Hunan Province (1) : Fenghuang

Dear reader,

Its summer 2015 and I am on my way to Shanghai to embark on what would be a most memorable trip to China.  This time I have the opportunity to spend a week in Hunan Province.  I am really excited.  I am not really going on a tour around the province, but I have selected one incredible area in the North-West of the province, and probably one of the most beautiful places in the country : Zhangjiajie.  The fantastic Zhanjiajie National Forest Park with its unique landscapes is world famous, and became known to people outside China after the movie ‘Avatar’.  The ‘Hallelujah Mountains or the ‘floating mountains’ in Avatar are inspired on the rock pillars in the National Park.  The first in China, by the way., and UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992.

The park is actually part of the larger ‘Wullinyuan Scenic Area’, and I am going to visit several parts of it, including a couple of caves, but there is much more to see than just the National Forest Park alone.   Before I go to stay in the park for a few days, first I am going to spend some time in one of the most beautiful and amazing villages of China : Fenguang or ‘Phoenix Town’, also a UNESCO site.

As usual I arrive early in the morning in Shanghai.  I am quite familiar with Shanghai, but after all those years I am still impressed by the immense halls and huge ceilings of Pudong airport.  I really should do a post on Shanghai soon…  My flight to Zhangjiajie isn’t scheduled until tomorrow, so I will spend a day with some friends in the city and stay there overnight.   I don’t mind at all.  I love Shanghai, and after a rest I take the  opportunity to indulge myself with local Shanghai specialties..20150718_135526It is not really a long flight to Zhangjiajie from Shanghai.  Its about a 1000 km away.  But going to the airport, checking in, the flight, getting to the hotel…  Basically your day is gone.  I don’t get to see much of Zhangjiajie city that day.  It’s already dark and I have to move early in the morning.  The hotel is sober, but ok for the night, and it is close to the railroad station and the main bus stop. There will be time for visiting the city later.

For a smaller city, I must say that the railway station is an impressive building.  Modern and elegant.   The square in front of the station is still empty this early in the morning.  Only a few travelers are lining at the ticket counter and a few vendors outside are offering breakfast.  An offer I don’t refuse.

However to get to Fenghuang, I take the bus.  It is a long drive, and I enjoy every minute of it as we drive through small towns and pass little markets.  Or just stare outside the window to admire the beautiful rural landscape with its lush green fields and mountains in this part of Hunan province.    It is already noon by the time we arrive in Fenghuang.  It’s not really a village, but more a town.  There are 2 parts : the newer town, and the historical old town along the banks of the Tuojiang river.   The bus drops us in a busy part of the new town.  From here I easily find a taxi to get me to my hotel.20150719_093136The old town cannot be reached by car.  The whole area is pedestrians only.  So we stop just next to the main bridge, at the beginning of an old street leading downwards.  Luckily I am lightly packed.  I like to travel light.  I don’t want to drag too much with heavy suitcases, waiting at the conveyor belt in the airport,  risking losing your luggage, or it being delivered days later….  If I can I travel with a backpack only, one that is just big enough to take on board as carry-on luggage.  Still it gets a bit heavy though…  As I make my way down the wide steps of the old street,  I spot a ticket counter.  You can only visit the old town if you have a ticket, even if you stay in a hotel in the old town itself, which was the case for me.  For the 3 days I was going to be there I paid about 150 rmb.

Further I go down the small street.  It is quite nice with flowers and greenery every where decorating ancient buildings.  As the street get narrower, it also gets busier.  There are bars and souvenir shops and the street is bustling with activity.  Just before the end of the street I spot the small entrance of my hotel.   I have arrived.  20150719_121955To get to the counter of this small hotel, i need to take some narrow stairs.  It really is a tiny place.  Maybe it has 4 or 5 rooms in total.  The lady takes me all the way to the top floor and opens the door to my room.  Waw !  The room is gorgeous.  Not really big but spacious enough and tastefully decorated with a big waterbed close to the window.  But the nicest thing about the room is the view when the lady opens the curtains of the sliding doors leading to the balcony.  Still till now I hadn’t seen the river and the typical Ming and Quing dynasty style houses that make Fenghuang so famous.  But here I get the grand view.

It is incredible.  The river flows below me and opposite I see the old East Tower and part of the city wall.  To the left, upstream, I see the typical style wooden facades of the houses along the riverbank, some supported by wooden stilts, and further a first ancient bridge.  It is really magnificent.  I cant believe my luck when I think that the next morning I will be waking up with this view. Immediately next to my room is a very nice terrace for the guests with table and couches to relax or have a cup of tea.  And that is what I do right away.  Forget about unpacking.  First take a break and enjoy the fantastic view over this fantastic town.

