Monday 12th of April 2018, somewhere in the deep mountains of Fuzhou, China.
The road gets more and more winding and the series of turns makes me nauseous. However, it feels good to enjoy the silence. We are lost up in the mountains and the air by the window tickles my cheeks. A getaway from the busy Fuzhou city is all I need. Finally, I can breathe some fresh air and feel connected to something else than buildings and noise. Nature, trees, the sounds of the birds, I am missing it.
The deeper we get into the mountains, the more authentic it feels. The civilisation is slowly disappearing, leaving some space to little towns and villages. There are farmers working hard in the fields, oldies and children selling food along the road. We stop on our way to buy some fruits. A Chinese fruit that I have never seen before and which is quite tasty.
“Oh my god where are we?! Where are the people and where are the shops!” ask Yance, my dear friend who is panicking at the idea of losing trace of civilisation.
I laugh. This is the whole point of this trip. A retreat far away from the city life. An adventure I haven’t experienced since I have been living in China. Discovering an ancient Chinese town and feel the old vibes of what China used to be thousands of years ago.
Two hours later after a trip that felt like four because of the winding road, we finally arrive. I jump out of the car and look around. What strikes me the most is the very peaceful atmosphere that reigns here. There are no cars horning or motorbikes slaloming. No untimely brouhaha coming from every corner of the streets. Probably because there’s only one main street in this old town.
I spot a sign “Songkou”. Songkou is an ancient town in Yongtai County of Fuzhou. Located beside mountains and rivers, the town used to be the original residence for Hakka ancestors migrating from Fujian to Guangdong. The Hakkas or Hakka Han are Han Chinese people whose ancestral home are chiefly in the Hakka-speaking provincial areas of Guangdong, Fujian and a few others provinces.
The architecture of the ancient town features a combination of Chinese and western styles. Songkou has a history of over 1,000 years and is notable for a wealth of well-preserved old buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. I can tell this town isn’t yet a year-round major tourist destination, which preserves its tranquility and authenticity.
We’re walking to our guest house which turns out to be a charming cottage built of wood and stone. The scenery is picturesque and delightful to the eyes.
As we get in, I smell the scent of wood and jasmine. The place is cosy and warm. The design combines Japanese and vintage style. The wood, the stone walls and the decoration give an impression of old mixed with new. I am guessing that the place is a very ancient building that has been renovated with wooden structures. I like seeing the vestiges of the past with the big cracked walls and the roof made of old bricks.
The bedrooms upstairs are simple and minimalist. Every single piece of furniture is made of wood. I lay down on the big Totoro bed on the floor, the dream of many children and big kids like me! There’s a Japanese style living room where we can sit on pillows and have some tea.
I go up to the last storey of the guest house and go out on the balcony to look at the view. I feel like going back to the XIV century and sense an air of the old China during the Ming dynasty. The architecture, the shapes of the roof, the old stones, the bricks and the walls that curve like a maze. I am so glad to capture this unique atmosphere full of history.
After unpacking our bags and a quick rest we go out exploring the town. Exploring is my favourite hobby when I am discovering a new place. I feel inspired when I explore.
We’re going down a beautiful pedestrian street made of stones which shelters food shops and little home-craft shops. I like witnessing the lives of the local people. They are looking at us, city people that we are and they’re watching me with an air of curiosity.
There are oldies sitting at the front of their shop, smoking and whiling away the time selling fresh drinks and fruits. I spot a rudimentary hairdresser, probably the most authentic I have ever seen. The street is very calm, there’s no noise here, only the laughter of children, and the rooster’s morning song. The simplicity of life in this town revitalises me. At some point, the city life, especially in China, eats you and I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Here, it’s like coming back to the basics and the simple values that we tend to forget.
We go down the stone street and to my great surprise we end up on the shore of a beautiful river coming down from the mountains.
The ancient town of Songkou was once the second largest port of the inland rivers of Guangdong and the Maritime Silk Road. With its rich Hakka history and culture, the town has become a cultural hub for overseas Chinese and traditional folk songs.
There are some very ancient houses on each side of the rivers and some of them are literally about to collapse. I jump on a large wooden construction that turns out to be a boat. I would have liked seeing these large pieces of wood put together, floating on the river. I smell the odour of fish that fishermen leave on the sun to dry out in big wicker baskets for a few days.
As we walk alongside the river, I am having a close look at the houses on the shore. I even walk on people’s property without knowing it. These houses and their authenticity fascinate me. They carry so much history and have remained untouched. They make me travel back in time and fill my imagination with pictures of ancient eras under the reign of Chinese emperors.
The heat is getting more intense and we happily go back to the guest house where an afternoon tea is offered by the house. The main room of the cottage is cosy with an artistic design. Each detail has been well thought out and put together, resulting in the most original decoration.
We sit on a little couch by the window. The hostess brings us some dry plums and pours our glasses with a thick yellow drink that appears to be tea. I am surprised by its unusual thickness and its delicious fruity taste. It’s probably the best tea I have ever had.
After drinking two pots of tea, I go exploring the guest house and its every detail. This place is full of little treasures. I find out there’s a small art gallery on the last storey. I spot a small ladder and climb to discover a little attic with a Japanese set up where you can relax and read a book.
The morning of our departure, I devour a delicious breakfast made of local products:
Life in Songkou is peaceful and relaxing. The pace is slow, there’s not much to do around. If you’re seeking an exciting nightlife, there is none. Songkou is the place to go for a retreat and forget about the turpitudes of the modern world. I love the simplicity in which people live their lives, far away from the city, with no artifice, a life full of authenticity. The ancient town definitely gives a sense of the old China and its impressive history. For a couple of days, I felt like I was living in another century.