Treasures of China’s Heritage:Touring with the Global Heritage Fund (First of a Seven-part Series)
For many, a trip to China is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, usually limited to the must-see places such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, and the other major cities. But if you have the opportunity to make return visits to this vast and varied country, I highly recommend stepping off the tourist trail and venturing into the provinces.
I first visited China in 1987 and quickly fell in love with its intoxicating beauty, rich culture, and welcoming people. I immediately vowed to return—and not simply as a tourist. Since 2008, I’ve lived in China off and on and have seen many places that are still largely undeveloped and therefore undiscovered by outsiders.
THE GLOBAL HERITAGE FUND
Of all my travels in China, the nine-day trip with the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), led by founder Jeff Morgan, was a highlight. The California-based Global Heritage Fund’s mission is to protect, preserve and sustain the most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in the developing world. This trip was designed to introduce donors to some of those projects in China.
It’s my pleasure to share this experience with you in a series of recollections illustrated primarily with my personal photographs. I hope these spark your desire to encounter these wonders for yourself, and to support an organization active in safeguarding them.
DAY 1: SHANGHAI TO XIAMEN AND THE ASIA GULF HOTEL
Our first stop was Xiamen, Fujian, on the Taiwan Strait on China’s east coast. It’s the modern city closest to Taiwan, only an hour’s flight away. In the past, many Chinese from the Fujian area migrated to Taiwan for better opportunities.
A SEAFOOD BANQUET WITH 1,001 CHOICES
Our first dinner in Xiamen was at a local seafood restaurant unlike any I’ve experienced before or since. It featured tanks and tanks of sea critters—sixty-six types in all—including lobsters, crabs, mollusks, sea bass, shrimps of every size, leopard fish, skate, and others we couldn’t begin to identify.
After selecting our sea fare, we chose side dishes from an abundant selection of fresh vegetables, each wrapped in cellophane (for cleanliness, I assume). As is typical of Chinese-style round-table dining, we shared an array of dishes.
DAY 2: XIAMEN ISLAND, THE CITY
In 1980, Xiamen was selected as one of China’s five special economic zones, or “world free-trade zones.” Though it has yet to become a hub for tourists, it is among China’s major cities, with new bridges, a fast train, and international trade.
Leaving the city, we crossed over the Haicang Bridge (1999), one of the two links to the mainland. (The other is Xiamen Xiang’an Undersea Tunnel, which opened in April 2010 and cut commuting time from ninety minutes to about nine.)
FUJIAN PROVINCE AND THE HAKKA PEOPLE
We next headed to Yongding and Nanjing Counties. About 1,000 years ago, a group of Han Chinese migrated to this fertile mountain region to escape war and famine in the north and central plains.
The newcomers were dubbed Hakka (meaning “guests”), but they weren’t always welcomed, since they were vying with the natives for limited resources.
FUJIAN TULOU ARCHITECTURE
Tulou (pronounced “too low”) literally means “earthen building,” and is a traditional communal residence consisting of a central courtyard surrounded by rings of family quarters. Like a moated medieval European castle, a tulou is a miniature fortified city—a fortress—where the original inhabitants formed a community for safety from invaders. The oldest of them was built in the twelfth century, while new ones have gone up as recently as the twentieth.
FAMILIES LIVING TOGETHER
Tulous have been described as “little kingdoms for the family” or “bustling small cities,” housing up to eighty families or eight hundred people. But there is no monarch in residence, just a clan of several generations.
YONGDING COUNTY TULOUS
Our next stop was the Yongding County Tulou Cultural Village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features numerous round and square tulous. We took a stroll along the banks of a stream that led into the village, where we enjoyed lunch.
While in Yongding, we lunched at the Five-Phoenix restaurant, located in an original tulou that also houses a store and a little inn. One way to preserve these architectural gems is to establish sources of revenue that can support families living in the area.
All of us who are interested in world culture and history are the lucky beneficiaries of GHF’s impressive work preserving these historic architectural gems. It is the organization’s hope (as well as my own) that the Chinese government will be inspired to step up its own efforts to safeguard its heritage before its precious landmarks disappear. Judging from the number of Chinese tourists I encountered on my travels, this work will be deeply appreciated by natives as well as visitors from far and wide.
In my next post, I share more of Days 2 and 3, including tulous of a different style in Pinghe and Nanjing counties, and the historic port town of Zhangzhou.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.