I still have most of the afternoon ahead of me, so it is time to explore the old town. I am only about 20 meters away from the end of the street. There are more bars, but most are still closed this early.  Still all the colorful shops are open and there is a busy atmosphere. From the end of the street you follow the road along the riverbank.  The creaky houses on their wooden stilts look wonderful in the sunshine.  But first there is a checkpoint where I must show my ticket.  I heard that by now they have stopped doing that.  I guess now that the town is discovered by masses of tourists from China and abroad, they don’t really need it anymore..  I must say that when I was there, it was busy, but in a pleasant way.  As a lively little town should be.

The first point of interest I spot is a watermill below in the river and a statue.  I also notice that the path leading to the mill extends quite a bit into the river, so I try to get to the furthest point to have a better view of the river upstream. A local lady is doing her laundry in the river, just like I read on a website about Fenghuang before I came to China.  I can’t believe my luck.  It makes you forget about the tourists around you, and it feels like you are walking in an actual town, in another time, and not just a in tourist attraction.  I learn also that the statue is about a brave local man who saved a child from the river during a flooding.  That happens frequently and is off course the reason why the houses are build on wooden stilts.  Still the town suffered severe damage during a heavy flooding in 2014.  You can find picture of the town during this flooding on the internet..

Further I go past shops and bars along the beautiful river bank of the Tuojiang River.  Here and there I see some local girls in local outfits with the typical silver jewelry and crowns. The majority of the local people belong to the Tujia and Miao minorities, and their traditional outfits are really colorful and very nice.   To the left of me I see a few small streets from time to time leading a bit further inside the town, but I prefer to stay next to the river for now and make a first tour staying on the main path around town.  In front of me, as the road gets narrower, is the first ancient bridge across the river : the Rainbow Bridge.20150719_132120It is a magnificent old covered bridge that perfectly reflects the typical architecture of early 18th century China.  On the first floor now you will find shops on both sides.  On the second floor seems to be a room for receptions or exhibitions.   I decide to not yet cross the river, and to rather continue on my path, so I walk under the bridge and the Dongguan Gate, to walk further upstream in this wonderful water town.   Especially here around the bridge, the forest of wooden stilts supporting ancient historical facades becomes dense.  It’s incredible how well all is preserved.  Clearly most of the houses now are offering lodging with river view to tourists like myself.

The river widens and bends to the right, and in front of me I see the iconic 7 story Wanming Pagoda behind an emerald green river, and against a background of characteristic wooden houses and lush green mountains…  It is an incredible view.  There is even a fantastic small terrace, the Shawan Scenic Site where you can sit down and have a rest while enjoying the fabulous panorama.   Or take a selfie.20150719_132341I continue my walk to the pagoda past Longevity Hall. There is a small boat with sail in front of it to make the pictures even better.  It is a bit transparent and obviously intended for the tourists, but still a nice touch.  I see another bridge appearing after the bend as the town continues to follow the winding river upstream, and disappears behind the mountains.

This seems the best spot to cross the river and start to walk back from the right bank.  I don’t see another bridge  in the distance nor a clear path going further along the river banks.  The bridge  is beautiful and in traditional style matching the architecture of the houses, but it looks recently build.  The amount of restaurants seems to dwindle down drastically, and they are certainly smaller than the ones closer to the old center of town, but they offer a small terrace and a magnificent view down the river and the pagoda on the opposite side.

I tell myself that I am thirsty on this warm summer day, but deep down I feel that the view deserves more admiring.  The small tea house is the perfect stop for a refreshment and some homemade cakes.  From here on you can choose to follow a small wooden path next to the river, or venture into some smaller streets behind the river front.  20150719_134625For me it’s time to explore the smaller streets inside the town, as I make my way back down to the center.  The small streets and their shops and vendors are most charming.  And it really isn’t too busy so it becomes uncomfortable.

The narrow street leads back to the Rainbow bridge and the old city wall.  There are plenty of interesting spots on the way : Guanmen Gate, Zhunti Nunnery, The Duocui Mansion, and the Huilong Pavilion.  The area around the Rainbow bridge on this side of the river is larger than the opposite side with several narrow streets intersecting into a small maze.  I walk around a little bit and try to find the East Gate tower.  The first tower of the ancient fortifications and city walls of old Fenghuang town.  I also go to explore the covered Rainbow bridge.IMG_3596 There are shops on both sides and although they have windows, you can’t really take a picture from there, unless you go into a shop.  That would be a bit awkward, but I do ask politely if it is possible, and I get immediate permission and an understanding smile.

IMG_3600I stay on the right side of the river and follow the city wall from the East Tower.  Inside old canons point to a disappeared enemy. The tower itself offers nice views over the rooftops of this ancient town.

The wall itself is in great condition and well restored and maintained, with a particular warm  brown colored stone. It’s a strange sight now that there is construction on both sides of the wall, and you can’t see the river.

Small streets lead away from the river to the main shopping streets and several other attractions and historical houses that can be visited.20150719_152514The wall continues towards the main North Gate tower, opposite of my room.  Here it is more busy, and I walk through the gate back to the river side.  A lot of people are standing near the water on this hot day, and you can easily wade inside if you want or dont mind getting your feet wet.  Here you can also try on the local costumes for a picture.  It is a popular  attraction.

