All night on a rickety Chinese bus. Narrow bunks had been installed along the walls, but sleep was still hard to get. Not only were the roads potholed and ragged, but the driver had also sped around corners and crunched through the gears. At one point during a hairpin turn I needed to brace myself to avoid being thrown out of my bunk. The little sleep I got was filled with dreams of a bus hurtling over a bridge to nowhere.
Worse, when we staggered out of the bus at dawn, we realised we weren’t even there yet. After a breakfast of noodles, we boarded another vehicle, a clapped-out minivan, for a more sedate albeit windy journey through hilly terrain to the small town of Hukeng, in the province of Fujian.
It was an uncomfortable trip; boring when it wasn’t frightening. But only by travelling this way could we see some of the treasures of rural China. Hukeng is home to an architectural oddity, enormous and ancient earth houses that are perfectly round. I had learned of these by accident while searching for something else on Wikipedia. But the round houses, called tulou, were more than just an idle internet discovery. They are the traditional dwelling places of a Chinese ethnic group called the Hakka.
Originally from northern China, the Hakka had moved south where they faced persecution from the locals. This tension led to the development of the round house, a defensive structure that could house the entire extended family, as well as animals. Rooms were set into the walls like cells, while at the centre was a courtyard that doubled as a meeting place and area for a well and for storing food. With water and food safely inside, a tulou could resist a siege for long periods.
Generations of Hakka lived and died within the strong walls of the tulou. Maybe that protection was necessary for a group known for its controversial figures. Famous Hakka include revolutionary Sun Yat-sen; Singapore’s first president, Lee Kuan Yew; and Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping. Not so famous Hakka include my partner and her father’s family – members of Malaysia’s sizeable Hakka population. So, having whiled away an afternoon reading up on tulou and their place as symbols of the Hakka people, there was no chance a visit would be left off our China itinerary, no matter how hard it was to get to them.
Although the town of Hukeng is popular with Chinese and Japanese tourists, it doesn’t get large numbers of visitors. A Japanese man and ourselves were the only foreigners on that minivan into town, and the only guests at a small family-run hotel. With all the rooms at our disposal, we chose one on the top floor. It meant hiking up steep steps every day, but offered a view of one immense round house.
The tourism potential of these unique structures has not gone unrecognised by the town’s authorities. Their approach has been to build a ticket booth at the start of a historic area containing several fine examples of the tulou and to charge admission. We duly paid and went walking in the area. Its sightseeing status hadn’t affected the residents, and they went about their business as people wandered by to gawk at their homes. The lived-in round houses were spectacular places. Red lanterns lined balconies. Children played in courtyards and animals wandered in and out of the massive structures. At one, an old lady took a shine to my partner and, demonstrating the inside well, pumped water and offered a towel so she could cool off on this hot summer day.
Although the distinctive architecture was the drawcard, we also found ourselves observing the slow routines of the town. History was all very well, but the daily reality of rural China was around us. Women washed laundry by the river. Chickens strutted among vegetable gardens while young people zipped about the dusty roads on motorcycles.
We also spent time with our hosts at the hotel – young newly-weds with in-laws in tow. It wasn’t long before curiosity overcame deference and we were at the family table enjoying home cooking and making conversation with our phrasebook as the go-between. When the time came to leave Hukeng, we swapped email addresses before running to catch the same clapped-out minivan that brought us here.
Settled in for the long journey back, we took in our last glimpses as the van wound through the village. On the side of the road, a crowd had gathered around a dead water buffalo spread out on the pavement. One man braced the head with his foot as he carved meat from the neck. No one looked up as we drove past. Life went on in the shadow of the round houses, just as it had for centuries before. We left the valley, pleased we had taken the long bus trip to get there, that we had given up some comfort to see the houses of the Hakka.