There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Tulous of Fujian: Part 11 of South East China

This a new post though it describes the events of the 22nd of  November 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.

After two poor breakfasts in Wuyishan, our slightly odd re-purposed apartment block hotel provided a fine Chinese breakfast. Fortified with vegetables, noodles, a tea egg, cake and fruit we set off with S for a lengthy journey into the interior.

We left Xiamen in drizzle, the tops of the tower blocks lost in the mist. The weather improved as we headed west along the motorway and by the time we stopped for a comfort break the rain had almost ceased.

To visit the Hakka communities we drove around 150km west from Xiamen
Leaving the motorway where the land became hilly we followed narrow roads that wound between tea plantations, banana groves and orchards of oranges and pomelos, the huge pomelos hanging from trees looking far too flimsy to bear their weight.

We paused at a banana stall where S bought some red bananas and some more normal looking bananas he said were ‘special’.
Buying unusual bananas, somewhere west of Xiamen
We scoffed the 'nanas as we drove deeper into the hills. The chunky red ones had a denser texture than ‘regular’ bananas but the flavour was the same, those described as ‘special’ had a more normal texture but tasted weirdly like apples - special indeed.
40 minutes later we were entering Fujian’s Hakka heartland. The Hakka are a Han Chinese group originally from the Yellow River Valley who migrated south to avoid war and famine. Many settled in scattered areas across southern China while others kept going and now make up a substantial proportion of the Chinese diaspora across south east Asia. There are estimated to be 30 million Hakka in China’s seven southern provinces (3 million of them in western Fujian) and maybe as many again living outside China.

The Chinese government, with their usual grim desire to regiment all tourism, have built an enormous office for the Tian Luokeng Scenic Area with parking space for hundreds of buses and countless cars. S popped in to buy tickets while we regarded the empty car park with satisfaction.
Tian Luokeng Scenic Area Offices
S had previously told us that he was not only Hakka but was born in this area, so first he took us to see an ancestor shrine…

Ancestor Shrine, Tian Luokeng Scenic Area, Fujian
…and then a forest. He referred to the trees as cedars, which looks doubtful to me, but this piece of ancient woodland clearly had some importance….
Old woodland, Tian Luokeng Scenic Area
Then he took us to the Tian Luokeng Toulu Cluster, the region’s main attractions.
The Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
‘Hakka’ means ‘guest’, though the Hakka have not always been welcome guests, particularly in Guangdong Province where the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars (1855-67) resulted in a million deaths. Defence, at least in the Fujian/Guangdong border region, was provided by tulous. Tulous (Lit: earth houses) were built with a single entrance and walls up to 2m thick to provide safe homes for as many as 80 families. Tian Luoken is one of the 46 clusters making up the Fujian Tulou World Heritage Site.
Walking down to the Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Tulous are unique to Fujian and we first heard of them on a previous trip from Fujian tourism advertisements. We had expected them to be museums of the 'how life used to be' variety. We had never imagined tulous to be fully functioning, living communities, but they most certainly are.
Just one door for the whole Tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian

We had a quick look inside the first one. Strangely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe, the building is divided like a cake into vertical wedges, each family occupying a slice with a room on each floor.
Inside a tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Then we took a walk through the village to the next tulou.

Walking through the village to the next tulou
Tourists are usually confined to the ground floor, but as we were the only visitors and half the residents seemed to be S’s cousins, we had privileged access. Looking down from the first floor we could see the shrine and the well - all-important in the event of a siege. The central area, now concreted over, was formerly used for growing crops for such emergencies.

Looking down from the first floor, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
The rooms contained little more than a wooden bed and a rough mattress. There is no piped water so night-soil buckets stand outside each door and these are taken out to the fields every morning and the contents used as fertilizer. I would not want to carry a full bucket down the steep and difficult stairs!

