Fairytale Fenghuang

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August 24th 2017
Published: August 31st 2017
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Fenghuang By NightFenghuang By NightFenghuang By Night

With the illuminated ancient buildings, the reflections off the water and the red lantern-lit boats, Fenghuang is simply stunning at night.
Oh, the lady just wouldn't shut up! For half an hour!
My four hour bus ride from Zhangjiajie to Fenghuang was annoyingly punctuated with selling spiels on the sound system that would drown out the music in my headphones. Not all of us can afford Bose noise-cancelling technology. Because I couldn't really understand everything that was being said - I can pick out words that I know but not enough to understand everything that is going on - I also wondered if this was a tour bus that simply sold out its spare seats to people simply wanting to get from A to B. The lady did seem to talk about what "we" would be doing and was providing a little bit of information about our destination. The rest of the time she was simply flogging off weird foodstuffs, of which we got free samples of vacuum-packed chillied anchovies and dates. I was thinking who the hell would buy this stuff but the locals were lapping it up! In my experiences with the Chinese, they seem like easy sells.

I witnessed more Chinese fury at the bus station when one bus decided just to park in the middle of the
'The Bend' By Day'The Bend' By Day'The Bend' By Day

I've seen photos where the water is a bit cleaner and greener - the dirty brown must be a result of the summer rains.
exit lane, making it difficult for other buses to get out. Maybe if everyone was a bit more considerate to each other, you wouldn't have these flare-ups?
Public transport however, has been pretty good here in China. Even the smaller towns at least have buses and they're easy and cheap to use. I haven't had to take one taxi so far.

The bus did drop me off a bit of a walk from the ancient town centre however, but as soon as I saw the town from a tall bridge overlooking the river which is the Fenghuang's centrepiece, I had a good feeling that this was somewhere special.
The town was originally a border town between the main Han civilisation and three different minority civilisations. The result was a cross-pollination of cultures over the centuries which established Fenghuang as a trading centre and a quite beautiful town. Its fully-pedestrianised maze of grey brick alleys and sumptuous architecture is inevitably a huge tourist draw but there are also lots of quiet spots, much like you get in Venice or Dubrovnik, where it doesn't feel so overwhelmed with tourists. Thankfully my guesthouse was located in one such spot although how I
Wanming PagodaWanming PagodaWanming Pagoda

Gloriously illuminated at night.
eventually got there was a little interesting.

The place I had booked provided no directions whatsoever and thanks to the help of some locals I finally managed to find it, having yet again saturated my clothes in sweat getting there. As well as not providing directions, they couldn't provide me a bed either despite me having made a reservation. Apparently there were three girls in the dorm and they didn't want to chuck me in there with them, which I thought was interesting. He took me down the road to another place that had space in a male dorm for the same price, which was actually better located, with the river right at the end of the street. The place itself was actually a bit shit though and I couldn't wait to get out of there to be honest.
The local guy sharing the dorm with me was nice but I wasn't really sure what he was doing there. He played guitar a lot so I thought he might be one of the many acoustic musicians that play in the bars here but he just seemed to laze around all day. He was just...there. He was an annoyingly loud
North Gate Tower & City WallsNorth Gate Tower & City WallsNorth Gate Tower & City Walls

A tower and wall - you could say that it is a quintessential Chinese scene.
hoiker as well, he moved around a lot in the bunk above - I don't know what the hell he was doing up there - and he even had a phone conversation at 2am. He was quite a nice guy though, so the lack of manners and disgusting habits are really just a cultural thing. But mainly it was the squat toilet that put me off and the fact you had to shower right next to it. As well as it being a struggle for me to use them, squat toilets almost always smell way worse than their Western counterparts. And Fenghuang is a town full of them; most of the buildings here are old and haven't been updated with Western-style thrones.

