Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang

Fenghuang 凤凰 (finding hidden gems)

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang 2003
Fenghuang 2003

Discovering a hidden gem is one of the great motivations for travelling off-the-beaten-track in China. After hours of bouncing up and down on an uncomfortable overcrowded bus along bumpy pot holed roads you find yourself in small town China where little has changed for years and the old architecture is still intact.

Fenghuang 2003
Fenghuang 2003

What’s the catch? Sometimes you find that half of China has got there before you!  Way back in 2003 and the year of SARS, we thought we had found a hidden Gem only to discover the Chinese were keeping it a secret from foreigners. Welcome to the stunning riverside town of Fenghuang 凤凰 in Hunan Province 湖南.

Click here for the Southern Great Wall near Fenghuang

Finding Fenghuang 凤凰(Phoenix City)

Old houses in Fenghuang 2003
Old houses in Fenghuang 2003

It was one of those early evenings in small-town China in 2001; we’d already eaten and the after dinner entertainment options were conspicuous by their absence. The only fall-back was to retire to our room with a few beers and watch CCTV9, the mildly interesting English Language Channel. We tuned in to ‘Around China’, a cultural and travel programme dedicated to the promotion of traditional and/or exotic aspects of Chinese culture. On the programme, they were discussing a type of opera that was only found in a remote town in Hunan Province whose name I couldn’t catch.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: FenghuangBoatman Punting Fenghuang 2003
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang boatman punting Fenghuang 2003

We were immediately drawn to the screen, wondering, ‘where is this stunning place with covered bridges, ancient houses on stilts and pagodas?’ At the end of the clip, I managed to catch its name, ‘Fenghuang’. Grabbing the guidebook, I tried to find it, but there was no such town. We decided to look for more information about this elusive Fenghuang so that,if one day the opportunity arose, we could visit it.

Boatman looking for tourists Fenghuang 2003
Boatman looking for tourists Fenghuang 2003

This opportunity eventually came in 2003

This opportunity eventually came in 2003. We were travelling from Anshun in Guizhou province (famous for the Huangguoshu Falls as well as its Sunday Market) to the natural wonders of Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, when we realised that our train was actually stopping very close to Fenghuang. So we decided to break up our journey and satisfy our curiosity.

Under the Bridge Fenghuang 2003

Under the bridge Fenghuang 2003

Arriving at the bus station in the dark, after a beautiful three-hour ride from the rail junction of Huaihua, we were at a loss as to where we might sleep. Fortunately, there was Mrs Li with some flattering photos of a room in her house. Without too much fuss, we agreed on 60 yuan for a double with shower. We followed Mrs Li into the warren of narrow streets that make up Fenghuang’s old city, our bulky backpacks attracting some curious stares from the passers-by.

Back streets of Fenghuang
Back streets of Fenghuang

Eventually, we arrived at Mrs Li’s house and even though the room, and especially the bathroom, didn’t quite match what we had seen in the photos, tiredness and lack of orientation resigned us to staying.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. A Hidden Gem No More

Entrance Ticket Fenghuang 2003
Entrance Ticket Fenghuang 2003

When we ventured out of our room the next morning, we were expecting to find an undiscovered gem. Fenghuang’s remote location in the far west of Hunan, bordering on Guizhou, as well as its absence from all guidebooks, had led us to imagine we would have the whole city to ourselves.

Stilt Houses Fenghuang 2003
Stilt Houses Fenghuang 2003

Imagine our surprise then, when we found that Chinese domestic tourism had already arrived in the so-called Phoenix City (Fenghuang means Phoenix and according to legend two of these sacred birds flew over the city in ancient times) in a big way, complete with tourist guides armed with flags and megaphones, leading their charges from one scenic spot to another…  Though Fenghuang might be a gem, undiscovered it certainly was not! Perhaps, the Chinese had just been keeping it a secret from foreigners. Nevertheless, the town is still far from overrun and the majority of Chinese tourists are students, many of them art students, who spend their time painting the famous sights and river scenes.

