Fujian province sits on China's southeast shoreline, its golden beaches washed by the Taiwan Strait. But travel a few hours inland to Nanjing County and the landscape transforms into forested mountain peaks, peppered with thousands of ancient roundhouses known as 'tulous.'
Unesco protects 46 Fujian tulou sites in total, each selected for their particular historic value. In Nanjing County, the oldest – Yuchang Earth Building – dates back to the Yuan dynasty (1308-1338) and is still inhabited today. I made the journey into this amazing area and it was well worth it. Read on to find out just what makes this site and the overall experience of visiting it so moving and enthralling.
Stepping through the doorway into the tulou's central courtyard, my jaw dropped: five wooden tiers rose around me like an amphitheatre, identical red lanterns decorated the terraces on each level and, behind them, 270 individual rooms hid behind dark timber doors.
With living quarters on the top three storeys, the second floor acted as a granary. Twenty-five kitchens occupied the ground level, each with their own fresh-water well. In front of them, toffee-brown chickens and dirty-white ducks scratched at the courtyard floor, where a simple stone building stood at the epicenter of it all.
The Hakka People
It had taken me four hours to travel here from Xiamen – a coastal city that's a 60-minute flight from Hong Kong. I was exploring Fujian's tulou kingdom by car, with a driver and guide – by far the easiest way to go about it.
"These are the homes of the Hakka people," – a historically persecuted group who started fleeing south in the 12th century to escape attackers in northern and central China – my guide Mark explained.
This indigenous group settled here in the forests of Fujian and pursued peaceful lifestyles, farming rice, tea and bamboo in fertile mountain valleys. But with the threat of attack ever-present, they congregated into extended family clans and built huge fortresses with metre-thick walls, which proved impenetrable to invaders and wild animals.
When the time came to fight, the Hakka men would venture out while the women and children could live comfortably within the tulou, thanks to stockpiled food and communal wells.
China's tulous are some of the most spectacular examples of indigenous architecture anywhere in the world. I've explored 32 countries in my lifetime – one for each of my years – and have never experienced buildings quite so unique.
Birds flying overhead look down on doughnut-like structures filled with families and topped with rows of tightly packed roof tiles. In the late 1970s, US satellites mistook a collection of tulou houses for a Chinese missile station and an investigation was launched into the perceived threat.
But when approached from ground level, tulou exteriors are impressive only in their immense size. Cracked, tea coloured walls made of rammed earth rise skywards for 20-metres. Small windows are cut several feet off the floor and a single doorway – iron plated and five inches thick – gives access to the world inside.
Housing up to 800 individuals, they are more like fortified villages. Each floor serves a different function and the central courtyard, which is open to the sky, provides a communal area for meetings, festivals and drying rice.
With cool mountain nights as well as sticky-hot summers to contend with, thick walls insulate and protected the tulou from the elements, while the shaded balconies and large courtyards keep the inward-facing rooms cool and ventilated on hot days. Visiting in April, when Fujian was already a humid 22 degrees, this natural air-conditioning system was a godsend.
Nanjing and beyond
I travelled with the car windows down, enjoying the fresh forest air as we rumbled past huge roundhouses which soared over tea terraces; smaller tulous which rose on riverbanks; and crumbling houses hidden behind feathery bamboo, the bright sun highlighting their golden walls.
Nanjing County is home to around 15,000 tulous, many round like Yuchang, but some square, oval or even pentagon-shaped. While some stand alone, others are gathered in groups, such as Tianluokeng Cluster: a set of four roundhouses and one square tulou, inscribed by Unesco in 2008.
The smallest tulou I visited, Daping Lou, was the most authentic. As the only visitors, my friend and I were invited to peer inside the simple rooms and climb the wooden staircase to look back down into the cobbled courtyard. After noseying around for a while, we sat in the sun, drinking oolong tea with the tulou chief.
While many tulous are still inhabited, traditional culture is being diluted. Farming is still important – you can tell by the tea plantations decorating the hillsides, the piles of freshly cut bamboo, and the rice baskets hanging in the granaries – but today real money is made from tourism.
Locals either embrace this or make an exit: many of Nanjing's youths and working-age adults have left for the cities, in search of education, office-jobs and excitement, leaving their grandparents and young children behind to keep tulou culture alive.
With evening approaching, we started our journey back to Xiamen and, as we drove out of the mountains, the roundhouses petered out and were replaced at first by isolated farmhouses and eventually by ugly tower blocks.
It amazes me that tulou architecture has never been brought to the cities, or that these structures haven't been adopted elsewhere in China. With their communal layout, private rooms, free air-conditioning and aesthetic appeal, they appear to make perfect sense, and beat any block of flats I've ever been to.
When you visit Southeast China, this fascinating cultural landscape and incredible indigenous architecture is one slice of World Heritage you simply mustn't miss out on.