Fenghuang, Hunan Province, 29-30 October
Our journey south towards sunny weather brings us to the ancient town of Fenghuang. Also known as Phoenix, this old town on the Tuojiang River was built in 1704 during the Qing Dynasty and has preserved its appearance ever since.
Fenghuang, or Chinese phoenix, is a bird found in East Asian mythology that reigns over all other birds. Like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, Fenghuang has been reborn as a touristic hotspot.
Originally a Miao settlement, Fenghuang is a gathering place for Miao and Tujia ethnic minority. Not far from town, the southern part of the Great Wall of China was originally built there to prevent the Han Chinese from invading the Miao, while nowadays Han are the ruling ethnic majority. A few older women we see selling flower garlands still wear the Miao traditional clothing, although this may be more of a gimmick for tourists than cultural preservation.
Walking through the ancient town, most of the old houses have been converted to shops, restaurants and hotels and during the mornings and at night, when the town is brightly lit up and all the bars are open, Fenghuang is overrun with tour groups. From our balcony we’re having fun watching all the Chinese tourists dressed up in traditional attire pose for photos.
Perhaps the best way to experience some of the ancient way of life is to walk by the river around midday, when the tours have all gone. The streets become deserted but for a handful of cats and dogs napping in the shade and local men fishing by the side of the river, with the occasional gondola passing by.
The unique wooden houses (Diajiaolou) built along the riverbank have been designed to protect from flooding and appear to be hanging over the river.
On the banks food is prepared by the numerous restaurants in much the same way as it has for centuries. A local favourite is fish Miao-style: fish pickled for 3 weeks until the bones are soft, inside a container of special soup, rice powder and sweet corn powder. Alternatively you can pick just about any animal, living or dead, from the aquariums and cages stacked up in front of the restaurants.
While we’re checking them out, one very smart bamboo rat pretends to be dead so we won’t buy it and eat it, but then one of the waiters comes running out and pokes it with a stick until it starts moving again. Wake up you, there’s customers! Way too cute to eat though, they’re like giant hamsters.
It’s nice to get lost for the afternoon walking around the narrow, winding streets of the old town, with plenty more to discover. We bear witness to some locals’ karaoke session in the public park and eat some of the best rice noodles we’ve had on our travels.
All in all we had a good time in Fenghuang. Slowly our journey through China is beginning to draw to a close. Next up we’re travelling further south still to the city of Guilin.