Fenghuang 2003
Fenghuang 2003

A number of shops catering for the growing tourist industry have sprung up along the cobbled main street, set in attractive wooden houses. While many of these sell the usual knick-knacks that can be found at tourists sights all over China, others sell high quality batiks and attractive ethnic clothing. Another speciality are the sweets that are made in the streets and sold in very attractive packages. The spicy ginger sweets are the best we’ve ever tried.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. History and Background

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang

Fenghuang has a long history. It was an imperial garrison town serving the dual purpose of keeping a watchful eye on the restless Miao and protecting the salt route. Fenghuang owed its prosperity to the salt trade in which it played a pivotal role. Many of the grand merchant mansions were built from the profits derived from this trade. 

Fenghuang Watch Tower 2003
Fenghuang Watch Tower 2003

The population of Fenghuang is a mixture of Han Chinese and Miao and Tujia ethnic groups.  Contrary to the official view point, the relationship between the majority Han Chinese and the Miao has not always been harmonious. During the 1850’s, a huge rebellion by the Miao in this area saw them pitted against the imperial soldiers in a fight that cost millions of lives.  Clashes between Han Chinese and the Miao continued right up to the founding of the Peoples Republic of China. The Southern Great Wall passed close to Fenghuang and its remains are a testament to the fierce struggle between Imperial China and China’s ethnic groups.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. Fenghuang’s Attractions

Once we’d recovered from our initial shock at finding the town full of tourists, we set out to discover what had brought them all here.

Fenghuang Scenery 2003
Fenghuang Scenery 2003

First of all, there is Fenghuang’s setting and scenery. Lying in a scenic valley, surrounded by lush green hills, with a placid clear river running through its centre, Fenghuang is the archetypal image of a classical ancient Chinese town. The architecture in the historical part of town is an interesting mixture of Ming and Qing dynasty wooden and stone houses, with some local Miao minority influences adding to its uniqueness.

Street Fenghuang 2003
Street Fenghuang 2003

There are narrow lanes, old gates and ramparts. A large section of the old city wall has been restored and provides great views over the rooftops, the town and the river. The most striking buildings, many of which have been converted into atmospheric restaurants and bars, overhang the river and are propped up on wooden stilts. During the day, you can appreciate the outlines of the houses reflected in the green-blue waters of the river, at sunset the river takes on an orange hue, while at night hundreds of little lights shine on its black surface.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. The Sights

Then there are the sights, although it has to be said that the first of these, the ‘Hongqiao’ covered bridge, is a bit of a let-down. The bridge, which is said to be about 300 years old, looks spectacular from a distance. However, a closer inspection reveals that the top part is a new construction and serves as a shopping centre with tacky souvenir stalls and an entertainment arcade.

More interestingly, you can visit a number of old mansions around the town, built by ancient aristocratic and merchant families. Some of these buildings are very atmospheric and contain detailed carvings, antique furniture, shady courtyards, as well as theatre stages where Fenghuang opera, known as Yangxi opera, used to be performed. Yangxi opera has its roots in Shamanism and local Miao customs and operas were often staged to ward off plagues and famines.

Old Theatre Fenghuang 2003
Old Theatre Fenghuang 2003

Discovering a Hidden Gem:Shen Congwen

One of the mansions open to the public once belonged to the famous writer Shen Congwen, known for combining the vernacular style of writing with classical Chinese writing techniques. Shen Congwen based many of his stories on the local traditions and customs from around this western area of Hunan and portrayed the violent clashes between the Chinese and the local Miao ethnic group. You can visit his tomb by taking a pleasant walk away from the town, along the river and past some pagodas and temples.

Old Still lived in Courtyard Fenghuang 2003
Old Still lived in Courtyard Fenghuang 2003

If you get tired of walking around, there is an alternative way of viewing Fenghuang, which is to hire a small boat, punted by a man with a huge bamboo pole. Many Chinese spend hours going up and down the river, knocking back ‘baijiu’ (Chinese rice wine) and generally making merry. At night, these boats have lanterns hanging from their roofs, making it all look very romantic.

