With over 5,000 years of history, where does one begin when it comes to exploring the culture of the Land of the Red Dragon? As the development of civilisation requires expanding infrastructure to house a growing population, a good place to start is with one of the most basic physiological needs: shelter.
Fujian Tulou (Southwestern Fujian, between Yongding and Nanhing Counties)
A tulou, or “earthen building”, is a traditional circular building that was once not only home to the Hakka people, but also served as a fortress and marketplace. Although most earthen buildings are circular in shape, there are also square ones, known as sijiaolou (four-corner building).
Built between the 12th and 20th centuries, UNESCO World Heritage included the 46 earthen buildings for their innovation and harmonious relationship with their environment for over 7 centuries. To serve its original purposes of communal living and defense, tulou are built such that the first two floors serve as functional spaces such as kitchen and grain stores, while the third to fourth floors are bedrooms.
The shape of the building allows for an all-round defence to fight off land-hungry neighbours and armed bandits as its walls are able to withstand cannon shots. Furthermore, tulou only have a single iron-plated wooden door. The walls of Yongding tulou are made from a fermented mix of sticky rice, lime, egg white and clay, while the base is made of stone. The best places to visit these are in the three main clusters in Fujian: Nanjing, Yongding and Hua’an.
There are tulou homestay packages, inclusive of meals, transport, and entrance fees. There are also inns within the tulou itself, with traditional furniture, basic amenities, and in some, a common bathroom.
Zhaoxing Village (Guizhou Province)
Zhaoxing is one of the largest of the Dong villages, with 800 houses made of Chinese fir with blue tiles.
Zhaoxing is characterised by 5 elaborate- ly-carved drum towers and 5 ‘Wind and Rain’ bridges – which are a testament to this woodcarving tribe. Built to link the village with the paddy fields, the bridges have wooden corridors lined with benches, constructed without using nails.
While it may look like one large village, it is actually divided into 5 sections, each with its own drum tower which represents a particular clans’ power and wealth. These days these towers function as a spot for social gathering, mainly for the elders.
Thanks to recent upgrades, there are more guesthouses available for visitors in the village.
Lijiashan Village (Shaanxi Province)
Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, this village is a settlement of 400 cave dwellings known as yaodong, which are carved out of loess cliffs scattered over the hillside. Some of these traditional loess cave houses have been strengthened by stones and bricks, typically with arched entrances.
Villagers sleep on kangs, a platform of bricks or stones with an area beneath to allow for a heating system during winter. The town of Qikou (10km away), with its well-preserved ancient loess courtyards, was once an important port along the Yellow River during the Qing Dynasty.
Some of the yaodong in Lijiashan and Qikou have been turned into accommodation for visitors, with basic amenities and the chance to sleep on a kang bed.
Zhongdong Miao Village (Guizhou Province)
Zhongdong village is located in an aircraft hangar-sized cave on a hill 1,800m above ground in the mountains of Anshun along the Getu River. Accessible via a serpentine trail uphill, it has been housing families (and the livestock) of the Miao minority for countless generations. There are roughly 18 houses, made with woven bamboo walls. The nearest town is 15km away, where the villagers stock up; freshwater comes from a stalactite in the cave.
There was a primary school here that once held classes in wooden classrooms and even had a basketball court. These villagers are some of the last cave-dwelling tribes in Asia, and some villagers have converted their homes into guesthouses.
Ancient Water Towns
Fenghuang Ancient Town (Hunan Province)
Built in 1704 during the reign of the Qing Emperor Kangxi, the 300-year-old town is built along the river banks of the Tuo Jiang River.
The Southern Great Wall of China is 15km away and is accessible by bus. Scenic spots in Fenghuang include the Yang Ancestral Memorial, Tuojiang River and Ancient East Gate. A typical house, diaojiaolou, is built from wood and from afar, seems as though it is hanging over the river.
Homestays are available and best experienced in houses built on stilts along the Tuojiang River.
Nanxun Water Town (Zhejiang Province)
With over 1,400 years of history, this town dates back to the Tang Dynasty and was once an important commercial centre as well as home to wealthy Chinese businessmen. Some highlights of the town include a daily wedding performance on the water, Little Lotus Garden and Liu’s Family Compound, a Chinese imitation of a Western-styled residence. Nanxun Water Town is an ideal day trip from Suzhou (1.5 hours), Hangzhou and Shanghai (both 2 hours) by car.
Nanxun Water Town is said to be one of the least-crowded and commercialised canal-side towns around Shanghai. However, if crowds don’t deter you, there are many other scenic water towns to explore, such as Zhujiajiao, Xitang, Zhouzhuang and Wuzhen.