Few Western travellers venture this far south east. Most choose the classic ‘see China’ itinerary, ticking-off Beijing, Shanghai and Guilin. During my two weeks in Fujian province, I saw just three non-Chinese. But it hasn’t always been this way.
A string of 19th-century treaty ports once dotted China’s southern coast, with Fujian at the heart of the action. The city of Xiamen — known back then as Amoy — was a hectic trade hub, teeming with cargo-carrying merchants and cross-bearing missionaries who sailed here from Europe, America and elsewhere in Asia.
Arriving two centuries later, I touched down after the one-hour flight from Hong Kong to a chilled-out city that’s, quite possibly, China’s most appealing. Green parks sweep through its centre, caramel-coloured sand lines its waterfront, and beachgoers gaze across the Taiwan Strait to one of Fujian’s most-visited attractions: Gulangyu Island — the ‘Garden on the Sea’.
A former International Settlement, Gulangyu was once home to the diplomats and dignitaries who protected and promoted the port trade in Amoy. Crammed with restored consulates and colonial mansions, this car-free islet has since morphed into an open-air museum that draws throngs of camera-crazed tourists.
But despite Gulangyu’s celebrity status, it was the tulou roundhouses that drew me to Fujian. These immense communal homes, built by China’s indigenous Hakka people, are a convenient day trip from Xiamen.
“Fujian is the greenest province in China,” my guide, Mark, announced, rolling down the car window as we drove towards low mountains cloaked in emerald forests, their valleys etched with neat rows of tea bushes.
I’d already spotted the silhouettes of several roundhouses on the horizon and could hardly contain my excitement as we rumbled off the main road onto a bamboo-fringed track.
The first tulou I entered left me speechless. After craning my neck at its rammed earth walls — 65ft tall and 3ft thick — I walked through the arched doorway into a central courtyard, open to the sky and rimmed by a timber amphitheatre of rooms; red lanterns trimming the walkways on each level.
Climbing a creaking staircase to the first floor, I ran my fingers along rough, cracked walls and peered over the balcony to the courtyard below. Brown hens were pecking at grains of rice caught in the cobbled floor and steam was billowing from a bamboo steamer the size of a bike wheel.
Fujian is home to around 35,000 of these fortresses, four of which I stepped inside during my private tour. One was more than 800 years old, and the largest I saw was five stories tall. All were still inhabited.
By the time we began the drive back to Xiamen, the sun was setting over Fujian, turning the tulous’ tea-coloured walls a rich golden hue.
This province may be overlooked by foreign travellers but, thanks to new flights and an expanding high-speed rail network, Mark assured me its visitor numbers are growing. Beyond Gulangyu and the tulous, they come to see the ancient port town of Chongwu, the shiny capital of Fuzhou and the mountain paradise of Wuyishan – a UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed landscape of rocky pinnacles and plunging waterfalls.
Western companies are slowly cottoning on and, just this year, Fujian highlights have begun creeping into the brochures of the UK’s more intrepid tour operators. It’s only a matter of time before its popularity extends beyond domestic tourists.