Lynne among the night-soil buckets, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
We ventured onto the top floor, because we could…

Top floor, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
…and observed the ground floor where almost every family had a stand-pipe, a sink and a gas bottle.
Stand pipe, sink and gas bottle, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Many families use their ground floor rooms to feed visitors and they have had a communal menu printed in Chinese and English. S introduced us to our cook for the day…
Posing with the chef, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
…and with his help we chose autumn bamboo with pork, preserved vegetables with fatty pork and tofu buns with mushrooms. That sounds like too much pork, but autumn bamboo and preserved vegetables are typical seasonal dishes and S thought we should try both along with the stuffed tofu, another Hakka speciality. S ate with relatives while we were served with a feast in solitary splendour.
Our excellent lunch, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Tulous may be round or square, but this cluster has only a single square one, and after our excellent lunch we went to see it. We were welcomed by one of S’s cousins who kindly gave us a passion fruit each from her stall.
S's smiley cousin in the square tulou, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
The square tulou is not really any different, except for the angle in the roof!
Inside the square tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Outside we watched the sole worker in the carefully terraced, night-soil fertilized November fields.
The sole worker in the night-soil fertilized fields, Tian Luokeng Tulou centre
Before taking a brief look in the oval tulou where the rains came down and the brollies went up.
Inside the wet oval tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
We left the Tian Luokeng Cluster, pausing only to photograph the tulous from below....


The Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster from below
...on our way to the Yuchang Lou Tulou, the biggest and oldest of them all and also the birthplace of S and his father.

Outside the Yuchang Lou Tulou, Fujian
Built in 1308, Yuchang Lou is five storeys high and is so big its shrine is a tulou within the tulou.
The shrine, Yuchang Lou Tulou, Fujian
It is famous for the zigzag struts in the top two storeys. S called it ‘China’s leaning tower of Pisa’, but unlike the oft referred to tower, it does not actually lean and the design was at least semi-intentional; after a measuring error it was cheaper and easier to put the struts at a slant than cut a whole set of new ones. It looks worrying, but has been that way for 700 years and not fallen down yet.
Zigzag struts, Yuchang Lou Tulou, Fujian
Uniquely each ground floor room has its own well.

Every ground floor room has its own well, Yuchang Lou Tulou
Unsurprisingly one of them served as a tea shop and, equally unsurprisingly, it belonged to another cousin. S brewed up local black tea and then a more flowery potion for us to try.

S demonstrates his expertise
Then he let the amateur have a go.
Any idiot can pour tea
S informed us proudly that in its long history the tulou had often been attacked, but never taken and outside he showed us the hole made by the Japanese in 1938 before they gave up and went away. Letting cold reality intrude for a moment, we had seen what Japanese artillery had done to Nanjing’s mighty medieval fortifications, and if they had really wanted to take the tulou they could have blown it to bits in an afternoon. I suspect they felt they could afford to leave it and move on.
War damage, Yuchang Lou tulou, Fujian
The Tulou does not exist in isolation and the village outside is inhabited by the same clan, the Liu.

The village outside the Yuchang Lou tulou, Fujian
Four ceremonial pillars stand outside the village temple. From the 9th century until 1905 entry to the civil service and its many lucrative positions was by competitive examination in Confucian principles (we visited a rebuilt examination centre in Nanjing). These examinations could be passed at County, Provincial or National Level and the pillars commemorate successful local candidates.

The examination successes of the Liu Clan
Following the river a couple of miles upstream brought us to Taxiacun (Taxia village), a large village where most of the building are 15th century tulous. All the façades on the left bank in the pictures below are the sides of rectangular tulous
On the bridge, Taxi, Fujian Province
It is picturesque place, a Chinese Bourton-on-the-Water, and I am sure it looks lovely in the sunshine, but we were just happy the rain held off (mostly).
Taxia
It is a good thing the road is lined with cat's eyes - in the dark it would be easy to drive into the river 
The Zhang clan of Taxia once had a feud (S called it a ‘war’) with the Liu of Yuchang Lou. A marriage had been arranged between a Zhang boy and a Liu girl but sadly, the girl died in an accident before the ceremony took place. Despite there being no wedding, the Zhang family demanded her dowry, a piece of land beside the Yuchang Lou tulou. The Liu found this unacceptable and violence followed. That is S’s version, and he is a Liu; maybe there is a slightly different Zhang version. The feud (or ‘war’) happened long ago, no one knows exactly when, but that does not mean it has been forgotten.
The Zhang temple has a magnificently fussy doorway in a land of fussy doorways. It features flowers, dragons and other mythical creatures, and what may or may not be a boat.
Temple Doorway, Taxia
The Zhang are more numerous than the Liu so they have a small forest of examination success pillars outside the temple beside a semi-circular pond.
Examination success pillars, Taxia
The time had come to return to Xiamen. It was a long way and the last part of the journey involved heavy traffic so we were not back in our hotel until 8.30. We spent two nights in Xiamen, but hardly saw the city as the next morning we made our way to the airport and then to Hong Kong…. from where the next series of posts will come.
At one point on this journey, in Hangzhou possibly, we were wondering if we had been to China too often and it was beginning to lose its fascination, but this trip kept the best to last. The tulous are unique, a still thriving link to a way of life so different from our own - for us easily the highlight of south east China.

