WHILE searching for Unesco Heritage Sites to visit on a recent trip to Xiamen, the photos of UFO-like structures kept popping up and fueled my curiosity to see them for myself.
It was not easy to find a tour that takes you there with a group, so a friend of ours hooked us up with a couple living in Xiamen – Peter and Jen – who offered to drive us there since they both had not been to the area themselves. Their company made everything a breeze since we did not have to struggle with the language barrier.
After a two-hour drive out of Xiamen city with views of a lush countryside filled with “tea terraces”, we arrived at the tourist center and followed our guide up the long, winding mountain roads.
So what are Hakka Houses really?
They are earthen-rammed houses built in the 12th to 20th century, functioning both as accommodation buildings and defensive structures. Most of them are dwelt in by several generations of a single large clan and may be circular or rectangular in design. A remarkable feature of each house is that it always has only one entrance. Windows are featured only from the third storey and above.
The first floor is used as a kitchen, the second floor consists of storehouses and the upper floors are living quarters. In the center is a courtyard where an ancestral hall dominates the area used for activities like worshipping, meetings, festivals, weddings, and funerals. Every Tulou is a society in itself and that is what amazed me to no end.
Our guide literally brought us to someone’s kitchen for lunch. As we sat there figuring out what to eat, we chose among all the vegetables surrounding us what to include in our pork or chicken dish. Here we were in such unpretentious surroundings having one of the best meals of our lives and all we needed to do was use WhatsApp to pay for everything– even vegetables from a street vendor!
Before we arrived in the village, the guide took us to the viewing deck, and indeed, the houses really did look like UFOs had landed in the valley below. As I stepped into one of the houses we visited, I was fascinated at how they seemed to go about their daily life oblivious to visitors milling around. Although commercialism has invaded their daily life in the presence of bottom-floor shops, the cottage industries still represented tradition - from the perfected art of making tea, to the careful rolling of cigarettes to the very dainty hand-painted handicrafts and souvenirs.
Just to sit there and observe them go about their day was a rare pleasure. I never realized there were so many variations of tea and could not help but smile when I saw vegetables being dried side by side with the day’s laundry. This was an experience that was priceless; I felt so honored to be allowed a peek into a lifestyle so beautifully-preserved, it made you feel like you had traveled back in time.