“No way. Did he just scoot closer and nuzzle my shoulder?!” I thought as I felt a hand rest against my thigh. Oh. Hell. No.
For expats living in China, we have something called our “Chinese bucket list” that ranges from the strangely interesting and unexpected to the highly unwanted. Most recently, mine includes how Carol and I almost became mistresses on our journey to the Fujian Tulous.
Before I get into that story, let me recount the first day of our trip into Fujian and why we were here:
I had been wanting to visit the Fujian Tulou (pronounced too-low) rammed-earth houses for years now after first reading about them in high school. The Tulous are gigantic multistory well-fortified fortresses in Fujian province, made by the Hakka and Minnan minority peoples from a mixture of mud, glutinous rice, bamboo and woodchips. There are over 30,000 of them still intact! Their shapes range from circular to square and have housed hundreds of people for centuries, some are even over seven hundred years old!
The Tulous went relatively unnoticed by the world until the Cold War when US satellites picked up on these missile silo-looking buildings dotting the Chinese countryside. Of course, we had to check it out in case there were nuclear bombs being built. Since then, these buildings have gained popularity for being architectural marvels. In 2008, UNESCO declared them to be a World Heritage Site!
On Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day – a somber holiday for commemorating ancestors who have passed on) when my friend Carol and I were given three days off, we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to go see them. We booked train tickets to Nanjing County, Fujian (not to be mistaken for the city of Nanjing in Jiangsu Province), about six hours away from Lishui, Zhejiang where we currently live.
The train ride was relatively smooth. Being both Asian Americans, Carol and I tend to pass through most venues unscathed. The further we traveled into Fujian, the more double takes we received as Chinese passersby heard us speaking English. That is always fun – I do take a special joy in bewildering people as most Chinese don’t expect us to be native English speakers and often don’t know how to react.
Abruptly, existing the train station, we were hit by blinding bright sunshine and a gust of warm, humid air. Vast swaths of leafy banana and palm trees blanketed the land and nearby mountains. We took a moment to appreciate the site before heading out to find our two buses that will take us to the general Tulou vicinity.
We followed the rest of the exiting train passengers to the bus depot nearby and try to figure out the bus schedule and locations. Right away a Chinese woman who looks to be in her mid-thirties approached us. Having heard us communicate in English, she asked us where we were from and where we were going to. We mentioned the Yunshuiyao Village that our homestay was in, and she told us to follow her onto a bus as she was heading in that direction. She seemed nice enough, so we followed her.
Helen, as we learn is her English name, was quite talkative on our crowded bus ride. She enthusiastically told us about her life and work as a traveling business woman as we jostled about in our confined space. She added us on Wechat and showed pictures of her travels to the middle east and of her extended family. At the next bus stop, Helen bought us some kind of sweet, flaky brown sugar cakes that we learn are a local snack and export, besides bananas. As a thank you we took a selfie and, this time, board a crowded short bus.
The second bus ride was much more exciting, as we’re bumped and swung around while going much too fast up narrow winding mountain roads. Helen, still talking, tried repeatedly to show us pictures of herself with foreigners, ranging from some kind of white people to middle-easterners, while our bus flung us to and fro. Frowning at our lack of attention, Helen started talking about various animals that lurk in the hills, such as snakes. Thankfully she changed the subject, when she saw our frowns, to the local river and how the water was high enough to swim in her youth.
She also mentioned about her young son and lamented strongly about much she needed to lose weight to have another baby – which became a bit awkward for Carol and I since we don’t see her as overweight. I mean, by American standards she’s fine as she was, definitely for having kids. I have noticed Chinese people tend to have a tendency to bring up how much they want to lose weight in any given conversation. Anyways, Helen eventually left us half way up, stating her ancestral home was nearby and that we would be in contact.
We were unloaded at the main entrance to the Yunshuiyao Village gate. Carol attempted to call our homestay to ask them for a ride and if we needed to buy tickets to the Tulous today. I watched as our buses are hooked up to charge – apparently, they were electric. Our homestay told us to buy tickets, and to wait for our driver. We trudged on over the ticket office and somehow find out that our tickets to the nearby Yunshuiyao Tulou Cluster are good for both days, but we can buy our Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster tickets tomorrow as we won’t venture out to see it until tomorrow morning.
I enjoyed the scenery while we wait. Fujian has a deliciously warm subtropical climate, and everywhere is green and lush. There are many mountain tombs and tea terraces on the rolling hills surrounding us. Many of the tombs were in the process of being cleaned for the holiday.
A half-hour later, our driver called to state that he can’t see us. We said that we are in front of the ticket office (with my large, bright red backpack), and we can’t see his car. He replied that he is not driving a car and rolled up to us on a motorbike.
Ummmmm, what?! How are we supposed to ride to the homestay with one motorbike?