I had heard that Fenghuang is rather dazzling by night, so I took my camera out that evening for a look around.
And wow. This place absolutely breathtaking.
There is a scene in the Bond film Skyfall where Bond arrives standing up (and suited up, of course) on a bamboo boat lit up by red Chinese lanterns, at an illuminated Macau casino at night, complete with a fireworks fanfare. As the scene was not actually filmed in
Hong BridgeHong BridgeHong Bridge

After the Wanming Pagoda, this covered bridge is probably the next best illuminated structure in the town at night.
Macau but at Pinewood Studios, I sadly won't be able to replicate this scene as I was hoping to, when I eventually get to the former Portuguese enclave in just over two weeks time. Having witnessed this however, I think I can consider it done. I don't think I've ever seen a prettier place at night. It reminded me a lot of Hoi An, but on steroids.
Not many things blow me away these days but Fenghuang continually did so around every corner. The way that all the old buildings are lit up next to the river with their reflections on the still water is absolutely amazing; and for once the lighting is elegant as opposed to the gaudiness of the LED screens that light up most of China's cities. The Wanming Pagoda in particular is gloriously illuminated. Not even the hordes of local tourists were spoiling this for me this time. The place is incredibly lit up; and incredibly romantic. The boats and lit-up lotus flowers floating along the river completed the scene. Fenghuang truly is the 'Venice of China'.

Somewhat ruining the atmosphere however - and the Chinese somehow always manage this - is the rather curious proliferation

Amazing view of the Tuo River and Fenghuang's many bridges.
of loud techno C-pop dance clubs, bar/restaurants with soppy wailing live acoustic musicians and loads of bongo drum shops. Vendors at said bongo shops are often drumming along to songs played on a sound system. Who knew that Chinese tourists were in the market for a bongo drum while in Fenghuang? This lot will buy anything, I tell you.
The booming clubs in particular spoiled the mood a little bit; most of them were pumping out jams as if it was 3am at a rave, despite it only being 9pm with a few people sitting down inside drinking. There's no way you could've had a proper conversation in there. But I have seen more of a drinking culture here among the Chinese than I have anywhere else in China so far.

I was also looking out for some dinner while taking in the light and sounds of Fenghuang by night and there was a wretched smell emanating from many of the stalls around town, that smelt like a rancid batch of off cheese. Rather than putting me off, I was enticed to try whatever was giving out that smell instead - chou tofu or stinky tofu...of course I had
View Down The RiverView Down The RiverView Down The River

I've seen many a beautiful river view in Europe but this one is just as good and has its own unique Chinese character.
to try it. It is fermented tofu that is actually really tasty and not at all like it smells! Served with plenty of salt and a garlic, spring onion and chilli garnish - too much chilli - it tasted a lot like the crispy deep fried tofu I often had at Chinese restaurants back home. As well as the chou tofu, I also had some really cheap noodles and fried dumplings outside of the ancient town from a street stall that were as every bit as good as any I've had in a proper restaurant. On a budget, I've hardly eaten at restaurants, which in China are more geared for a shared group meal. Just as well there are plenty of unassuming places where you can pop in for a quick bowl of noodles.

Having walked a loop of the town at night, I thought that I would walk the same loop during the day. My Lonely Planet had told me that there was a ¥148 ticket that you had to buy just to enter the town, valid for three days. It did also say that the ticket scheme might be replaced "by the time you read this" and
Fenghuang Street SceneFenghuang Street SceneFenghuang Street Scene

From atop an old tower platform, which was my favourite spot in the city.
indeed I didn't see anyone checking any tickets the previous night. That ticket would have got you access to all the sights but it seems that the city ticket has been scrapped in favour of an optional sightseeing ticket that would get you into all the sights instead. Thankfully the city is now free to roam around and I wasn't about to shell out ¥148 to see all these sights which consisted mainly of temples and ancestral halls. This was because the whole town is a sight in itself; I didn't feel as if I needed to visit any particular sights to complete my experience here. It sounded like a rip-off too; most of the temples were closed and there were loads of sights that were free anyway. I'm not sure why anyone would actually buy this ticket!
The sights acted as good landmarks to aim for in a wander through the city however and as I wandered, I realised that the place is much more relaxed and less crowded during the day when most of the bars and restaurants are closed. The sun wasn't out either, which was nice; it meant that it wasn't so hot and the lack
Stilt HousesStilt HousesStilt Houses

The famous stilt houses of Fenghuang.
of shadows meant that I could take better photos.

