Hunan Province (2) : Fenghuang

Dear Readers,

Today is the second day of my visit to Fenghuang, and after a great stay in the town, now it is time to check out some of the attractions in the region.  And there are quite a few.  I have to make some choices.  Most attractions however are not very far away from Fenghuang town, but I did not prepare a driver to take me around.  Instead I decided to go with a local tour agency and a small bus with some other tourists.  There were a lot of different options and tours to choose from.  In the end I decided to go visit the Southern Great Wall, a typical local Miao village, and Qilian Cave.  That sounded like a good mix.  And I really wanted to visit the Wall section.

I know that there will be to obligatory stops at commercial points where (in collaboration with the travel agency) local vendors try to sell to tourists.  Like a jade factory (shop) or a silk factory (shop) or a traditional medicine pharmacy (shop).  Being a foreigner, I don’t mind that much.  In the end it is in a way interesting.  But these stops tend to be such tourist traps that for me it is more a waste of precious time I could have spend at the real interesting attractions of the region.   But I understand it.  Everybody wants to make a living.   This time I don’t even know what the stops will be.  Just go with the flow.

Sometimes it is really interesting like the one visit of a silk factory in Suzhou where you are patiently guided through all the steps of the production.  From the cocoon to the most exquisite silk robes.  With demonstrations.  That was pretty cool.  But if unlucky, you will be guided straight into the shop, after a brief introduction or a short marketing movie… Than the doors close behind you…  the salesman smiles and rubs his hands….   I do take souvenirs from my travelling in China, but I never bought anything at these commercial stops.  It’s easy.  I don’t speak Chinese.  And if need be I don’t speak English either..  I never came across a  shop assistant who mastered Flemish….  in China that is…

Today, however, things would be a little different…  I patiently wait in the sun for all the passengers to arrive next to Phoenix bridge, and after a short wait we are off with about a dozen other travelers.  I am in a happy mood after a fantastic stay in Fenghuang and a great breakfast.  First stop is the Southern Great Wall.  It is not far. Only about 15 kilometers I estimate.20150720_103712

Not many people are aware of the existence of the Southern Great Wall. Or that there is a Great Wall at all in Southern China.  Most people know the Great Wall in the Northern parts of China, with the famous sections around Beijing from the Ming Dynasty.  This wall is build in the same period, end of 16th century, and with the same design and fortifications, so it is by some considered to be part of the Northern Great Wall, although its purpose was not to keep the Mongolian tribes out of China, but to drive a physical and military wedge between the rebellious Miao minorities from the region.  A tactics that worked perfectly as the wall caused the collapse of the Miao resistance and now the area is all part of China.  Luckily the local culture and customs have survived (thanks to booming tourism?) and are kept alive by the population. Locally the Wall is known as Miaojiang Great Wall, or Great Wall of the Miao Territory.

As I get out of the bus, I see the entrance in front of me.  And high above me.  A seemingly endless flight of stairs leads to a small gate tower : the entrance of a small fortress and the Southern Great Wall.  The wall itself is much smaller and shorter than the Northern one.  Especially the large sections near Beijing, as that is the capital and needed extra protection.  It is still a solid 3 meters high and 2 meters wide with hundreds of towers and encampments along is’t 300 km length.  Still impressive !  Most has however been destroyed and has disappeared over the centuries.  Maybe half of Fenghuang is build with stones from the original wall.  But several km of the wall have been restored and here at Liaojiaqiao Town a 2 km section is accessible for visitors.IMG_3882I climb to the entrance.  An old lady is selling some souvenirs about halfway up the stairs. I understand her completely.