Boatman Punting Fenghuang 2003
Boatman Punting Fenghuang 2003

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. Practicalities

Transport:

Fenghuang used to be accessible only by bus. There are three approches from to the town. If you are heading to or from the nature reserve at Zhangjiajie, then you need to use the town of Jishou. There are regular buses between Fenghuang and Jishou. If you are going to Zhangjiajie, you need to catch the first bus at 6.30 from Fenghuang to Jishou (2hrs), in order to catch the first train from Jishou to Zhangjiajie at 9.08. A hard seat ticket costs 22 Yuan. The bus from Fenghuang drops you at the opposite end of Jishou from the train station and a taxi to the station is probably the best option, if you want to get a train ticket.

Huaihua to  Fenghuang Bus ticket
Huaihua to Fenghuang Bus ticket

There are also regular buses from the railhead town of Huaihua on the Changsha – Guiyang rail line. It is a beautiful two and half hour ride.

Finally, there are buses from Fenghuang to Tongren in Guizhou, for those wishing to climb Fanjing Shan.

Update

Times have changed. Fenghuang is soon to be on the high speed rail network, so getting there will be a whole lot easier; for better or for worse!


Fenghuang should be added to China’s high speed network this year (2021) making it very easy to get to Fenghuang from most places in China.

It will be part of the Zhangjiajie / Huaihua high speed line.

Places to Stay:

Traditioanl Inn Kezhan Fenghuang 2003
Traditioanl Inn Kezhan Fenghuang 2003

We stayed in a family guest house on the edge of the old city, where we paid only 60 Yuan for a clean room with  (primitive) bathroom. After we had checked in, we discovered several modern hotel options in the new town, as well as a whole string of atmospheric wooden Inns (Kezhan) by the river. These cheap hotels are basic but clean and many rooms have balconies overlooking the river.

Places to eat:

You wont see this now Reatuarant staff washing your veggies in the river Fenghuang 2003
You won’t see this now: restaurant staff washing your veggies in the river Fenghuang 2003

The riverside restaurants serve excellent food. Lots of them are point and choose joints, where the chef will cook up something wonderful, from your choice of ingredients. The tiny fried shrimps and small fried fish with chilli are particularly good.

My Favourite Miao Restaurant fenghuang 2003
My Favourite Miao Restaurant Fenghuang 2003

If you haven’t been to Guizhou, Fenghuang is a good place to try Miao dishes, especially the hot and sour chicken, or hot and sour fish. We particularly liked one excellent restaurant just off the old main street, run by a friendly young couple. It is recognizable by the huge selection of fresh vegetables outside and the cured meats hanging in the front window (See photo).

Margie having a beer in a riverside tavern Fenghuang 2003
Margie having a beer in a riverside tavern Fenghuang 2003

They do a great sweet and sour cat fish as well as  good vegetarian dishes. Lastly, in the  modern town there is a night market that has a good selection of snacks and local specialities.

The Southern Great Wall

The Southern Great Wall 南长城 or the Miaojiang Great Wall苗疆长城: The Miao Frontier Wall

THE SOUTHERN GREAT WALL 南长城 OR THE MIAOJIANG GREAT WALL苗疆长城: THE MIAO FRONTIER WALL
THE SOUTHERN GREAT WALL 南长城 OR THE MIAOJIANG GREAT WALL苗疆长城: THE MIAO FRONTIER WALL

Rebuilding the past: The new old or the old new

The Southern Great Wall (sometimes known as the THE MIAOJIANG GREAT WALL 苗疆长城: THE MIAO FRONTIER WALL) lies a few kilometers outside the beautiful historic town of Fenghuang in Western Hunan Province.

Set in lush green coutryside, the wall snakes its way through farm land and climbs up and over steep and verdant hills. But what is the Southern Great Wall? Most people have never heard of it!

Fenghuang Town 2003
Fenghuang Town 2003

THE SOUTHERN GREAT WALL and restoring China’s past

I have never figured out how to adequately describe the way the Chinese authorities attempt to preserve China’s past.

The Southern Great Wall An older stretch of the Southern Wall
An older stretch of the Southern Great Wall

Techniques range from the painstaking and meticulous restoration of ancient artefacts and burial sites (think the Terracotta Warriors), to the naffest styles you can imagine.

Waiting for the wrecking ball; the old city of Datong
Waiting for the wrecking ball; the old city of Datong

Sometimes entire ancient villages or ancient city centers are bulldozed down and then rebuilt in the same style using shoddy materials and guady add ons.

