China's ancient 'donut-like' homes: Where to see the tulou

China's ancient 'donut-like' homes: Where to see the tulou

Near Xiamen, UNESCO-listed houses built by the Hakka people were once mistaken for a nuke base

xiamen tulou -- inline 1Tulou once served as home, fortress and marketplace for China's Hakka people.

Southern China's Fujian province is never going to get as much attention as its urban neighbors to the north and west, regions that are home to internationally known cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.

But the coastal province offers a fascinating glimpse of traditional Chinese heritage, a growing rarity in this rapidly developing country.

Among the more intriguing pieces of history in Fujian are the tulou -- large, round, rammed-earth buildings dating back centuries.

There are no tulou in Xiamen, one of the largest cities in Fujian, but it's possible to visit some of these structures on a day trip. Bus tours from Xiamen take visitors through several tulou in Fujian’s Yongding and Nanjing counties.

The three-hour bus ride from Xiamen to Yongding, where the majority of the tulou clusters are located, takes visitors flying past green fields filled with banana trees, through tunnels and around mountains.

It's a pleasant drive.

xiamen tulou -- inline 2A recently built tourist stop at Taxia Village in Yongding County offers scenic views.

China's tulou were built by the Hakka people, a Han subgroup that wandered into southern China about 2,000 years ago.

It was an age when bandits roamed the countryside, and defensive stuctures were needed. 

Built between the 12th and 20th centuries, the communal earthen buildings housed large families and sometimes multiple groups, providing protection from marauders.

Today there are thousands of tulou across southern China, but only 46 are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are officially called "Fujian tulou." 

The odd-looking structures can stand as low as one story, and serve as homes to one extended family.

The more famous tulou are veritable castles, with 1.8-meter-thick walls, gun holes and an iron-coated central door.

These are the tulou that dominate the landscape, many standing five stories high and 70 meters (230 feet) in diameter with about 60 rooms on each floor.

More on CNN: Quanzhou: China's forgotten historic port

A tour of the tulou

xiamen tulou -- inline 3The wooden interior of a three-story tulou offers a classic image of China.

Tulou interiors are primarily constructed of wood. The larger ones, three or four stories high, have wooden stairs connecting the floors. 

The walls of the buildings, a few meters thick, are made of "rammed earth" -- compacted dirt, bamboo and glutinous rice. 

This style of construction keeps the interior cool in summer and warm in winter.

Topped with slate gray tiles, the larger tulou contain storage areas for food and kitchens.

A single door serves as the only entrance. Windows are narrow, a reminder of the tulou’s original purpose as a fortress to keep out thieves.

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xiamen tulou -- inline 4A Hakka villager dries berries.

Wandering through the tulou villages, a sense of timelessness prevails.

Farmers go about their daily chores. Tea and fruit are sold, often right next to the spot they're being dried. Dogs laze in the shadows to escape the heat of the afternoon sun.

Inside some tulou, residents have set up a marketplace where they sell crafts, paintings and photographs of local scenery. 

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xiamen tulou -- inline 5The evening sun lends the rammed earth a reddish hue.

In more recent times, the tulou attained a bit of notoriety for something other than historical significance.

Chinese media reported that in the 1980s, U.S. satellites once misidentified the tulou as missile silos because of their donut-shaped tops.

Honest mistake, right? 

Xiamen-based tour company Apple Travel organizes one- or two-day tulou tours. Prices start from RMB 425 ($68). 

xiamen tulou -- inline 6Nicknamed "four dishes with a soup," the Tianluokeng cluster of tulou at Nanjing features four round fortresses surrounding a fifth square one.  

Biju Sukumaran is an American freelance writer based inXiamen, a tiny island off the coast of China in the Taiwan Strait. 

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