We went on a wonderful trip that was organized by SACS (Shenzhen Asia Cultural Society). There were 20 of us including couples, friends and 7 children. We started by taking a sleeper train from Shenzhen, Luohu train station that left at 9:30pm Friday night. We slept in the ‘hard-sleeper’ car which was a series of bunk beds 3 high. The beds had a thin mattress that had a bit of give – not as hard as I was expecting in China. Since there weren’t individual doors to separate each compartment of 6 bunks, some resourceful women (Maryanne MacCartney & Celia Fisch) had brought shower curtains and string to hang them up to provide us with more privacy. It was the perfect touch. The lights went out at 10:30pm and we set our alarms to wake us at 4:30am so we could get off at our stop in Yong Ding at 4:50am. We slept until 4:20am (waking up a couple of times for intermediate stops of the train) when I was awakened by frantic train attendants talking loudly worried that we’d miss our stop. It was all very exciting, but no harm done since it was only 10 min. before our scheduled alarms anyway.
Our bus and tour guide were waiting for us at the train station where we drove 1 hour to a local village and stopped for breakfast. We missed the turn off for our restaurant a few minutes back and rather than turn around, we chose to stop at the local town and eat the snacks that everyone had brought on our trip “just in case”. We had milk, cereal, fruit, granola bars, and even coffee and instant oatmeal after borrowing some hot water and bowls from the locals. It was all quite exciting (for them and us) and provided a glimpse into their life that we’d never have seen on a normal tour.
We then bounced along the winding, hilly road another 30 min. gazing at Hakka styled homes and terraced fields growing rice, taro, corn and tobacco. When we arrived at the cluster of famous Hakka roundhouses we found ourselves in a beautiful setting. We walked up a nearby hill to get a great view of the round houses, square houses, stream running in front and the terraced fields behind.
The houses, mostly built between the 1300s and 1960s, were designed to deter outsiders and wild animals. Starting around A.D. 300, wars, famine and persecution drove Chinese in north and central China to flee southward. These migrants became known as “ke jia” or Hakka, meaning “the guest people,” by unwelcoming natives.
In southern Fujian, the Hakka settled in the mountains and created insular homesteads like the covered-wagon circles of America’s pioneers, with rooms facing an open-air common space. They’re at least three stories tall, and their outer walls are three to five feet thick. The entrance is a wooden slab sheathed in iron. Windows are tiny and only on the upper floors. Most ingenious are the walls — a mixture of soil, lime, pebbles and wood chips held together by soupy glutinous rice and brown sugar, pounded into impregnability, giving the structures their name, “tulou,” or “earthen building.”
After that, we visited the small ancestral hometown of the creator of “Tiger Balm”. The huge villa-turned-museum he built as an adult was only filled with photographs of people and such, but wandering through the small lanes in the village and meeting a local family ended up quite nice. While the group was headed to see an ancestral temple, I had stopped to watch what a local woman was doing in the courtyard of her home. In true Hakka-style friendliness, she motioned me in. Celia and I got to go in and watch her preparing the leaf ties for the dragon-boat festival zong zi (sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves).
Lunch took us to a nearby town where we ate the local dish of pork slices that tasted similar to Texas BBQ and also a familiar German dish. Late afternoon we drove 3 hours to Xiamen and were happy to check into our hotel and shower up before dinner which had great green beans, shrimp, tofu and eggplant dishes.
Sunday morning it was off to the small, quaint Gulangyu Island off the coast of Xiamen Island. No cars or bicycles are allowed on the island – only electric golfcarts. This made for a very serene, lovely environment. You can take a ferry directly to the island or a 40-min. one that circles around the island before docking. There are many rich villas on the island of 20,000 residents and there are almost 600 pianos. The Piano Museum houses a collection of approx. 70 pianos owned by a Chinese man living in Australia. There is even a corner piano with a keyboard in the shape of a right angle. Gulangyu once housed This was once the only gate into ‘closed’ A walk to see all the detailed architecture of the various buildings on the island was another highlight.
After Gulangyu Island, it was off to a big seafood lunch – typical of coastal Xiamen. The afternoon was spent visiting the large and famous Buddhist Nanputuo Temple. It boasts many beautiful rock formations, old pine trees, pavilions, lotus ponds, pagodas and halls. With steps behind each hall leading to the next, it made a great place for the kids to explore. Evening found us headed to the airport where we had a one hour flight back to Shenzhen. We made close friends with others in the group and even did karaoke on the bus microphone to pass the time – it’s a trip we’ll always remember. I’m grateful to Mary Ann and Celia who planned the trip down to the small details and took us to the Hakka roundhouses that we never would’ve seen on our own.