Romantic old town flair in the middle of nowhere
Imagine a romantic old river settlement with stilts houses on the riverbank, astonishingly well-preserved Chinese temples and old merchants’ shops, remaining fragments of an old city wall, historic city gates and narrow cobblestoned alleyways in front of a densely wooded green mountain panorama – all in the middle of China – and what you get is Fenghuang. Truly a small pearl in the west of Hunan near the border to Guizhou that justifies the self-given nickname “most beautiful small town of China” absolutely – at least during daytime.
History of Fenghuang
Once a border town which separated the empire of the Han Chinese from the peoples of the Miao, Dong and Tujia in the southwest, the “phoenix settlement”, as Fenghuang translates, however, quickly developed into a major trading center. The town dating from 1704 was also the center of the ultimately unsuccessful Miao rebellion against the Qing Dynasty in the mid-19th century (1854 – 1873), which forced many Miao to emigrate and created a diaspora of this minority people in Southeast Asia.
10 km south of the city you can even find a piece of the Southern Great Wall built to defend against Miao attacks, which can be visited by bus, taxi or hired mountain bike in a half-day trip from Fenghuang.
Romantic old town during the day …
First, however, I recommend delving extensively into the old town itself, because it has its very own romantic charm, which one might probably not find again in China. You can spend your time here just wandering around the alleyways, stopping here and there at a small shop or in a lovely-arranged cafe and simply admire the beauty of this place, while hearing dreamy guitar music coming out of some sleepy bars. I really enjoyed the fact that in spite of all the (Chinese) tourist groups the old town is pleasantly quiet, at least for Chinese standards. Many hotels and guesthouses with balconies invite you to spend the night with a view of the Tuo River and the magnificent houses on its shores.
For 148 RMB you can purchase a two-day through ticket giving you access to the nine most important sights of the old town, which also includes a half-hour boat trip on the Tuo River. However, I cannot really recommend the quite pricey ticket to tourists who do not yet coincidentally happen to study sinology or are able to speak and read the language fluently. The two big highlights are the boat trip (but you can have exactly the same views from the river bank), and the access to the gallery at the top of the Hongqiao Rainbow Bridge. For all the other sights, there’s almost never anything described in English and apart from the “sights” you can walk through the old town freely without the ticket. In the end, everyone should decide for themselves whether the ticket is worth the price or not, I personally think it will do no harm to your experience of Fenghuang to refrain from buying it.
The Temple of the Three Kings (sanwang), which is especially worth seeing, is even completely free to visit. It is located on the left-hand side of Hongqiao Zhonglu when coming from the Hongqiao Bridge and requires a few stairs to get up, but the nice views make up for the climb.
… but difficult to bear at night
The romantic image, which has gradually evolved during the day, is then abruptly destroyed by nightfall, when the bars on both sides of the river bank begin to treat their environment with either international disco music or Chinese folk music at an unbearable volume. This is at times so intolerable that one cannot even enjoy the really nice illuminations of the city walls, bridges and buildings on the banks of the river anymore, which are fortunately not drifting into a kitsch-like direction like you often see it in China.
Anyone who jumps into the nightlife, anyway, and perhaps looks too deep into the glass when watching a pole dance performance should take special care when he or she has to cross the river afterwards. Crossing it by the wooden pedestrian bridges or the popular “Stepping Stones” can quickly end in the water due to carelessness or balance problems!
Still worth seeing
Despite the nocturnal excesses, the old town of Fenghuang is a destination absolutely worth seeing. It has been on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage tentative list since 2008 now and I would strongly assume that the “official” status will be proclaimed in near future. The cultural heritage in the old town center is remarkable.
Many Western visitors have not yet discovered this place, the city is clearly still designed for domestic Chinese tourism. Chinese tourists, as already described in other blogposts, one has to get along with, but Fenghuang itself is a real pearl.
In this small, car-free and secluded refuge area, you quickly forget that the romantic charm of the old town is coming to an abrupt end outside of it, because Fenghuang “New City” is just as dirty and loud as any other city in China.
How to get to Fenghuang?
Fenghuang has no train station, but is accessible from all surrounding major cities (such as Huaihua, Jishou (also from Zhangjiajie) or Changsha) by frequent bus services. In addition, Fenghuang Airport is located in Tongren City 34km from Fenghuang and is served by a few selected domestic airports and airlines.
Have you ever had the opportunity to visit Fenghuang? If so, how did you experience the visit? Or do you know other similar old-world pearls in the “Middle Kingdom”, which are not yet on the radar of the tourist masses, but worth a visit? Please let me know, your feedback is very interesting to me!
(Travel period: May 2017)