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!
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.
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.
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 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).
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: 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A more recent occupation for some of the younger villages was labouring on the reconstruction of the wall.
Tang dynasty fort, Huangsi Qiao
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.
Practicalities (with updates)
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 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.
It will be part of the Zhangjiajie / Huaihua high speed line.
Places to Stay:
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.
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.