In search of susurrus #2

Hakka roundhouse

There’s something natural and comforting about curves in buildings.  In my perfect world, all buildings would be round, like the ancient Pictish brochs we have here in Shetland, or igloos, or Mongolian gers. It’s a good shape to live in, clearly.

The endless, sweeping circle of this earthen Hakka house was designed to safely envelop an entire community. Inside the whorl of mud and brick there are several floors of private spaces, all circling the shared courtyard below and linked by wooden balconies.

This photo was taken from an upper level, looking down on the clay tiles of the inner courtyard, which is open to the air. It was in a remote part of Fujian Province, in a hilly landscape of bamboo and forest that was dotted with the looped ruins of these cavernous wheels.

Left to decay for many years since they were first built, some hundreds of years ago, local people are now drifting back from the cities to live there again. We stayed overnight in one that had sort of been turned into a guest house. Although, looking back, it may well just have been someone’s house. It wasn’t round, but phoenix-shaped, with wings. Two families lived there; they shared the fires and the storerooms and sat chatting and playing mah jong late into the night.

We climbed the rickety stairs lit by a series of red lanterns to a small room with sloping wooden floors, that filtered the soft light and voices. It was a bit like going to bed when there was a party going on downstairs. We drifted off to the sounds of quiet laughter and rose to the watery rituals of washing and brushing teeth.

A young teacher was scrubbing vegetables at the communal tap in the courtyard. She had just moved home, after living in the city for 10 years. Some of her other friends were returning too, she said, so the elder generation wouldn’t be left alone. They could also see new opportunities for tourism, she admitted, welcoming visitors  to their circular kind of life.

KW, Sundibanks

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In search of susurrus #1

Chinese lanterns light up a dark sky
Chinese lanterns and karst peaks

Photos rarely tell the truth. Memories are even worse. But between the two, a sensory-saturated moment in time can be recalled in startling clarity. To organise your travel snaps is to head grinning with relish into a forgotten instant. What better task, then, for a dark and quiet January on a northerly island.

This series of photos is about China, where we lived for a few years. Some are quietly observed; others are snapped in haste. Travelling with a family meant learning to notice these instants, and to enjoy  – sometimes only fleetingly -the excitement, calm or bewildered curiosity they inspired.

The first photo was taken in southern China, in a region of limestone mountains of fantastical shapes near Yangshuo. The round, red lanterns seemed to glow like planets, with the karst outlines in the distance. This countryside was like a thousand Chinese paintings; mountains inked below a rice-paper sky.

That night we were staying in the Giggling Tree hostel, a bike ride from the nearest noisy and neon-lit town. The evening was cool but we ate outside and drank beer and talked nonsense and watched the children race around the old, stone courtyard with their visiting cousins. I snapped this picture on a trip to the loo, mesmerised by the light and taking a moment to enjoy the cool, jasmine-scented peace of dusk.

We had a full moon that trip too, and watched it slide into the circular frame of an eroded rock – a detail I’ve only just remembered.

KW Sundibanks, Shetland