Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue

Very unique. Not like being above ground in other places.

DAY ONE: Took the metro to the far corner of Shanghai to fly SHA>>XMN. Just the journey to the airport itself took nearly two hours. Shangers is ridiculously large. Man sitting opposite me clipped his fingernails directly onto the floor as one does on the subway.

Flight was comfortable, minimal amounts of stares directed at the tall white boy sitting 24C.

Landed safely in Xiamen after a flight that took only slightly longer than the stint below ground in Shanghai. Encountered some fellow Fudan students in line for a cab. Cab driver was from Henan — moved to Xiamen to make a living away from the pollution and poverty back home. Also had to put up with my awkward and inept Mandarin. Nice lady.

DAY TWO: Woke up early, did not at all regret last night’s decision to eat dubious-looking noodles with white fish, pork balls, bok choy, vinegar, and half a deep-fried crab. Had come across a closed 市场//shi4chang3 (open-air market) during my midnight wanderings yesterday, which was bustling this morning.

Found myself walking through every cramped alleyway of the market until late morning. Steamed turnip buns and thick soy milk served as breakfast on the go.

Took the city bus to the intercity train station to attempt a ticket purchase to Zhangzhou, the Nanjing County//南靖县 seat [not to be confused with Nanjing City//南京市, which I’ve written about previously], for further transit to Taxia Village and the ancient earthen buildings of Fujian’s rainy hills.

Midday was still sunny as I disembarked for the fourth or fifth time today. This time in Zhangzhou. Halfway to the hills already, I realized that I didn’t really know where I was going, but had already made it this far so there was no backing out now.

The city was a pit-stop. Spent an hour or two underneath a dense, humid atmosphere waiting for yet another cramped vehicle to take me further still. Had a simple lunch of noodles fried in oil and soy sauce with mixed veggies. Boarded a 15-person van that ended up seating 20 plus luggage.

First stop was just a few streets away — picking up a couple more locals. Both women were well in their years, had toothy grins and what appeared to be very large sacks of potpourri but was actually dried medicinal herbs. Evidently they traveled to and from the hills and sold their wares for a living. They boarded and proceeded to converse with the entire van.

One of the women had a gold tooth and a throaty laugh. She was a hawker and a half. In an hour’s time, she’d sold a stash to almost everyone. Just in time to make her exit at a small village still two hours from the famous earth buildings.

Last I saw of her was her unceasing grin as she flagged down a new customer. True hustler.

The sky looked brooding outside the now-quiet van.

A young family had started offering me handfuls of tart yang2mei2//杨梅: raspberry-red bayberries speckled with a healthy amount of crystal-white salt and contrasted by their pomegranate-like green leaves.

The van came to a full stop. We were fifth in line to pass some major road construction that had blocked off the whole route. Traffic on both sides had no other choice but to park and wait.

Most passengers disembarked. We spent about 30 minutes on the side of the road waiting for the construction to clear. Half of that time I spent conversing in broken Mandarin with my new family of friends.

Last-named Liu, the husband and wife, with their small son and the husband’s sister-in-law in tow, weren’t fazed by the fact that I’m white and clearly didn’t anticipate the weather. The Fujianese/American ways of speaking Chinese added a dynamic to our conversation.

The passengers all clambered back into their respective cars when the road finally cleared; the rain hit only minutes after.

When we reached Shuyang Township, it was pouring. This township was a part of the larger scenic area, which, like many other tourist destinations in China, charged an entrance fee. One hundred yuan for 外地人//wai4di4ren2 (out-of-towners), half-price if you’re a student. I bought the only ticket in the van; everyone else was a 当地人//dang1di4ren2 (local).

“No, I don’t regret coming here at all. I’m just happy I had the opportunity,” I said, in my much-improved Mandarin (thank you, alcohol).

Qingdaos are cheap. The boys and I had three each with dinner.


Dinner, by the way, was the centerpiece of the whole trip. We ate jia1chang2 cai4//家常菜 (homestyle food) in dim lighting and the cement skeleton of their new house. Actual walls were still in the works.

Tomato and egg, pork belly, lean meat with peppers and onion, greens, garlic, soybeans, more meat, cabbage soup. Basic, delicious.

The Liu clan huddled around the table asking questions of the foreigner in their kitchen. Initially they asked why I came to Xiaban Village and not Taxia Village. My answer was simple enough: “started raining.”

But why Fujian? Why the 土楼//tu3lou2 (earthen buildings) at all? Why alone? “Pictures of the buildings in my textbook were incredible. I wanted to see for myself.”

DAY THREE: Somehow the conversation last night turned into a planning meeting to determine how I was going to get back to Xiamen this morning. Honestly, if it hadn’t, I almost certainly would not have made my flight today.

And this morning had been an early one, just like they said. Woke up with about 15 new mosquito bites from yesterday’s dinner and conversation — worth it. Last night’s pouring rain coupled with our incandescent lights lit inside the wall-less house had effectively acted as a beacon attracting half the bugs of Xiaban Village.

It was still spitting down rain when I got out of bed. The room that the Liu family had provided me in their hotel (yes, I got very lucky meeting them) seemed to have a sort of princess castle theme — perfect match for the likes of me. I hurriedly gathered my things and shoved them in my backpack that I had set on top of the wooden side table with the pink lace cloth. Clearly decorated with impeccable taste.

The taxi was already waiting for me when I got downstairs. The family had arranged for a driver to take me about 10 miles down the road to Tianluokeng (lit. snail pit) Village where I’d then wait for the next 15-seater back to beautiful bustling Zhangzhou for transit to Xiamen.

He was a Liu as well. Offered me a cigarette immediately after he found out I could speak some bad Mandarin — tobacco grown in Fujian was the best, apparently.

Disembarked at the curve of the road near the visitor’s entrance, which was unmanned this early in the morning. An earnest nod, thank you, and cash was a sufficient goodbye.

Misty this morning in the snail’s pit. From my position at the top of the valley, I could see the beige-brown tulou still sleeping. Four circular buildings surrounded a rectangular one, resembling the four dishes and soup (四菜一汤) you might find on the dinner table.

Tianluokeng’s terraced fields were still sitting in the silver clouds as I took the stone stairs back up to the road.

From here to there, there to somewhere else. While waiting for the shuttle to arrive, I contemplated going back down the snail’s pit and staying an extra day. Just as I got ready to turn around, a light blue van flew around the curve in the road, and braked overly hard after seeing the foreigner on the side of the road.

When I embarked I asked the driver loudly if this van was going back to Zhangzhou. It was. The driver floored it before I could find a seat.

Green hills once again flitting past me outside the window, I couldn’t help but think that I’d never be here again. The Chinese electro-pop soundtrack in the background juxtaposed my mood in a weird, pleasant way. The whole brief time I was here, I was here and then left later.

Either my experiences were always flying away or I was, because they seemed to capriciously disappear now only to reappear later (or never). Life-affirming in a consumerist, selfish sort of way as I sit on this plane tapping these words into a smartphone with nothing but my carry-on backpack, wallet, and camera.


[Three years later, I still get tripped up when thinking about how lifeways kind of splinter and split like the wooden beams of Yuchang Lou.

Sometimes I think I could just fly back to the hills and learn how to harvest tea leaves until sundown. Other times I realize my ego is talking.]

Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai for a year studying Mandarin and eating voraciously. He moved home to work and write then relocated to Berlin to daydream about last summer.