South East China








First of the Hong Kong Posts
Jan 18

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Mexico City (1) Celebrating a Revolution: Part 1 of South West from Mexico City


17/11/2017

Heathrow - Mexico City flights are scheduled at almost twelve hours. Kind winds allowed us to leave a little late yet arrive early at 6.30pm (half past midnight British time). We made it through formalities and met Francisco who drove us to our hotel through heavy traffic as the country prepared for a three-day weekend celebrating the 1911 revolution when Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, among others, laid the foundations of modern Mexico.
Mexico
This journey will take us from Mexico City to Puebla, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de Las Casas and Palenque
We checked in, discovered we had been upgraded and by 9.15 sleep seemed irresistible. Visiting the bathroom my eye was caught by the bidet which had three controls and a variety of ways of hurling water upwards and I could not resist a fiddle - unwise in a state of advanced tiredness.
Well at least it's a nice big room
At the Casa Blanca, Mexico City (on the next day)
Water was soon swirling in a merry dance but as the level rose I found I could not stop the flow – one, or both, of the taps had a left-hand thread and working out which did what was beyond me. Then I discovered the fourth control, the lever that lifted the plug, didn't. The water level was rising steadily and whatever I did made things worse. I asked Lynne to phone reception and set about removing discarded clothes from the bathroom floor.
Water was now cascading from the bidet, Lynne's phone call was being resolutely ignored, and I was beginning to run round like a headless chicken. The apparently flat bathroom floor turned out to be subtly domed, water quickly collected a centimetre deep in one corner and would soon rise above the lip and start flooding the bedroom. Another desperate whack to the plug lever lifted it just enough for me to insert my fingernails underneath and prise it out. To my relief water started emptying faster than the bidet was filling and soon it was low enough to see the precise effect of twiddling the taps and I was able to turn it off.
Bloody, bastard bidet
Mopping up took until ten thirty; the drain being inconveniently set at the highest point of the dome. We finally collapsed into bed only dimly aware that the party next door was now in full swing.
By two o'clock our body clocks were adamant that it was time to get up and the continuing party thwarted all attempts to override this instruction. We had a cup of tea. The sound insulation room to room was good, the noise merely a burble but when participants felt the need to go out into the corridor their conversations might as well have been in our room.
Around four they ran out of stamina and we managed a couple of hours more sleep.

18/11/2017

In the morning we both felt better than we expected. Breakfast was good and I enjoyed my black beans and nachos with chicken and rice followed by tropical fruits, all soft and sweetly ripe.
Our hotel, Mexico City
We were to join a party for a guided 'market and street food' tour, meeting in the entrance of the Sears Tower, about a kilometre distant, at 10.30 so we took our time.

The Monumento a la Revolución was very near our hotel. Intended as a neo-classical home for the Federal Legislative Palace, building started in 1910 but was halted two years later by the revolution. In 1938 the completed first stage was adapted as a monument to the revolution that halted its building and it now contains the tombs of five revolutionary heroes including Pancho Villa. Transforming the core of a parliament building into a triumphal arch altered the neo-classical intention into something that has been described as Mexican socialist realism. Whatever the label, I think it’s ugly (sorry Mexico). At 75m high it is claimed to be the world’s highest triumphal arch, but please don’t tell Kim Jung Un, he would only have to make his bigger.
Monument to the Revolution, Mexico City
The bright sunshine - and corresponding heavy shadow – might have made photography difficult but had so far failed to warm the air. In the early morning Mexico City's 2250m elevation was winning out over its tropical latitude.
East of the monument we crossed Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city's main thoroughfares, into Av Juarez. Following Juarez for 500m brought us to the Sears Tower (though that is a generous use of the word 'tower'). Having reached our rendezvous half an hour early, we crossed the road to the ornate Palacio de Bellas Artes…
Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

