Fenghuang or Phoenix Town

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April 4th 2010
Published: April 4th 2010
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Tower of the city wall
We left Zhangjiajie village in the morning with the minibus and once again took the road to the town. This time we found the center of the town, because this is where the bus station is. It wasn’t that we had really missed much on our previous visits as the centre was fairly uninspiring, although there were signs that the town will improve during the next few years, with buildings being torn down and lots in the first stages of construction. Vivian had told us that there were only two buses a day to Fenghuang so we immediately bought our onward tickets, which turned out to be very wise as the bus was more than full. We walked around the town while waiting, and as the bus trip was four hours we looked for somewhere to have lunch. By a stroke of luck we entered a café, one of the many we have visited. Usually there you can find both coffees (of various quality and appearance) and English menus. Something we had missed in Zhangjiajie. However, we found out that there was no English menu and the waitress didn’t know a word either. In these circumstances we use the old method
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Covered bridge by night
of look and order. At the next table was a young Chinese woman with her MP3 player and books, and when she realized our predicament she immediately came over and translated for us in perfect English. Our experience is that very few Chinese speak good English although our impression is that things are improving and many young people know at least some English but many times their pronunciation is difficult to understand. On the other hand our Chinese is very rudimentary. But now we got a delicious meal and a new friend. By sheer chance it turned out that Rene (her real name is of course something different but this was her English name which all Chinese people who deal with English speaking people use, as it is difficult for us to pronounce the Chinese names) was taking the same bus to Fenghuang. She very generously walked with us to the bus station and got us onto the bus. It was full as mentioned, and some passengers were sitting on little plastic stools in the center aisle. Not at all comfortable, so I was happy we had got our tickets early. This bus ride was the most spectacular and adventurous
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Covered bridge
we have done in China, only rivaled by our ride from Lijiang to Shangri-La several years ago. The road was in good condition, but narrow and going through villages and towns. The landscape was beautiful, mountains and forests, and regularly there were pretty, well kept villages with wooden houses and fields with rice and vegetables. We crossed rivers and drove along what was probably a big lake. In the beginning of the trip I chose the window seat as I like to take in the scenery, but Giorgos got so upset that we changed after a while. I then realized why he was upset. Because in the aisle seat you could see through the windscreen and there were all sorts of obstacles turning up. For example, a big truck turning out from a side road, a water buffalo, a man carrying two huge sacks of something, a granny with a small child. All in the middle of the narrow road, and the bus driver not having any intention of slowing down. I was hiding my face, saying little prayers, shouting at the granny and the man with the burdens, although of course none of this helped. However, just in the
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On the city wall
right moment they got off the road and we didn’t have any accident. It seemed like a miracle every time. After a couple of hours we were stopped by the police, there was some discussion with the driver. Fortunately Rene could explain that the reason were the passengers in the mid aisle sitting on the plastic stools. These were passengers for whom the driver cashed the money and this is illegal but of course difficult to stop as it suits both the driver who gets an extra income and the passengers who gets seats on an otherwise full bus. The police fined the driver, but Rene said he still made a profit. We also passed a couple of real cities, one of which was Jishou. There were tree lined avenues, big stores and official looking buildings. There was also a university and some new suburbs showing that this was a prosperous town. This seemed like a nice place to visit, but I haven’t managed to find any information although Rene explained that this medium sized Chinese city (a population of a few hundred thousand) is the capital of the Miao and Tuija minorities, explaining the official buildings. This area has
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Coffee in Soul Cafe
a huge minority population and they constitute an autonomous prefecture. Jishou is only about half an hour from Fenghuang, and here the road was first a four lane motorway and then a winding country road through hilly farm land along a small river. After more or less four hours we finally drover into Fenghuang or Phoenix city as it also know in English. It looked like a fairly normal Chinese town, and as always it is difficult to orientate oneself when newly arrived in an unknown city and it didn’t make it easier that darkness had fallen. We had the address to our hotel written down in Chinese and we decided to take a taxi there. Rene accompanied us, which was great because the taxi could not drive all the way as the hotel was localized in the old city which is a pedestrian area and we were now even more lost. But Rene found the way, got us checked in at the hotel, negotiated an upgrade for us and managed to book train tickets for our next journey two days later. We so much appreciated this, even more as it turned out that Fenghuang although a major Chinese tourist
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On the river
attraction doesn’t get much foreign tourists. Supposedly it is not even mentioned in Lonely Planet. I don’t mind, but it is really a nice place to visit. This lack of foreign tourists, however, means that no one speaks any English, not even in our hotel, supposedly the best in town.
An hour later Rene, who in the meantime had found her own accommodation, came by and picked up us for dinner. We walked down to the river front, and the sight was absolutely magical in the evening. The old town is built on the shores of a small river and there are several covered bridges and pagodas. These were all lit up and on the river there were little paper boats floating with lit candles. We found a little place along the shorefront, a simple place with home cooked food - just delicious. After dinner we continued to a small café, in one of the old houses. We have never been to any cafe like this in China before, very small and with lots of character. The town was full of young Chinese people on vacation and we realized that these big city kids like the picturesque small cafes just as much as we do. But the best of this evening was talking to Rene, we talked and talked until the late hours. Rene turned out to be a young executive from a successful business in Shanghai, she had many foreign friends and had travelled quite a lot outside China though never to Europe. So we had lots of stuff to talk about, comparing experiences of travel and life in general. It gave us a complete new view on China, and it does make us realize how many similarities there are between the urban middle class in Europe and China. Both when it comes to negative and positive aspects.
We had read about the countryside around Fenghuang and had planned to take a closer look. This is a minority area with many Miao villages. But we felt charmed by the town and we have visited quite a few minority villages in Guizhou province, which is just a few kilometers away. So we decided to check out the town instead the next day. Fenghuang was built in the Qing period in the 18th century though other people mention that it has its origin in the Ming period. In any case it does have a few hundred years of history, although clearly it has been restored quite a few times. It was one of the military outposts of the empire, built to keep the minority people Miao in check. It is to a certain degree similar to a Ming outpost we have visited in the Guizhou province, Qingyan, although Fenghuang is more developed for tourism. Both cities have a city wall, with towers and gates, as evidence of their original military function. But most characteristic of Fenhuang are the houses along the river, built on wooden stilts, with several floors with balconies and windows overlooking the river. We walked around the picturesque lanes and little squares. Enjoyed mixing with the Chinese tourists checking out the little souvenir shops and restaurants. The most interesting ones had the “food” alive in cages outside, chickens and a rat like creature, which was quite cute - we never ate it but it seemed a popular dish. We checked out and photographed the city wall with its towers, the covered bridge, the river crossings on a wooden bridge just above the water (great fun to balance over but not really dangerous as the river was shallow) and lot’s of interesting wooden houses leaning out over the river. We had coffee in one of these houses, Soul Café, it is highly recommended both for its excellent espresso and its atmosphere. Sitting there we could watch all the comings and goings on the river. The tourists taking boat trips, the locals doing their washing and cleaning vegetables in the river. We again met up with Rene for dinner and had another long night of talking. Rene explained that Fenghuang became a tourist city not because it was “discovered” by travelers, but because the Hunan province government decided to make it into a tourist attraction. A campaign was initiated with famous photographers invited to photograph the town and so on. Our romantic ideas of why tourists or travelers, whatever you prefer, go to places is in reality just another product of public relations companies. However, we did enjoy Fenghuag and the town is indeed old, although part of the “old” town is clearly new development. Of course the dilemma of tourism is that the real “genuine” places rarely are attractive, and it is not until someone or other decides to “develop” that tourists want to come. I know this as I happen to live in a tourist location and I believe it is the same all over the world, the tourist attractions are all to some degree artificial. But they can still make for some wonderful experiences and Fenghuang is certainly worth the long trip (by the way one can get here by train to either Huaihua or Jishou, and there is even small airport in the city of Tongren in neighboring Guizhou province but I couldn’t find out any connections to there).
This second and last night, mostly spent in Soul Café, I tried a new drink, ginger milk tea. Very strong flavor of ginger mixed with tea and milk, it became my favourite on this trip. And of course without Rene I would probably not have tried it. We were sad that we would have to say goodbye, we were going on to Changsha and we had convinced Rene that Zhangjiajie would be a great place for her to visit.

