Mainly inhabited by Miao and Tujia minorities, Fenghuang (凤凰) lies at the western border of Hunan province. It is a well-preserved ancient town that takes visitors back to the China of hundreds of years ago.
Cross the stone bridge over the Tuo River, stroll down the paved roads, and meander through alleys filled with the fragrance of handmade ginger candy. Stay in one of the suspended houses built on the riverbank at the bottom of mountains; you will feel like staying forever.
Fenghuang is Chinese for “phoenix,” the mythical bird that returns to life by rising from its own ashes. The town’s history can be traced back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) but it only got the name “Fenghuang” during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). According to legend, two phoenixes flew over the town and found it so beautiful that they hovered over it and were reluctant to leave.
Fenghuang was little-known by the outside world before it was described in the books of celebrity Chinese writer and native son Sheng Congwen (1902-1988). Readers can find the town’s shadow in many of his novels. In 2001, Fenghuang became a national-level tourist attraction on its cultural and historical merits. It also earned international fame after New Zealand writer Louis Aerie praised it as one of the two most beautiful towns in China (the other being Changting in Fujian province).
Fenghuang is now divided into a new district and an old district. Tourists usually head for the latter, where the bulk of tourist attractions, hotels, shops, bars and restaurants are located. The Tuo River also runs across the old district. You can find a place to stay among the many diaojiaolou-style houses on either side of the river. Diaojiaolou is a type of residential structure traditionally inhabited by minorities scattered throughout Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan and Sichuan provinces.
The most authentic diaojiaolou are built on a slope at the bottom of a mountain and supported by several wooden columns stretching into a body of water. The design allowed the locals in ancient times to live by the river so that the women could wash clothes and the men could fish with nets. At the same time, the house was waterproof and shielded its inhabitants from wild animals living on the mountain. In the past, each family lived in a diaojiaolou that consisted of two or three floors.
Today, very few original diaojiaolou remain in Fenghuang. However, most of them are modeled on the ancient architecture and are enough to give visitors an idea of what the town might have looked like in old times. If you travel during low season, you can find a river-view room in one of the best diaojiaolou for only RMB 100 per night.
If you choose to stay in the old district like most visitors, your only concern should be dampness. On each riverbank, there are two rows of houses with a narrow alley between them, with most of the guest houses run by individual owners. During the off-season, many tourists opt to look for accommodations on arrival; the town is so small that you can quickly narrow your options down.
The guest houses built on top of the water offer a better view of the Tuo River, but the bedding and furniture can be musty and moldy if not taken care of by the owner. My travel companion and I chose one on the upper slope of the mountain. Our room on the third floor (which cost RMB 80 per night) offered a great view of the town – especially at night, when all the buildings by the river were lit up.
Once you are settled in, getting around is easy. You can easily cover all of Fenghuang’s attractions – including the Former Residence of Shen Congwen and Fenghuang Ancient City Museum – in only half a day. However, I would advise slowing down and wandering around to truly get a feel for the town.
One thing I never got bored of was taking a stroll on the cobblestone alleys populated by guest houses, restaurants, vendors selling snacks, and old women working on embroidery while taking in the pleasant smell of ginger candy and the sound of live music from cafes and bars.
There is a snack street located by Hongqiao (Rainbow Bridge), the main way of getting across the Tuo River (there are two other, smaller pedestrian bridges). After snacking on a small bowl of beef noodles, I jumped on the green sightseeing bus (RMB 1 per ticket) to get some seriously good local food in Fenghuang’s new district. About five minutes away from the old district, the yeshi shaokao yitiaojie or “night gourmet street” (夜市烧烤一条街) featured many open-air stalls offering shiguo yu (fish in hot stone pot, 石锅鱼), smoked pork, and something you probably won’t eat anywhere else: xueba (glutinous rice cake mixed with duck blood, 血粑), which is usually cooked with duck in a heavy sauce. The local mijiu (rice wine, 米酒) goes well with this spicy delicacy.
The next day, you might choose to eat a bowl of rice noodles with soup for breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Then, I recommend taking a small boat (RMB 30) at Fengqiao at the far end of the town. You will travel downstream through clear water spotting more diaojiaolou as green water weeds gently lap around the boat. The boat will stop for ten minutes at a turning point, where you can sample and purchase local kiwi wine, osmanthus wine, and rice wine at the town’s biggest brew house.
The Tuo River used to be the lifeblood of the local people, but you can no longer see minority women in traditional embroidered clothes doing the washing by the water. Domestic water from the town’s households is now collected and treated by a central sewage plant to keep the river clean. Many fishermen have taken to paddling boats for tourists to make a living, and Miao minority girls have found their folk songs appreciated on the many river cruises.
However, some things have not changed. Warm ginger candy is still made by hand on the street and makes a popular gift. If
phoenixes flew over Fenghuang today, I think this beautiful little town that mixes ancient beauty and modern vitality would still make the birds reluctant to leave.
This part of our Throwback Series, which looks for relevant articles from our massive database to give you a refresher on things to do or places to visit.
Photos by Clemence Jiang and Courtesy of Flickr Users Thomas Fischler, Magical-world, and Hopehill
This article originally appeared on p38-41 of the beijingkids November 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com