The Travelers: Keary and Xiaoqing Liu and their sons Daniel and Evan, ages 7 and 5 at time of travel.
The Plan: The Liu family, along with some friends, flew to Xiamen where they rented a minivan and hired a driver for the four-hour trip to the Yongding area of Fujian province. There they spent the night in traditional Hakka homes made of mud and explored the local villages nearby. The Lius chose this destination because it allowed them to get a feel for village life, spend time with local residents, and view the unique architecture in the area. They also planned to visit the Liu family temple near the village of Fuyuyuan. The Hakka, which means “guest people” in Cantonese, refers to a group of Han Chinese from the north who gradually migrated south, settling in the mountains of Fujian province during the Tang dynasty. They hail from an agricultural background, speak their own dialect and have a distinct cuisine.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Fujian Hakka homes, known as Fujian tulou (土楼 tǔlóu), are beautiful examples of massive earthen buildings that house up to 800 people and are set against the backdrop of fertile mountain valleys. The Fujian tulou were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008 in recognition of the exceptional examples of traditional building styles and a unique type of communal living.
The Homes: The Hakka homes feature open courtyards in the center, surrounded by two to five floors of spacious rooms. The homes vary in size and each home is inhabited by anywhere from a couple of families to dozens of families, all from the same clan. Each village has several Hakka homes, or one big home, and a family temple. The name of the village is the family name.
The Family Temple: When Keary and her family were driving back to Xiamen, they stopped along the road to visit the Liu family temple. It was in a small, run-down old village near Fuyuyuan. Although the outside of the temple was in disrepair at the time, renovations were in progress. The Lius viewed tablets hanging on the wall that bore the names of the Liu family men from different generations. (Women’s names aren’t listed because they traditionally joined another village after marriage.) There are some Hakka homes where the same families have continually lived for more than 150 years.
Exploring Fujian: Daniel and Evan had a great time exploring the unusual style of accommodations. Local residents rent rooms out in their Hakka home, and the boys were able to wander through the many different rooms in the tulou. The kids felt like explorers walking around the warren of dim rooms, where they met residents eating, chatting and generally going about their lives; at one point they came across a room containing a family altar. Evan and Daniel also had a ball trying their hand at drawing water from the well in the center of the courtyard. The well was still in use as the main water source for the Hakka home and there was a pump attached to it for ease of use.
Nearby Villages: Keary, Xiaoqing and the kids drove to a couple of the nearby villages to check out different examples of traditional buildings. At one of their stops, Shangban Village, the family hiked up a hill to get a glimpse of “Four Dishes and One Soup,” one of the most well-preserved Hakka clusters in the area; seen from above, the homes resemble the meal they’re named after. There was plenty to see in Fujian province, and everyone enjoyed the outdoor exercise during the hike.
Village Life: Xiaoqing and Keary found that early morning was the best time to get a true window into village life. During their morning stroll, they walked with local children on their way to school and peeked into classrooms. The roads were mostly made of concrete or stone paths and were quite bumpy. Daniel and Evan watched the chickens and other animals being fed. For a bird’s eye view of the village, they headed for the many hills in the area.
Hakka Cuisine: The Lius found that the foods traditionally prepared by the Hakkas inside the home were notable for their range in texture. For example, stewed, braised and roasted meats are popular, each with a different mouthfeel. The cuisine is simple without a lot of extra garnishes or heavy flavors. Because the Hakka migrated to areas where Chinese people were already living, they sometimes had to settle on land that was less desirable and had experienced very cold winters and very hot summers. As a result, they favored preserved meats such as dried beef and pork.
During the Lius’ trip, the family mostly ate in their Hakka home. Meals typically consisted of basic Chinese food such as noodles, beef, chicken and rice, prepared Hakka-style. When the kids started to miss Western food, they headed for one of the more modern hotels in the area.
Accommodation: In Yongding, the Lius stayed one night in the Fuyu Building Hotel, located in Hong Keng village (059 7553 2800). The rooms were basic and had separate outdoor bathrooms that were relatively clean and scented by incense. Shower facilities were sparse.
In Xiamen, travelers can pick from several chain hotels near the ferry terminal, and a stay can be easily arranged by a travel agent before you leave Beijing. The Lius stayed in a moderate hotel for two nights. For an excursion near the hotel, the Lius took the kids for a walk in the park along the flower-lined waterfront.
Customized travel arrangements can come together quickly through a travel agent (see Directories p69); the Liu family was happy with China Holiday Tours in Beijing. The area has become more popular with travelers since its selection as a UNESCO site, and it is now possible to take packaged tours with local agencies.
Making a Connection: Although a bit inconvenient at times, trekking outside to reach the bathroom provided a memorable moment for Keary. One evening, after unbarring the heavy doors to go outside, she sat down on a bench where an elderly Hakka lady was resting. The two women came from completely different backgrounds, but ended up chatting about the weather, travelling with children, and being married to Chinese men. The woman had lived more than 60 years in the village. She poured Keary a cup of tea, and the two enjoyed a pleasant moment underneath a canopy of stars.
Xiamen: Taking a ferry to Gulang Island (Gulangyu) from Xiamen was a highlight of the trip. Gulangyu is an old diplomatic concession and contains many interesting examples of colonial architecture, mostly in the European style, with large columns and decorative facades. No cars are allowed in this walking village. The Lius found it easy to wander around the island on their own with just a map. They came across an old Catholic church with Christmas trees on the front lawn and a small manger scene. For other fun activities around Xiamen, travelers can try lounging in the hot springs, visiting caves or the botanical garden, and tasting the tea that Fujian province is famous for.
When to Go: Traveling south from Beijing during the cold months of December and January is a good idea; the weather in Fujian is cool but pleasant in late December. Keary recommends dressing in layers, as the temperature changes with your proximity to the ocean and the mountains. The breezes coming off the water bring a chill to the air, while on the other hand, temperatures rose quite a bit in town at midday.