The driver said hop on. I looked at Carol. She smiled at me. I told him we’re three people, and he said that’s ok, get on. I said I have a big backpack, and that I was a big girl, but he insisted it was okay as long as I hold my backpack.
I’m terrified, slightly nauseous, and amazed that the THREE of us fit on this motorbike as we were zipping up and down the narrow dirt roads. Behind me, Carol tells me it’ll be okay as long as we stay completely still, sometimes lean forward as the bike goes uphill, and not jerk when upcoming cars come at us out of nowhere. The latter being particularly hard as oncoming cars were hard to predict, especially when they were on our side of the road. I tried not to look around, while at the same time trying not to hold on to our driver with a death grip and not let our lack of helmets worry me too much. I thought back to my e-bike and how much I missed the little thing. Chinese bucket list, check!
Arriving at our homestay elicited from me a huuuuge sigh of relief. At first, we were disappointed all the Tulous were booked out, but this place was rather cute. It consisted of two attached multi-story houses diagonal from each other in a sort of open-compound shape. Our room was on the third floor of the first building and had a nice view of the street and mountains, very minimalistic chic. The only catch for the cheap price we could find was that the toilet was a squatty with the shower right above it – which didn’t faze either of us. Helen continued to message us at this time about how we needed to stay friends with her and to visit the town where she lived. After a few hours rest, in which we mostly checked out channels on the TV, Carol and I headed out into our little “ancient water town” in search of dinner.
We followed along the main road, dodging cars, people, stray dogs, puddles, potholes and feces. There were many street vendors with various fruit and kitschy knickknacks who called out to us. By this time, night had descended. Lines of shops along the river made for a tranquil scene as the glow of their soft lights were reflected in the moving waters. We took our time walking across a bridge, watching a cute couple light a candle on top of a fake lotus flower to float downstream.
It’s very peaceful here. On the other side of the river, we walked through many makeshift outdoor restaurants with plastic tables and stools set up under tall arching banyan trees. Cooks called to us, gesturing to their displays of noodles, meats, vegetables, and other soup add-ons. We decided on a busy little hole-in-the-wall and were served by the owner’s ten or twelve-year-old daughter.
We noticed that most of the signage in the area, especially the menus, were not very foreigner-friendly – i.e. everything in Chinese. I had thought that since this was a UNESCO World Heritage site, that we would see many more foreign tourists. The lack of English and being surrounded by locals was actually a nice surprise. It’s probably because coming to the Tulous wasn’t very easy if you don’t know Chinese. The guys in our homestay definitely didn’t speak English, and just getting here was a bit of a journey as we experienced. As we were leaving, we did see one balding, middle-aged white dude surrounded by Chinese girls probably hounding him for a picture.
Returning back to our homestay, we caught one of the owner’s sons talking with three men on the first floor that doubled as the lobby/dining area. As the men feasted on dishes around a large lazy susan, we asked about the route and bus schedule to the Tulous. One of the guys around the table hollered out, “You’re going to the Tulous? We’re going, too! You can ride with us!” Our host conveyed that the buses were unreliable, slow and inconvenient. We deliberated, honestly pretty worried about how we were going to find our way to the Tulous, and the guys seemed pretty normal and friendly. We figured, why not? If they were going that way anyway, we might as well hitch a ride. We agreed to meet them at 8am the next morning and proceeded to our room
Coming back to our room, we’re surprised at how many messages we had missed from Helen. I got the feeling she wasn’t happy we hadn’t responded for a while. “Doesn’t she have her family?” I wondered. I messaged her a quick thanks and that we’re both very tired.
I barely slept that night.
The guys in the rooms next to us, who turned out to be our ride, were up way past three am drinking and being loud and obnoxious. Carol and I promptly woke up and headed downstairs in the morning. The guys were half an hour late and pretty hung over. They wanted breakfast. We had already eaten from our snack bag and didn’t mind waiting, but they insisted we go with them before heading out.
We go into a nearby mom and pop stand. They bought us some huntun (pronounced hoon-toon) soup (a different kind of dumpling similar to wontons). We start getting to know one another over breakfast. Of course they don’t speak English, except for the one skinny guy who can say “a little bit.” So this would prove to be a fun test in communication.
Carol picked up on their accents being not from the south, and she was right! These guys were from Dongbei, waaay up north in Heilongjiang, a province next to Russia. They asked where we were from and if we had boyfriends, an awkward question so early in the morning to be sure, but we hoped it was just harmless cultural curiosity – like the way that Chinese people will randomly ask what your age is or your salary when you first meet them. We mention we’re American and that I’m married. We find out that they all have wives and children. Thank goodness, right?
Our sense of relief proved to be short-lived as we piled into their SUV. The three men’s conversation seems fixated on us, especially on Carol not having a boyfriend….
This story will continue on in part 2.