… and from there entered Almeda Park past a statue dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven which might well have raised one of his shaggy eyebrows.
Beethoven monument, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
From the right it looks less like a man performing a sex act on a Beethoven-headed angel - but it is still weird

The park is a favourite place for the city's middle class to stroll among greenery, fountains and classical statues and equally popular among its less fortunate citizens who sleep on the benches, padded by cardboard boxes.
Almeda Park, Mexico City

The sunshine eventually worked its magic, the air became warm - and the temperature would remain comfortable until darkness fell.
Classical statues, Almeda Park, Mexico City
Returning to the rendezvous we waited as 10.30 came and went. At 10.50 we phoned our local agents who had arranged the tour though another company. The guide, it transpired, had called to inform them we had not turned up. After a series of text messages, we had the instructions to reach a place where we could meet the guide and join the rest of the group.
By 11.10 we were outside the Pulqueria las Duelistas, a venerable institution specializing in pulque, the fermented juice of the agave cactus (of which more in Oaxaca). Half an hour later we were still there and after a further exchange of calls and texts we gave up, with the promise of a refund. We had, presumably, been given the wrong meeting place or time.
Waiting outside the Pulqueria las Dualistas, Mexico City
We conducted a self-guided tour of the area, finding the handicraft market and lots of interesting food shops, but we failed to find the San Juan food market! We walked back towards Av Juarez through the Barrio China - even Mexico City has a Chinatown.
Chinatown, Mexico City
Back on Juarez it was lunchtime and, as luck would have it, we found ourselves outside a likely looking cerveceria. We ordered a tostado topped with octopus, tacos with prawns and a bean sauce and unspecified draught lager. Before our order arrived we were brought (gratis) several small discs of fried corn and three pots of salsa consisting mainly or entirely of pounded chillies; habanero, jalapeno and an unremembered third. Unlike other chilli loving countries we have visited - India, Thailand, and parts of China (among others) - Mexicans value chillies for their flavour as well as their heat, so they care about the variety. Our three little salsas each had its own flavour, the red one tasting strongly of sweet peppers as well as being ferociously hot. Surprisingly, most Mexican food is restrained in its use of chillies, but they have a huge variety of piquanté salsas and commercial preparations of bottled fire which they sprinkle liberally.
Lunch among the tacos, Mexico City
We enjoyed the salsa, and the tacos and tostada that followed, though sadly this was to be our high point for tortillas. We discovered that the various and ubiquitous products of corn masa (dough) were, for us anyway, difficult to digest, lying in the stomach like dead weights. This is a handicap when it comes to enjoying Mexican food as most meals and certainly anything that could be called a snack, involves discs of corn dough cooked soft or fried crisp with various toppings.
We had almost finished eating when we heard the sound of drums and marching bands, the wind instruments, mainly saxophones and clarinets, being blown with an intensity that is uniquely Latin American. It was the start of the parade celebrating the revolution, and it would clearly go on for a while so there was no need to rush outside to watch.
Some marched and played their instruments…,
Marching band, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
...some danced; there were girls twirling flamenco style dresses...
Dancers, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
...and boys with gruesome face masks recalling prehispanic times...
One lady seems unimpressed by the masks, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
..or perhaps just fancy dress.
Does this mean anything or are they just dressing up? Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
The paraders were mainly school or youth groups, each proceeded by a banner telling us who they were.
Here come the Halcones Dorados (Golden Hawks) from the city of Puebla
Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
Many were local, some came from other parts of Mexico and there were visiting groups from further afield.
Part of a visiting contingent from Bolivia
It did indeed go on for some time and we walked slowly down Av Juarez watching it all.
Some watch in comfort and get their shoes shined, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
The last group passed as we reached the Paseo de Reforma. From there it was a short walk back to our hotel and a much needed nap.
We felt no need for food that evening, though whether as a result of re-adjusting body clocks or the weight of the tacos I cannot tell. We did go for a walk, finding the temperature had fallen with the coming of darkness and it was noticeably nippy. In the plaza by the Monumento a la Revolución a fountain was shooting up random jets of water illuminated by coloured lights and children (and even some adults) were dancing in and out of the jets.
Two fathers with identical gestures urge their sons to get a soaking, Revolution Celebrations, Mexico City
It all looked good fun for a good-humoured crowd, but the children in soaking wet clothes must have been cold.
And having got the kids in the firing line, the dads stand well back, Mexico City Revolution Day.