The gate is the entrance to the ruin of a small fortress that was build with the wall.  you can still see the outlines of the buildings where the troops used to be camped, or the stables used to be.  The view over the valley and the rice fields, with little villages in the distance in this part of Hunan province is breathtaking.  And it will get even better.  With some effort.  We were not given too much time to explore the wall, so it is time to move on.  I see the wall going up in 2 directions.  Basically you go in a loop up the mountain, and than back down again.  Regardless of which way you go, you will end up back at the entrance.  I look at the steep inclination of the steps of the Wall in either direction, and I realize that although 2 km is not that much, at least half of it won’t be a piece of cake, or a walk in the park.20150720_103157Most of the group is going to the right, so I go to the left.  Not that I don’t like them, it’s just so that I can take pictures without worrying about people too much.  The climb is steep and heavy, but well worth the effort, as the trees and vegetation on both sides of the wall give the impression you are climbing an Ancient Wall in a dense forest…

From time to time the greenery opens up and offers a great panoramic view over the valley bellow.  Behind me the remains of the fortress become smaller and smaller as I climb higher and higher.  Occasionally you see the Great Wall extending for miles and miles over distant mountains.

Here and there I encounter small watchtowers, almost completely hidden behind trees.  I feel the summer sun starting to get at full strength.  In front of me a long, long climb to the top.  pffff.  When I turn around I see the valley below me, and I am a bit surprised by the steepness of the stairs.  It feels like i am standing on some viewing platform high up in the sky.  For a moment I get a little dizzy, but the view is spectacular with the Great Wall seemingly cascading down the mountain slope towards the distant rice fields….

I am still happy when I reach the top.  Now a section goes on relatively flat.  Again here the wall is like a stone path leading through a dense forest.  It is enchanting.  And hot.  And no old lady here with souvenirs or refreshments.  There is however a bit further the remains of another encampment on the top of the mountain with a small resting area.

I look at the clock and there is not much time left to stay at the top.  Luckily the Wall from here on leads only downwards.  Also this part is pretty steep and I have to watch my step when climbing down.  The views along the way seemed better from the other direction, but the steps are equally treacherous.  20150720_105337 I make it well in time to the bus in front of the gate, and I see a small shop near the parking where I finally get to buy a cold drink.  Not a moment too soon.  By now I am sweating like a horse.  That was quite an exercise to start the day with.  But I am really pleased that I finally got to see the Great Wall of China, albeit the smaller Southern one, and that I climbed this restored section.

The next stop is nearby the Great Wall.  Build against the Wall, and behind green rice fields lies a small authentic Miao Village.  There are several small and similar villages in the area, all build near sections of the wall, to benefit from its protection.  Some are more known than others but they are all similar.  I guess it depends a bit on the travel agent, and I think they arrange it in such a way that every village gets its share of tourists.  This village is Yingpan, an ancient and authentic village with all streets and houses build with local material and rock.  Hence the name Flagstone Village. Most villages’ names still refer to their military origins 20150720_111402There is a local ceremony as we arrive at the gate of the village.  There is music and singing and each visitor get a cup of local rice wine.  I am the last one to take a cup, and the local girl pouring the wine notices it is not even half filled.  I am still drenched from the wall-climbing experience, and my shirt looks like I just slipped and fell into a rice field.  The girl smiles and fills the cup all the way to the edge.  She understood..  What nice people !   All the ladies receive a nice flower crown to wear.

It used to house officers and generals posted along the wall, and most inhabitants of these charming stone villages are descendants of those military people.  The little alleys and houses build against the Wall are fantastic, and although the village is small, it is great to spend some time exploring the old stone houses surrounded by greenery  and rice fields, while the Southern Great Wall extends into the distance and disappears behind a mountain top. All the way at the top of the village you encounter the wall and the path follows a small section of the Wall towards an Ancient Drum Tower that is being renovated.

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I am going back to the bus.  Another group has arrived and I hear the drums at the entrance.  I look around one more time to look at the beautiful fields around the village, and the Southern Great Wall.20150720_121250It’s time for lunch.  We stop at a local guesthouse and we will have a local traditional lunch together with all the other travelers.  The food is great.  Lots of vegetables, spicy tofu, the local black dried ham as a centerpiece, pork and a chicken stew all served with plenty of rice that was just sticky enough to easily eat it with chopsticks.  I enjoy the delicious local  traditional food until I notice the dead claw of the chicken sticking out of the stew like the hand of a zombie trying to crawl out of his grave.  I dare not look.  Yes, there is his head too.  It may sound a bit childish, and I am quite used to exotic Chinese food.  But there are certain things that I just have trouble with, like bugs too, and when I see that chicken eye staring at me, beak a little bit open as if she were trying to give it one more last cluckely clock.., than that kinda kills it for me.

