FUJIAN PROVINCE (pop 37 million)
Fujian is north of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province on the South China Sea.
If you talk to Chinese descendants in SE Asia or Taiwan, many have roots that go back several centuries to Fujian. With a seafaring mentality, Fujian used to be what connected China to the outside world.
Moving inland from the coast, rolling hills punctuate the flatland. In the far south, the main tourist highlight is tulou, earthen roundhouses (and why I have come here). The northwest is mountainous.
History. This area has been part of the Chinese empire since the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). Sea trade made it a center of the Chinese world. In the Song and Yuan dynasties, the port of Quanzhou was the major silk port but also dealt with textiles, precious stones, porcelain and others. The city was home to 100,000 Arab merchants, missionaries and travellers.
The Ming dynasty suppressed maritime commerce in the 15th century, and the Fujian people headed to Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Overseas links that were forged then continue today.
Climate. Fujian has a subtropical climate, with hot, humid summers and drizzly, cold-ish winters. June through August brings soaring temperatures and humidity, and torrential rains and typhoons are common. The winters in mountainous regions can be fiercely cold. The best times to visit are March to May and September to October. Bananas and tea are common crops.
Language. It is a very linguistically diverse province. Locals speak variations of the Min dialect that includes Taiwanese.
XIAMEN (pop 670,000)
With its quaint historical buildings, waterfront and the old colonial base on the island of Gulang Yu, it is popular with Chinese tourists.
History. In the mid-14th century (early Ming dynasty), the city walls were built and Xiamen became a major seaport. In the 17th century, it was the refuge for Ming rulers fleeing the Manchu invaders. The Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, followed by the British in the 17th, and later by the French and Dutch, all attempting unsuccessfully to establish Xiamen as a trade port. The port was closed to foreigners in the 1750s until 1841 when, in the Opium Wars, the British forced the port open. Xiamen became one of the first treaty ports. Japanese and Westerners followed making Gulang Yu a foreign enclave. It was Japanese from 1938-1945.
The city is on an island connected to the mainland by a 5km long causeway bearing a railway, Bus Rapid Transit line, road and footpath. The west waterfront district directly opposite the small island of Gulang Yu is the old town known of its architecture, parks and winding streets.
After a 20-minute taxi, the high-speed train departed Hangzhou at 07:16 (departures hourly) and arrived at Xiamen at the Xiamen North Train Station, 40km north of the city center, at 14:00. The speed of this high-speed train averaged only 200km/hr. Mountains to the west were often striking and we passed over some long causeways over water. I then took the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to the waterfront, a great deal at 5¥ for a 40km drive. This bus line has its own dedicated road on the causeway and is elevated way above the city all the way to the water. With only BRT buses on it, it was virtually empty.
Something funny happened on the packed bus. Two women with a seat and big suitcases got off the bus fairly early. They were next to me. As I was waiting for them to vacate their seats, a woman was insistent on not waiting for them to get out of the way. I told her to relax and let the women pass. She couldn’t wait and climbed over the back of the seats. I proceeded to call her on her inappropriate behavior in English. The whole back of the bus got involved and it got pretty funny as we all laughed at this woman. A fellow with a little bit of English made the excuse that this was what happens when there are so many people. I said that was no excuse – people can still act in a civilized way. He then added that uneducated people behaved like this.
It was a 20-minute walk to my hostel along the water. I have made the comment previously that everything has a detailed list of rules and instructions to follow. The showers in our hostel had the best: 1. Lock the door after enter 2. Please adjust the temperature of the water when bathe 3. Don’t litter. Now I know how to take a shower! A second sign in the shower was “Caution – Wet Floor.”
After dinner I took the ferry over to Gulang Lu and walked the maze of narrow lanes.
Finally it is warm and I am back to wearing flip-flops. I have planned the trip well, missing most of the cold. I saw the north and western part of Eastern China next to Tibet before the temperature dropped much. Beijing has been cold with snow and below zero temperatures for a while. The mountains have been disappointing as virtually every day has been rainy with the mountains enshrouded in cloud and thus having no views. It was certainly cool in Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejiang Provinces but quite manageable.
I came to Xiamen primarily to transit to SW Fujian to see the Fujian tolou.
FUJIAN TULOU. Literally mud houses, they are outlandish, mulitistory, vast, fortified, earthen edifices built to protect the locals from bandits and wild animals. They have either a circular or square floor plan. The walls are made of rammed earth and glutinous rice, reinforced with strips of bamboo and wood chips. Hundreds live communally in the exterior sections surrounding an inner courtyard. Later tulous had stone fire walls and metal doors to protect against blazes. The ancient equivalent of apartments, kitchens are on the ground floor, accommodation next and storage on the floors above.