During my daytime wander, I also noticed that there were still many local tourists that were on tours; it seems the Chinese love a good tour, even within their own country. I guess they just like the hassle being taken out of their holidays.
Another observation is the fact that Chinese men aren't afraid to reveal their bellies or take their tops right off to fight the heat! It wasn't so common to see in South East Asia but although South East Asia may have been more humid, I swear that the actual temperatures in China have been even higher.

On my last night in Fenghuang, I was buying a bottle of coconut milk when a lady at the store asks me where I am from. When I tell her I am from New Zealand, she then remarks that I don't look like someone from China. She seems interested in me and continues the conversation but I unfortunately can't understand what she is saying and I have to awkwardly say that I don't speak much Mandarin before awkwardly saying goodbye. It was awkward because it seemed like she wanted
Women In Traditional Miao CostumeWomen In Traditional Miao CostumeWomen In Traditional Miao Costume

Tourists are given the opportunity to don the traditional dress of the Miao ethnic minority, who have lived in the area for centuries, while having their picture taken.
to continue the conversation but I had no idea whether she actually wanted to do so, so out of politeness, I stuck around, waiting for her to talk some more.
Back at the guesthouse, my dorm mate was also very interested in knowing my story and my background but we just couldn't move beyond me telling him where I, my parents and my grandparents were from because of my lack of Mandarin.
Having mostly met locals during my time in China, I found myself wishing that I could speak a bit more Mandarin than I do, just so I can have more social interactions and be more immersed in the country and its people. If I could speak with them more, I could also gain some more meaningful and interesting insights into life here.

On my last night, I made one last visit to my favourite spot on an ancient roofed platform overlooking the pagoda and the bend in the river. One last look at this luminescent wonderland. When about thirty tourists showed up, I knew it was time to leave.
And indeed it was time to leave Fenghuang too. You only really need one day and one night
Reflections & Floating Lotus FlowerReflections & Floating Lotus FlowerReflections & Floating Lotus Flower

A lit-up lotus flower floats along the still water that reflect Fenghuang's amazing lighting.
here and I had three, but it let me catch up on yet more admin.
Fenghuang however, had perhaps been the only place I have been to in China so far where I have left completely satisfied with my experience. Although the riverside is somewhat over-commercialised, some of the back streets are exactly how I imagined old school China to be like and in a way, Fenghuang has been the classic, quintessential China that I have been looking for and hoping to see. Let's hope this sort of experience continues with the supposedly stunning natural scenery that awaits me at my next destination of Yangshuo.

再見 (zài jian),

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


'The Bend' By Night'The Bend' By Night
'The Bend' By Night

The main bend in the river in the middle of town, at night.
Stepping StonesStepping Stones
Stepping Stones

These allow you to cross the river! Not recommended if you're drunk.
Wenhua SquareWenhua Square
Wenhua Square

Some locals dancing in Fenghuang's main square.
Architecture In FenghuangArchitecture In Fenghuang
Architecture In Fenghuang

The beautiful, classic, Chinese architecture in the town is one of the main elements of Fenghuang's charm.
Fenghuang AlleyFenghuang Alley
Fenghuang Alley

Snaking pedestrian alleys such as this one are all part of the town's charm.
Hongqiao ZhongluHongqiao Zhonglu
Hongqiao Zhonglu

Main street running alongside where the old southeast wall was located.
Streets Of FenghuangStreets Of Fenghuang
Streets Of Fenghuang

Typical street in Fenghuang.
Tuo RiverTuo River
Tuo River

The river that courses through Fenghuang.

A picturesque canal runs off the Tuo River.
Riverside HousesRiverside Houses
Riverside Houses

Almost all of these houses are now guesthouses.
Along The BoardwalkAlong The Boardwalk
Along The Boardwalk

This boardwalk is packed at night.
Chou TofuChou Tofu
Chou Tofu

Doesn't taste anywhere near as bad as it smells. Delicious!
Rooftop ViewRooftop View
Rooftop View

Looking over the Chinese style rooftops of the town.
View From Jiangxin Buddhist TempleView From Jiangxin Buddhist Temple
View From Jiangxin Buddhist Temple

Situated up the side of a hill, the Jiangxin Buddhist Temple had great views across the town.

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