Inland from Xiamen: The Earth Houses of Yongding

About 205km (128 miles) inland from Xiamen, Yongding is a heartland of the Hakka people -- Han who migrated south from near Kaifeng in five waves beginning more than 1,000 years ago, and who were kept moving around southern China by civil war, famine, and discrimination by earlier Han arrivals. They often ended up with the worst farming land on the highest ground. Unlike other Han, their women did not bind their feet and worked alongside men in the fields, and so tended to marry only other Hakka. They also maintained what they claim is something close to early Chinese but is unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, and Min Nan Hua.

Now an officially recognized minority, known as the Kejia or "guest people," their long exile and continued sense of being outsiders has produced both tangible and intangible benefits for visitors. The Hakka claim to be more hospitable to outsiders than other Chinese, but the need to protect themselves against others has produced the magnificent multistory fortresses called tulou or "earth buildings," some home to hundreds, all sharing a single family name.

The tulou are spread around nearly 50 counties on the Guangdong-Fujian-Jiangxi border. The concentration easiest to reach, and nowadays the most commercialized, is at Hukeng, where a bus will drop you right outside the ticket office, although you will need to transfer buses at least twice if traveling from Xiamen. A fee of ¥60 includes access to four officially open major tulou and another containing a museum, although no one seems to mind if you wander in anywhere else. Helpful English signs are quite common, and a primitive hotel is in the middle of the village (summer only), but you would be better off having the full experience by staying in an actual tulou. Residents with rooms to let (typically for ¥20 or so) will persistently approach you, as will motorbike and sanlunche owners wanting to take you to other villages.

The vast fortresses nestle together on either side of a river in a narrow green valley, and in autumn their khaki tones have splashes of color as crops of plums and persimmons are spread out to dry on flat surfaces. The "earth" is in fact a tamped mixture of sand, lime, and dirt, giving the walls a textured surface. The best-known building is the marvelous circular Zhencheng Lou of 1912, consisting of an outer four-story ring with each floor divided into 44 rooms and two halls; an inner, two-story ring divided into eight sections; and two tobacco workshops outside, bringing the total number of rooms to 222. As with other tulou, windows to the outside world begin two stories up. Balconies run around the interiors, providing access and light. The inner ring joins at a hall for worshiping ancestors, marriage ceremonies, greeting distinguished guests, and other events. What used to be authentic living space has largely been replaced by tacky souvenir shops selling the same junk as Yangshuo and Li Jiang.

The battered Huanxing Lou is not an official sight, but it dates from around 1550 and is the oldest in this village. It has walls more than 1.8m (5 ft.) thick, and two sets of vast and heavy wooden doors, the first secured by a set of wooden beams, and the second by stone ones. The squealing of tussling pigs reveals that the inner ring retains its original use, but it has gaps caused by past flooding. An earthquake a century ago also destroyed one section of the outer ring, and another has lost its inner surface and interior floors. A hole through one section was blasted during the Taiping Rebellion. One resident claims that the occupants, numbering 500 only 20 years ago, could survive for a year under siege. There are still 200 residents, all called Li. Persimmons, plums, and vegetables hang out to dry over the balconies of the upper stories, having been washed in the stream outside. The ground floors contain the kitchens, the rooms above are for storage, and the upper two floors are for living and sleeping. But there are few people around under 40 -- they've already left for accommodations in the new town, or become part of the drifting migrant economy of 150 million or so.

Tulou also come in half-moon, pentangle, "five phoenix," and other shapes. The square, fortresslike Kuiju Lou, dating from 1834, is, at 6,000 sq. m (64,583 sq. ft.) even bigger than the circular buildings. It has an interior of brick and wood more like that of a conventional mansion. The 7,000-sq.-m (75,347-sq.-ft.) Fuyu Lou of 1880, whose residents are all called Lin, has multiple axes and a five-story earthen tower at the rear. Its beams and pillars are beautifully carved, and it also has some fine inlaid screens, as well as a teahouse and rooms to let.

The last official tulou (although residents don't mind if you wander into several others) is the charming Rusheng Lou, built sometime between 1875 and 1908. It's a single 23m (63-ft.) diameter ring-shaped dollhouse in comparison to the others, which have three stories each of 16 rooms. Finally, the museum occupies a rectangular tulou, where the music of traditional instruments echoes around the two floors of one courtyard, given over to displays of tobacco knives, tools used in building, and photographs of festivals and other tulou that may have you planning trips to other villages. You may see dried persimmons being roasted and pressed into cakes -- a local specialty called shibing.

Getting There -- The best route is by bus from Xiamen, first to Longyan (4 hr.; ¥72) every 45 minutes from 7am to 6:30pm, and then by Iveco minibus to Hukeng (13 departures; 2 hr.; ¥20) from 7am to 4:50pm. Bear in mind that buses for Longyan depart from the Hubin Bus Station in Xiamen. There is a free shuttle bus (no. 816) to Hubin Lu from the more popular Songbai Bus Station. There is a free shuttle bus from Hukeng to the main entrance of the Earth Houses. There are limited train services to Yongding, 37km (37km/23 miles) and by minibus (¥7) from modern Hukeng, and then a short taxi ride to the old town. But timings are highly inconvenient. The roundhouses are particularly popular with Japanese tourists, and so for those seeking a more comfortable alternative we recommend one of the companies used regularly by the Marco Polo in Xiamen. The example schedule includes 2 days and 1 night. If you should get stuck in Hukeng, try the standard business hotel Xing He Bing Guan, Hu Xing Bei Lu, near Zi Ning Bridge, Hukeng Zhen (tel. 0597/553-1355; ¥80). A far better alternative is to stay in one of the Earth Houses themselves such as the Ke Lai Deng Hotel (tel. 0597/553-5286;

Tours -- Guided tours are available; following are two recommended agencies. For two to three travelers, the Xiamen Overseas Tourist Co China (tel. 0592/212-7638, 0592/212-7738, or 0592/213-4038; charges flat fees for transportation from Xiamen (¥1,600), a guide (¥300), and guesthouse accommodations (¥250 per room). Meals cost ¥50 per person per meal, and entry to the tulou costs about ¥100 per person. Rates do not apply for Spring Festival, National Day, or the Labor Day holiday. Ask for Mr. Liu Jingwe or Ms. Huo Lufang when booking.

The Xiamen C&D Travel Agency (tel. 0592/211-0294) offers a similar package that costs ¥1,400 per person and includes transportation, guesthouse accommodations, guide, and meals for individuals or groups smaller than 10. Contact Ms. Zeng for more information.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Owners of lodgings will find you, and you get what you pay for. Insist on clean bedding, but expect a single light bulb, a thermos of boiling water, and a chamber pot to be the sum total of facilities. Make careful note of the locations of the pit toilet and a tap with running water, both down at ground level, before it gets dark. Simple food will be offered, to be eaten in the ground-floor room. Three plain dishes, cooked over wood fires, will cost around ¥20. Take supplementary snacks from Xiamen. After dark it's eerily quiet, especially in the now sparsely inhabited Zhencheng Lou. Lin Hongyuan (tel. 0130/6245-7844) is among those with rooms there; Lin Qinming also has rooms at the Fuyu Lou (tel. 0130/6245-7844). Slightly less basic accommodations can be found in the new town 5km (3 miles) away.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.