Some have multiple buildings built in concentric rings functioning as guest rooms, schools and meeting halls. For defensive purposes, there is only one entrance and no windows on the first three stories. Hakka tulou (the Hakka migrated from NW China around 300 AD) have communal corridors and staircases and central courtyards, while Minnan tulou (Fujianese people) are more private with each unit having its own staircase and patio.
Today, more than 3000 survive, many still inhabited usually by a single clan and open to visitors. They are surprisingly comfortable to live in as they are warm in winter and cool in summer. They were built to last.
The most notable tulous are lumped into various clusters in the vicinity of two cities – Nanjing and Yongding, 2 and 4 hours respectively by bus east from Xiamen. Neither town is attractive and it is recommended that if overnighting, you stay in a tulou. Most tulou offer accommodation that varies from very basic to modern with wi-fi, aircon and TV.
The hostel offered a tour to the area for 400¥ but I think most tours are expensive, have guides with mediocre English, often have uninspiring commentary and I think it is more fun to sort everything out myself. I walked 40 minutes from the hostel to the Xiamen Transit Hub on Huben St to catch the 08:30 bus that goes directly to the best cluster of tulous at Tianluokenu. This is the most convenient, cheapest and easiest way to see tulous as an independent traveler. It was 2 hours to Nanjing and then a 1½ hrs and 37km drive up a twisty mountain road to this set, arguably the most picturesque cluster of them all. Admission was 100¥ (50¥ if over 60). There are five tulous here close together – three round, one oval and one square. They are commercialized with knick-knack stalls, dried herbs and mushrooms and all kinds of food surrounding the central courtyards. The upper floors are closed. The outside walls are yellow, the roofs black tile and the inside all very nice wood construction. Rattan bowls and mats have all kinds of things drying in the warm sun. Travel between these three villages is by tourist buses (which were never available when I needed them), motorcycle taxis or by walking which is quite pleasant and I think the best way if you have time.
Three kilometers downhill is Yuchang Lou, with the tallest tulou in Fujian at five floors and 270 rooms. 300-years old, its pillars bend inward on the third floor and outward on the fifth floor. A Buddhist temple is in the middle of the courtyard.
Three kms from Yuchang Lou is the riverside village of Taxia with several tulou including an ancestral hall. I was attacked by a goose in the main tulou. Walk through the pretty village to catch a bus (six/day at 1½ hour intervals) back to Nanjing to get another bus back to Xiamen.
The whole day took almost 12 hours. There are obviously many clusters to see but basically, when you have seen one tulou, you have seen them all. There is little need to visit more than these three clusters.
There are only Chinese in my hostel and I saw no foreigners all day. Again most are sitting singly buried in their phones. Three are sitting giggling at the silly Chinese TV programming. Three are eating 15m away across the room. The open mouth chewing is clearly audible all that way.
Kinmen, Taiwan. A 153 square kilometer island, lying only 2km off the coast of Xiamen, it was contested by the mainland and Taiwan (bombed throughout the 1950s and 60s) for five decades until 1993 when martial law was lifted and the locals were allowed to travel between the mainland and Taiwan. In 2000, Taiwan lifted the ban on travel and trade with the mainland and ferry crossings have thrived since. Today it is developed and visitor friendly. War relics, lakes, a national park and beautiful villages dotted with temples and Fujian-style houses (ironically most demolished in the last 30 years on mainland). Bicycles are the best way to see the island.
A multiple-entry visa is required to return to mainland China. 18 ferries per day travel between Xiamen and Kinmen. There are flights to major cities in Taiwan.
I could find no high-speed trains south from Xiamen. As a result, I took the 16:40 sleeper train 13 hours south to Guangzhou in Guangdong Province.
GUANGDONG PROVINCE (pop 93 million)
Guangdong is on the far south east corner of China on the South China Sea. Guangxi Province with Guilin and Yangshou (and all its karst) are just to the west. Macau and Hong Kong are off its south border. This will be the last place I visit in mainland China.
It has relatively few tourist attractions and gets few foreign tourists. Northern Guangdong has some nice forests in Nanling National Forest Park but Guangzhou is not so interesting a place.