The river here is at it’s widest in Fenguang, and to cross it here you must step over rectangular blocks of stone in the river : The Jumping Stones.  It is quite fun, and you have great views from the middle of the river.  But traffic comes from both sides, so it could get a little tricky at points..

The weather is warm and some kids are swimming in the river, that doesn’t seem to be too deep.  The water really looks inviting.  Summer in Fenghuang.  I can imagine worst things than that. Those brave enough to cross the jumping stones, and quick enough to take a picture, are rewarded with incredible views from the middle of the river.IMG_3694IMG_3670I can’t resist to take a boat trip.  It’s really not that expensive, and a must when you visit.  It is not a very long boat trip, but it is certainly great fun as you pass closely to the typical wooden constructions and under the rainbow bridge.  A local girl on a small boat in the shade under the Rainbow bridge waves at the tourists passing by with a big smile.  Fantastic !  The people here are really warm and welcoming.

It is is well worth the queuing and the little fare to get close to the fantastic wooden constructions of ancient Fenghuang. We turn around just behind the pagoda, and return to our starting point at the North Gate tower.

I have almost completed my tour of Fenghuang.  Only a short walk is left to the Wind and Water Bridge and the main Fenghuang bridge that is used for traffic.  A wooden path next to a waterfall and another watermill takes me across.

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Clearly this area is the tourist hotspot with colorful and inviting restaurants left and right. The sun is setting and the wooden facades take on a beatiful and warm almost orange color.  I start to feel hungry and it is getting later, so I return to my hotel to freshen up and get ready for dinner.

But not before I quickly climb up the Phoenix bridge for a view from above.IMG_3726I want to avoid the touristic restaurants, so after some inquiries I get directions to a more local restaurant, in the newer side of town.  It is easy to find, under the Nanhua Gate and just up the main road.  IMG_3807There are no tourists here, or very few, and the food was authentic and delicious !  Local ham and chicken dishes with regional and seasonal fresh vegetables and rice served in a wooden bucket.  Great !

Time to start my evening and night tour.  What a difference with daytime.  It looks like the whole town transformed into a lively party town with music shouting from speakers in every bar.  And there are many.  And they are all full with mostly younger people enjoying an evening out in Fenghuang with friends.

The whole town is illuminated like a Christmas tree.  It is fantastic.  The view from the top of the Phoenix bridge is spectacular.  Unfortunately my camera doesn’t perform very well in the dark, but I hope I could still get a few reasonable images to give a good idea.  All the roofs of the wooden houses are illuminated, as well as the city walls, bridges and towers.  Colorful signs and lanterns everywhere add even more color.  The large pagoda on the mountain behind the town is shooting green lasers into the night sky.

The streets are busy and noisy.  I check out 1 or 2 places nearby the hotel, but it is not really my scene, nor did I bring my friends, and the drinks were pricey.  I prefer to walk around town again, similar to the route I took during the day.  Again on left bank of the river, nearby the rainbow bridge, I spot a small place just next to the water.  In fact I had to wade through a watery section to get there.  But it was well worth it, away from the noisy bars, with just a musician playing some songs on his guitar, and great view over the river and colorful houses of nighttime Fenghuang.

I go to sleep  at a reasonable hour. But not before I take a night cap on my balcony, admiring the fantastic night view of old Fenghuang and the ancient North Gate Tower and city wall .  I have some excursions planned for the next day to some attractions nearby Fenghuang, but I wanted to wake up early to take one more quick tour around town in the morning light, before the tourists arrive in big numbers.IMG_3867The next morning I wake up and the first thing I do is make myself a coffee and sit on the balcony.  The town is still sleeping and all the boats are docked still in front of me.  It is beautiful.  The sun is just getting up and upstream the morning fog is still caught between the mountains and not yet dissolved.

I get dressed quickly and I go out to find breakfast.  I don’t have to look long.  Just next to the hotel is a restaurant with large, steaming cooking pots getting ready to serve breakfast.  I see some local shopkeepers stopping here, and for me that is enough to get inside as well.  Breakfast is simple and consists out of only a few kinds of noodle soup.  It is not too spicy, and on the table are 2 bowls with peppers and spices so you can add as much as you want.  Very convenient, and a great and filling breakfast to start the day.20150720_063710Full and satisfied I quickly take one more tour of the town.  The town looks deserted and the morning light manages to make everything still look a bit different than during the previous day.  Now that the tourists have not arrived yet, the town really looks and feels much more authentic.  It is a fantastic place and I am really happy that I could have seen this town.  Truly one of the most beautiful of China.

I go to the main Fenghuang bridge, to the tourist agency.  I will join a small group of other tourists on a sightseeing tour around the area.   I am going to visit a Miao Village, explore a fantastic cave, but most important : I am going to see the Great Wall for the first time !  But I still feel a bit sad that I have to leave this amazing town behind me.  Next time I come this way, I’ll make sure to stay a few days extra.IMG_3872


But that is for next post !



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