Hunan Province – The old town of Fenghuang, literally means Phoenix Ancient Town and claimed to be ‘’ the most beautiful city of China’’, was built around 1700 during the 43-year reign of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty and it is located in the western border of Hunan and by the riverside of beautiful Tuojiang River. A legend said that two of these mythical birds flew over it and found the Fenghuang Town so beautiful that they hovered there, reluctant to leave. The town is breathtaking, the old city wall with the eastern and northern gates and the ancient buildings displaying the distinct Qing Dynasty style are still well preserved. It’s also home of the etnich group Miao people that retain their customs and culture from centuries ago.It’s common to see Miao women dress in traditional blue garments with a white scarf, plus silver jewelry or batik cloths, which are made and sold in Fenghuang ancient town. The government of Fenghuang County decided to develop the tourism industry after the South Great Wall was discovered in 2000 and in 2008 the old town was added in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
I spent 2 days here during my Hunan trip and it was an unforgettable stay, with no doubt an highlight of this Province and the whole China either. The best and easy way to enjoy its old and narrow alleys paved with flagstones and decorated with lanterns is by walk around them, in fact, all the main attractions are quite close to each others. My favorite trip was the cruise on the peaceful Tuojiang River that flows across the town, and where i could enjoy the breathtaking view of the stilt wooden houses called ‘Diaojiaolou’ which were built half suspended over the river to keep them safe from the spring floods.
The major attractions through Fenghuang are:
– the Hong Qiao bridge, also known as Rainbow Bridge, initially called Wohong Bridge ( wind and rain bridge) was built at the center of the old town during the Ming Dynasty with a long history of over 600 years. It was designed in three-arch stone and two-story ( at 2° floor there is an art gallery with fantastic works of calligraphic and painting ) and from its windows you’ll enjoy a wonderful view on the river’s stilt houses that reflect their shape in the river. The bridge was destroyed by a fierce flood in the 3rd year during the Republic of China (1912 -1949), and it was renewed with the name of the Rainbow Bridge. The bridge is really charming during the night when all the lights are on at the same time reflecting in the river.
– the Yang Family Ancestral Hall, is a traditional “Courtyard-House’’ with buildings that surround a rectangular or square central courtyard and the only one in Town among all the 24 halls in Fenghuang County. Built in 1836, it lies just inside the city wall on the south bank of the Tuojiang river and its exterior is covered with slogans from the Cultural Revolution.
– The former Residence of Xiong XiLing , an old historic house with a typical traditional Miao style architecture where you can see the living environment and maybe also imagine the scene of the daily life of Xiong XiLing, the first Premier of the Republic of China from July 1913 to February 1914, born in Fenghuang in 1870. He was a Chinese scholar, reformist, politician and philanthropist of the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China. The house is still furnished with the ornate wood furniture of the late 19th century.
– East Gate Tower, built in 1715 the East Gate tower is a two-storied architecture with a height of 8 meters and one of two Qing Dynasty towers in Fenghuang. Entering into the main hall of Tower, takes place statue of Guanyu, a famous and great figure of the Three Kingdom period. The East Gate, built in a semi-arch style, is one of the four grand gates of Ancient Fenghuang Town that was originally called Shengheng Gate with a 3.5 meters width and 4 meters height. The other is the Tower of the north gate that stands near the center of the city’s northern wall. The gate looks like a half moon arch, with the package of two doors. Linked with the East gate wall, it was a solid barrier of the ancient city with military defense and urban flood control function.
– Former Residence of Shen Congwen, was constructed in 1866 AD by the grandfather of Shen Chongwen, one of China’s greatest modern writers that ‘s has brought national fame to Fenghuang County. Today it is largely a shrine to the author’s life and it consists of 11 chambers with delicately-carved windows and a courtyard paved with red bricks.
– Longevity Palace (Wanshougong) Fenghuang and Folk Custom Museum, located at the bank of Tuojiang River in Shawan Scenic Area, it was a building complex, composed of more than 20 halls, mansions, chambers, pavilions and an ancient stage , now turned into the folk Custom Museum. It is the right place to go if you want to know interesting things about the local culture with its displays dedicated to the clothes and cultural artifacts of the Miao and Tujia ethnic groups.
– Chongde hall is a typical southern courtyard built in 1884 by Pei Shoulu, an immigrant from Jiangxi Province and the wealthiest resident of the town. He put here on display his personal collection of antiques that consists in carved wood lintels, decorative woodwork and inscribed wooden wall plaques.
– The boat trip along the Tuojiang River is the must-do highlight in this charming place. It is a great way to have a better view of the stilt houses lining the banks and you’ll will feel to be a part of Fenghuang Ancient Town, wonderful like a landscape painting. Every now and then you could see locals using the river water to wash their clothes as well as vegetables. Boats rum regularly from the pier near the town’s North Gate to Wanshou Temple.
– The night-time walking along the river is really beautiful, with the old buildings and the Rainbow bridge nicely illuminated. Here you’ll find restaurants café to enjoy some free time.
– Dongzheng shopping Street is a 500 meters long typical stone slab street with many handcraft stores, that are characterized by profound ethnic minority style. Here you’ll find are batik stores, calico stores, tie-dyeing stores and dyeing workshops as well as silver workshops and painting studios.
Other attractions through the town are the Temple of Heavenly Kings ( here you’ll enjoy a great view on the town), the Dacheng Palace, Chaoyang palace and the Wamming pagoda. If you have time, it’s also worth visiting the Southern Great Wall, a majestic defensive wall and one of the greatest ancient defensive architectures in China ( the only one in the south ), located 10 km away from the city; the Huang Si Qiao Castle, built during the year 687 of Tang Dynasty for military use and said to be the best preserved stone castle of China, located 24 km away of the city.
Admission Fee: entrance to the old town is free of charge and the combo ticket valid 2 days to visit the main attractions is RMB148, around 23$ (including 10 attractions: Former Residence of Shen Congwen, Formal Residence of Xiong XiLing, Yang Family Memorial Temple, East Gate Tower, Boat ride on Tuojiang River, Longevity Palace, Chongde Hall, Fenghuang Ancient City Museum, Hong Bridge Art Museum, Shenfeng Scenic Area of South Huashan)
Where to sleep: the old town is plenty of accommodations from well-equipped hotels to economic hostels, and is quite easy to find a room without booking. I slept at Government Hotel, 10 minutes walk from the riverside.
Getting there: there are regular buses from Zhangjiajie, Changsha, Jishou and Huaihua. The Tongren – Fenghuang Airport is located 30 km away from the city (from here you can take a bus – 1 hr ride).
Specialties: The batik painting is very popular, which is a symbol of the Miao nationality’s handicraft. Shops also sell many varieties of Chinese tea, a large array of silver jewellery and ornaments and handmade tie-dyes and obviously souvenir.
Local Food: The food is often spicy, pickled red peppers are a local delicacy, however, it’s the ginger candy that is the true specialty of Fenghuang. Made with ginger root and hot sugar, these candies are delicious and, according to local tradition, can ward off a cold or settle a stomach.