Lingnan Culture. Literally “South of the Ranges”, refers to that region to the south of the five mountain ranges that separate the Yangzi River (central China) from the Pearl River (south China). Traditionally Lingnan encompassed several provinces, but today, it is synonymous with Guangdong. The term was used as a polite reference to the ‘boonies. The northerners regarded their southern cousins as less robust and civilized. Lingnan offered refuge to people not tolerated in the Middle Kingdom such as the Hakka and Meizhou. This explains why some Cantonese words are closer to the ancient speech of the Chinese.
Its development was fuelled by the ideas of the revolution to end feudalism and an open-mindedness to modernity. For a long time in the Qing dynasty, Guangzhou was the only legal port for trade between China and the world infusing the local culture with the foreign and the modern. Some of the most important political thinkers in modern China came from Lingnan, such as Sun Yatsen.
Lingnan culture is an important part of Cantonese culture and it manifests itself most notably in food, art and architecture and Cantonese opera. The Lingnan School of Painting (1900-1950) artists studied abroad where they were exposed to Japanese and European art. They combined traditional techniques (recreating the landscapes of their childhood from memory) with realist painting, a bolder use of colors and a stronger sense of perspective, thus creating a style more accessible to the citizenry. Lingnan architecture is more decorative, uses stained glass and have elaborate indoor gardens. Cantonese opera uses elaborate face painting, glamorous period costumes and often high-pitched falsetto singing. Compared to northern opera, it features more scholars than warriors in its tales of courtship and romance. Cantonese cuisine depends on quick cooking over high heat and using very fresh ingredients. Seafood is important because of its location on the ocean.
History. Guangdong has had contact with the outside world for two millennia. The Romans appeared in the 2nd century AD. The Tang dynasty (618-907) had a sizeable trade with the Middle East and SE Asia. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in 1557, followed by the Jesuits. The British came in the 17th century with the East India Company ships calling at Guangzhou by 1665. Foreigners were restricted to Shamian Island and trade was in China’s favor until 1773 when the British unloaded 1000 chests of Bengal opium. Addiction spread like wildfire, eventually leading to the opium wars.
In the 19th century Guangdong was a hotbed of reform and revolt with Sun Yatsen sowing revolutionary ideas. Both the Nationalist and Communist parties had their headquarters here. It suffered greatly in the Cultural Revolution. After the implementation of the ‘open door’ policy in 1978, it was the first province to embrace capitalism. It is now a leading export center for consumer goods.
Language. The vast majority speak Cantonese, a completely different language from Mandarin with six tones (and arguably harder to learn).
Climate. Similar to the other subtropical provinces along the southern coast with hot humid summers and a high risk of typhoons. October to December is the best times to visit.
I couldn’t believe it that there were no high-speed trains between Xiamen and Guangzhou. At least none could be found on the train booking sites. All I could find were 13-hour sleeper trains leaving in the late afternoon and arriving in the early morning. This is one of the peculiarities of the booking systems. If there is a change of trains, no destinations are discoverable. After buying tickets, I was informed that the high speed train goes 4 hours from Xiamen to Shenzhen, on the coast very close to Hong Kong. The train changes there for the half hour trip northwest to Guangzhou. So I arrived at 05:30 in Guangzhou East Train Station, waited for the metro to open at 6 and went 6 stops to the Lazy Gaga Hostel.
I originally had no plans on coming to Guangzhou other than as a transit point as I had heard there is virtually nothing to see here. But as hotel prices in Macau were very high, I adjusted my plans and decided to stay overnight, see the watchtowers in Kaiping the next day and then head to Macau.
GUANGZHOU (pop 12 million)
Originally called Canton, it is China’s busiest transport and trade hub.
History. Since the Tang, it has been China’s most important southern port and the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road. It was a trading port for the Portuguese and British.
After China’s self-imposed isolation after 1949, the Canton Trade Fair was the only platform on which China did business with the West. The 2010 Asian Games held in Guangzhou resulted in major expansion of the city’s transport network.
Tourist sites are few. These are the ones I went to.
Chen Clan Ancestral Hall. This enormous compound with 19 traditional Lingnan buildings is an ancestral shrine to the Chen clan. It was built in 1894 by the Chen family, residents of 72 villages in Guangdong. All buildings have exquisite carvings, statues and paintings with ornate scrollwork. This was an amazing place. The brick, wood beam, and wood panel carvings were elaborate. The roof ridges viewed from the outside have exquisite ceramic and lime sculptures. The ivory gallery had some incredible carvings. Exporting ivory is illegal. China and Japan have been able to recently buy large amounts of confiscated ivory sold by African countries. Read my posts in the ideas section on ivory and the continued poaching of elephants. China’s war on endangered species is most severe in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province.
Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. It houses the tomb of Zhao Mo, second king of the 2000 year old Nanyue kingdom. He was sent south by the emperor in 214 BC to quell unrest and established a sovereign state with Guangzhou as its capital. It is one of China’s best museums. As the tomb was recently discovered when building an apartment building, it was intact. The museum displays the artifacts and the excavated tomb extremely well.
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Built entirely of granite, it has massive 48m tall twin spires. The gates were closed and I could not find the times of mass when visits might be possible. The stained glass windows looked great from the outside.
The Guangzhou Opera House is the biggest performance venue in southern China. It has an otherworldly appearance (glass panels knitted together to form subtle curves) and cost 1,300 million ¥. The inside is beautiful with 4,200 LED lights and Russian floor planks. When I went, there were tours only on the weekends and they said I needed an appointment for an English guide. So I only saw the outside with all its eroded panels.
Canton Tower. This is the world’s second tallest TV tower at 610m. The 150¥ admission gets you all the way to the top. Again I only saw this from across the river and ran out of time to get to it. The $25 cost was another deterrent to seeing views obscured by smog.
KAIPING AND DIAOLOU
I was up early the next morning (December 10th) to take the bus 140kms south west of Guangzhou to Kaiping (pop. 680,000). It is famous for diaolou (another Unesco World Heritage Site) – eccentric, multi-story watchtowers and fortified residences. Most were built in the early 20th century by villagers who had made their fortune working as coolies overseas. They brought home fanciful architectural ideas borrowed from Europe but took liberties with proportions resulting in outlandish buildings. They retain a tower-like form for the first few floors, then let loose with a riot of arches, balustrades, Egyptian columns, domes, cupolas, corner turrets, Chinese gables and Grecian urns.
In the mid-19th century, famine and revolt were common in Guangzhou. Slavery had been outlawed in most Western countries creating a need for cheap manpower. Unskilled workers from the Kaiping area were recruited by unscrupulous promoters promising good pay and working conditions. But in reality the men worked as coolies in deplorable conditions on the sugarcane fields of South America, farms in SE Asia or gold mining and railway construction in North America. Of the 9 million Cantonese who left home in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, many died but a handful made a fortune. They brought home wealth and exotic ideas that were assimilated into local culture.
The oldest were communally built by several families, each with a room where all the male members spent the night to prevent kidnapping by bandits or protection from flooding. These are narrow with sturdy walls, iron gates and ports meant for defense. The youngest were also watchtowers but equipped with searchlights and alarms and were located at the entrances to villages.
Of the original 3000 diaolou, 1833 remain. The best can be seen in two villages (admission including Li Gardens 180¥, half price for over 60s). The only reasonable way to get around is to hire a vehicle as they are spread out, there are no buses and I would have had to get individual taxis between each site anyway. And there are no taxis in this rural area. I haggled the price down to 250¥ for the three sites.
Zili, 11km from Kaiping, has 15 towers with a few open to the public. The most stunning is Mingshi Lou which has a veranda with Ionic columns and baroque embellishments, and a hexagonal pavilion supported by columns on its roof. Yunhuan Lou has four towers, each with embrasures, cobblestones and a water cannon. Shengfeng Lou was one of the few that had a European architect.
Jinjiangli, 20km from Kaiping has Ruishi Lou, at 9 stories the tallest, has fanciful painted designs and is topped off with a Byzantine-style roof and Roman dome. None of the diaolou were inhabited, but most had a full complement of furniture. Most of the floors had 2-4 bedrooms and a kitchen. One floor in each was devoted to a shrine.
Li Garden. This is a fortified mansion constructed in 1936 by a wealthy Chinese-American born in Chicago. The interiors feature Italianate motifs and delightful gardens with canals, footbridges and pathways.
I saw all the diaolou I wanted to and then took another bus 2 1/2 hours to Zhuhai, the town on the border with Macau to stay the night avoiding the expensive hotels in Macau. I stayed at La Casa Hostel on the 27th floor of an apartment building not far from the water. Views were tremendous out to the water and the mammoth causeway being constructed between Macau and Hong Kong. This was my last day in Mainland China and I’m looking forward to Macau and Hong Kong, getting rid of the VPN, and getting easy access to Gmail, Google, Facebook and YouTube. Bing, the Microsoft search engine, is a pain as it is so slow.