Living large on a Chinese only speaking bus tour to the famous tulous and onwards to Guangzhou.
Sometimes when you get travel ideas in your head they just stick. Alison discovered we could go and visit the tulous west of Xiamen and that you could stay in them. We could then head south to Guangzhou by train. So that become the plan no matter what. No matter the only way we could get to them easily was on a Chinese speaking only bus trip with only one other english speaking guy. No matter she was throwing up all morning from eating cheese covered oysters the night before. No matter that Shawn didn't want to go, why go all that way to look at a stupid round building? We were going.
The tulous are big roundhouses built of clay, like round apartment blocks with a big atrium inside to keep the chickens in and the hoards of marauders out. Since being visited by President Hu Jintao in 2010, the Chinese have taken to visiting them in larger numbers. This means a tour bus, lunch and souvenir shops and a quick look around before heading home.
The first stop on our trip (after a half an hour welcome speech entirely in Chinese) is a gift shop.There were dried fruits, biscuits, teas and snowdomes of tulous all ready to go.
Once inside the shop, you must exit by walking through an Ikea style maze of tables filled with goodies to buy.
Our favourite regional souvenir: Longlife cigarettes, guaranteed to to offend the wife and make the kids scream.
The bus next stops outside a small village that appears to have the single purpose of feeding bus loads of tourists.
The spread is pretty impressive - salty crispy chicken, bean curd, loads of veggie dishes, a simple broth with white radish. You help yourself in a feeding frenzy that lasts about 20 mins, then you get hustled back on the bus. They strip off the layer of plastic from the table, reset it, and the next tour group comes in.
At the back of the restaurant was an original tolou, just like we had come on tour to see. This was mostly ignored and a little run down, but probably quite close to what it's like to actually live in.
We drive about a kilometre up the road and reach 'Tulou World' - a cleaned up compound of about five different buildings with lots of souvenir buying opportunities.This guy had a novel way of selling his grapefruits, once you eat them they make great hats.
Although cleaned up compared to the ones we saw on the road in, the buildings themselves are pretty impressive.
At the height of the tourist day they get packed out. Each of these people also belonged to a tour group with a tour leader who had their own personal loudspeaker. They all used it at the same time.
One of the main souvenirs was hand rolled cigarettes made from locally grown tobacco. The tourists loved 'em but the locals all smoked tailor-mades.
Teenagers go wild.
We are not going home on the bus - goodbye hoards! Our trip has been organised so we can stay overnight in one of the tulous. We get asked at least three times if we are sure we want to stay - 'there's no toilet in the room you know' they speak with hushed tones.
We start to worry what the rooms will be like, and are happy when we see two clean comfortable beds and even cable TV! No toilet of course but if you've ever stayed in hostels it and a shower was downstairs and cleaner than some we've had the pleasure to use.
There were repairs being done on the roof of the building. The injection of tourist money has seen some ability to restore the structures, even if there aren't many people actually living in them anymore.
Most of the residents actually live in villages up the road from the main tulous. It reminds us of Hoi An, where the people you see each day in the historic 'town' don't actually live there, and life goes on away from the tourist trail.
There's a lot of small stores where you can get some basics. We bought a small torch in case we needed it during the night when the power went off (how we ever mimed that one we'll never remember) .
There's a lot of the structures around the town that people still live in, each in varying states of repair.
Softbank dog in China.
We followed a black dog (end sticking out behind the gate) all the way through the village who then led us to this noodle shop. Tour guides can take on all forms.
Strings of fresh noodles were being prepared with broth, beef and veggies. The beef was mixed in with a little cornflour before being added to the soup to give it a different texture. Most likely a bit of bicarb too to soften it up.
The cooking all took place at the front of the store, eaters sat in the back and waited.
Simply perfect for sad stomachs. We head back to the tulou for the night through the main street of the village.
The next day we realise at one point that we don't actually know the name of the town we are staying in. We are simply somewhere in China. We have no idea where to get a bus out of here, if there is a bus. We're not even sure which road is the main road to wait for a bus. Nobody speaks a word of English round here and we speak even less Chinese. We're kinda screwed.
At least we know where we are heading next, Yongding. We repeat the name of the town until someone points us in the direction of the local bus stop.
It was a shame we weren't feeling better, there was an interesting town to explore.
We find the bus stop, which fortunately has a dumpling'n'soup lady present.
Simple veggie filled steamed dumplings eaten out of a bag with a stick.
This moment was our best travel 'high' of our China trip: sitting on a little rural bus, travelling through the villages and watching the world go by, as the driver and passengers chatted and laughed.
We make it to Yongding expecting to get a bus to Guangzhuo. ' No more' is the reply when a hopeful plea is made.
So we jump into a taxi - a small bike with a two seater canopy on the back - and head off to the train station. And then back to the bus station when we find out there's no trains until the middle of the night.
With the bus timetables incomprehensible and our spoken Chinese even worse, we manage to work out we can get a bus to the next big town, Longyang, where we can then get an overnight bus to Guangzhuo.
We're not hungry and miss some great food opportunities along the way.
We even could have caught up with a bit of on-the-street dentistry.
Longyang is a much bigger town and we manage to buy our tickets for an early evening bus out of there. We wish we could have stayed: Longyang was buzzing and folks were really friendly. It seemed not many western tourists ended up here, there were lots of 'hellos' and smiles, wonderful.
Alison's stomach is still bad and we hope to find some free wi-fi so head to McDonald's to sit for a few hours.
The chips were a comforting treat and Shawn reckons it was quite a good Big Mac.
Sitting in there for an hour or two was an excellent way to view the new China. Lots of mothers with single kids or couples stopping for a coffee and a chat. We love trying McDonald's around the world, it's a guilty pleasure.
For a big town there's still lots of street sellers, especially sweet potato on hot drums.
And still some low tech ways to get around.
Our way of coping with poor language skills is often to just say yes to any question and see what happens. This time we ended up with a ticket for the wrong day and turned up at the wrong station. Some frantic changes and we raced off to the right place to make the bus which left from the outskirts of town. We passed more great food places but ran out of time.
And this point was probably our travel 'low' - an overnight sleeper bus to Guangzhuo. Ipod and sleep mask recommended. Don't choose the bed in front of the TV showing light Chinese porn or next to the snorers.
Arrival 4.00am Guangzhuo East Bus Terminal.
We stink. We are sick. We are grumpy. We are sleep deprived. Take us to the Holiday Inn - we need clean sheets!
But we still love China.