We left Fenghuang by taxi to Jishou, with a friendly taxi driver who offered us some kind of weird snack with a strange but not unpleasant taste, maybe some kind of local herb. It was a wonderful drive through the pretty countryside and we regretted that we couldn’t stay longer. But not having any real ideas of where one is going and what there is to see and do results in sometimes staying to short and sometimes too long. Maybe one day we will come back and explore more. Hunan province has a lot to offer. In Jishou we had an hour before the train departure so we decided to go to a café which was just opposite the train station. It was very posh with deep armchairs and lot’s of well dressed friendly waiters. They even had an English menu, we chose “Pick a beef pick” among the different “Picks” there were (I guess the translator had missed a line or two in the dictionary) and surprisingly we got a great tasting entrecote. We then rushed to the train station and bordered the train. We went through this strange practice of handing over our tickets to the train attendant and instead we got metal tags. We had bought soft seat tickets but we were shown into a compartment with 4 berths, complete with pillows and blankets. Felt sort of strange given that the train left at noon for a six hour trip but on the other hand we could stretch out for a nap. I enjoyed the country side and took as many pictures as was possible given that the railway passed through lot’s of tunnels. So the best scenery was lost but there were still a lot to see. The train went to Changsha via Zhangjiajie, but it was a different scenery than from the bus. After Zhangjiajie the forests and hills and mountains gave way to rice fields in different shades of green and yellow. It was mostly attractive, and the villages and towns looked well maintained.
We reached Changsha in the afternoon.


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