“ You are so handsome,” re- marked Yang Juan, a few hours after we met in the city of Fenghuang. I am just an ordinary chap, a long way from being China’s hottest male model, but the casual flattery of a pretty 20-something was enough to change my travel plans. Instead of visiting several places in Hunan Province on my six-day holiday, I decided to stay put in Fenghuang.
Fenghuang means “phoenix” in Chinese, and the mythical bird that rose from the ashes seemed to be as good an omen for me as for the ancient Chinese. Legend has it that two of these birds flew over the town and liked it so much that they decided to stay on.
It was easy for me to appreciate their choice. The town sits against the backdrop of mist-shrouded mountains covered by thick forests. The scenic Tuojiang River that passes through Fenghuang sparkles with reflections of blue sky and green mountains. Ancient houses built on wooden stilts called diaojiaolou line the river. Being in this city is like finding yourself in a traditional Chinese painting. For artists or photographers, Fenghuang is paradise.
In the ancient town, it’s easy to kick off your shoes, lean back and do abso- lutely nothing. Perhaps it is the crisp mountain air or the pleasant encounters with easy-going locals. Daily life revolves around the river. Women wash their clothes along its banks, while men sit patiently with their fishing rods, hoping for a bite. Local boatmen earn their keep by ferrying tourists up and down the river.
Many of the town’s 14th-century build- ings have been preserved, giving visitors a glimpse of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) splendor. Because of its remote location, Fenghuang has remained unscathed by wars and revolutions.
Chinese tourists arrive in Fenghuang by the busloads, usually for a day’s visit, before rushing off to the more famous Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Western tourists are few and far between, and English is hardly spoken. “I like it here because it is peaceful and quiet,” my pretty new friend Yang told me. “But I wish there were more handsome guys in town.” She is of ethnic Miao origin and runs one of the restaurants in town. I can understand why it’s said that Miao women are natural beauties. Almost half the resi- dents in town are Miao. You can recognize them by their distinctive blue attire, sometimes with matching headgear and silver ornaments. Other ethnic minorities in the vicinity include Tujia and Dong.
Locals mainly speak Hunan dialect, and ethnic minorities have their own dialects. But Mandarin is generally understood by most people.
Fenghuang Old Town is best ex- plored on foot. Take a walk along the ancient cobblestones to check out old shophouses and quaint alleys. If you like shopping, there is an abundance of knickknacks, especially silver orna- ments, handmade by ethnic minorities. You might also try the local wine, ginger candies and other sweets.
They are numerous restaurants in town and the fare is typically fiery hot in the Hunan-style. Breakfast is usu- ally noodles or dumplings. Hotpot is common, and some restaurants offer delicious tangyuan, a sweet drink of red dates and peanut-filled glutinous rice balls. If you are adventurous, you might try the yewei, exotic animals ranging from river rodents to forest foxes. For the less daring, river fish and freshwater delicacies are excellent menu choices.
At night, Fenghuang is ablaze with lights. Some may lament this intrusion of modernity in such an ancient town, but it’s hard to beat back encroaching commercialism. The town takes on a dif- ferent mood in the evening. The streets come alive with food vendors selling grilled meats, dumplings, fried potatoes and spicy vegetables. Music at full blast pours from bars and pubs. For finger food, you might try the local delicacy — spicy duck neck. It’s best to have a mug of beer handy to quell a tongue set on fire.
Outside the ancient town area is the newer part of Fenghuang, where you can find many tour agencies offering trips to the nearby attractions. Among the popular choices are other old towns, like Furong; authentic Miao villages like Shanjiang and Laodong; the old section of the southern Great Wall; and Dehang with its picturesque waterfalls.
Being in this city is like finding yourself in a traditional Chinese painting. For artist or photographer, Fenghuang is paradise.
Where to stay
There are many hotels within the old town area and even more at newer sections of the city. Hotels located alongside the river are generally more expensive. Fenghuang Zhongtian International Youth Hostel (Tel: 0743-326 0677) offers a great view of the river but is surprisingly affordable. Rates per person range from 40 yuan (US$6.3) to 100 yuan for a shared dorm.
If you prefer a three-star hotel, you might try the Jinxiu Fenghuang International Hotel (www.jxfhgj.com/en).
The nearest airport is located in the small town of Tongren in neighboring Guizhou Province. From the airport, it’s a 45-min- ute, 40-kilometer taxi ride to Fenghuang. Tongren has connecting flights to Beijing, Guangzhou and Guiyang. Alternatively, you can fly to Huaihua or Zhangjiajie and take buses to Fenghuang. Expect to pay 148 yuan for a three-day pass to explore the ancient town. Bud- get travelers often complain about the steep price, but part of the fees are allo- cated to city maintenance, which is some consolation.
Best time to visit
April and May in the springtime and Sep- tember and October in autumn are the best times to visit Fenghuang. It can get very cold and sometimes snowy during the winter months, and summers are sweltering and rainy. It’s best to avoid Fenghuang during China national holidays and during monsoon months. In July 2014, the town was hit by severe flooding and many residents had to be evacuated. Fenghuang is also packed with tourists for the annual Dragon Boat Festival, when local authorities stage boat races on the river.