The new old city of Datong
The new old city of Datong

The old city of Datong 大同 in Shanxi山西 is a good example of this type of so-called restoration. If you look carefully at the above picture, you can see two yellow Chinese characters next the gate. The characters say ‘Gucheng 古城, which means ancient city. They are ready to be placed above the newly built old gate built over looking what used to be old Datong.

Then there are the cities that build a new historic centre when they never had one in the first place (Bayon Hot).

The New Gate surrounding the new old city of Bayonhot Inner Mongolia
The New Gate surrounding the new old city of Bayonhot Inner Mongoli啊

Another restorative approach is to rebuild almost from scratch, a monument or building that disappeared or crumbled away a long time ago, and try to retore it back to its former splendor. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and some modern restoring materials do not make the grade. The latter is definetly true for the Southern Great Wall or the Miaojiang Frontier Great Wall near Fenghuang.

The Southern  Great Wall

The Southern Great Wall: A brief History

The Southern Great Wall was originally built in the 16th century during the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620). Its purpose? To keep the rebellious Miao 苗族, Tujia 土家族 and Dong 侗族 minorities from causing trouble. And at the same time preventing them from disrupting the lucrative trading routes such as the salt trade, that made Fenghuang such a prosperous city.

The Miao and Chilis
The Miao and Chilis

The Miao minority was particularly notorious for robbing merchants and raiding military outposts. Some say that the wall’s raison d’etre was to separate two types of Miao. The Raw Miao生苗; those Miao who refused to recognise the rule of the emperor. And the Mature Miao熟苗; those who did recognise and submit to the emperor’s rule.

Miao Traders Guizhou
Miao Traders Guizhou

Recreating the Southern Great Wall

Stretching for 190 kilometers, the Southern Great Wall basically separated what is now Guizhou Province from Hunan Province. The word Jiang 疆 in the wall’s other name, Miaojiang Changcheng (The Great Miao Frontier Wall), means frontier, and shows that this area was on the very fringes of the Chinese Empire at the time.

Miao and Bullfighting Guizhou
Miao and Bullfighting Guizhou

When the Ming Dynasty collapsed, the Miao destoyed the wall, the original parts you can see these days are remnants of the Qing Dynasty’s efforts to rebuild it. I say original parts, because most of what you see now was rebuilt between 2001 and 2003; exactly when we visited.

Recreating the Southern Great Wall Hunan China
Recreating the Southern Great Wall

We can testify that, while the wall is quite spectacular, what you are walking on is an almost completely new creation, covered with a grey spray to give it that ancient look.

Recreating the Southern Great Wall Hunan China
Recreating the Southern Great Wall Hunan China

While we were there, we witnessed hundreds of labourers beavering away and recreating the wall practically from scratch. However, there was one major problem: the quality of the materials. It is a pity that even after a few months, some of the shoddily built new parts were already falling apart. They definitely employed superior materials in bygone times. And The Chinese emperors maintained more vigorous quality control checks than today’s authorities.

Not in good shape. Shoddy building the Southern Great Wall
Not in good shape. Shoddy building the Southern Great Wall

Walking the Wall

The 45 Yuan entrance ticket (2003) allows you to roam freely along the wall. If you are lucky, you’ll have a steep undulating 2 to 3 kilometre stretch of wall pretty much to yourself (2003). However, in recent years, Fenghuang has become a major Chinese domestic tourist hotspot. I think you may now share this section with the hordes of day trippers from Fenghuang.

A sweaty Adam with the only other tourists
A sweaty Adam with the only other tourists

An authentic old village at the end of the wall

At the end of the wall you will come to an attractive black-stone village, with low medieval-looking houses, which is worth a wander around.  Don’t be surprised, however, if someone jumps out with a ticket demanding 10 Yuan for the privilege of visiting. 

Drying Chilis the Southern Great Wall
Drying Chilis the Southern Great Wall

Most of the villagers earn a living by cultivating chillies and corn. There are piles of extremely long chilies (maybe Thunder Mountain Chillies: the longest in the world) drying in every available space.

Drying Corn the Southern Great Wall
Drying Corn the Southern Great Wall

A more recent occupation for some of the younger villages was labouring on the reconstruction of the wall.

