Ask anyone who has seen the 1959 movie Ben Hur which is the best scene and most will instantly reply “the Chariot race”. The sense of speed achieved by the camera, set on the ground, angled up, at close range tracking the horses as they tear around the track is profound. It was this scene that played over and over in my mind in the dark in China’s Fujian province. Yet it had been the accompanying sound of galloping that had woken me moments before, just as I was crossing over into sleep.
I was sleeping on the top floor of the Tulou Can Guan. A Tulou (pronounced like the first part of the French city Tulouse) is a mudbrick circular structure, a house of an entire clan. Its contents are oriented towards the centre with the outside a bare wall so as to be easily defended.
They have three floors; the ground for food preparation, the middle for food storage and the top for sleeping. Most are hundreds of years old (the oldest I found was from the 14th century) and are protected as a UNESCO heritage site. Plus, you can sleep in them.
That was the plan anyway. Everything had operated like clockwork from Xiamen. We’d been moved from bus to minivan and were ushered into our room, a bare wooden cell with just enough space for two double beds, a glassless window and a naked bulb dangling from the gap formed by two tartan tablecloths stapled to the roof. “And out there,” our host gestured through the wall, “to pee”. In the afternoon light it looked a little medieval but ample. We thanked her and she left.
I went out of the room and surveyed the courtyard, wood creaking underfoot. Chickens incessantly complained around the cobblestone well. Old ladies sat around the perimeter or busied themselves with chores. Sure a portion of the Tulou had collapsed leaving a pile of dust caked wood and the remaining balconies bowed precariously in places but if it had lasted a few centuries it would last another night. It was only later that we found a newspaper article informing us that 2100 residents had been evacuated from the Can Guan Tulou as it had been deemed unsafe.
I went back into the room and tested the mattress. It was very hard. I rallied myself with a quick shot of heroic rhetoric. Had not my forefathers lived every day of their existence in similar conditions? I owed it to them and what’s more I owed it to myself — if only to prove that I was not some spoilt, pampered Westerner who couldn’t spend just one night in a room with no WIFI, on a mattress without a chiropractic certificate. Princess and the pea and all that.
Once night fell things were a bit different. Marty and I were the only ones staying there and as such were the sole target of a insect offensive of the likes I’ve never experienced before. In Sydney, me versus the mosquitoes is a pretty even match — they have the numbers but not the wiles. I sometimes feel sorry for them as they sit on my arm, gorging themselves and waiting for the hand of god to end their pathetic lives. Here, they were a wholly different species. Totally immune to my Chinese Kool-Aid scented insect repellent. They dodged and weaved as if with a sixth sense. It took all my agility to take down just a few of the buggers.
And then after lights out I experienced a new shade of dark. Sun-cream, insect repellent, dust and sweat forming a paste on my legs, the mattress like a granite slab, the pillow like a few fistfuls of cotton buds in a sack and, of course, the galloping. Staying on the third floor really limits the possibilities of what can gallop on the roof overhead. Could it be a colony of well disciplined rats marching in time, just over my head? Try to sleep with that image in your mind. I crammed in my ear plugs and gave it a shot.
The next morning I woke, my bladder like a hot rock. I went downstairs and out and was greeted by a town waking, women beating clothes clean next to a stream, motorbikes putt-putting, old men smoking and spitting. Marty and I were to spend this morning visiting Tulous. They are separated into clusters, like towns. This required a means of transport and today transport was to take the form of an tight skinned old blister of a man (his name Li Geng Meng we would later find out) and his Suzuki motorbike. A little disconcerting was the fact that only he wore a helmet, but we were off, double pillion, me in the middle of this grotesque sandwich, in shorts, my eyes sand-blasted by the wind and the dust.
So we travelled from one Tulou to another, attaching ourselves to an English speaking tour here, sitting and drinking green tea with a resident there. One man, sitting outside Chengqi Lou (the largest Tulou), in Chinese formal wear, was playing this long thin horn like I play the saxophone (and I don’t play the saxophone). Marty and I approached with sceptical smiles. He then plucked a leaf from the tree he was under and played it, Aussie bushman style. He produced a rich, full melody and our smiles became sincere. I saw pictures of this leaf toting maestro throughout many of the Tulous we visited. These pictures of him with what we took to be local dignitaries were often in the position of honour in the Tulou, the central living space, reserved for weddings and other important functions.
Music was to be a recurring theme. Later at Li Geng Meng’s house (he invited us back for lunch) he showed us to a room where we drank yet more tea. The room Marty took to be a shrine to his late father had pictures of an old man everywhere — in front of the Grand Canyon, shaking Shrek’s hand in Disney Land, at other places, standing by certificates in Mandrin. The guy was important that’s for sure but we were unable to sign language our way to what it is he actually did.
Then, back from the dead, the guy walks right in and pours himself a cup of tea. He was holding a velvet pouch from which he drew out four thin wooden blocks, each with one serrated side. He then clicks them together, making a beat, then he took one and drew the serrated edge along a smooth edge of the other to bring into play a further staccato tick. His hands moved with the practised fashion of a master. He finished, sat down and lit a cigarette. With the aid of pictures, a great deal of pointing and gesturing we worked out that this man is 84 years old, his name is Li Tian Sheng, Li Geng Meng’s father and still tours, playing percussion with the Xiamen Philharmonic Choir.
Looking down from a mountain at Tianluokeng, one particularly picturesque cluster of Tulous, you can see them run along the seam of the valley. On the sides of the surrounding mountains, tobacco and tea are grown in tiered fields which, at a certain height, give way to bamboo and banana trees. It’s welcome relief from sitting between two guys on a motorbike when your pants had split the time you tried to mount up with a bit too much gusto.
Originally published on Crikey on June 7, 2012. Link is here.