I know what you are expecting. The name Dragon Boat Festival says it all: long, narrow boats laboured across lakes and rivers in pursuit of being the first one to cross the finishing line. And indeed, if I had stayed in Hangzhou with the thousands of other Chinese locals and visitors, those might have been the images I captured. But having experienced the throng of the masses during the first of my ‘long holidays’ here, I thought it best to plan an escape and leave the sights of Hangzhou behind. What chance would I really have stood to make it to the front of the crowd to take the coveted pictures??
As it happened, I found out about a travel organisation which caters for the likes of us, ex-pats: time starved and travel hungry trying to squash seeing China into the meagre weekends at our disposal.. Or being tempted further afield by neighbouring countries with pristine beaches, endless azure seas and skies, exotic vistas barely touched by tourism. But with only a short while to the three day break, the more extravagant trips had long been snapped up and I was left to explore Tulou country, an area in the Fujian Province, close to Xiamen, renowned for its unique fort-like circular buildings designed by the Hakka minority as large fortresses and living spaces in one. Maybe not my favourite destination, but with Western company guaranteed, it certainly beat the prospect of a swarming Hangzhou …
We left on Thursday, a day almost entirely eaten up by a very, very long train journey. Although we may only have moved a pin prick on the map of China, it took us 8 hours to reach our destination, or at least the train station where we all met and then transferred onto our bus to carry on our journey, onto the Tulou – part of yet another UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site – where we stayed for the night. I suppose the prospect of spending the night in ‘ancient Chinese mud castles’ had its charms. Luckily rooms had been upgraded with mod cons such as fans and sockets to ensure phones and camera batteries could be charged… and of course satellite dishes to guarantee access to what goes on in the rest of the world. And there was hot water in the shower…although the wiring probably would not have passed any safety regulations in the western world!
With precious little time to waste, the weekend was crammed with activities. A quick glance around the Tulou after allocating rooms, and then a delicious dinner was followed by sampling local teas, some more delicate and aromatic than others and the more drinkable and delectable ones definitely extremely expensive. But it was interesting to watch the tea ceremony and rituals: the washing of the delicate cups carefully held and handled with tweezers; the tea being poured unhurriedly; endless cups of fragrant tea perfumed by just a minuscule amount of tea leaves and flowers used over and over again..
On Saturday we explored the surrounding Tulous, mostly circular buildings dating from between 960 AD to as recent as 1949 and marvelled at the mud and wooden structures and the circular perfection.
We took silly pictures near the pillars erected to commemorate the chiefs of the villages and walked between the Oolong tea terraces to get great views of the valleys. We hiked in the drizzle, and the rain and downpours, and delighted in locally grown coffee.
On Sunday we made our way to Gulangyu, an island with a long colonial history, just off Xiamen. After China lost the first Opium War, sometime in the mid 19th century, 13 countries including Great Britain, France and Japan established consulates, churches, and hospitals and the island is now famous for its classical and romantic European-style architecture. Not that there was much on show for us… As so many Chinese places of interest, Gulangyu is vying for the ‘UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE’ accolade, just another one to add to the already long list of sites. And as the inspection is looming next year, no efforts are spared to spruce up the joint. Buildings of interest are wrapped in scaffolding, narrow paths and roads are broken up with clouds of dust settling on the street food, and the crowded beach is still littered with debris… Maybe we just came about 12 months too early to revel in the legacies of colonialism.