We use the weather app as an oracle and agree that Xiamen has just the right amount of sun we are looking for. It’s that draggy period between Christmas and New Year’s, and though restrictions were lifted a couple of weeks ago Shanghai is still anything but normal. People are staying home, either recovering from the current Covid wave, or trying to avoid it.
It takes 5 hours to get to Xiamen via the high-speed train. Eerie how similar it is to the last time I took the train to Xi’an in 2017. Cup noodles is still China’s official train meal — its smell perpetually lingers in the air. At twilight, abandoned building complexes flash by our windows, hollowed out like skeletons, their gaping windows glowing bluish-black against the violet sky. Just clumps and clumps of them, rising like trees in a forest. It’s a hint at the magnitude of this country, its resources, its endless manpower. People built them. Nobody came. And people abandoned them.
After a day in the city, it’s a 3-hour car ride to Fujian. In Chuxi village, we visit our first tulou (literal translation is earthen building), circling its round rammed-earth exterior first before entering the single gate that opens up to the courtyard. Typical tourists, we make a slow 360° turn on our heels, and take in the inward-facing dwellings that line the building’s entire diameter. People still live here —tulous used to house entire clans since they were constructed in the 15th century— and, save for glimpses of a tired-looking washing machine or a phone charger sticking out a wall, it’s entirely possible that little has changed in their rhythm of life; that the old woman sitting in front of a doorway, absentmindedly patting a dog’s head while smoking and watching us from the corner of her eye, is possibly a descendant of this community’s former clan chief.
The village’s most famous tulou is emptied of occupants and catered to tourists. Except for a sleepy-looking guard checking tickets, it’s devoid of people. Because it’s uninhabited, we are able to climb the steep rickety stairs up two, three, four levels. Several rooms host a mini-museum, and we squint at the pixelated photographs of tulou life and read the printed English information that’s come straight off a translation app.
To get the full experience, we spend the night in a converted tulou B&B. While we confirmed the existence of a wall heater in the room before booking, we should have asked if it actually worked. We spend the night in our winter jackets and curl up into question marks for warmth, sleeping very little. In the morning we are served breakfast in the central courtyard… outdoors. The hotel’s resident golden retriever (very chonky), who has earned this place 5-star reviews on the Dianping app for his mere adorable existence, parks himself next to us, smiling and panting and drooling, accepting our hugs. An old woman shuffles towards us with a bowl of steaming plain congee, then gives us each a partitioned bamboo tray with small food portions: dragonfruit, steamed buns, melons, pickled vegetables, a hard-boiled egg, a carton of soy milk. The congee is hot, burns our tongues, warms us up. For this alone it’s the best congee I’ve ever had.
After the tulou circuit, we head back to Xiamen for New Year’s eve. We turn up our room’s heat, doze in the bath, don the fluffy robes and slippers. The buildings around our hotel are kitted out for the occasion, their facades displaying extravagant light shows. We order room service and later on gorge ourselves on the hotel’s seafood buffet offerings. We almost forget the freezing nights and open-air breakfasts. It had been fun, for a few days. In the end, though, we are but creatures of comfort.
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