I sneak out of the room, and walk around the back, past the kitchens.   Nothing to do with the chicken, just out of my curious nature.  And I am glad I did, because behind the last building there was a narrow concrete platform, with the best view of the day over the green rice fields, the mountains forming the valley, and the Southern Great Wall in the distance.20150720_124212Our next stop is our first commercial obligatory intermezzo.  I am a bit curious about the nature of our visit, as I wonder which local art or trade we would be introduced too.  I don’t think it can be pearls or jade or silk…  And it is not.  Au contraire.  Rejoice !  It’s a wine tasting stop at the local winery !  This day is getting better and better.   I am so excited that I bump my head getting out of the small bus.  Ah well, I think..  if I am to have a head ache, it might as well be from the wine.  The shop is beautifully located next to another preserved part of the wall.

There is a large selection of local rice wines displayed inside.  They are all still in their stone jars in which the wine has been ripening and aging.  There is a type of wine to suit to any flavor.  Also more modern varieties with fruit like peach and strawberry.  Not for me though.  I prefer the original versions, on-tampered with and not polluted with artificial flavorings.  There is still plenty of choice left.  This time I do buy from the shop and they pour a fantastic and very strong aged rice wine directly from an on-opened jar into a large bottle.  I have to be prepared for the chilly evenings after long walks into the stone forest of Zhangjiajie starting tomorrow…  As I look at the size of the bottle, I realize that I am not allowed to take liquids on board of an airplane…  which basically leaves me with 2 options…  well…only 1 actually…  I am sure I was smiling happily during that little nap I took on the bus to our next stop : the Fenghuang Silver Museum/shop.

We are back in town.  In the center of the new part of Fenghuang.  We stop near a large archway where a market is sleeping and closed for siesta.  In front of the archway are red peppers spread out to dry in the sunshine.

The museum itself was indeed more of silver shop than a museum.  Near the entrance there is a demonstration of silver smithing and a brief introduction.  Than follows the shop.  I must admit that the pieces were beautiful and the main master pieces displayed against the walls were stunning.

I did learn a lot about Tujia and Miao culture and there traditional clothing and customs during that visit.  I was even tempted by some of the silver items they had for sale.  But unfortunately I found the price a bit on the high side for my wallet.IMG_4009After the commercial intermezzo, there is one more attraction on the menu : the Qiliang Caves.  The cave is not far North of Fenghuang Town.  Not more than 5 kilometers.  It is a typical cave with everything that you can expect from a cave.  I like caves a lot from the time my dad used to take me and my brother to basically every cave in France during summer holidays..

The cave is relatively large and 6 kilometers long, divided into 5 sections that can be explored / the ancient Battlefield, the Gallery, Paradise, the Dragon Palace and the Yin-Yang River.  Part of the caves can be

explored by boat, so it is always a fun activity.  And I must admit that I like the colorful illumination that gives caves a magical touch.

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Every section has different kinds of stalagtites and stalagmites.  Sometimes you must crouch to get through a narrow passage to get to a giant hall with huge pillars, sometimes you must zigzag through a stone forest of millions of years old sculptures of mother nature.  It is always amazing.  It is always an adventure.  IMG_4081.jpgA short walk through a beautiful park in front of the cave, in the warm sunshine is perfect to get the blood temperature up again.  The bus will take us back to Fenghuang Bus Station.  From there a driver will pick me up to take me to my next hotel.  Just next to the main entrance of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and the main destination of this trip.

But that is for next post !

One Comment Add yours

  1. Joachim Smith says:

    Excellent photos and a very readable text! Thank you!


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