Ancient Phoenix Town
More than eighteen hours after we left on a Chinese hard sleeper overnight train from Hong Kong, followed by nearly two hours on a minivan whose rear springs had long lost their spring, we arrived in Fenghuang.
Weary from the long hours and uncomfortable travel conditions, I had begun wondering if this ancient city would be worth the effort to get there. As soon as I reached the bottom of the steps leading from the parking lot, my doubts quickly dissolved into the early morning mist hanging over the Tuo Jiang River that runs through the heart of the town. It was just beautiful.
Fenghuang is Chinese for Phoenix, the mythical bird consumed by fire then reborn from the flames. According to legend, two of these fabulous birds flew over this area and found it so beautiful that they hovered there.
Fenghuang was once praised by Alley Rewi, a famous New Zealand writer, as the most beautiful city in China. While I haven’t seen many Chinese cities, I had to agree that this hidden gem of city was the most picturesque one that I’ve seen so far.
Located in China’s Hunan province, Fenghuang is home to the Miao people, one of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups. The town is situated in a mountain valley and is bisected by the Tuo Jiang River. For centuries, life in this town has centered around the river. And it still does.
Since the town is a little off the tourist beaten path, it has retained much of its ambiance and ethnic character, with locals continuing their simple lives. But a growing number of tourists, especially Chinese nationals, are finding their way to this 1300 year old town.
The stepping stone and rough wood plank bridge river crossings, flagstone streets and old style wooden stilt houses perched on both sides of the river have existed for generations of local people as they go about their daily business. That business includes washing laundry, swimming and fishing in the river and selling food and other locally produced goods to locals and tourists. To accommodate the
increase in tourism, I saw a lot of new hotel construction, albeit using
mules to carry stones and other supplies from one side of the river to
Perhaps because Fenghuang is a bit off the beaten path, we didn’t see any other Westerners during our visit. That may explain why Chinese tourists were not shy about asking to be photographed with a member of our tour group or even sneaking a souvenir photograph when we weren’t looking.
Yes, Fenghuang is slightly touristy. With a steady increase in visitors from other places, locals have learned to adapt and profit from the sightseers. That adaptation, no doubt, will enable locals to live a better life in this beautiful setting.