Villagers rebuilding the Sothern Great Wall
Villagers rebuilding the Sothern Great Wall

Tang dynasty fort, Huangsi Qiao

HuangSi  Qiao Fenghuang
HuangSi Qiao Fenghuang

A little further afield is the Tang dynasty fort, Huangsi Qiao, on the border with Guizhou province. The fort is a bit of a let-down, a couple of crumbling watch towers and a sturdy wall encircling a small surviving hamlet. The only reason to traipse out there is to enjoy the views of the enchanting countryside and admire the isolated beacon towers on the hilltops, stretching away into Guizhou province.

Scenery near Huangsi Qiao
Scenery near Huangsi Qiao

Practicalities (with updates)

Transport:

The Southern Great Wall

We jumped off a bus running between Fenghuang and HuangSi Qiao. Then flagged down a local bus to return to Fenghuang.

Fenghuang

Fenghuang used to be only accessible by bus (see update for new info). It could be approached from three directions. If you are heading to or from the nature reserve at Zhangjiajie, then you need to use the town of Jishou. There are regular buses between Fenghuang and Jishou (see update for new info).

In the past If you were going to Zhangjiajie, you needed to catch the first bus at 6.30 from Fenghuang to Jishou (2hrs), in order to catch the first train from Jishou to Zhangjiajie at 9.08. The bus from Fenghuang dropped you at the opposite end of Jishou from the train station and a taxi to the station was probably the best option, if you wanted to get a train ticket.

There are also regular buses from the railhead town of Huaihua on the Changsha – Guiyang rail line. It is a beautiful two and half hour ride.

Finally, there are buses from Fenghuang to Tongren in Guizhou, for those wishing to climb Fanjing Shan.

Updates

Fenghuang should be added to China’s high speed network this year (2021) making it very easy to get to Fenghuang from most places in China.

It will be part of the Zhangjiajie / Huaihua high speed line.

Places to Stay:

Riverside Inns (Kezhen) Fenghuang
Riverside Inns (Kezhen) Fenghuang

We stayed in a family guest house on the edge of the old city, where we paid only 60 Yuan for a clean room with  (primitive) bathroom. After we had checked in, we discovered several modern hotel options in the new town, as well as a whole string of atmospheric wooden Inns (Kezhan) by the river. These cheap hotels are basic but clean and many rooms have balconies overlooking the river.

Update: There are now loads of very nice places to stay in Fenghuang.

Adam's favourite Fenghuang Restaurant
Adam’s favourite Fenghuang Restaurant

Places to eat:

The riverside restaurants serve excellent food. Lots of them are point and choose joints, where the chef will cook up something wonderful, from your choice of ingredients. The tiny fried shrimps and small fried fish with chilli are particularly good. If you haven’t been to Guizhou, Fenghuang is a good place to try Miao dishes, especially the hot and sour chicken, or hot and sour fish.

Moreover, there is (was???) one excellent restaurant just off the old main street run by a friendly young couple. It is recognizable by the huge selection of fresh vegetables outside and the cured meats hanging in the front window (See Photo). They do a great sweet and sour cat fish as well as  good vegetarian dishes. Lastly, in the  modern town there is a night market that has a good selection of snacks and local specialities.

Finding Fenghuang

fenghuang-river-scene.jpg

It was one of those early evenings in small-town China in 2001; we’d already eaten and the after dinner entertainment options were conspicuous by their absence. The only fall-back was to retire to our room with a few beers and watch CCTV9, the mildly interesting English Language Channel. We tuned in to “Around China”, a cultural and travel programme dedicated to the promotion of traditional and/or exotic aspects of Chinese culture. On the programme, they were discussing a type of opera that was only found in a remote town in Hunan Province whose name I hadn’t caught. We were immediately drawn to the screen, wondering: “where is this stunning place with covered bridges, ancient houses on stilts and pagodas?” At the end of the clip I managed to catch its name, ‘Fenghuang’. Grabbing the guidebook I tried to find it, but there was no such town. We decided to look for more information about this elusive Fenghuang, so that if one day the opportunity arose, we could visit it.

This opportunity eventually came in 2003……

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fenghuang-stilt-houses.jpg