I think you should not go, but then you have to balance the pros and the cons before deciding for yourself. They are UNESCO World Heritage Sites after all, but that does not assure that they would not bore the hell out of you. Or maybe I just prefer majestic ruins? Or not. In any case, there are many of them spread out in a certain area of Longyan, and booking a tour is your best option unless you have your own car. That is if you want to visit more than one. I specifically booked Nanjing Tulou. You know, that with a square one in the middle but I ended up at Hakka Tulou anyway, which was not as bad. I guess. Fine! Rant later, directions for now.
Is doing a DIY tour possible? Yes. How? To reiterate, it would be better if you had a car. This is the best option because you would be controlling everything from your time to the places you want to visit. But since not all of us drive, and perhaps those who do would not really want to try it in a foreign land, then the next best option is to book a tour. This is for people who do not have the luxury of time. At 188 yuan, the tour fee was a bit steep but I imagined how expensive the three-hour taxi ride would be going back to Xiamen if I got lost, which is something that is not far from happening. What happens in this tour? You sure you want to know? Read on.
If you are lodged in XiaMen International Youth Hostel, you pay at the reception and the receptionist would then phone someone from the tour group to confirm if there are vacant slots. Yes, the tour is quite popular among Chinese from different parts of the country. You are bound to find some fellow foreigners here and there but they are not as abundant as they would be if, for example, we were in Bangkok or Siem Reap. You then go to one of the pick-up points at 7:30 AM the next morning. Mine was at Ligong Xueyuan, which was a mere five minute walk from the hostel.
I tried to get into the first tour bus I saw but I was not listed on their travel manifesto. Nice. Could there have been a mistake? I waited for another fifteen minutes when another tour bus came, a woman went out and asked me “Philippines?” to which I immediately said yes because I was the only one waiting there by the time they arrived. The bus looks comfy, but wait until you are forever going uphill once in Longyan. Even the most comfortable bus has nothing against paved roads that still, strangely, make it feel as though you are driving on the surface of the moon. You could try to get some sleep along the way like I did, but all I got out of it was a terrible headache.
It takes around three hours to get to the stopover where lunch will be served. Being the insufferable noob that I was, I made sure to arrive at one of the tables first because I was hungry and everyone else also seemed to be. To add to the paranoia, they all looked competitive, haha! I ended up at the wrong table and got transferred to another one, which meant all the good stuff had already been taken so I had to settle for rice. Rice power! I also wish it was just a coincidence but no, they DID NOT serve drinks. Make sure you bring your own bottle of water. You would not want to wager your life on a bet that someone from your group would at least know how to do the Heimlich if you choke on your lunch out of excitement. The main entrance to the Tulou area is around half an hour away from those eateries. The lunch is included in the package, by the way.
Given my very poor Mandarin skills, I did not really understand what the tour guide was announcing every time her voice roared out of her megaphones. All I remember is that people were being shuttled to different locations, and I ended up at Hakka Tulou instead of Nanjing Tulou. Whatever. Beggars cannot be choosers, right? I just went with the group and with the flow. We were given tickets and they were trying in vain to explain something to me in English. I just feigned understanding so we could all move on. As the resident tour guide conducted the tour in Mandarin, I just kept myself busy taking photos and videos.
The thing about being part of a tour group is that you really could not decide if you want to get ahead of the pack, or behind it. Perhaps getting ahead is the best thing to do because at least you would be sure that they will be the ones following you. Besides, if you do not understand what the tour guide is saying anyway, there is no point listening to her. Agree? Unfortunately, I always lagged behind, which meant there was always a cameo appearance from someone in the group in the videos and pictures that I was taking. I guess I was just having this illusion that my Mandarin would progress that fast if I focused on every word the tour guide said.
There are two or three round Tulou in the area, and two of them you are going to explore inside! The interior design resembles the set used in that Kung Fu Hustle movie starring Stephen Chow. The basic setup is that the outside walls are made of concrete, or whatever substance that is. Brick. Clay. Asphalt. Suffice it to say that they look exquisite because of that. Once inside, you will notice that wood is the dominant material of choice. The outer layers are where the rooms and establishments tend to be, while the inner circles are reserved for washrooms and kitchens, although this is not really a hard and fast rule on the architecture inside. This is true for the second round tulou we got into. The first one was simpler in that there were no inner circles to speak of. Instead, what seemed to be a courtyard occupied the space at the center.
I personally liked the second tulou because the maze that the inner circles formed as you go closer to the center was cool. It is its own labyrinth, and that very fact adds to the place’s unique charm. That and the red lanterns scattered all over the place, which looked cool next to the brown wood. Touts would be hounding you inside for souvenir photos taken from a higher vantage point, which shows you inside the tulou while also highlighting the structure of the place. You see, everything is more aesthetically pleasing to look at from above, although I would argue that the place is just equally impressive if you stay on the ground and gaze up. In the end, I would conclude that the tulou is just the simpler ancestor of the modern low rise condominium, except that people make a big deal out of them because they look peculiar.
I decided to break free from the tour group to try my hand at a bit of camwhoring. Very bad decision! I lost the tour group, and fearing that I might get left behind in that village, I decided to go back to the bus and just wait there, even if I knew I could have taken a chance and went up the viewing deck obviously located at a higher point on the hills. And so I did not get to see the tulou group from an elevated vantage point, which is one of the reasons why I decided to go there anyway. I did ponder on it though and came to the realization that having regrets was moot. Besides, what was I to do once I get up there? Take a picture? There are photos all over the Internet, and my cheapo camera phone would surely not contribute anything substantial to the collection. Or perhaps what I lost was the chance to get awestruck by the view. Besides, there is always a difference between seeing the picture and seeing the real thing.
I guess I will never know, because I have no plans of going back there. By the way, if you want to do a DIY tour, better just ask your guesthouse for instructions. You could go there by public bus or train, but I would have to warn you that there is no public transportation within the area, and walking would be far too tedious for you to even bother. Wikitravel says that you could hire some motorcycles along with their drivers for around 100 yuan a day. I was not able to test this theory, so do not bank on it. When in doubt, just book the tour. It is boring, but it saves you from all the trouble.
XIAMEN: 01 - Xiamen International Youth Hostel