we decided to sign up for a Chinese tulou tour. The only problem was that we would be the only non-Chinese tourists on the tour bus, so we wouldn’t understand a thing. Basically we would be on the tour for transportation only. Phil had suggested the tour because getting out to the countryside to see the tulous is difficult, and if you are not on a tour or driving out there yourself, a very expensive taxi would be your only other choice. So tour bus it would be. We had looked at English-speaking tours online and they were priced way out of our price range (around $200 per person), so the $30 price tag on the all-Chinese tour was also quite appealing. We were also secretly hoping to get on one of those tour groups which provide matching tour group hats and follow a brightly colored flag around for the day.

Phil recommended one particular tour company because it didn’t do too many shopping stops. Shopping stops? Yup, shopping stops. It turns out you can’t go to the tulous on a tour bus without doing some shopping stops. Some of the tours to the tulous are more of a shopping excursion than a tulous tour, and that’s how the Chinese tourists seem to like it. Presumably commissions from the shopping stops subsidize the low tour price to some degree. Okay, we were in on the least shopping-stopping tour bus to the tulous.

After a little “Snoop Dogging” by Phil, we were picked up at the street entrance of the alley to our hostel. Greeted by a smile and kind gestures we loaded onto the bus with curious looks from the other passengers.

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Yup, we kind of stand out, but we don’t mind it any more. The three-hour ride out to the countryside was narrated almost constantly by the guide with the speaker volume turned way up, but don’t ask us what she said — we just enjoyed the sights. Oh, and by the way, no matching tour group hats or following a brightly colored flag guide on this tour. Dang!

Then came the first shopping stop. Oh baby! We were ushered into a large warehouse building with large billboard signage on the sides, given VIP badges, and shuttled quickly through an Ikea-type maze of aisles, with no shortcuts or escape until we made it through the gauntlet of consumerism. This one was a warehouse full of stuff made from bamboo fibers.

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But the best and rapidly the most annoying part of the whole shopping experience was that every 5 – 10 feet there was a salesperson encouraging you to buy the wonderful items you were passing. The worst part was that they were speaking out on what we referred to as “voice boxes”. Voice boxes are little loud speakers that are attached to their waist belt with a microphone attached to their head, and of course, they all seemed to be turned up to max volume and with the distortion factor not far behind, each voice competing with the next for your attention. Oy! Okay, we survived that shopping stop and we were the only ones to load back into the bus without any items. Oh well, we weren’t here for the shopping — plus we really didn’t need any more stuff to carry with us.

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Shortly thereafter our next stop was for lunch. Phil had warned us about this too and had given us some helpful hints, particularly “eat fast”. Lunch was pleasant enough at a roadside diner (China style), but it was all business. We all sat around at large communal round tables as bowls of different food items were brought out in rapid succession and placed in the center of the table. Everyone would then reach over and help themselves to the different bowls and eat. No time to waste here. Serve yourself, and eat. No one talked, as we all downed our lunch and got back on the bus.

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A true “eat and run” experience.

Aaaah, finally the tulou stop. We had all filed out the bus when the tour guide finally realized that we really didn’t understand a word of Chinese. Rolling her eyes with an “oh my god, what am I going to do” reaction she guided us to join the group. Ok, no problem, we’re in. Then out of nowhere we were joined by a shy young Chinese college-age girl that had limited knowledge of English. That’s great, we’ll take her!

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We got our entrance tickets to the official UNESCO tulou site, walked down a shiny new street full of street vendors and tourist shops,

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until we came upon three to four large tulou structures. At first sight they’re much larger than you might think.

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Plus the fact that they are clearly made of mud or earthen clay is an amazing sight.

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From the outside the tulous have small and few windows.

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We followed our tour guide into the first tulou with our “translator” not that far behind. Actually she was more of a babysitter for us, making sure we didn’t get lost, pointing us in the right direction, and making sure we got back to the tour bus on time — she never actually told us anything about the tulous, but we were just grateful for her guidance.

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Entering the first large tulou we discovered another world of days gone by. We can only describe it as if we were walking into a village atmosphere that closely resembled medieval times.

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The floor level was made up of vendors and craftspeople selling goods or providing services to the community. But since this site had been converted to a tourist destination, these vendors and craftspeople turned their attention to selling to the tourist crowds.

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One hot-selling item was local tea. We were invited to join a tea ceremony in one of the vendor’s stalls inside the tulou. As the tea ceremony progressed one of the Chinese gentlemen asked if he could have his picture taken with us during the tea ceremony. Agreeing to the picture we soon had to take pictures with everyone at the tea ceremony. Being caught off guard with our new found celebrity, we had no problem playing it up for all the pictures. We thanked the vendor for the delicious tea and continued on our tour to another tulou. We probably would have bought some tea if we could have figured out how to negotiate the purchase of a small amount, but we were just a few days into our China experience, and still gun-shy.

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Just another way to market and sell cigarettes in China.

We were continuously amazed at the structures, people, and working community that each tulou structure contained. Although we had a chance to go up to the top story of one of the tulous, we passed on it thinking we could do it at any of the tulous. We were mistaken, and so we missed our chance.

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Water canals run through and around the tulous.

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One of the working wells.

The tour ended and we had free time to wander around; our young English speaking sitter told us what time we needed to be back at the bus. We took a last walk through the tulou area, found a beautiful field of blooming flowers,

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stopped into some of the shops, then decided to run up the hill to the tulou overlook. Out of breath, we took our last few pictures of the area and made it back to our bus.

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Yes, we had one more shopping stop (this time coffee mixes and local biscuits, which were actually quite tasty) with those tortuous voice boxes, and again we were the only ones not to buy anything.

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Wow! English package labels!

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Durian Candy? No thanks.

After a long ride we made it back to Xiamen and our hostel, where we spent some time talking to Phil about our adventures. Before calling it a night Phil suggested we do one more excursion that night, and after he told us what it was we just had to go out and see it ourselves.

We walked a few blocks to have a cup of java at Central Perk. That’s Central Perk as in the TV show “Friends” Central Perk.

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According to Phil, the story goes that a local girl of a wealthy family loved the American show “Friends” so much that she decided to recreate the coffee shop, Central Perk, for Xiamen. And recreate it she did. We walked into the coffee shop only to find episodes of “Friends” playing continuously on the large flat panel screen over the mantel and a perfectly recreated set of Central Perk (albeit a much tinier version). We sat down on the couch that Chandler, Monica, Joey, Rachel, Phoebe, and Ross did so much of their gossiping on. We had to laugh at this highly unusual place. So if you are ever in Xiamen, China, and find yourself lingering and wanting for a slice of good old American culture, try stopping in at Central Perk for a cup of java and an episode of “Friends”.

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The next morning we bid adieu to Phil. We felt fortunate to have had someone to give us the low down on surviving in China, and help us adjust in our first few days. After packing up we took a few last photos on the rooftop of the hostel.

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Construction cranes, they seem to be on every corner in China.

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Phil tending his rooftop garden.

Phil invited us, the next time we were in the area, to make it out to his next venture on Taiwan, a totally organic farm. If we were ever to make it out here again, you can count on it. And with that we jumped on the elevated bus roadway to catch the bullet train to Ningbo, hoping that this time our train ride would be much more enjoyable.

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